Public Art as a 'Collective Heartbeat'


The memory of my first encounter with Chicago’s famous “bean” sculpture is a little bit fuzzy but the experience definitely made an impression. I recall having a certain amount of skepticism with regard to the amount of attention it had been getting—I suppose I was defaulting to “critical artist” mode, not easily impressed simply because it was new and popular. However, I wasn’t prepared to find myself immediately captivated by, among other things, the odd shape and sheer size of the thing. Anish Kapoor’s "Cloud Gate," as the "bean" is officially titled, turned out to be much more engaging and interactive than I expected; I walked right up to touch it, giggling like a little kid as I looked at my warped reflection from a variety of angles. And yet it wasn’t just my own reaction that had me smiling; the similarly amused responses of the people around me was infectious.

My experience with the “bean” was vastly different than seeing the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial for the first time. In that particular case, I couldn’t help but be awed by the historical significance of the space as I gazed at the likeness of the sixteenthpresident and tried to comprehend the fact that he was at one time a living, breathing man. (We do share a birthday, after all, though there is well over a century between us.)

The Lincoln Memorial is, I would hazard to guess, more highly valued by the average person than "Cloud Gate." Regardless, these two examples of public art have more than a few important things in common.

When public art is in our midst it is there for everyone; all of us, whether we appreciate the works or not, have some ownership in them. The same holds true for public roads, public libraries, etc., although art does not necessarily profess to have the same kind of functional use.

I’m certain this is why, at least in part, art is often perceived as dispensable window-dressing. I never cease to be amazed then, when against practical considerations--and regardless of what the works communicate or how they cause us to respond--art becomes a focal point for creating greater connectivity.

That a sculpture can teach us a thing or two about the importance of history or instill pride in us for our shared spaces is not something we should take for granted. Public art may not wield the same immediate power as a legislative body but it can make persuasive statements about the value we place on supporting the local economy or emphasize that despite our differences, we are the kind of community that supports its own, especially during difficult times.

If we think of wayfinding as a kind of skeletal structure—a system that orients us as we navigate the spaces we inhabit--then public art serves as our collective heartbeat, capturing the essence of our identity through visual expression.

When we think about our own landmarks in the Goshen/Elkhart area, what do they say about us? Where are the gaps in the stories we convey about ourselves? And how can we fully appreciate the significant role these works play in keeping us grounded?