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Public and private as a topic of a multidisciplinary research

rostislav švácha – what is private and what is public in a great work of art?

Summary of a paper presented at the 1st workshop “Relativeness of public and private” in Prague on 9 October 2015

As a historian of architecture, I come across the relationship between public and private most frequently in heritage conservation. A typical situation I often encounter is when a building is in private ownership and the owners want to do something like demolishing it, whereas the public interest tries to limit the owner’s rights and requires the protection of such a building if it is thought to be in some way rare and valuable.
I am now going to tell you about a very different case, whose protagonist is the outstanding contemporary Czech architect Roman Koucký. If I tell you that this architect directs the work on the “Metropolitan Plan for Prague” and that it was he who designed the very successful Troja Bridge for our capital city, it follows that he is definitely not a personality to be ignored. We therefore have to take this architect’s views seriously, even though we may be forced to disagree with some of them.

In the 1990s Roman Koucký came into conflict with the heritage authorities in connection with the restoration of the conservation area in Slavonice in South Bohemia. When the conservationists refused to allow him to pave the public areas of Slavonice with bricks, the architect became enraged and publicly demanded that the heritage institute be abolished. Plainly, the demand would be impracticable for various reasons and I do not think it would be fruitful to get drawn into a debate. The artist’s second demand seems to me more interesting, a kind of ban on any new building based on his designs being protected by the conservationists.

Let us consider the kind of situation we might get into, for example in the case of Troja Bridge. Troja Bridge is undoubtedly a public construction. The public has invested considerable public money into it, and the architecture of the bridge represents this public. It could happen that in time the bridge will deteriorate or that someone will want to intervene with some inappropriate alteration. The public will try and protect the architecture of the bridge by declaring it a monument, but in opposition to this will stand the ban by the author of the bridge on the conservation of his work. The interest of the public thus clashes with the author’s private interest.

This gives rise to several questions that are in one way or another connected with the fields of ethics, law, and the philosophy of art. We could ask for example whether it is right from the ethical point of view for the author, or private person, to decide on the fate of a construction that was paid for out of public money. In the case of Troja Bridge, it involves millions of crowns of investment paid out of our taxes. From the point of view of legislature we may also want to know whether the architect’s copyright, in one way or another protected by law, is powerful enough to defeat the interest of the public in protecting his work on the basis of another law – that concerning the conservation of our heritage. There is a third related question, perhaps more circumstantial, which is, whether the law on the protection of copyright in general gives the author the possibility of intervening so freely in his own work as to forbid heritage protection.

I think that all these questions can beget an interesting debate. However, their maze becomes even more entangled with the introduction of Hannah Arendt’s reflections. In her writings from the 1950s, in her book The Human Condition  (1958), and in her collection of essays Between Past and Future (1961), this philosopher thought over the theme of how to break through human mortality. She came to believe that something like immortality can be ensured for us by a great work of art, among which we could easily include the Troja Bridge.

Nevertheless, for us an important point of this thinker’s reflections rests on the fact that immortality is conferred not only on the author by his work, but on everyone who lives with the author in one society or in one “civilisation”, as Arendt puts it. The philosopher says that a great work is a permanent testimony to the “quintessence” of civilisation and is at the same time annoyed by the view that in such a work the author expresses only himself. When we convert this into terms that are meaningful for our group, we can deduce from Hannah Arendt’s reflections that a great work can never be only the private property of its author.

I would not go as far as to say that there was nothing to be questioned in Hannah Arendt’s argumentation. We could for example suspect that she is here toying with essentialism or with the Hegelian concept of Zeitgeist, which in contemporary history of art does not sound well. Nevertheless, the way in which this philosopher has opened the question about the share of the private and the public in a work of art seems to me valuable and engaging. I will try once more to paraphrase what Arendt is telling us. She says that a great work, Troja Bridge for example, cannot be appropriated or privatised by its author. It was not he alone who was responsible for its creation, but rather the hopes and desires of many people around him; the “quintessence” of civilisation.

– Rostislav Švácha (Institute of art history, CAS)