On how (public) art produces social changes

The needs of a vision

Enrico Tomaselli
A glance on cont/arts
6 min readFeb 5, 2014


But the art, especially public art, has its usefulness, that is not purely aesthetic? That is, it can play a (active) role within a process of urban transformation — not intended merely to urban planning and architectural, but urban — and therefore also of its inhabitants?
The first consideration that comes to my mind, is that art — always — questions us, and does so in a direct and personal way. Its action, therefore, is addressed — and it takes place — to the person; any valence and social capacity passes through the single.
A (urban) community on the other hand is made up of a set of singularities, with a lowest common cultural denominator, which is more or less strongly marked from to be the community of that particular city.

A public art , therefore, must necessarily lead to grow the feel of belonging , that is the cultural and impersonal bond that unites citizens and the city.
Before all, it must talk with both. Establish a dialectical relationship with the residents but also with the town, or with the land on which it stands.
And the greatest difficulty it encounters, already in establishing this dialogue, lies in its action to transform the landscape. The urban landscape, in fact, and even regardless of its (possible) degradation, is perceived as an extension of the domestic dimension, has a reassuring capacity that his being born from the daily scene of life. Every action, therefore, must necessarily add something, to make up for this breakdown of pre-existing visual balance.
In the case of art, unlike the purely architectural interventions and/or urban, this augmentation feature — in the absence of a practical use — becomes even more necessary.
However, in reality the intervention of public art is often accompanied by the urban, in a dialectical relationship between the two.

If, therefore, the public art goes to invade an urban fabric, changing the weft, with its transforming action of the urban scenario forces the citizen to question about his relationship with (his own) territory.
This report, particularly in Europe, where cities often have a long history behind it, strongly affected by the particular urban stratification — and then socially and culturally. The very idea of ​​the historical center is, for example, peculiar of European cities, and in turn determines a different idea (and a different reality) of suburbs.
A classic clutch element , so, is the grafting of elements of absolute contemporaneity in an urban context strongly characterized, on the contrary, by historicity.
An example highly significant, even if we can’t speak strictly of public art, can be regarded the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Built on the Beaubourg square, adjacent to the Marais district (which has maintained its pre-revolutionary architecture and has not experienced the nineteenth-century transformation by Baron Haussmann) is, in fact — and far beyond its practical function of institution for modern and contemporary art and library — a real artistic intervention. Its size, its bare architectural structure, bold coloring, placed in a seventeenth-century context, they did tell the New York Times that the Renzo Piano project “has spilled the architecture world.” Moreover, the presence of the nearby Stravinsky fountain, with the works of Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint- Phalle, further underlines — in this case just with a public art intervention — a break with the surrounding context.

The ‘Beaubourg’ back facade

It is easy to imagine how this kind of rupture can lead to conflict, on a cultural level first. Yet today, after almost forty years, as its modernity is still absolutely such, is immediately perceivable, Beaubourg is fully integrated into the urban environment.
The time, made ​​it part of that everyday scene.
Always speaking about Paris, we can also remember the glass pyramid of the Louvre by Ieoh Ming Pei. Another example of (fruitful) contrast between contemporary and ancient in urban boundary. In both cases, there is no doubt that the intervention has not only added function, but also a sense of identity. Moreover, the symbol of Paris is perhaps the Eiffel Tower?

This type of intervention, however, requires, on one hand, a capacity of vision, a long look, by the public administrations, and on the other a capacity of dialogue between this and the city. And of course, first and foremost with that part of urban society that is more sensitive, and concerned, to the cultural sphere.
Also because this is the liaison with the city in its broadest sense, and has an important role in conveying the sense of the choices made .
Unfortunately, this ability to view and dialogue are not always present.
One is reminded, for example, the recent controversy on the intervention envisioned by William Kentridge on the Tiber in Rome.
Continuing the series of operations that are carried out a few years ago on the initiative of Tevereterno, the project of Kentridge involves the achievement of an artwork 550 meters long on the embankments of the Tiber, between Sisto bridge and Mazzini bridge. Through selective cleaning of the smog coat and biofilm accumulated on the surfaces, the south african artist will create more than ninety figures as high as nine feet, that wind like a huge storyboard in which humanity’s triumphs and defeats, from the myth age until now, will form a great epic story.
An intervention that, by size, recalls the Jaya He conceived for the new airport in Mumbai (over 3 kilometers of art exhibition).
Well, as much as it is an intervention characterized by absolute respect for the environment of action, with a strong consistency to the historical dimension of itself, and moreover entirely privately funded, there have been controversies by some institutions.

Sketch of Kentridge’s project

Another clutch plan (at least possible), after the ancient/contemporary, typical of city downtown, is that of urban regeneration, in turn typical of the suburbs.
Public art, placed in contexts urbanistically and/or socially degraded, can be considered in itself a re-qualified intervention? Or should, always and anyway, be accompanied by structural revamping of the area?
If, on one hand, it is possible that public art is used (by lazy or stingy administrations…) as placebo substitute compared to most significant interventions, for another it is also true that — at least in my opinion — it can sometimes partially compensate for the lack of these interventions, that maybe there would be anyway.
Needless to say, of course, it is preferable that the intervention of public art is accompanied by the urban redevelopment of the site, if necessary. But it is still true that it would be a nice frame add to the picture; proper operation, but that really does not affect the possible degradation of the surrounding environment, limiting itself to create a buffer zone around the work of art. Which, paradoxically, may lead to the feeling that the entire project (artistic and urban) is built around — and for — the work, rather than for citizens.

However, what I think should be pointed out, is that even for the (public) art count what is true in general for the polis. To think so segmented, with partial approaches disconnected from each other, has a high risk of not producing any results. On the contrary, it should think of the city as an organic unicuum, in the double meaning of held together by articulated and reciprocal relationships (as organized, equipped with organs) and living organism.
The intervention of public art in the urban area, then, to become a trigger and stimulus of social (positive) processes, needs first to be conceived as part of a general path of transformation, and as such needs for an overview vision and of a will.
This, of course, certainly not in the logic of real socialism, but rather as a social and cultural growth based on the development of relations between the subjects in the area.



Enrico Tomaselli
A glance on cont/arts

Graphic + web designer / Magmart Festival Art Director / Management culturale