Public Art and Public Image in the World of the Spectacle
Monday, 15 April 2024 15:26

Public Art and Public Image in the World of the Spectacle

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Templeton looks at the urban murals in Cincinnati, and argues that as the community of labour and co-operation has been destroyed by capitalism, so has the possibility for a meaningful and vital public art.

Public art projects in the form of murals have become ubiquitous around the world. Follow the hashtags on Instagram (murals, public art, street art, street art everywhere, etc.), and you will never run out of things to look at. This type of public art has been around for millenia in some form or another, but the success of people like Banksy and Shepherd Fairy have made this type of quasi-graffiti art fashionable and palatable to civic leaders who want to put a good face on the façade of the city.

I live in Cincinnati and the phenomenon of urban murals is all around us here. There is something missing from these public art displays. There is a quality to these works of public art which leaves them facile and disconnected. This lack or disconnect is part of a much larger set of issues which reaches into every aspect of contemporary life. What is at the heart of the problem with contemporary public art is bound up in what Guy Debord called 'the society of the spectacle'. This is the form of contemporary culture which is completely over-run and wholly determined by consumer culture. The murals we see around the world, and in my little city, are really nothing more than vapid images in the same ways that everything else in the spectacle are nothing but vapid images. The society of the spectacle has drained the civic arena of its substance and the forms of connection which make public art significant are no longer viable. Contemporary culture is a culture of isolation, and there is no art in our public art.


The murals which once stood in Union Terminal were designed to depict the cultural history of Cincinnati and the United States. They show scenes of labor and industry which were integral to the founding and building of Cincinnati and the region more generally. These are a large scale works of public art which are embedded in the history and spirit of Cincinnati. The actual history of the city and the public imagination found a direct point of connection with the subjects of each mural and the ideals of progress in which these images are woven. These murals are examples of public art which reflect the consciousness of a time and place. The grand narrative of progress so characteristic of the time – of modernity itself – is clearly shown in these murals. And people found a clear point of identification in this type of public art.

That the grand narrative of progress is now contested and criticized is beside the point. What matters is that when these murals were created and shown to the public in a central public space, they were conceived and created with an ideal of civic engagement which is no longer evident today. We can forever debate the particulars of the age in which these murals were created and the age to which they spoke. The fact remains that there was an idea of public engagement with the creation and placement of public art that is founded on the assumption that public art is to speak directly to those ideals which are central to the collective identity of the public.

Union Terminal was arguably one of the most public of public spaces. It was the main hub for train travel in and out of Cincinnati. There are countless photographs of men boarding trains to go off to fight World War II and just as many photographs of men returning home after victory. Union Terminal was a public space in which the entire city converged. It was a central staging area whereby Cincinnati engaged the world and the world engaged Cincinnati.

With the installation of those murals depicting the labor and industry of the region, a public art went on view which directly reflected the values, ideals, and points of pride of this region of the country. The murals were public art because they offered an imaginative point of identification with and for the public. They articulated the ideals of the people in the forms of labor which gave individuals life and gave life to the city.

These murals worked as public art because there was a public which in many ways cohered as a civic body. All of the age-old problems of American life were present; racism, sexism, the scourges of urban life, all of these were obviously present and nothing I have said should be mistaken for a naïve attempt to create a ‘golden age’ in history. The point is that public consciousness was oriented toward a civic identity, one which included the labor of ordinary people and the fact that there was a sense of connection between individuals. They may have hated each other in their hearts, but they knew that survival depended on a community of labour and cooperation. This sense of connectedness has dwindled and with it, the possibility of public art has disappeared.


Those murals have been moved from Union Terminal which is now the site of the Museum Center. For some reason, the authorities behind the Museum Center saw no place for the murals which were once an integral feature of the building itself. The murals are now displayed behind windows. They are in a building far from the main areas of commerce and life, placed behind windows enjoying the irrelevance of a forgotten time and way of life. The cultural conditions which gave us those murals have eroded completely giving way to what Guy Debord described as the society of the spectacle – that cultural formation in which consumer capital defines every aspect of life including reality itself.

We now see a resurgence in public art, particularly murals in public space. These artworks are springing up all over the city. These new murals range from abstract imagery to depictions of notable and famous citizens. We can look up at sports figures, strongmen, a cute baby hippo, and a few squirrels. Huge images of abstract line and color cover the sides of buildings. There is now a huge public event to celebrate the new forms of public art. Blink is an enormous spectacle of murals, neon, and computer-generated images which fills the urban area with spectacular sights and lights. It is a public orgy of public image. Yet the murals which adorn they city are nothing like the murals which once hung in Union Terminal.

These new examples of public art stare down from all over the city with little purpose or meaning. These images do not speak to any real history of the city. Nor do they reflect anything that is currently happening in the city. Even as I write this there is a young man across the street, standing in front of one of these murals taking a video of himself. The mural is a collage of toys and it makes a fine backdrop for a selfie. The mural is meant to commemorate Kenner Toys which designed these toys in Cincinnati. That we need a plaque to explain this demonstrates how much of a stretch it is for people to see the significance of the mural.

The function of this kind of public art is actually something like selfie material or Instagram fodder. The images are without substance. They are largely disconnected from any meaningful feature of contemporary urban life precisely because contemporary urban life is disconnected. It is a culture of isolation. The isolated mural is yet another feature of a culture of pure image. The architecture of the city itself is being transformed to adhere to the logic of pure image. Amid all of the construction and so called restoration, what emerges is an urban landscape that is primarily a pre-fab façade that resembles the historic theme but has nothing to do with the cultural history of the city.

As the urban core is redeveloped and goes through what so many consider a renaissance, the reality of urban transformation is anything but a ‘re-birth.’ Where the city grew in an organic fashion according to the economic needs of the various populations, the remains of those urban environments, having fallen into decay, are bought up in large portions by consortiums of economic development. These developers seek to transform the urban environment into something accessible to the consumer demands of the 21st century.

We live in the age of consumer capital. The urban core is not driven by the industrial (or even pre-industrial) demands of the Nineteenth Century. The demands of consumer capital will necessarily lead to an urban landscape created entirely out of and for consumer demands and consumer drives. For example, as the suburban landscape was utterly ravaged in order to make way for the strip mall, the massive shopping mall, and the subdivision, so urbanism must accommodate the same consumer demands of easy access and endless access to commodities. Urbanism may well unfold on the city ground, but its new iteration is distinctly consumerist in every way. Nothing can remain of the old urban landscape that is not easily and immediately made functional to consumer capitalist modes of life. The underlying structure may remain, but the overall features need to be re-articulated.

Though the skeleton of historic neighborhoods may remain intact, the construction of a new urban environment is made out of whole cloth across the remains of these Nineteenth century structures. Over the skeleton of old structures, the economic powers have stretched the pre-fab skin of consumer destinations made to conform to a nostalgic ideal of the old areas of the city. It is not reconstruction or renaissance; it is total obliteration and re-invention in the same way that theme parks create an idealized and completely artificial experience which does not really simulate the real, but rather, creates an ideal experience that conforms to childish expectations derived from a real that no one actually knew. The entire project is a nostalgic creation in the present of a history that never existed.

None of the so-called re-birth of the urban core is in fact a re-birth. What we are witnessing are the results of a central economic force working to create a pseudo-urban environment. What we see is an

authoritarian process that abstractly develops any environment into an environment of abstractions. The same architecture appears everywhere just as soon as industrialization begins (Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 122-123).

Just as suburban sprawl unfolded across the landscape after World War II, the re-birth of the urban core follows in like manner. New construction, commodified and homogenized, overtakes the city leaving us with an abstraction of the city. Not so much an historic neighborhood, but a neighbourhood with an historic theme. With this comes individual disengagement from the landscape and from each other, even as the performance of urban sophistication is transformed into yet another accessible commodity. Isolation underpins all of this.

One of the primary drives of the reformation of the urban environment as it is articulated according to the society of the spectacle is the need for absolute isolation. Even as people flock to the new urban areas, the sense of isolation keeps pace as the environments are engineered to sustain isolated individuals. Debord explains that isolation is the primary means of control and it is the ‘essential reality’ of the new urbanism. The integration into the system must recapture isolated individuals as individuals ‘isolated together’. We see this everywhere as old industrial buildings are re-developed into condos.

The illusion of private ownership, even if it is under the aegis of a central proprietary authority, furthers the project of isolated individuals with their personal stake of land all over the urban landscape. The re-population of the city conforms to this logic perfectly. We are left with individuals utterly isolated even under the same roof, who lay claim to a community that does not exist, and participating in collective actions only on their own idealized terms. Every inch of the urban landscape is privately owned in a long and convoluted chain of private economic interests and processes. The sign of mastery over one’s domain is the private claim to a square of pavement in which to park the car.

Amid this reformulation of the urban environment in the manner of a spectacular urbanism, private entities, through a mix of private and public money, and with the participation of designated groups, have set about making a new public art. Large murals decorate city walls. Art projects purported to represent a contemporary civic engagement have begun to proliferate.

The urbanist tendencies Debord mentions are manifested in these neo-artistic designs meant to reprise historical images within the newly reconstructed urban spaces. Both the historical artistic styles and the historical figures depicted in these projects do little more than decorate reconstructed urban areas which themselves are facades built over the ruins of what remained of the lost city architecture and landscape. As the prefab store-fronts are affixed to the structural remains, the walls and surrounding spaces are decorated with murals the intent of which is to celebrate the civic ideal.

As an example, the mural below is painted on the wall of a local coffee company. We should examine it carefully:


What strikes us first is the signature grotesque style of Ralph Steadman. His scattered paint and exaggerated facial expressions which are so characteristic of his style, a style I associate with the Gonzo journalism and anti-establishment writings of Hunter S. Thompson. Scrawled through the mural is the word “Democracy.” It is as if the scattered face is screaming with a demand – a demand so emphatic and potentially desperate that it literally explodes in splashes of paint and color across the entirety of the wall. It has the appearance of the immediacy of the counter-culture from which it originates.

Paint splatters spread out across the wall in all directions. Near the centre, a mouth open to show jagged teeth. The mural is rendered in bright colors which give the image a childlike quality. The paint resembles a child’s finger painting; it swirls in messy patterns underneath the open mouth. The word splashes across the mural as the open mouth forms the “O” in “Democracy,” and it angles downward in steps such that “cracy” can be mistaken for “crazy.”

The image is ostensibly a crazed counter-cultural icon of 60s rebellion. That late 1960s revolutionary imagery linked to the youth movements, some of which were in fact violent. Thus the pain and struggle in the mouth and the splash of near-chaos in the paint.

Yet, this mural has nothing to do with revolutionary ideals or counter-cultural movements. It is a city-approved project, part of a larger city-wide programme that paints murals on the sides of buildings. It appropriates the imagery of a bygone spirit and renders it in a palatable form overlooking a pay parking lot. Every feature of this “public art” is planned and approved by a series of civil and business mechanisms to ensure that it conforms to approved content and style. It is a decoration, an ornament.

Its purpose is as a temporary diversion, something for passers-by to momentarily admire and quickly ignore. It is documented by Instagrammers whose images are further removed from anything even remotely counter-cultural and which further neutralize its content via the endless reproduction of the image on the internet. It is indistinguishable from a billboard. Once it is conscripted into the internet engine of electronic reproduction, it is no more substantial than any other fleeting and meaningless image—a news byte, an anonymous face, a celebrity, a random selfie, etc.

There is no art in this art, because this type of public spectacle marks the total absence of art. It marks the void where art once existed and functioned. These images and displays communicate nothing because they are consciously designed to be devoid of content. Even something of an avant-garde which purported to draw attention to the impossibility of art is lacking in these public displays. These types of spectacles are a feature of a society utterly devoid of substance and is entirely subsumed by consumer culture in which images are consumed in the same way as cheeseburgers and super-hero movies. Art cannot communicate in a world in which things are no longer communicable. The image is consumable and consumed or it is unknowable.

We see in this mural an example of the non-art of the society of the spectacle. Made of odd pieces of spent artistic forms and styles, the image is generated out of the same mechanisms of consumer culture which isolate individuals and disengage them from a possibility of community, even as these arts organizations’ stated mission is to reflect the “spirit of a community.” They are corporate images designed to give ornament to a community that no longer exists. As these projects of so-called public art engage in the business of pseudo-culture, they are already caught in the networks of consumerism which negate their stated ideals.

(B)eyond the unadorned claim that the dissolution of the communicable has a beauty all its own, one that encounters the most modern tendency of spectacular culture—and the one most closely bound up with the repressive practice of general social organization—seeking by means of a “global approach” to reconstruct a complex neo-artistic environment out of flotsam and jetsam; a good example of this is urbanism’s striving to incorporate old scraps of art or hybrid aesthetic-technological forms. (The Society of the Spectacle. 137. T.192)

We see in the example above a near schematic rendering of Debord’s assessment of the non-art of the society of the spectacle. The pastiche of style and content, the forms and messages of a long-gone historical period, the re-appropriation of a specific artistic style within the palatable modes of consumer culture – everything is rendered in the mural pictured above.

A key feature of the loss of art within the spectacle are these pseudo-artistic displays and art objects which communicate nothing, or at least nothing but vapid and temporary “feelgood” ideas. This is accomplished through the tendency of these urban projects to throw together fragments of spent artistic forms and maudlin displays which stand in for the absence of art, that is, pure spectacular image in the place of the vacuum left by the negation of art as a unifying cultural mechanism.  

In the course of the modern period, art functioned at least in part as a unifying feature of cultural investment. Art functioned as the mythic site in a society cut off from a mythic identity. As the spectacle has come to supersede this role of art, the basis for art in the most general sense is gone. There is no cultural ground on which to express life in a way that constitutes art. In its place are the spectacular forms of consumerist images devoid of substance in the same way that fast food is devoid of nutrition. We are left with mash-ups of junk images which stand in for a void where we once looked for art.

Those public displays which are alleged to depict historical figures are without any discernible reference. The Cincinnati Strong Man painted onto the side of a restaurant explains who he was and offers a few items of trivia, but it stands as little more than a gaudy decoration which over-looks a parking lot. The primary feature, possibly the only feature, is the parking lot itself. In a manner much like Baudrillard’s claim that the geographical emblem of the simulacrum is not Disneyland, but the parking lot surrounding Disneyland, this mural is the ancillary feature beside the white lines painted on the blacktop to mark off parking spaces. The white lines which designate spaces of isolation are the real artistic form of the cultural life of the contemporary city.


These examples of urban “arts” are really the cheap wallpaper over the isolated and isolating tendencies of life in the contemporary urban spectacle. They overlook the parking lots and parkways and represent nothing at all. Devoid of any meaning or relevance, they give the isolated individual a false sense of belonging, a false point of identification with an illusory sense of community – the community itself little more than a catch-phrase for the developers who sell the properties and fractalize them as individual dwelling spaces.

New urban space and life finds its points of identification with the same cultural glitter as the suburban consumer spectacle. As the suburban landscape is formed out of the destruction of forests and farms, the housing developments are named after those lost aspects of the landscape.

Thus we get long swathes of identical prefab houses clustered together as pseudo-communities with names like Sycamore Woods and Indian Trace, even as the woods are long gone and the remnants of any native people exist as museum relics at best. In like manner, the urban landscape is demolished and re-articulated in a style which appropriates key features of the urban culture which once existed. In conspicuous places dotted around the new urban landscape, we see murals which offer ornamental images of cultural artefacts which are largely unknown, which are little more than convenient fictions to give a semblance of reality of a spectacular urban environment geared entirely for consumption.

Across the street from where I live, the mural of toys overlooks the parking lot for a major corporate office down the street. The lot fills up every day with cars. There is a paid security detail posted in front of the lot to ensure that only employees can access the space. For two thirds of each day, the lot is almost completely empty and that mural stares down at a blank urban desert. People pull up throughout the day and take photographs of the mural, but they cannot park in the lot.

The urban space which fully articulates the life of the city as currently exists is the lot. The lines painted and re-painted to make certain people park their cars in ways which maximize the space are more honest representations of contemporary urban life. Each rectangle is clearly marked to off and isolated so that everyone can be sure of their isolated and singular place in the city. No one is allowed to access this for any other reason. The No Parking sign may well be the only real example of public art.