Public art in the United States has a long and complicated history through which nationalism and public monuments have often been intertwined. The most prominent public art forms have been statues and murals. Murals, as the more accessible medium, have served both hegemonic and subversive goals. Religious symbols and figures appear alongside fallen war heroes and slain street gang members alike. In considering public, artistic manifestations of religion in America, the terms, “public” and “art” must be carefully defined. As Sally M. Promey has noted, “To discuss publics is thus to deal with entities both kinetic and partial . . . The public display of religion is thus fundamentally interactive, the full range of interpretive responses inherently unpredictable” (David Morgan and Sally M. Promey, eds. The Visual Culture of American Religions [Berkeley: University of California, 2001], p. 32). For the sake of establishing some parameters, this examination considers public to be grounded in issues of accessibility. Public art is that which multiple audiences can see and experience in a public space; it also implies a very specific notion of community or belonging. This definition of public through accessibility implies democratization. “Public art” has shifting meanings and associations that contrast with those for “private art.”
Who engages with the artwork trumps why they engage it. The art is public because these terms can mean many different things to different people. Even the concepts of public versus publics and private versus public engage debates regarding the artist’s intentionality and the audiences’ agency to interpret what they will. In his introduction to Dialogues in Public Art (1992), Tom Finklepearl writes, the word “public” is associated with the lower classes (public school, public transportation, public housing, public park, public assistance, public defender) as opposed to the word “private.” Which is associated with privilege (private school, private car, private home, private country club, private fortune, private attorney). (Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art [Cambridge: MIT, 2000], x).
Adding religion to these equations complicates these dynamics based on the religious, cultural, personal, or political needs of the audience, and the secularization of public space, among other things, has transformed religion’s role in modern society. Religion’s presence in the public sphere may serve different purposes and may be more or less effective, but it still exists, albeit in less traditional forms. Public theology activates these images by giving traditional and historical religious symbols meaning relevant to their specific contemporary viewers. Public religious art, like public theology, engages broader social, political, and cultural concerns that are not always connected to one particular religion. Often these concerns are specific to the location of the public art object and its audience.