In a moment of not-so-innocent prodding, the Pope asked Michelangelo towards the end of his Sistine Chapel commission “whether or not he found his ability to create such large works of art sheer hubris before God and more than a little pretentious among other artists.” The master replied, without forethought or concern for his tone with, “Your holiness, in its grand design, my art becomes accessible to both the Pope and pauper at the same moment, not unlike the grace of God [. . .] also if I was unable to complete such vistas your holiness would not pay me.”
In the five-hundred years since the grand commissions of the Renaissance very little has changed, if not at all, and together stayed the same when it comes to the relation between art, artists, and scope. Public art by its inherent nature falls into a category where “no lines are necessary.” The church and state became the true patrons of large public art to advance faith and strength. As the artist became the patron of his own abilities, grand designs became a public confessional or a psychotherapy session.
It is true that “going big” for the sake of having the time or the inclination does not always translate to its sheer necessity to exist. Salvador Dali created epic masterpieces that are no larger than a cereal box, and the story is far more complicated than any building’s façade could hold if the artist’s ability wasn’t present. So yes, pride and lack of humility does litter much of the public art world, yet the same could be said of any gallery showing conventional easel art at the moment.
But with the loss of promoting a unified faith, or walled cities needing to project deadly strength by commemorating bloody military scenes, the “Neo-Masters” began assessing barren walls as new found canvas—and nowhere so much as in Europe. Graffiti as a style may have been born of moniker projection on the rail cars of Philadelphia and New York in the late 1970s but the true “street art” movement was born again amidst the postwar windowless façades of Europe, multi-story Soviet blocks soaring like so much of what Ginsberg described as “Moloch” in his poem “Howl.”
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Moloch!
These blank views—so much of the same stacked next to more of the mundane, until an art student bursting with more ability than sense, and so much more talent than cash—create a public gallery opening of the artist’s very own and makes people recognize the artist for what s/he is: a voice worth listening to or a vandal. But the illegality of the art is no different than Caravaggio bedecking his biblical characters in the fashion of his day. Taking liberties with iconography was as frowned upon as much as it is when an artist takes their careers in their own hands today. And no matter what the free-wheeling bohemian art establishment may want to project about the freedom of art, they believe artists should stay shackled in subterranean garrets only to be released for print signings—a view rejected by those who deign to make the city a wing to their own private museum.
Some bash large public displays as frivolity and pop-ephemera. And if a price tag isn’t dangling off of it, what’s the point? I have often likened modern public art to the television I grew up up with: few channels, a limited ability to see what you wanted until it came on, and your need to sit through commercials. The artist supplies the city with his content, how s/he wants you to see it, when and exactly what s/he wants you to consume! The dictatorial quality is born of its grandparent the political motif and “grafito,” GOD BLESS MY GUY, FUCK YOUR GUY! Only now in picto-form.
Ever since one of our French-cave-person ancestors scribed an elk into some limestone commemorating a successful hunt, we all just want to leave something behind to have someone who cares to know we existed at all—some larger than others.
– Stanley Sudol
Founder and Director of Mana Urban Arts Project