Public Art: A Battlefield

Francesca Guerisoli

A definition that doesn’t exist

Within the spatial limits placed on this piece, I will seek to sketch out some paths of analysis and elaboration of the relations between so-called “public art” and the popular dimension to which it is viscerally connected. For “public art” immediately presents a definitional problem, given that it has taken on such diverse declensions over the last fifty years. This much also emerges from the international literature, which highlights its complexity and its unresolved knots. Some systemic actors designate art as being “public” in relation to the space it occupies, that is, as art in public space. Others cite the spatial location as an insufficient or non-priority element in identifying artistic practice as “public”, because the presence of art in accessible spaces does not automatically render it public if this accessibility is only physical. They instead identify its public essence in its relationship with the public as the genesis and subject of analysis, producing immaterial relations and values between people [1]. The terminological problem is further complicated by the fact that the terms take on a different connotation when we speak of “arte pubblica” or of “public art”: the Italian term commonly refers to a work of art commissioned with public funds and destined for urban public spaces; in English, it stems from a form of public commission widespread in the United States and Britain, differing from the European tradition of urban sculpture[2]. Moreover, in Italy, since the mid-1990s, the term “public art” (in English) has been used to refer to what in the same years, in the United States, was named “new genre public art” and then “socially-engaged art”[3]. Therefore, according to Cameron Cartiere and Shelly Willis, experts in public art commissions, a shared and stable definition may never be perfected, and so our terminology needs to be flexible[4].

Public art at the turn of the twenty-first century

The history of what has conventionally been understood in Italy as “arte pubblica”, up until community-based practices entered the field, is articulated and well described by the various disciplines analysing the urban. It runs from the modern era, with the triumph of the aesthetics of embellissement, which tasked art with enriching the city with new monuments, embellishing entrance-ways, and flaunting the ruling power, with the function of celebrating the official values of the homeland and the city — and from its propagandistic use, to its presence in urban space understood as a space of representation, of vindication, or a privileged site of relations to be (re)activated[5]. In the postwar period, public commissioning remoulded its goals: if on the one hand, art became a strategic object for the revitalisation of cities, in a phenomenon that accelerated starting in the 1980s, on the other it was seen as capable of fostering social cohesion, producing collective memory, creating awareness, and improving the quality of the urban space[6]. Then came the advance, especially from the 1990s onward, of practices in space that go beyond the logic of embellishment, street furniture and the production of “spectacular experiences”, instead taking the form of actions in close contact with communities and/or local groups, while centring social and political issues. Alessandra Pioselli explains as much, citing the experiences of artists such as Enzo Umbaca, Emilio Fantin, Luca Vitone, Marco Vaglieri and the Stalker collective[7]. These were the years in which “new genre public art” was theorised by Suzanne Lacy in the United States, with reference to works of a processual and collaborative nature, a mode of production that stemmed from the critique of urban space as an exhibition space, begun in the 1960s, and reflected on the nature of public space and the artist’s mode of operation. The work is constructed through the relationship with citizens, who are themselves involved in participatory processes: the artist works on the physical and immaterial qualities of the place, as a field of social exchange, questions the public space, considered the focus of tensions and questions, and stimulates the community to take up a critical position [8]. In Italy, too, while it is true that administrations have identified art as a strategic instrument for fuelling processes of urban regeneration and tourist development, at the same time we are witnessing the proliferation of an art that enters into the heart of the social environment, centring communication and relations with people, triggering a reflection on citizens’ quality of life and their relationship with urban boundaries. These are among those operations defined as socially-oriented, using forms of social living as a way of bringing art closer to everyday life[9].

Among current practices

So-called public art projects have multiplied in Italy over the last fifteen years. As mentioned at the outset, it is worth paying attention to what is meant by public projects: often we find interventions defined as public only by virtue of the space that they occupy or of the given institutional commission; at other times the term refers to participatory projects carried out with specific communities, not only for urban spaces but for public places in general. Another point worth noting is that concerning formalisation: it is an important challenge, for the artist working with community-basedpractices, to keep the conceptual and formal dimensions in balance. The risk, with these projects, is that of creating an experience which stands tall in social terms but has low aesthetic relevance. It is certainly not easy to operate with participatory dynamics while always keeping an eye on the formal dimension of the process which, by definition, is in fieri. But precisely this relationship can give rise to a good outcome, not only to be measured in terms of its social knock-on effects. There are numerous authors attentive to this relationship; thinking of the generation in their forties, I am speaking for example of Marinella Senatore, Gian Maria Tosatti, Elena Bellantoni, Eugenio Tibaldi, Giuseppe Stampone, Andrea Mastrovito, Andreco, Chiara Mu, Bianco-Valente (Giovanna Bianco and Pino Valente) who, in different ways and forms, include participatory public projects in their practices. In particular, Tosatti’s Sette stagioni dello spirito (2013-2016), realised in Naples as a “grand symphony” for the citizens and the city, in its participatory dimension, of recovery, renovation and restitution to the community, “placing itself in the service of…”, recalls — with all the necessary distinctions — Alberto Garutti’s work in Peccioli, Quest’opera è dedicata alle ragazze e ai ragazzi che in questo piccolo teatro si innamorarono [“This work is dedicated to the girls and boys who fell in love in this small theatre”] (1994-1997), a renovation of a small theatre, dear to the community, which had by then fallen into disuse. Or, further, we might mention the artists involved in Nuovi committenti, such as Massimo Bartolini, Claudia Losi and Stefano Arienti. Starting in 2001, with the curatorship of a.titolo, they created artworks for public space — with more or less successful outcomes — commissioned directly by citizens for the places where they live and work.[10].

The question of formalisation is even more pressing when the artist sets out to stimulate new readings and relations in shared space, in its physical and immaterial characteristics, as well as to activate discussions, while not realising a work of a participatory nature, but having a territorial community as a point of reference. Lara Favaretto’s work Momentary Monument (Wall), realised in Trento in 2009, prompts reflections that remain topical. While this work was not completed due to the collapse of the structure, which occurred for unclear reasons, it did generate an intense public debate, on a par with that regarding Maurizio Cattelan’s Milanese works L.O.V.E. (2010) in Piazza Affari and the lightning-quick Untitled (2004) in piazza XXIV Maggio, as well as the debate that we will cover more specifically, regarding Flavio Favelli’s mural created in Cosenza in 2015.

At the extremes: Leone Contini and Flavio Favelli

Without any pretence to exhaustiveness — but with the objective of stimulating some reflections on the relationship of public art with the popular — I have chosen to focus here on two artists, Leone Contini and Flavio Favelli, whose practice stands at opposites from each other and who thus allow us to better problematise this issue.

Contini’s entire oeuvre is socially oriented. The artist has taken very seriously a certain critical perspective on community-based projects[11], questioning the artist’s relationship with the community, and trying to avoid both the risk of “speaking for” and of appropriating social malaise as an artistic product. Among his projects, ToscoCina, developed over a decade, starting in 2011, investigates the coexistence and cohabitation of the Chinese community within the community of Prato, through actions centring food as an object in transition. The first action,Nutri la mente, realised in Carmignano in 2011, was produced by the small Tuscan municipality and a Chinese entrepreneur, brought together by the project itself. The point of reference is the Italian and Chinese community of the province of Prato, which, however, does not perceive itself as such. The action consists of a Tuscan-Chinese cooking experiment carried out over the course of one day by 300-400 people living in the same territory as the artist. Through a reciprocal, horizontal cooking class, in which Chinese and Tuscan ravioli are collectively kneaded through the exchange of the participants’ respective know-how, it bids to give shape to an identity no longer divided between Italians/locals and Chinese/foreigners, but consisting of a new-born community created in the course of the event. The culmination of the action is the birth (by chance but at the same time inevitable) of a hybrid raviolo that comes to symbolise the new identity. The action sees skills, as well as ingredients, continuously mixing: a sort of acceleration of a reciprocal integration process that normally takes place over a long time. Contini’s project is characterised on the one hand, the correspondence between the site of the action and the location of the artist’s own life and, on the other hand, the long-term nature of his commitment (preparations for the action lasted a year), making him take on all the ethical-aesthetic responsibilities of his work, unlike the many projects characterised by a “hit and run” approach.

Favelli’s practice is quite opposite. He does not include participatory practices in his work — rather, he sharply criticises them, instead laying claim to his own autonomy. If the public project of his that I consider most significant is Sala d’attesa, a setting created in 2008 in the Pantheon at the Certosa di Bologna, where secular funerals are held, qthe one that provides the most interesting insights, useful for framing the relationship of public art with the popular, is the mural Gigi Marulla, which he created in Cosenza in 2015 upon the untimely death of the Cosenza Calcio footballing idol. The disputes that the mural generated, in the immediate and then in the longer term, both in the local community and in the artistic community, merits special attention still today. Favelli’s work — a gigantic blow-up of a Panini sticker bearing only Cosenza’s football crest and the silhouette of the Sila wolf — was not well received by citizens, especially the fans, who triggered a heated debate on social media, which led to a request for the work to be revised, which the artist rebuffed. The discussion lasted well beyond the moment when the local council, intervening to mediate, commissioned the street artist Lucamaleonte to paint a realistic painting of Marulla, created right next to Favelli’s work, satisfying the citizens involved in the dispute. Without delving further into the matter, this episode shows the risks to which public intervention is exposed (even participatory ones, as Miwon Kwon aptly recounts)[12]). Moreover, it is interesting to observe how art in public space, when it touches on elements dear to popular culture — the religious, political, sporting, etc. — can trigger strong reactions, which may even require political intervention to quell the conflict. If we look at the affair with some years’ hindsight, we see how readings of it cannot be limited to those months alone. The wall of discord has now become an element of the city’s identity: named the “wall of champions”, next to the two tributes to Marulla, it also hosts another mural, dedicated to the well-known local cyclist Pino Faraca, who passed away in 2017. Has the “Favelli-Marulla” issue thus been reopened to new considerations? In any case, it leads us to wonder how much the artist’s voice can affect public space, and on the other hand, what the risk is that certain projects which pander to the client will return art to a dimension of servility to a system. In Contini’s case, the work starts from the observation of a conflict and arrives at a symbolic resolution of it; in Favelli’s case, the celebratory subject expected by the citizenry is disregarded, creating a strong disturbance. It is also necessary to reflect on how far and in what way the popular will can become part of a work financed with community money and destined for public space, while it still maintains its own autonomy.


[1] P. Phillips, Public Constructions, in Mapping the Terrain. New Genre Public Art, edited by S. Lazy, Bay Press, 1995; D. Buren, A force de descendre dans la rue de l’art peut-il enfin y monter?, Sens & Tonka, 1998; C.K. Knight, Public Art. Theory, Practice and Populism, Blackwell Publishing, 2008; A. Trimarco, L’arte pubblica come figura dell’abitare, in L’arte fuori dal museo. Saggi e interviste, edited by E. Cristallini, Gangemi, 2008; L. Perelli, Arte che non sembra arte. Arte pubblica, pratiche artistiche nella vita quotidiana e progetto urbano, FrancoAngeli, 2017.

[2] L. Perelli, Public Art. Arte, interazione e progetto urbano, FrancoAngeli, 2006.

[3] E.R. Meschini, Comunità, spazio, monumento. Ricontestualizzazione delle pratiche artistiche nella sfera urbana, Mimesis, 2021.

[4] The Practice of Public Art, edited by C. Cartiere, S. Willis, Routledge, 2008.

[5] S. Mazzucotelli Salice, Arte pubblica. Artisti e spazio urbano in Italia e Stati Uniti, FrancoAngeli, 2015; A. Bruzzese, Arte e spazio pubblico. Una riflessione intorno ad un tentativo di “place making”: il caso Beyond project, in «Territorio», 2010, 53, FrancoAngeli, pp. 30-38.

During the two decades of Mussolini’s rule, the expression “Arte pubblica” concerned public commissioning with an explicit social and propaganda function, as well as the destination of works located in spaces open to all. S. Bignami, Lavoro che mi sta a cuore, perché va in piazza. Arte pubblica e concorsi a Milano negli anni trenta del Novecento, in L’arte pubblica nello spazio urbano. Committenti, artisti, fruitori, a cura di C. Birozzi, M. Pugliese, Mondadori, 2007, pp. 4-19.

[6] S. Lacy, cit.; R. Deutsche, Evictions. Art and Spatial Politics, The MIT Press, 1996.

[7] A. Pioselli, L’arte nello spazio urbano. L’esperienza italiana dal 1968 a oggi, Johan & Levi, 2015.

[8] M. Kwon, One Place After Another. Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, The MIT Press, 2002; M.G. Mancini, L’arte nello spazio pubblico: una prospettiva critica, Plectica, 2011; G. Scardi, Itinerari sensibili: l’arte incontra la società, in Paesaggio con figura. Arte, sfera pubblica e trasformazione sociale, edit by Id., Allemandi, 2011, pp. 17-41.

[9] C. Bishop, Viewers as Producers, in Participation, Whitechapel, The MIT Press, 2006, pp. 10-17.

[10] Founded by François Hers in France in 1992, the idea behind New Patrons (Nouveaux commanditaires) is to rethink the relationship between art and society, and its role in processes of democratic participation and the production of the common good; it gives rise to a form of “public art” that acts on the quality of urban spaces, their capacity to reflect meanings and values arising from the expressive needs of the communities of inhabitants, helping to facilitate civic initiative and experiences of federation and common action by these latter. Nuovi committenti. Arte contemporanea, società e spazio culturale, edit by a.titolo, Silvana Editoriale, 2008; Il luogo (non) comune. Arte, spazio pubblico ed estetica urbana in Europa, exhibition catalogue (Venice), edited by B. Pietromarchi, Fondazione Adriano Olivetti, Actar, 2005, pp. 8-91; F. Comisso, La retorica della domanda. Nuove forme di committenza artistica nella città, in Paesaggio con figura…, edit by G. Scardi, cit., pp. 108-116.

[11] Da H. Foster, The return of the Real. The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, The MIT Press, 1996.

[12] The citizens involved in the dispute had already intervened in Favelli’s work by writing the footballer’s name and surname on the ‘figurine’. For more on this, see the debate on the webpages of specialist magazines, local newspapers and blogs.