Maya Angelou once said, “I suggest that the great art belongs to all people, all the time — that indeed it is made for the people, by the people, to the people.”
But in the present day, this reality is nuanced. Art is pulled between its realized capital and instinctual public-facing quality. Public art, a challenge to definitively trace, is at odds with modern classist privatization and cultural capitalization, ideas that contradict art’s role as a creative rendering of the people’s story and an important means of cultural connection. Art is only art with uninhibited access to its people; it loses value in privatization.
Saying everything is capitalism’s fault is starting to feel like the “boy who cried wolf.” But with that being said, it is capitalism’s fault. As art earns a price tag, it drifts into spheres of valuation: the private sphere valuing art that sells versus the public sphere valuing art that connects. As monetary value is placed onto a piece, it’s given a definitive meaning, stripping the public right to interpretation. So a tombstone is taped onto a canvas along with a price tag: “Here lies the democratization of art. Cause of death: use as capitalist currency.”
As art divides into public and private realms, its function shifts. What was originally understood as virgin creativity is now a reflection of a contemporary social sphere. However, this also puts public art in the unique position to wield political commentary, such as in the work of Shepard Fairey. In August 2016, he commemorated Fannie Lee Chaney and Cesar Chavez on San Francisco’s walls, depicting issues of voter suppression and a repressed working class. The inseparability of unadulterated ideation and sociopolitical commentary is evidence of an important fact: art not only imitates, but comments upon, life. And instead of being locked inside gallery walls, Fairey’s pop-art messages are accessible to all.
The Bay Area finds identity in its public art. Having been a rich center of important social and cultural movements, its public art carries a parallel tone. Osha Neumann’s mural on Telegraph Avenue, “A People’s History of Telegraph Avenue,” depicts scenes from the ’60s counterculture movement, preserving Berkeley’s history on its streets. In the Mission District, Lucía González Ippolito’s work “Alto al Fuego en la Misión” criticizes police brutality towards the Black and Latine communities. With portraits of countless victims, it’s an artistic altar and political statement — so many faces, yet so little action. Just a few blocks down is Juana Alicia’s “La Llorona’s Sacred Waters” — a statement on the war against women and the environment.
On the other hand, museum culture exemplifies classism, and it’s not just because of the hefty fee at the door. The displays themselves are often tinged with privileged partisanship; sparse exhibits on nonwhite culture seem more colonial than appreciative. This is not to say there hasn’t been attempted progress. For instance, the de Young Museum in San Francisco opens for free on Saturdays to the general public. Yet, it leaves six days reserved for those who can pay.
The distinct division between public and private art often leaves people asking: What determines “fine” art? Is it just the remnants of colonial history that receive the privilege of a showroom? Is the only way to overcome this history to turn to cement walls?
But as the phenomenon of Banksy has shown, not even art made for the street can resist the pull of capitalization. The artist’s dark satirical pieces have reformatted the way people looked at street art. Despite being criticized for vandalism and evading countless arrests, Banksy gained notoriety among the general public, and the art world noticed. He now makes appearances in art auctions in addition to streets and alleyways. But this newfound acceptance of street art as “legitimate” applies only to the pieces that sell.
In 2017, street artist Wes Winship was arrested and charged with felony vandalism and possession of graffiti equipment for his 60-foot tribute mural to Motörhead Lemmy Kilmister on the walls of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. This all seems a bit paradoxical: While Banksy’s profitability earns praise, Winship’s unprofitability deems his work immorally unjust.
All of this makes public art’s definition hard to pin down. Even when it’s sucked into the halls of gallery culture, public art stands out as its own genre built around compelling intersections. It hybridizes creativity and commentary, the individual and the collective. Public art caters to the community without isolating the individual; the self represented in the whole is intimate. Its inclusion of the past, present and future gives it a sociological perspective fitting to a cultural limb.
Museum culture maintains a monopoly over the art world, but the provision of public art keeps it in the hands of its people. Beyond their political charge, these pieces give gravity to art’s democratization: What’s the purpose of art if it can only be accessed by a few?