The Impossible Public: The Politics of People in Contemporary Art

2019-11-22T01:33:49Z (GMT) by Holly Arden
The term ‘public’ is a buzzword in art institutional lexicon, variously used to indicate art made by and for the public, or efforts made by galleries, museums and other organisations to reach a wider number of individuals, as in the terms ‘public art’ or ‘public programming’. Further, the amount of theoretical discussion on art’s public dimensions has intensified since the 1990s, being integral to Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘relational aesthetics’, Grant Kester’s ‘dialogical art’ and Claire Bishop's ‘participatory art’. However, much of this discourse has neither substantively, nor with sufficient nuance, considered the political and artistic ramifications of contemporary art’s focus on its public, per se. In this thesis I argue that this is a significant oversight, given that the broader context of neo-liberal capitalism has threatened, if not decimated, many aspects of public life.
The Impossible Public: The Politics of People in Contemporary Art examines participatory and collaborative projects and artworks from the mid-1990s onwards that engage overtly with the idea of the public. The artists and artistic groups, from North America, the United Kingdom and Australia, are A Centre for Everything (Gabrielle de Vietri and Will Foster), Komar and Melamid, Harrell Fletcher (with collaborators Jens Hoffmann, Jon Rubin and Miranda July), Jeremy Deller, Stuart Ringholt and Natalie Bookchin. Through a close examination of their artworks, this thesis observes specific artistic approaches toward, and a distinctive set of interests in, the notion of the public, as distinct from other art-related terms including ‘audience’ and ‘community’. For example, these works tend to consider the public in its most open sense, as an incalculably large and diverse number of people. I argue that these artworks invest in the continuing viability of a particular idea of the public—the public as a form of potential—which I develop in this thesis. My approach considers the post-Enlightenment and bourgeois origins of the idea of the public and draws on recent political philosophy and art theory to rethink the concept of ‘the public’ for contemporary art.