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Art And Public life: A Conversation
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Art And Public life:
A Conversation

In the fall term of 2014, Theaster Gates and I organized a seminar and symposium on the topic of “Art and Public Life” at the University of Chicago. Sponsored by the generosity of the University’s Neubauer Collegium, the seminar aimed at a very broad consideration of the relation of the arts to the public sphere, including questions of political activism, the history of the public and the commons, the role of technology in transforming art and social experience, and the relation of art and culture to contemporary capitalism.1

The seminar began, appropriately enough, with a public event, a kind of “anarchist symposium” of artists, scholars, curators, critics, and political activists. This was very much a Chicago event, which means that it was focused on local conditions, including the neighborhood of the University itself, while at the same time enlisting experts and participants who have global experience with forms of art and public life, from Europe to Africa to Asia and points between. At the center of the symposium was the hybrid program, headed by Theaster Gates, known as “Art and Public Life,” which is both a program of the University of Chicago and a movement for the enlistment of the arts in the renewal of the neighborhood surrounding the University. Knotty issues such as the tension between community redevelopment and gentrification are essential topics of controversy in these kinds of movements. This program has, therefore, become a model for similar projects across the U.S. in places like Detroit, Cleveland, and elsewhere. It includes everything from an “Arts Incubator,” which offers spaces for performance, exhibitions, and studios for training in the skills of the visual arts, to a Black Cinema House, to a cultural center in an abandoned bank building. Gates’s “Blackstone Houses” have achieved international recognition in such venues as documenta 13, and his works have been exhibited internationally in galleries and museums. [End Page 51]

This symposium was then followed by a ten-week seminar co-taught by Theaster Gates and myself. We took up “classical” formulations of the question of the public sphere by Jürgen Habermas and John Dewey; analyses of the public in relation to concepts such as privacy and secrecy; spatial, sensuous, and bodily manifestations of the public in phenomena such as crowds and communities, architecture and urban space, spectacle and surveillance. Topics such as the relation of publics to democracy, the state, and the law were explored, alongside questions of social media and new forms of intimate, partial, and affective publics. At the same time, we maintained a consistent emphasis on practical forms of public art, especially in the rich repertoire of Chicago’s public sculptures and parks. We reflected on what Dewey warned about the “eclipse of the public” alongside Habermas’s mourning of the decline of “culture debating publics” in favor of “culture consuming” publics, and we explored hybrid public/private entities such as coffee-houses, secret societies, and what Theaster Gates has called “spaces for hanging out.”2 For our final class, Theaster and I engaged in a recorded conversation to sum things up. The following is a transcript of that conversation.3

—W.J.T. Mitchell
MITCHELL:

We have been talking for the last couple of sessions about the difference between the public and the commons, and I have been suggesting (in accordance with Antonio Negri’s reflections on this topic) that the public is a kind of phantom, an ephemeral phenomenon, subject to appearance and disappearance.4 Habermas sees it as a historically endangered and perhaps obsolete formation; Dewey thinks of it as fragile phenomenon that is in constant danger of being “eclipsed.” And anyone who studies “public opinion” knows what a volatile and poorly defined notion it is. For Hannah Arendt, the public requires at its foundation an informal and transitory entity that she calls the “space of appearance.” This space

comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action, and therefore pre-dates and precedes all formal constitution of the public realm, unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, it...