Ars gratia artisArs gratia artis” the classicist may shout—“art for art’s sake!” Yet, there is often no way to divorce many pieces of art from the function and politics that they serve. When looking at art, “art for art’s sake” often rings false. This is particularly the case for many pieces of public art designed with the intention of raising awareness for a certain issue. Being open and receptive to this issue is often how public art fights global poverty.

Public Art and Communication

As a means of spreading awareness, public art is exceptional. Public art is often large, accessible and easily observed; its public nature proves distinctly advantageous in comparison to private art hidden away in homes or museums. Public art in cities with sizeable populations and heavy foot traffic has the potential to be seen by millions of people, such as the case for New York’s Public Art Fund, which exhibited Ai Weiwei’s “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.

The Public Art Fund’s mission is to bring to New York’s “broad audience” work on an “international scope and impact.” In other words, The Public Art Fund means to share important works of art with a large number of people often to raise awareness of certain issues.

On display from March to October 2018 is Yinka Shinobare’s “Wind Sculpture,” which addresses the movement of people, including the artist, whose childhood was split between England and West Africa across space and time. The piece asks empathy of its audience and for them consider the vast experiences of migrants around the world, an important statement amidst a global refugee crisis. “Wind Sculpture” offers viewers the chance to look at movement, using the wind as an adept metaphor for humanity. Thus, public art fights global poverty through its aspirational tone.

Another major piece of public art, Yoko Ono’s “Wish Tree”, allows passersby in various cities to share their aspirations for the future by attaching them to the branches of the eponymous tree. Themes emerge from the messages dangling from these trees: hope for peace and happiness and an overall sense of equality and camaraderie among people. Public art offers the chance to reflect on one’s hopes for the world and inspires the fight against global poverty.

Public Artists Sending A Message

Of course, as Banksy and The Guerrilla Girls have shown, it may be the case that public art fights global poverty in a more confrontational way. The Guerrilla Girls, active since the 1980s, have used street installations and posters to tackle political and social issues around the world often through clandestine means. They projected criticism of The Whitney Museum right on the side of the museum in 2015. Meanwhile, Banksy is an internationally renowned street artist. His art is noted for being controversial, but frequently addresses human rights issues and political corruption.

Perhaps one of the best examples of public art working as a form of global poverty advocacy is, however, The Water Tank Project, which is an exhibition using the water tanks above New York City to raise awareness of international water issues. The project also provides a platform both for emerging artists as well as New York public school students. It coincided with the founding of the “Trace the Tap” educational campaign, which provides a curriculum to teach students about water through ecological, social and economic perspectives among others. And, of course, the public art project features some incredibly beautiful murals decorating the walls of New York’s water tanks.

In a 3-year Gallup study, aesthetics such as public art and social spaces were found to be integral to community building and community attachment. This affirms the importance of public art. Moreover, with the rise of sustainable art, and with the shifting nature of international politics and the refugee crisis, there is a need for more public art. Public art fights global poverty, and, thus, it is a mainstay of urban development and U.S. culture.

William Wilcox
Photo: Flickr