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Art in public space: a political tool to condition the masses

Examining the history of monarchs and authority across the world on their involvement with art works in public spaces to influence the desired narrative.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Jun 30, 2022

Art in public spaces undoubtedly adds a distinct flavour to any urban setting. My personal favourite is New York City’s iconic works that do not cease to engage me, even after several visits and photographs on my phone. The pop-art Love sculpture by Robert Indiana in the heart of Manhattan was created as a Christmas card design for the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. It was later commissioned for a large scale sculpture that became a popular photo-op.

Love, 1970, Sculpture, Robert Indiana | STIRworld
Love, 1970, Sculpture, Robert Indiana Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And not far away from it is the Bull of Wall Street, a bronze sculpture on Broadway in the Financial District of Manhattan in New York. It depicts a bull, the symbol of aggressive financial optimism and prosperity.

Bull of Wall Street, 1989, Sculpture, Arturo Di Modica | STIRworld
Bull of Wall Street, 1989, Sculpture, Arturo Di Modica Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But a work of art in public space, which is different from the true definition of public art, creates influence that is far reaching and deeper. They break boundaries of literacy, almost always engage people from varied socio-cultural backgrounds, and leave a lasting impression. Historically, the format of installing visual art has been used as a potent tool by authorities with vested interests. Symbolism through statues, especially of political figures, have been used as an essential element for communicating and reiterating messages, and eventually conditioning the masses. Closer home in India, the current administration commissioned a massive Sardar Patel’s Statue of Unity, inaugurated in 2018 with all the pomp and show.

Statue of Unity in Gujarat, Ram V Sutar | STIRworld
Statue of Unity in Gujarat, Ram V Sutar Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

More recently, to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Subhas Chandra Bose, the Prime Minister of India announced that a grand statue of Netaji will be installed at India Gate, New Delhi. He said in a tweet, “This would be a symbol of India’s indebtedness to him.” The canopy at India Gate was built as a tribute to King George V, the former Emperor of India, and it is noteworthy that in 1968, the statue of King George was removed. These initiatives are viewed as a move by the ruling party to counter and potentially replace the stature of erstwhile political leaders.

Prince of Wales (Edward the VII), sculpture in Mumbai, India | STIRworld
Prince of Wales (Edward the VII), sculpture in Mumbai, India Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Globally, royalty placed their statues, often atop horses, to denote power. Shivaji’s statue in downtown Mumbai was replaced by the statue of Prince of Wales (Edward the VII) on a black (kala) horse (ghoda), giving the name to the area it is known by today - Kala Ghoda.

Coronation Park in New Delhi, India  | STIRworld
Coronation Park in New Delhi, India Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Not many may know, but there is a park in New Delhi that commemorates the British rule.

Dilapidated effigies of erstwhile English monarchs can be found there now. The imperialists that reminiscence racism and violence are now covered in graffiti and pigeon droppings. This is just one of the innumerable examples where it was sought to cast a legacy in stone. But the state of the Coronation Park, a graveyard of statues, reveals India’s current emotion to its imperial past.

The question emerges, ‘What should be done with monuments and statues that are a representation and reminders of oppressive political ideals?’ Several of these were globally vandalised during the Black Lives Matter movement, and there are innumerable examples in the history of erasures of such icons that embodied painful history.

Queen Elizabeth's portraits projected onto Stonehenge for Platinum Jubilee Image: Courtesy of englishheritage on Instagram

On a related but slightly different note, recently, I came across Queen Elizabeth’s portraits projected on the pre-historic Stonehenge. This was part of the lead up to the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, marking 70 years of her reign. It befittingly used the 5000-year-old, man or alien made, enigmatic archaeological English Heritage. The temporary installation, however, attracted criticism from various quarters, both for its aesthetics and ideology. Social media poked fun, calling it tacky, weird, and inappropriate, making it a ‘billboard of the monarchy’. It was questioned for the use of the site for the purpose, especially when some consider it sacred and holding religious significance, a place for ancient pagan celebrations, a place for tranquillity.

One wonders if there should be certain spaces to remain beyond such propaganda? Structures that have deep significance in the history, objects in public sphere that hold a special attachment be spared with anything frivolous? There are no right answers to this one. The one thing however that is reinforced is that visual art placed for public gaze continues to remain a highly potent tool in the hands of humanity.

What do you think?

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