6 Kinds of Public

To invent your own life's meaning is not easy, but it's still allowed, and I think you'll be happier for the trouble.

Randall Szott, To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble, 2019

Long ago, I adopted the moniker “dilettante ventures” as a frame for my cultural activity. At the time it was envisioned as a collective comprised of three other art and curatorial collectives. Much like this journal seeks to do, I spent a fair amount of time trying to rehabilitate the word “dilettante.” Lately though, I’ve given up on worrying about that sort of framing, because now I have to rehabilitate another word—“republican.” In November 2018, I was elected to the Vermont State Legislature. As a candidate, I appeared on the ballot as the nominee of two political parties—the Democrats and the Progressives. But to be accurate about my political philosophy, I am a decentralist communitarian republican. Identifying as small-r republican, even though it isn’t the same as being a capital-r Republican, can be problematic for me. On my winding trajectory from an artist-that-doesn’t-make-art to a librarian/legislator, I’ve investigated how republican themes of interdependence, virtue, and civic responsibility might be usefully employed in the (neo)liberal political quagmire we find ourselves. Here are the key concepts I use to understand the links between art and community-making in a new era of progressive politics:


Public Art, new genre


The thirty-year trajectory of new genre public art…is one that mimics a trajectory of civic life, with its discourses, institutions, and public policies….It is important to locate these art practices within the trajectories of art history and cultural theory to give real texture and meaning to the notion of artist citizenship, and in so doing reconstruct the civic relevance of art….Ephemeral and publicly located processes have become a new “materiality.” It is process art, solidly grounded in expressive and analytic practice, but the materiality is that of life itself rather than a metaphor for life.” –Suzanne Lacy[1]

My background in the arts was always a bad fit. I was interested in art as a means of engaging ideas publically, but I was not interested in art as an academic discipline. Lacy’s new genre, “public art,” hinted at an alternate path. Here (I see in retrospect) she succinctly addresses what I was after—life itself as the ephemeral, public practice. I was not interested in the “artist as citizen” but in the art of citizenship. The art world and its projects depend on too narrow a notion of the res publica, the “public thing” under consideration. That is, both the “thing” and the “public” in art’s purview simply weren’t enough for me.


Public Culture


The concept of public culture refers most broadly to the dynamic negotiation of beliefs, values, and attitudes regarding collective association through media and other social practices that are defined by norms of open access and voluntary response. –Robert Hariman[2]

In public culture, I found a sufficiently broad category to situate my interests and activities. Under this rubric, sense-making applies to a broad array of activities and artifacts well beyond art. I find trying to understand sense-making and aesthetic experience more compelling than art and its narrow histories. Public culture functions as a site of activity, but also functions as the totality of said activity. It incorporates any number of shared human projects—rituals, celebrations, works of media and art, civic and social engagement, and more. It can involve multiple cultural registers as well—folk, vernacular, popular, and aspirational. The “public” is actually an agglomeration of multiple publics that rise, shift, disappear, and reappear over time. Public culture is not wholly identical with the republic of republicanism, but it is a means of experiencing, and more importantly practicing, the requisite virtues for navigating a life in common. That commonality is a central republican concern.


Public Good, scale of


In a large republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is easier perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses are of less extent… –Montesquieu[3]

The question of scale is a thorny political issue. For Democrats and Progressives, a good deal of motivating mythology is predicated on the merits of centralized government intervention. When I was running for office, I made a point of saying that Vermont thrives because of its small size, not in spite of it. I subscribe to the wisdom of subsidiarity (that issues should be dealt with at the most local level possible), but that invites raised eyebrows given the reactionary political undercurrent associated with states’ rights in America. That historical lineage is undeniable, but there is plenty of misery in the history of centralized power too. On balance, I agree with the republican belief that the principle of non-domination (that liberty is independence from arbitrary power) and healthy democratic relationships are best served in small-scale configurations. I do so while rejecting the Republican’s (party) cynical employment of this idea in the service of concentrating wealth and power for private interests; the Republican party wants to eviscerate state power in the name of liberty. This idea of private liberty is directly counter to the republican notion of liberty as a shared enterprise that requires properly scaled and properly distributed forms of power. Vermont then, with its small towns, intimate landscape, and its history of town meetings, is well-suited to thrive as a republic, and in fact it once did, from 1777 to 1791. “Vermontis. Res. Publica” was even printed on the currency it coined during that time. Now Vermont’s small scale exemplifies the future possibilities for a nation collapsing under the weight of its ”too big to fail” liberal contradictions.


Public Library


…a library ceases to be a particular place and set of objects, a formal institution built of brick and mortar. It becomes instead a continuity of practices… –Thomas Augst[4]

Circling back to art for a moment: I used to run an exhibition and event series in Chicago. When asked to explain the curatorial philosophy for it, I always pointed to the public library as a model. In a library, you could have scholars lecture and artists exhibit, but you could also find stamp collectors, political organizers, neighborhood associations, and trivia nights all being hosted under its broad “curatorial” umbrella. The radically open disposition of the public library provided a concrete model for explaining public culture. The library then became a model of practice for me. Just over a year ago, after long serving as a conceptual cultural practice, it became an actual practice when I was selected to be the Library Director for a small library in a small town. The public library has suffered under neoliberal privatization efforts and austerity, but it has done better than many other public institutions. Generally, libraries still capture the collective imagination as a beloved “public thing.” That public thing is a site for the perpetual rehearsal of the civic virtues that are the seedbed of republicanism.


Public Philosophy


A public philosophy is a process of discerning and articulating the common project of a society and those things which make that project deserving of loyalty and commitment. There can thus be no public philosophy in general but only specific, historically conditioned public philosophies tied to the experience, contingencies, and moral vision of the societies that produce them and whose lives they in turn form. A public philosophy is an expression and vehicle of practical reason in its classical sense, embodied in the life of a people and bound up with that people’s reflection upon itself and its project. To define a public philosophy is thus itself a historically situated act, an always arguable effort to shape and understand a shared enterprise. –William M. Sullivan[5]

The byline for my campaign was “In Search of the Common Good.” I know it sounds like sloganeering pablum, but it is actually a succinct summary of my understanding of Sullivan’s “public philosophy.” I take seriously the challenge of searching for “the common project” of Vermonters, and it is important to me to situate it as a search, given that there is no final philosophical position to arrive at. Thus, the search for the common good may produce resting points and ethical guides for action, but it is a perpetual undertaking. Like republican freedom, the common good is not a quality to possess, but one to exercise, in this case as an ongoing search. The proceduralism and planning of liberalism relies too heavily on institutions, rather than these embodied habits of the heart. Liberals are enamored with rules and rights rather than virtues, associated living, and responsibilities. Their polity is comprised of foundational ties among individuals, rather than a search for common meaning within communities.


Public Realm


The public realm, as the common world, gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other, so to speak. What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved, or at least not primarily, but the fact that the world be­tween them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them. The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely un­related to each other by anything tangible. –Hannah Arendt[6]

Here, the public realm is positioned effectively against the “magic trick” of liberalism. Arendt articulates the “weirdness” of the liberal project with its notion of freedom as a kind of unfettered existence. This contrasts with the republican idea of freedom through association, not freedom from association. The table serves as the thing that gathers us and points to the necessity of crafting such things. This ties back into Lacy’s concern with materiality and the art of citizenship. One of the other terms for Lacy’s new genre public art is “social practice.” Social practice, to the extent it defines itself as another term for socially engaged art, repeats the mistakes of procedure and institution driven liberal democracy. Rather than approaching public life with an open question as to the best means for achieving one’s ends, social practice forecloses the choice to (an admittedly expansive definition of) art. Social practice, in the end, really means social practice art and with that casts its lot with a set of histories, institutions, and preconceived roles that limit its scope.  It mimics the idea of democracy as a political system with readily identifiable procedures, instead of democracy as an experimental, experiential ethos. The art of citizenship requires that we are attuned to the necessity of crafting public things with the power to draw us together.


Public Work


The concept of public work, expressing civic agency, or the capacity of diverse citizens to build a democratic way of life, embodies this shift. It posits citizens as co-creators of the world, not simply deliberators and decision-makers about the world. Public work is a normative, democratizing ideal of citizenship generalized from communal labors of creating the commons, with roots in diverse cultures. Shaped through contention with forces which threaten shared ways of life and their commons, grounded in an understanding of human plurality, public work has political qualities that unmask sentimentalized civic discourses of modern elites. Public work places citizens, not markets or states, as the foundational agents of democracy. –Harry C. Boyte[7]

Public work is one way to conceptualize the crafting of public things, or “build[ing] a democratic way of life.” A fundamental challenge of this democratic way of life is the negotiation of associated living. This is mostly an aesthetic problem, not a cognitive problem. Thus it would appear that art has a particular advantage in addressing it. However, art is but a small subset of aesthetic experience, just as legal proceduralism is just a small subset of democratic experience. Public work brings me back to the inadequacy of social practice (art). I have proposed “social poiesis” as an alternative. “Poiesis” is a word, mostly used in literary theory, that describes creative production, in particular the creation of a work of art. “Social poiesis,” then, encompasses not only the production of art and art environments, but also the creative production of society through things like urban planning, sports leagues, communes, be-ins, residencies, raves, state fairs, theme parks, cults, encounter groups, Chautauquas, and even legislating. Governance, properly undertaken, is public work, positing “citizens as co-creators of the world.” This world of artistic citizenship demands a variety of public actions and inquiry, some of which I’ve touched on here. Above all it demands a reevaluation of the promise and potential of a revived republican spirit.




[1] Suzanne Lacy, Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974-2007 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 31

[2] Robert Hariman, “Public Culture,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication, 2016,  http://oxfordre.com/communication/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228613-e-32.

[3] Montesquieu, quoted in The Founders’ Constitution, eds. Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner, eds., 1986, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch4s14.html

[4] Thomas Augst, “Introduction: American Libraries and Agencies of Culture,” in The Library as an Agency of Culture, eds. Thomas Augst, and Wayne A. Wiegand (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 9.

[5] William M. Sullivan, Reconstructing Public Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 90.

[6] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition: A Study of the Central Dilemmas Facing Modern Man (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959), 52-3.

[7] Harry C. Boyte, “Constructive Politics as Public Work: Organizing the Literature,” Political Theory 39, no. 5 (2011): 632, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23036076.