Modernism as Public Art: Reawakening the Social Agency of Abstract Public Sculpture, 1950–1980
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This dissertation presents a critical reassessment of postwar modern public sculpture and offers a framework for both the reevaluation and reawakening of these significant, inherited public images. Between 1950 and 1980, as a result of new national policies, the United Kingdom and the United States experienced a boom in public sculpture. That phenomenon was augmented by architectural modernism, whose stark buildings called for the addition of sculpture. The growing prestige of abstract art made it a popular choice for architects and commissioners, who sought to leverage the cachet of contemporary artists. For both private sector architects and public sector patrons, the focus was on the art rather than on the public’s needs, an “art for art’s sake” emphasis. The ubiquity of these commissions, their lack of integration with their communities, and their often-indecipherable abstract form, earned them the derogatory names “plop art,” “plunk art,” and “parachute art.” The dissertation presents four case studies, each with two matched modern public sculptures from the United Kingdom and/or the United States. I evaluate each pair by contrasting the intentions of the artist and commissioner with the current status of the artwork and its site. Using the methodological lenses of phenomenology, cultural anthropology, cultural geography, and sociology, the study explores the ways in which public sculpture is experienced and how social agency, a sculpture’s ability to resonate with viewers, goes dormant as it loses its perceived aesthetic and social relevance. I introduce the use of the term dormant into the discourse to argue that the social agency of a public sculpture can be understood along a spectrum between vibrant and dormant in relation to the level of human interest in, and attention to, the artwork. This study’s primary finding is that human relationships with an artwork are what sustain that artwork’s vibrancy. In order for new audience-artwork relationships to form, barriers to those relationships, both seen and unseen, must be uncovered and overcome. The study creates a path that leads from viewing postwar modern sculptures as inert, inherited symbols in the public realm, to seeing them as objects to reawaken and to treasure using a framework for reawakening dormant public sculpture. The framework includes evaluating the sculpture’s social agency, performing historical research on artist and commissioner intentions, identifying the impediments that are blocking the sculpture’s resonance with audiences, and finally, producing programming to nurture and maintain audience relationships.
Chair and Committee
Nathaniel B. Jones, Eric Mumford, Harriet F. Sennie, Ila Sheren,
Porter, Tola, "Modernism as Public Art: Reawakening the Social Agency of Abstract Public Sculpture, 1950–1980" (2022). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2807.
Available for download on Saturday, November 16, 2024