Fred Evans, Public Art and the Fragility of Democracy. An Essay in Political Aesthetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018; 342 pages. ISBN: 978-0231187589.

Reviewed by Jérôme Melançon, University of Regina.

The relationship between public art and democracy―and public life, more generally understood―has recently been at the centre of demands for the removal of statues of the representatives of imperialism, colonialism, and slavery. Fred Evans, in Public Art and the Fragility of Democracy, begins with such long-standing demands, following the example of the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from New Orleans in 2017. He contrasts this statue with a monument in Baldwin Park, California by Judith Baca, Danzas Indigena

In this focus on Danzas Indigena, we have the crux of his book: a search for examples of public works of art that offer a sense of democracy. The intention behind the book is made clear at several junctures in the argument. Evans searched for and established a criterion that would make it possible to form a judgement as to whether public art is an act of citizenship and furthers democracy. He exposes this criterion deliberately, slowly, and patiently, both in the introductory and concluding chapters as well as throughout the book, so that a single quotation does not do justice to this work, but it only gives an idea of its general direction: “for public art to qualify as an act of citizenship it must both maintain its status as an aesthetic object and relate to democracy in a supportive, critical, or innovative manner.” (23)

Despite its centrality to the subject matter, the understanding of democracy offered in this book is purposely thin: it is the affair of previous works (especially in The Multivoiced Body). Evans relies on a theory of political discourse where vocal forces are understood in relation to voice and place. Voice is something we become, move out of and into other voices, at times share with others, and which we receive from institutions. Voice is also embodied, but there is little attention given in this particular book to bodies or on social movements. Instead, there is a focus on the looming and threatening figure of oracles and dogma, which solidify voices instead of allowing them to be dynamic and changing. Spectacle and capital (or the autocracy that is tied to the privatization of public space) are but two examples of oracles discussed throughout the book.

Democracy is also understood here with constant reliance upon Claude Lefort’s notion of the empty place of democracy―that democracy can never be represented, or embodied, by one figure, but only in the here and now; that it can never be appropriated. However Evans’ account of Lefort’s position is barely developed and serves as a talisman more than as a foundation. As a result, we lose the impact and implications of Lefort’s position (and we lose his wider theory of democracy as well). Instead, Evans identifies the empty space with Congressman John Nicholas’s project of a plain tablet that was meant to show the unexplored possibilities of the new political regime in the first few years of the United States. This identification is repeated throughout the book and, as a basis for analogical judgment, threatens to overtake the carefully developed criterion.

Such a quick treatment of Lefort is surprising given the long chapters and sections devoted to Rawls and Derrida (Chapter 3), Badiou (who also gets an annex) and Rancière (Chapter 5), and Agamben (Chapter 7). And here, although his readings and explanations are quite clear, Evans seems to get lost in the minutiae of a very apt reading of the texts, taking a very long time to explain the basic political ideas in order to either respond to them or build on them. The most interesting moment of these readings is probably the dialogue he creates between Rancière and Agamben, where the excesses of the latter are brought into a more concrete space thanks to the positions of the former. Each chapter offers a series of concepts and tendencies within political theory and contemporary art, which might have been useful for reflection. Yet these readings end up being relatively self-contained and distanced from the book’s main thrust and argument, because Evans draws so lightly from the conclusions of these readings, and because so little space is given to applying their political ideas to aesthetics. 

Where the book gains its momentum and its momentous character is in the chapters and sections which focus on sites dedicated to public art. In these sections, Evans draws on artists’ statements and publications as well as academic work dealing with memorials and monuments in a more fruitful and immediately relevant manner, notably in relation to Deutsche (27-31) or to Pickford (186-188). 

As a major topic of the book, Millennium Park in Chicago offers examples of both democracy and anti-democratic oracles. Here Evans contrasts the differing views of democracy espoused by politicians, corporate donors, and artists, with his criterion, while also drawing on each of these views to highlight the idea of a unity composed from difference, an “interactive, distributed unity” (162) and a dialogue between architecture, sculpture, trees, skyscrapers and lakes where the park itself comes to appear as a multivoiced body, as made of discourses. Where so many voices are brought together, the most important question for Evans is whether a work or a group of works of public art can contest its own worst tendencies and affirm democracy more than anti-democratic values. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, which is one of many artworks in the park, stands as an example of an artwork that is meant to affect a person’s view of herself as connected to those around her, and place herself as only one among many in a shared space.

Lending itself to a different reading, the 9/11 memorial in New York City stands as a strong counterexample associated with death and mourning rather than with life, and directing energies and voices through the oracles of spectacle, capital, and American exceptionalism, rather than allowing voices to proliferate. Evans turns to Krzysztof Wodiczko’s proposed City of Refuge, which, as a 9/11 memorial, was meant to be interactive and would have not only required an active presence, learning, and dialogue, but also a constant curating of the information presented to visitors (and here Lefort’s theorizing of conflict would have been a useful addition). 

Evans’ preference seems to go to larger installations or sites where works cohabit rather than to single works―even the 9/11 memorial is approached in relation to the skyscrapers on and around the site, the museum and its materials, and the place and role of the site within the neighbourhood as a whole. Such a preference is motivated by the interaction and takes into consideration the difficulties of approaching a work of art outside of its context (and lack of interest of such an approach)―which is even stronger when it comes to public and publically commissioned art.

Likewise, the second chapter focuses on Wodiczko’s Homeless Projection proposed project for Union Square in New York City, which was not selected for that site. Oddly enough, Wodiczko’s unrealized proposals are approached in a way that loses their character of proposal, where the experiences that might have become possible are taken as exemplars, whereas the realized and displayed artworks are judged in great part through the experiences that have taken place and been discussed, even though they differed from what had been intended. In terms of focusing on the idea of an “empty place,” taking Wodiczko’s unselected and unrealized projects as central elements of a larger arguments would indeed have been tempting. I wonder if this choice might not have to do with a preference for theory, for the unaccomplished and so the still possible (the absent, one might say), as opposed to the accomplished works that are limited by its physical presence. Such a preference is indeed defensible in a context where, as Evans notes and explains clearly, it is the interests of capital and of established politicians that often drives the selection process for public art. As a result, if we are to find public art that can truly foster democracy, we might have no other choice but to turn toward actually existing public artworks that are flawed or limited in what they can accomplish, given the compromises that are often necessary for work to be displayed in public, or to non-existing, projected or theoretical public artworks. Yet a methodology that draws on utopian forms of thought might have been useful to develop this approach through proposed works of art.

And while Evans’ engagement with the aesthetics and architecture fields as well as with artists’ visions is the most successful and promising aspect of the book, his approach already dates his work. It seems incongruous now to read such an attempt at establishing a basis for political and aesthetic judgement without an engagement deeper than what is presented here with the movements that communicate their own reasons for taking down statues and other works of arts―or without spending much time on the affective dimension of the relationship to public art of various groups who strongly feel attached or opposed to specific monuments. And while the notion of voice remains important, it is bodies that have sent messages by spray-painting and taking down monuments, messages that had little to do with the artworks themselves or their possibilities.

Nonetheless, the more solid sections of Evans’ book make it a relevant and original contribution to debates around public art and a helpful tool in thinking through the redefinition of public space now that social movements have allowed so many people to include themselves in the decision-making processes around the space they inhabit. Evans’ application of his criterion also pays attention to what artworks do to us and lead us to do, to how they lead us to relate to one another and represent ourselves among others. Its concern for the balance (one might say, dialectic) between politics and aesthetics also offers much to those who want to add to their reflection regarding their own creations, to their decisions regarding what works are to be maintained in public spaces, and to their judgment toward those monuments and artworks which inhabit their daily lives.