The Ethics of Leaving Public Art in Outdoor Spaces

Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at

My girlfriend is preparing for a big sporting event (I don’t want to say what, in case she reads this) and I was thinking of proposing to her at the finish line. I thought she’d like it, but my friend said it’s a terrible idea. Is that a terrible idea?

Sporting events are intense and exhausting, with lots of stress, tight schedules, excitement, and even disappointment, and there’s much to be said for having space around a proposal—taking time to be together, alone and giddy, before sharing your announcement with the world. And since her sporting event may be a big celebration in its own right, she might not want it to feel overshadowed by a proposal. That said, a lot of people love sharing their excitement with a crowd, so the answer here is really going to come down to your girlfriend’s preferences and personality. How does she feel about public proposals? (This is definitely a conversation you should have before giving her one.) Could you casually mention someone else who got engaged at a sporting event and see how she responds? Does she have a sister or friend who could do some recon for you? If you decide to propose at the finish line, it should be because you have a very strong sense that this is what she would want, rather than a fun idea in your own head. And if you’re not positive, you can propose in private first, then ask her if she wants to make it official in public. If you’re thoughtful and really consider her preferences and wishes, I expect it will go great. And congratulations! That’s a huge step, and I’ll be sending my best to both of you.

Can you settle a debate between a friend and I? I like to make public art in outdoor spaces out of natural materials. I only use supplies from the environment, for instance by making mandalas out of shells on the beach. When I’m done, I leave my art there for other people to stumble upon. However, my friend has said multiple times that this is rude and has even called it equivalent to “littering,” which I think is absurd. This has become a point of contention between us and we can’t seem to agree to the other’s perspective. 

I can see both sides of this. Stumbling upon a cairn or a beautiful arrangement of leaves could bring a little burst of magic to someone’s day, and I’ve often smiled when I come upon similar projects myself. But in wild places that are shared by a lot of people, it’s important to leave nature as untouched as possible. (Obviously if you’re on private land and know the owner, that’s a different story.)

So I think my answer would vary on a case-by-case basis, depending on each piece of art, its location, how quickly it will decompose or deteriorate, and how “unnatural” it will seem when it does. Sand and snow sculptures are already highly ephemeral; I’d see no problem leaving them (almost) anywhere. Beaches are naturally shifting, so an arrangement of stones and shells will be disrupted within hours by waves and tide. But in many shared public spaces, the integrity of the environment depends on individual people not leaving their mark, however artful their mark may be. For instance, some hikers might find an arrangement of rocks in a public forest to be more annoying than pleasant. In those situations, you could take photos of your work, then dismantle it carefully, returning the area to its previous state. So much of nature’s beauty is temporary: sunsets, flowers, even the seasons. There’s something beautiful about letting your art be temporary, too.

I have a wonderful partner who I love with my whole heart, and I also love traveling with him in our van (we both work four days a week and travel the other three). HOWEVER. He has started learning to play guitar, and has been practicing the same few songs again and again (and again and again). I know that is how practice works, and I’m really happy for him that he enjoys playing music. He’s getting better quickly and he has a nice voice. The problem is that he’s playing the same songs again and again in the van in the evenings, when we’re sitting beside each other. It gets old. I really want to encourage his playing, because it makes him so happy, but I would also like to have peace and quiet in the evenings, too.

I know you’re trying to be considerate and encourage his music (which is important!), but I think you can just be honest in this situation. Explain to your partner that you love hearing him play, but it can be a lot in the evening when you’re trying to wind down. Would he be willing to play outside, at least when the weather’s nice? Or could he do some (or most) of his practice earlier in the day, maybe while you take a walk or do some other activity? You could also find moments when you do want music—say, while you’re making art or cooking, and it’d be fun to sing along—and invite him to do his practicing and serenade you then. And definitely put in a few song requests of your own! He should have the skills to branch out soon, so you might as well hear your favorites.

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