By Raj Liberhan
Robert Henri, an American painter and teacher of renown said that, “ I am interested in Art as a means to living a life and not as a means of living”. Constantly attuned to the noise of our urban environment, as city dwellers, we miss the beauty of the interaction between time and space. Yet, to revitalize and refresh energy, public spaces are decorated with artistic creations and some of them go on to become endowed icons of human genius, subsuming the city in the art icon. Eiffel Tower of Paris, the architectural icon of Sydney, the Big Ben of London and many others.
There has been very little public engagement in our cities with public art. There have been some aficionados of art who have been interested in taking art out of gallery spaces and bring it out in the open for the people to engage with, but the larger public sentiment for aesthetics has been weak, if not totally absent. The Nehruvian era had an express direction to allocate 2% of public project’s budget for public art. Even now, there is an unstated reservation for public art, but this is not rally followed in seriousness.
We need a change of thinking for sure and civic governance must strive for giving a quality of life to its citizens. The best art displays in Moscow are represented on its railway stations. These are spaces through which millions of people pass through and their attention to installations and paintings bring fame and glory to some of the creations. Our Metro systems are now moving people across destinations in the cities and their spaces are greatly in need of art works. This huge potential will add to the visual beauty of a revered public space and add esteem to the citizen users.
Our policy makers and implementers often appear to under value the significance of cultural spaces. Theatre spaces, art galleries, performance auditoria, open air musicals do not get the priority and attention they rightfully deserve. These are the platforms that dilute ethnic differences, delighting senses of all hues and nurturing respect and courtesy for the next person. Religious beliefs, personal reservations and biases become irrelevant, as they should, in societal discourse. Contemporary thinking of our decision makers must accept the generational gains in good citizenship and social capital that would accrue from vibrant culture spaces that our cities sorely need.
A passionate plea for more is only a notion unless the citizen has the sensitivity and the consciousness to respect works of art in public spaces. We seem to have more vandalism in our psyche than any other decent human instinct. We are impatient in our disagreement and we are willing to deface art, distort history and violate centuries of expressions without even a reason. Itchy hands, axes to grind and brains in the ankles leave their scars on monuments, art works, sculptures and public passages. This is the ‘normal’ reaction of our current descendants of ancient civilization. TheBhupatDudi’s sculpture in the Palika Bazaar was vandalized within a few days of its installation. In the same place, other sculptures in the foot-path have doubled as benches for people. Vandalism has happened in Mumbai, Baroda and almost any other city that sought to furnish its urban landscape. We really have no art conversations happening in public spaces.
There are frustrations amongst the people too. One of them is often about the creators’ imagination of art. Many people find it difficult to appreciate the creations. In the absence of briefs or descriptions, some of us can look at the work in confused wonderment. The artists have a responsibility,especially for public art works to simplify the idea and its representation. Very often the plaques or notations are considered wasteful additional expenditure. There is a counterpoint to adding descriptions to art works and that it is best to leave it to the people to interact and engage as per their experience and knowledge. They can like it or not. Still, it helps to create a dialogue, once the artist’s perception is known.
Among the many mountains that our society has to climb, surely the energy for aesthetics in public spaces needs a concerted movement for incremental growth as well as people’s respect. If the impulse to seek excellence has to resonate, then both the artist community and civic governors have to converge their initiatives. Some of the leading cultural spaces like the India International Centre and the India Habitat Centre have given vivacity and colours to their open spaces and have installations that frequently decorate their environs regularly. As these spaces are democratic and located advantageously, the participation of people becomes cordial and welcoming. St+art is a another great initiative in public art, making it accessible as finding it on the streets of India like their Lodhi Colony artworks on the facades of government housing. Nevertheless, the consciousness and accessibility to really grow in a city as large as Delhi, we need many more initiatives which have the emotional and financial support of the civic and political administrators. At the end of the day, every generation must assiduously build legacies for the future and making aesthetics in public spaces as well as public life is a wealthy heritage to bestow on men and women of the future. Not to forget, that it is in the hygiene of the public spaces, the genius of the city will flourish in a shared history. This is the way for the city to achieve timelessness.