What future for public art?

Patrick Moreau is professor of literature in Montreal, editor-in-chief of the review Argument and essayist. He notably published These words that think for us (Liber, 2017) and contributed to the collective work edited by R. Antonius and N. Baillargeon, Identity, “race”, freedom of expression, which has just been published in PUL.

We recently learned that the winning project of the competition organized by the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA) to “find alternatives to the simple return of the statue of Macdonald” consisted of erecting an orange swing on the Place du Canada, in order to ‘“To talk about the thousands of children who died in residential schools”. A swing in front of an empty plinth, that seems to me to be very symbolic of the problematic future of public art in our societies, even of its impossibility.

From the very first beginnings of civilization, art, and particularly monumental art, was the way that men of the past found to assert both the greatness and the sustainability of their culture, to include it in time and thus, metaphorically, conquer death.

The rock paintings of Lascaux, the Parthenon and its sculptures or even the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, the bronze statues of historical figures made in the 19th and 20th centuries which still dot our squares and our streets, just as the Amerindian totem poles had this function. proudly affirmative and memorial.

The question of sustainability

But since then, our relationship to time has changed a lot. Prisoners of presentism, our societies only project themselves into the near future and erect works and monuments with no tomorrow. The very materials used to create these buildings or these works are indicative of this refusal to take into consideration the question of their durability. The glass pyramid which partly occupies the courtyard of the Louvre in Paris provides a fine example. When the Great Pyramid is still clearly visible, in the suburbs of Cairo, 4,500 years after its construction, this glass building inspired by the monuments of ancient Egypt, but while weightless and transparent, is not made for last more than a few decades. We are building today already thinking that our buildings, even the most prestigious, will have to be delivered shortly to the peaks of the demolishers. It is in this spirit that we build them. That we destroy them.

Planned obsolescence

No wonder, then, in these words of Yimi Poba-Nzaou, coordinator of public collaborations of the CCA: “We have a very fixed way, she declares, of commemorating each other. [sic] history, with these monuments that do not change, that do not adapt according to the different ways of seeing. This simple sentence immediately condemns, like a vulgar product which is no longer in fashion, any work of public art with programmed obsolescence. On that account, it would be preferable to give up all public art or to erect our monuments in papier-mâché!

These monuments that we persist, by imitation, in erecting are not made either to testify to the greatness of a civilization in which we no longer believe, which no longer enjoys unanimity. How, under these circumstances, can we still build public monuments to the glory of a culture so uncertain of itself?

Already in 1993, the opening page of the essay by Robert Hughes Culture of complaint was adorned with a newspaper cartoon representing an empty statue plinth in the gardens of a university, on which it was written: ” Honoring nothing, Insulting no one ».

Apart from the sporting exploits, of which the heroes are the last to be statufied (in a style which most of the time is more reminiscent of Soviet statues of Stakhanovists than of Michelangelo), we only have victims to celebrate. .

These victims, however, have no faces; they have not retained a truly individual identity. We cannot therefore statuize them. And then, if ever we dared to represent them, their effigies would inevitably be held in ten years, in twenty years, or in two, for the odious staging of negative stereotypes and racist clichés. Better therefore to abstain. This human person whose representation made the heyday of Greek art, then of Western art when it was rediscovered by Renaissance artists, we no longer know how to paint or sculpt it, except in the form of of caricatures. Are we so sure that this is progress?

That matters little, moreover, because it is less these victims that we wish to honor in the bottom, than ourselves through them, our remorse a little, but especially our conviction to be good, the feeling of infinity. moral superiority which animates us and allows us to hate our predecessors, to debunk and behead their statues. We therefore need monuments which reflect less the grandeur of a hated civilization than the candor of our souls.

What could be better than child’s play to symbolize this denial of a demonized past and this naive commitment to a kindness, a kindness, a compassion that cost little and do not lead, beyond flaunt those good feelings, on no real questioning? This childish aspect says a lot about the abstention that defines us. A swing, of course, doesn’t offend anyone, but it doesn’t say much either. It oscillates, in a pendulum motion that the child in us would like to believe is infinite.

While we no longer have, as a society, any project for the future, no real collective progress in sight, infantilism and insignificance are the balms that suit our jaded minds to make them still believe that they are touching something. finger their brightly colored childhood dreams.

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