This conversation took place against the background of a recent redefining of the funding process for public art projects in the local municipality of Culver City. A great deal of press time and public energy has gone into arguing exactly what the parameters of both the selection process and the allocation of funds should be. Specifically, the question was asked, are there conditions under which the funds set aside for a public art project should be returned to the developer and invested in the architecture? More simply, can the architecture itself be considered art?
Three members of the Forum—Margaret Crawford, Chair of the Department of History/Theory at SCI-Arc and Christopher Tandon and myself, both more recently graduated from architecture school and entered into design professions—came together to discuss what we found to be a striking subtext to the entire debate. That is, a rampant confusion and disagreement about what it is that architects practice and how you might begin to define architecture itself. —ed.
CT: I think the reason that so many in this debate are quick to say that architecture is not art arises from the fact that in the 20th century architects themselves, in defining the profession, have downplayed their role as artists. Do you think that’s true?
MC: It didn’t happen in this century. It happened with the professionalization of architecture and the codification of architectural qualifications.
CT: I was thinking more of late modernism. Prior to that, at least through expressionism, architecture was still considered art, and if—only by architects—considered one of the highest forms of art.
MC: It doesn’t really have to do with modernism, it has to do with professionalization, which came before modernism.
CT: But in continuing to define the profession, one of the claims of modernism was that architecture is about function and economy. Architects then excluded the idea, or didn’t talk about the fact that part of what we do is make works of art. That buildings are art. We look at buildings as art.
MC: But this is the wrong definition of art. You have to look at these things objectively. In the way that they’re actually constructed and practiced in society and the economy. And I will tell you that architects are licensed by the state, they undergo a very particular kind of education and they are hired by clients to perform certain duties that are spelled out in a contract. That is how they perform whatever it is that they do. Artists on the other hand, operate in a free market situation; they are unlicensed. Anyone can wake up in the morning and say “I am an artist”, and the market and history will prove or disprove that statement. The artist rarely—and here’s where public art gets a little less clearly defined—but the artist does not work on commission. An artist would be unlikely to even get a public art commission unless they had a previous body of work that was simply produced and then sold on the open market. This is a completely different type of activity, and a completely different way of performing work than the architect. And that’s an objective definition of these activities.
MC: The confusion here is between visual art and architecture. And the question here is that, is there some miracle that occurs at a certain level of quality in architecture where, like transubstantiation, architecture miraculously becomes art?
CD: You mean, becomes other than just a service to the developer, helping him subdivide his property in a profitable way, so that he can be taxed the one percent, and the city can then buy some art?
MC: No,…no, it’s actually that a miracle occurs, and one practice is miraculously transformed into another practice. I think that’s a little, well, miraculous is the only word one could use for it. I would say that this is trying to redefine something on the basis of quality rather than on the basis of the nature of the practice. And I think that’s misconceived. This doesn’t have anything to do with the actual subject at hand (the current controversy in Culver City), which one could think about in a different way, that might allow architects to actually participate in these programs.
CD: Somebody made the point that the underlying motivation of percent for art programs was to improve the quality of civic life, and a well-thought-out building with intelligence and artistic “transubstantiation” improves the quality of civic life in a way that a developer-designed building doesn’t. And so the difference between one and the other has a civic value…
MC: But, you see, that’s not the issue again. The fundamental point of percent for art programs is acknowledging public responsibility. That is what it’s about. It’s that developers and architects, civic leaders, zoners, planners, everyone, users, must acknowledge that there is public responsibility in building. It’s not about improving the landscape or anything like that; fundamentally it’s about acknowledging public responsibility. So, how then is public responsibility constructed? Is it constructed aesthetically, is it constructed in terms of amenities, is it constructed in many other ways? This is my objection to the whole debate—the right questions aren’t really being asked.
CD: If you are trying to define architecture by its role in the marketplace, my question is, then, what are the complications that arise from the fact that architects, I think, now believe that the artistic merit, or the artistic value of the architecture they produce is conceptual, and not commodifiable. And also, that art, that the boundaries of what it is to produce art, have been expanded in this century…
MC: This is still a subjective point of view, and in this discussion, it’s simply the architect’s self-definition. We can’t accept that. That is not an objective definition that can operate in making an argument to the world at large.
CD: But, don’t public artists have the same problem?
MC: Same thing for artists. Both of these professions do, I agree. They claim certain things, but both of these are inappropriate bases for even discussing this issue. If you want to re-conceptualize the nature of public responsibility in building, you need to start with that, and as far as I can tell, no one has actually done it. The arguments are all based on their own internal self-definition of their activity, and I don’t think that’s useful.
CD: But I think this is an important point in understanding some of the contention. The fact is that art has evolved into something that is not as commodity-based as it used to be, and architecture has evolved into something that is not as commodity or decoratively based as it used to be. The problem becomes one of taking the excess value of what each of these professions produce—that part outside its market value that educates, that is artistic, that frankly transcends everyday life—and defining it in a way that is useful to a bureaucracy and can have a budget, in this case a percent of construction cost, assigned to it by that bureaucracy.
CT: What would you say the basis for the animosity is, then?
MC: In the course of the development of both of these activities, and probably based on the kind of self-definition that both of these activities aspire to, they are coming into conflict, because the world of non-commodified operations is minuscule. Ironically, to me what they’re both doing is seeking a kind of public commodification, in which they’re getting paid not by the client, but by the state or the public. They’re actually seeking some kind of legitimating public commodification. Since they don’t want to accept market commodification, they are both aspiring to a kind of transcendence from the marketplace. Obviously they’re going to come into conflict, because they are unwilling to accept that we live in a capitalist society. That’s why they’re seeking what I would call miraculous solutions based on, again, this transubstantiation. And so, I mean, it’s actually kind of ironic. They’re seeking miracles really, both of them, to escape what they see as the confinements of commodification.
CD: Right, they don’t want to accept it.
MC: They don’t want to accept it, you see. And I would argue this is the wrong thing to do.
CT: And what’s the right thing to do?
MC: I think you have to acknowledge the fact that you live in a capitalist society, and that both of these activities are fundamentally marketplace activities. They are different marketplaces clearly, and so looking to the state as a solution doesn’t actually offer transubstantiation or transcendence or miraculous freedom. It actually offers a completely different set of conditions that in their own way are as confining as the conditions of the marketplace—because they actually involve a responsibility to the public, which still has not been adequately defined. But that’s what it’s all about. I would say both artists and architects have proven pretty reluctant to accept this.
CD: Sure, it is very confining.
MC: Because, you mean that the public is basically not really very interested in what they do.
CD: And also there is no such thing as ‘the public.’
MC: Well, right, there are ‘publics’ …that’s true. There is no public and then, instead of this ideal, wonderful kind of world of the public supporting you, what you actually get is what we see happening here in Culver City: entrenched political interests, political favors owed, etc: I would say unrepresentative members of the ‘public,’ and interest groups fighting for themselves. And so is this the public? Is this better than marketplace? I think many people working in public art would probably say no. So, again, I think that the mistake is that both architects and artists want to escape the conditions that their particular activities are constructed under, and achieve some kind of transcendental freedom. I would say that that’s impossible, and that the whole aspiration of doing this is misconceived from the get-go.
CT: So, architects are seeking recognition of, the value of architecture, as opposed to building, from the state. Because they aspire to create art, which rarely happens when one is providing a service to and meeting the economic interests of a developer. But in turning to the state you then have to deal with some kind of public policy, often in the form of zoning restrictions, design review and all those other things architects also complain about.
MC: All those terrible things.
CT: But those things are the public’s defense against, not specifically architecture, but against development and the marketplace, which architects are perceived as being part of. Consequently, it’s unlikely that architects will find freedom by turning to the public or, really, the state.
MC: Right, and I hate to say it, but there is no transcendence. There is only one or the other.
CD: So, what do you think? Do you think there’s a place for an architect to think about what they do as being more than just what they have been hired to do?
MC· Yeah, it could be, but l would say that in order to do that architects actually have to accept the conditions under which they work, and within those conditions try to develop modes of working that accomplish other things. This is very different from aspiring towards a kind of miraculous condition which doesn’t actually exist. And to me there are actually a lot of really exciting possibilities in doing that. I would be interested in seeing architects focus on the nature of the constraints they encounter instead of dreaming their way out of them. They could focus on the ways in which these constraints are constructed, and possibly come up with ways in which to restructure those constraints. I think you actually really need to look at how things operate in the professional world of building, and then you could come up with some fantastic solutions. But no one wants to touch it because it’s too alarming.
CT: In the practice of making art, there is a reluctance to define one’s activity: in a sense you can leave it to the marketplace. But then you have institutions like the NEA giving money, and trying to define or set criteria. This is a lot of what happens in public art as well, but that debate hasn’t come up yet: who curates it, who decides.
MC: Because it’s very cut and dried, actually…who does it? These various public agencies decide.
CT: But these are public agencies that are commissioning, in fact, as opposed to the NEA, which is giving funding to artists in a broader sense. The NEA doesn’t take possession or purchase anything. Its purpose isn’t acquisition, it’s to support artists. Public art programs are about improving the public realm in whatever city you happen to be in. It is a commission, or at least the acquisition, of an art piece. It is about the art, or the object, not the artists, which actually makes it more difficult.
MC: I think also that public art is extremely under-theorized, under-examined. Because it isn’t about improving the way the world looks, it really has to do with debate in the public realm. And that’s the reason it’s been so troubled: it’s very difficult to think of virtually any public art that hasn’t been controversial. The battle record of public art is horrendous and that’s because it’s an inherently conflictual field: What is the nature of public, and what does that mean? Does that mean the common good? In the 1930s people were willing, for example, to accept the idea of massive infrastructure, like dams, as something that represented the common good. Try to get a dam built today. You cannot do it. There have been virtually no dams built, and they are even thinking of removing dams. Part of the reason for that is there is no consensus about a common good. I would say that there is no common good. In order to discuss this you have to really discuss the nature of democracy and how it operates in a specific kind of state, like the United States. I think now there is no public sphere: there are multiple public spheres and they are all fighting it out. And so the idea that you can achieve consensus in this way is absurd.
The whole battle in a way to me is what public art should be about. It shouldn’t be about producing, it should create an arena where you can struggle about meaning. It is about the very nature of public discussion and competing interests claiming this kind of territory of the public.
CD: So how does that fit into your idea of the marketplace?
MC: Again, that’s the idiotic thing. In Culver City it’s absurd. Because we are talking about the nature of the local state. How does a local state, the Culver City government, operate, what interests is it beholden to, who are the participants in Culver City politics, who are the economic powers in Culver City, and who are the people who actually live in Culver City? Basically the people who live in Culver City and what they want—no one is even paying attention to them in this discussion. It’s turned into a discussion of the nature of the state, not about the nature of the public.
I think everybody’s heart is in the right place in public art. They really are less self-interested than a lot of other people. At the same time they’re really blind to bigger issues. Because they want to do something positive, they find it difficult to acknowledge the contestedness of the territory. That basically it’s a struggle. That every inch of the territory is completely contested. Of course, why would anyone want to do anything like that? Instead of doing something great, and expecting that it’s going to happen, it never happens, almost never. I started teaching a course in public art, and we continually looked at public art situations that ended in controversy and fights. That’s the history of public art.
MC: Collaboration is another issue, I think, in a sense that’s part of the issue here. Architects don’t want to collaborate here because they collaborate so much in getting a building built. What’s left for them to do is already small enough, it’s understandable.
CT: And from the other side, architects have to take responsibility for the fact that so much of the architecture that they are doing is not being accepted by the public, perceived as bad and somehow needs to be spruced up with art.
MC: Do you think that’s true?
CT: Well, it’s certainly something that I came across. The origins of a lot of public art programs were, in part, this perceived deficiency in buildings, or the built environment.
MC: I would say that architects and public art people would both agree that the built environment stinks. They just have really different ways to address the problem. But they never really address the issue properly. If it sucks, why? It doesn’t go back to the source of the problem. The problem with all these debates is that they are really superficial, I think.
CT: Is the 1% allotment for public art just superficial, too?
MC: I think that it doesn’t address this larger issue of democracy, fundamentally. There are two issues here: one is capitalism, one is democracy, and to me this whole thing raises issues about the interrelation of one to the other. This is sort of happening in the slippage between capitalism and democracy, and that’s where public art finds its niche. I don’t think that it has theorized capitalism or democracy in any kind of significant way, and that’s the problem. It’s trying to find space… that’s sort of between the two, and it hasn’t.
CD: There is also a difference between a voice of the public, which is perceived as valuable and good, and the fact that the will of the public is being carried out by a government agency which we don’t like involved in artistic decisions.
MC: But that’s actually another issue of professions. There is a third profession involved, which are the bureaucrats, who everybody hates. But they are actually convinced that they are the only ones doing the right thing.
CT: They have a mandate.
MC: Because, in a sense, they are the official bearers of the public mandate. I think there is a lot of difference in that camp, because some of them are actual representatives of the public. Others are people from the art world who have moved into public art, and are actually trying to balance the two. But nobody involved is the public.
CD: I don’t know how you decide which public gets a voice.
MC: That’s the interesting question, I think, about public art. That is the question that is totally unaddressed by this controversy in Culver City. The public, as always, are the last people to be brought into it, or even considered. That is ironic.
CT: Would you trust it to put it to a vote of the populace of Culver City? They could all decide, this is art, this is not art.
MC: Hey, that’s democracy.
CT: And we can all live with that decision, then.
MC: Sure. Like four people would vote. The problem with this is that it raises questions about the way democracy operates and, on the other hand, it raises questions about the way in which capitalism operates. If there were actually a vote for every painting, that would be kind of fun. Then you could talk about this as being democratic. But it isn’t, because value and quality are established by the marketplace.
When you discuss these issues of the public and democracy, it necessarily brings up the issue of taste. Public taste and professional taste, either in the case of architects or artists, have no connection. And in a way I think this is a challenge, a massive challenge for both artists and architects. The fact is, the way that art and architecture draw boundaries around themselves is all about separating yourself from the public through taste—that’s how you get cultural capital. We all know that both architects and artists possess virtually no economic capital, but tons of cultural capital, and their whole image of themselves, and their image of their profession is based on this idea of possessing cultural capital. Cultural capital, virtually by definition, means the high versus the low, the abstract versus representation. That’s a kind of boundary, and a kind of line that’s separating them from the public, because once they remove that line, they actually become the public. And that’s pretty alarming because their whole self-definition, and the definition of these arts in capitalist society, is distinct from the popular or the public.
CD: I’m just not sure how you do that. I know that when architects design things to please the design review boards that communities confront us with, the results aren’t particularly interesting. I’m not convinced about who benefits.
MC: This isn’t simply a populist issue of doing what a self-appointed public demands. I don’t think that’s the answer.
CD: Calling yourself a design review board, and announcing yourself as the voice of the community is just as much a self-definition as the architect’s self-defining…
MC: Yes, of course. And the idea of a representative public is non-existent. So, I don’t think it comes down to this…
CT: The architect does need to be able to say, “I do have a certain expertise,” otherwise there is no profession. What do you think of the oft-stated idea that part of the job of the architect is to educate the client to the value of innovative or new design?
MC: Whenever anyone says education that means force my ideas on someone else. They always say, “Oh, this a problem of education.” That means: “I know and you don’t.” That’s totally deceptive. I don’t think it’s a problem of education. I think that right now in the United States, popular culture is a thousand times richer than architectural culture. There is just no escaping it. It has so much more creativity and vitality, and yet architects can’t really tap into that, at all. At the same time, if architects start really incorporating popular culture in their work, they are going to lose their cultural capital, which is based on totally monopolizing the category of the high. The risk on the other end, of course, is becoming completely irrelevant to anybody who’s not in your profession and becoming part of a niche market. It’s really a question of how to operate: is there a transgressive way of operating within a capitalist culture? That’s what it comes down to.