Victor Papanek and Community
Participation in the Created Environment


A capacity audience last year for Victor Papanek's free public lecture at the Auckland City Art Gallery (Papanek passed through Auckland last August) demonstrated not only an interest in Papanek's philosophy of art for and by the people, but also that New Zealanders are concerned about their local environment.

Papanek's twin-screen slide presentation and too-brief question and answer session afterwards served rather to raise some large queries and doubts than to offer any indications of direction. A major conflict one was left with concerned the issue of 'means'. It is all very well to talk of community participation and responsibility in the decision-making process of creating our environment: but Papanek's slides appeared on first impression to be more photographs of public expression and overt demonstration than indicators of public involvement. The vivid graphic art that had been applied to the buildings showed not so much an emotive social comment as a suspected last-ditch protest of despair - a desperate attempt to humanise a generally dismal city fabric in the only way left.

Efforts by the Los Angeles state city authorities to protect and preserve selectively approved painted-art-on-the-buildings seems a strange way of encouraging participation. It looks more like a political tactic of providing a focal outlet/relief valve for the repressed hostility and resentment that often shows itself in graffiti, slogans and symbols. This mushroom art (appearing overnight and from a grassroots level) was once seen as a destructive vandalism threatening the order and stability of our cities and social institutions. The building and location are often symbolically, if not unconsciously, strategically selected. Social researchers used to inform us that people only 'vandalised' outside their own areas - it was more a protest mechanism of reinforcing or denying territory at the boundaries (somewhat as animals do) and allegedly not done within the environs of one's peer group or in an identifiable place.

There appeared to be several contradictions of ideology in Papanek's address. On the one hand we were shown various approval authorities taking over, elaborating and formalising public protest; and on the other hand, the lifestyles and the behavioural expectations of the citizenry not substantively altered or able to be modified, other than with a few visual palliatives.

Graffiti boards, street-sized scene-paintings, public walls for graphic art, hoarding etc. are not an adequate vehicle for public dialogue (we may as well send telegrams and petitions to M.P.s). These tactics of political repression, while no doubt focussing and absorbing public energies, do not provide the means for the ordinary citizen to influence decisions about how and where and in what he shall live.

It raises the question of what the role is of our local and national authorities in providing opportunities for social interaction, and the consequences of it. I suspect that they and Mr Papanek are looking at products and not processes.  It is too easy to show slides of the finished result of a social time sequence.  It is an archaic view of the arts - something to be observed but not experienced or shared, something to watch and comment on from a distance, but not to be involved with.

A local example The public objections to specific aspects of Auckland's Downtown Redevelopment Complex were all virtually too late: and of little consequence to the decisions that had already been made by the planners and client authorities. A couple of large sculptures and planter-boxes, a leaky 'umbrella', and aggregate under foot are insufficient tokens to make an unpleasant place acceptable. Queen's Square will not become used simply because a local authority decides it should be.

This bureaucratic habit of deciding on behalf of someone else what is best for them is no longer an appropriate social attitude. The public are no longer entirely ignorant or without capability. A few applied decorations do not contribute social relevance to what could have been an incredibly rich waterfront connection to this city.

The point here is not one of historical recrimination: but to see if the same mismanagement can happen again. We have only a protest/adversary system of involvement, not a contributory one which can become active at the conceptual stage in the decision-making process of our physical and social environment.

Mr Papanek and some of his audience voiced a deservedly critical (yet ironically resigned) protest about the vast amount of drab, boring architecture that comprises their cities. Yet they fail to ask the right questions. Who is responsible to whom? What can be done about the causative process that produces these results? The issue is one of timely political potency - or is it public impotence? With the costs of building so incredibly high, and the nature of building so incredibly permanent, we cannot afford to, make any more insufficiently-considered environmental decisions.

In cases like this, the sociology of art tends to become confused with philosophical issues. Implicit in Papanek's ideology is a whole set of value judgements: that public art is more desirable than private art; that group art is more relevant than individual art; that the product of art is more important than the activity; that consensus evaluation is more appropriate than objective standards, and so on.

Even more in need of examination is the implication that art must be sanctioned by approval to gain relevance. Sociologists would like to have us believe that all behaviour both determines and is determined by social conditions; that conceptual and evaluative criteria for assessing behaviours (such as art) are only socially normative.

Associated with this set of parameters is the consequence of social approval by way of prestige, control and power. If art is to be considered as a social utility requiring accountability and function, then we are committed to the ideology that the only valid and desirable forms of social change are those controlled within the existing social and structural milieu. This denies the fact that much change is revolutionary by nature - revolutionary because it draws in criteria that were previously external to the prevailing conditions. The transmission of only a legitimised cultural consciousness runs the risk of being suppressive and inhibitory. Paradoxically, it exposes the philosophical bias that is often hidden in the ideology of social participation.

How we preserve, sustain and motivate the arts as one of the major components of our social and environmental fabric needs a lot more examination. We also need to examine the issue of how we value and relate different forms of art. Such an examination would challenge the role of civic and national art galleries, of private galleries and the external public environment, as receptacles and selectors of what is to be supported as part of the ongoing social process.