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Art and the Public Sphere: From controversy to opinion formation in the making of contemporary art

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W. J. T. Mitchell first coupled the terms ‘Art’ and the ‘Public Sphere’ in 1992 in the title of his edited book Art and the Public Sphere (1992). The volume was based on the one-day symposium Art and Public Spaces: Daring to Dream.1 Mitchell’s conception of Art and the Public Sphere is specifically addressed by his editorial ‘Introduction: Utopia and critique’ and is further developed in his chapter in the same volume, ‘The violence of public art’. Mitchell’s pairing of public sphere theory with public art is based on a semiological account of artworks; thus he places significance on the interpretation of the meanings constructed from artworks and how various speculations on an artwork’s ‘meaning’ generate conversations in the public realm. I argue that this emphasis limits the way in which we consider the production and function of art because it forces a type of ontological engagement with public art that foregrounds the question ‘what is art of?’ rather than ‘what does art do?’. Mitchell’s account can be considered a public sphere insofar as it causes discussion in the public realm; however, I believe that there is more to be gained for art’s social and political significance if we consider how art functions for opinion formation. I propose that art also operates towards the construction of culture and society rather than simply reflecting upon it. And following Georg W. Bertram, I consider Walter Benjamin’s formation of ‘critical practice’, which proposes that critique is essentially a change of practice as opposed to a negation of society.
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Keywords: Art & the Public Sphere; art’s function for opinion formation; critical practice; doing as opposed to picturing; production; public art

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Royal College of Art

Publication date: 01 September 2017

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  • Art & the Public Sphere provides a new platform for academics, artists, curators, art historians and theorists whose working practices are broadly concerned with contemporary art's relation to the public sphere. The journal presents a crucial examination of contemporary art's link to the public realm, offering an engaged and responsive forum in which to debate the newly emerging series of developments within contemporary thinking, society and international art practice.
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