Beniamino Bufano on Public Art

Historical Essay

by Tommy L. Lott, Excerpted from "Black Consciousness in the Art of Sargent Johnson," in Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture, 1998.

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Benny Bufano, 1963

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

In his essay on public art, Bufano presents a philosophy of contemporary art that is thoroughly political (O'Connor 1973). Bufano maintained that art must become democratic by being "big enough to belong to everybody, too big for anyone to put in his pocket and call his own." Rather than produce art to fit over some patron's fireplace, he invoked a notion of public art that is created for the benefit of the masses. He maintained that the function of art is to create a universal culture that will guide the future course of world destiny to a better way of living. When Bufano spoke of guiding the future course of world destiny he assigned a political role to artists in combating the rise of fascism and modern warfare.

Unlike Sargent Johnson, who is reported to have shrewdly studied the tastes of patrons by working in an art gallery in order to meet them, Bufano maintained an anti-patron stance. He quoted the "whining complaint and recrimination" in a letter he received from an ex-patron to illustrate the need for artists to be less dependent on patrons to survive. The patron was incensed at Bufano for proposing a monumental St. Francis made of stainless steel and copper overlooking the bay, insisting instead that Bufano's best work was represented by his little statues of children, rabbits, deer, and puppies. Bufano then asked, "How can such a man understand the Sun Yat-sen or the Statue of Peace?" "How can a cultural pattern be developed for America if art and the artists are subjugated to the whims and idiosyncrasies of a few overfed decadent merchant princes, carryovers from the days of feudalism?" (O'Connor 1973)


Seal at Maritime Museum

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Rather than capitulate to the economic pressure of survival, Bufano advocated the radical practice of offering his service to any community that could simply pay him day wages and supply the materials. He wanted to produce art for the masses with materials and designs that "reflect public service and functional objectives." He maintained that public art allows artists to give something to the world and enables their voices to be heard beyond the provincialism of their immediate locales.

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Bufano in his workshop, 1962.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

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Benny Bufano in his workshop, March 24, 1968.

Photo: © Ted Kurihara

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Photos: © Ted Kurihara

Bufano was a very strong voice for social change in America. He produced art that advocated resistance to oppression. "I sculptured 'Peace' in the form of a projectile, to express the idea that if peace is to be preserved today it must be enforced peace-enforced by the democracies against Fascist barbarism. Modern warfare, which involves the bombing of women and children, has no counterpart in a peace interpreted by the conventional motif of olive branches and doves." (O'Connor 1973)


St. Francis on horse.

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Bufano Madonna overlooking the Great Meadow at Fort Mason, 2010.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

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Penguin's Prayer at Lake Merced, 2014.

Photo: Chris Carlsson


Statue of Peace in its original installation at SF Airport, c. 1960s.

Photo: Chris Carlsson


Photo: © Ted Kurihara

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The Peace statue was relocated to Brotherhood Way near SF State, seen here in 2014.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

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Enjoy an evolving map of sculptures by Beniamino Bufano in San Francisco created by Paul Hays