Like peace, love and lemon-meringue pie, ‘public art’ seems unarguably attractive. Who but a philistine curmudgeon would deny the populace access to the immediate visual thrills and the enduring solace of beauty that the offer of public art seems to promise?
Public art is surely a democratic benefit. Never mind that in the past century its most forceful expression was the grim and malignantly deceitful narratives of Soviet socialist realism, with their ruddy-faced, grinning and buxom tractor drivers disguising a more real reality of starvation, intolerance and torture. Public art is here to be enjoyed at a desolate piazza near you.
And then you begin to think about it. Has public art ever achieved any level of popular approval or intellectual respect? It’s rarely edifying. It is that ludicrous, annoying excrescence, reluctantly paid for by a guilty property developer or worried into existence by ambitious arts administrators with unemployed ‘sculptors’ or aesthetically inclined welders on their books. It tends towards silly overblown gestures and indulgent nonsense.
Thus it’s something at which the French excel, as anyone travelling la Belle France’s autoroutes knows. Here, tormented and meaningless structures in self-rusting Cor-Ten steel hover periodically over traffic composed of cars whose own sculptural sophistication mocks the crudity of the public art.
What’s that horrible shiny pink thing on the Embankment near Tate Britain, on the spot where convicts to Australia were once glumly transported? It’s public art: a fatuous blob whose vapidity is matched only by its vanity. And whose vapidity and vanity are, in turn, matched only by popular disdain. The great Australian architecture critic Robin Boyd coined ‘featurism’ as a term of condemnation. Featurism is what happens when an architect bereft of intelligent ideas in building design adds a wiggle or squiggle to a building to sex it up. Public art is featurism on a plinth.
It’s an expression with semantic difficulties all its own since it contains an internal contradiction. Public art is neither wanted much by the public, whoever they might be, nor does it usually pass even the most basic tests to qualify as art. Public art is crapola foisted on the incurious by the cynical and credulous.
Or it is nowadays. History has great examples to chastise us about the banality of our contemporary blobs and caricatures. The Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, perhaps: a resonant design reminding us of the vanity of human wishes rather than simply advertising them. Or Teulon’s Buxton Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens: stirring Victorian agitprop. The Albert Memorial, certainly. Here was a vastly ambitious conceit designed both to glorify Albert and advertise the imperium’s swaggering dominance of science, art and trade. But Albert was made at the last moment when programmatic sculpture could readily serve nationalist propaganda without swerving into brainless kitsch.
And utilities or commerce have often in the past been good patrons. Seen from a certain perspective, the great gasometers in Britain’s industrial landscapes were inspired public art, storage tanks contained in fine openwork structures whose rise and fall under pressure of demand was like a live-action graphic of a city’s beating heart. Of course, modern utility companies, lacking any cash incentive to do something decent or inspiring, are now busy tearing them down.
Public service once inspired great public art too. Eric Gill’s ‘North Wind’ (1929) at St James’s Park Underground or his ‘Prospero and Ariel’ (1932) at Broadcasting House perfectly capture the spirit of enlightened management regimes (and how quaint that sounds today). So, too, does Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Winged Figure’ (1963) on John Lewis in Oxford Street. In terms of art history’s Valhalla, Hepworth is still waiting hopefully in the lobby, but attached to a department store, her easy-looking bronze modernismo achieves a thrilling sense of dignity and optimism. Another Hepworth sculpture in Battersea Park has honour paid to it by thieves, whose recurrent attempts to steal it are, surely, a perverse test of quality.
And in the United States, a more raw and less embarrassed sense of national, urban and corporate identity has produced enduring masterpieces of public art. Who doesn’t love Robert Indiana’s ‘Love’ at 6th Avenue and 55th Street? This pop art sculpture began as a Christmas card sold in the Museum of Modern Art giftshop in 1964. It is now on T-shirts everywhere: great ideas work in all media. Or what about Isamu Noguchi’s ‘Red Cube’ at the Marine Midland Bank at 140 Broadway, commissioned by the great modernist architect Gordon Bunshaft? This was made when minimalism was thrilling, not a cop-out. And Noguchi had thought it all through: in 1968 he had written an insightful essay called ‘The Sculptor and the Architect’. He knew whereof he spoke. His work enlightens passers-by daily.
Or in Paris, Georges-Henri Pingusson’s ‘Monument of the Deportation’ (1962) on the Île de la Cité is as unforgettably haunting as a (deliberately claustrophobic) public space could ever be. In vigorous, cheerleading, woo-hoo contrast, Eero Saarinen’s amazing Gateway Arch in St Louis (1965), an unforgettable symbol of the city, immediately demoted every other local structure.
Instead, we get Paul Day’s ‘The Meeting Place’ at St Pancras station, a pair of ill-proportioned and crudely drawn cuddlers one of whom is wearing a backpack, exciting speculation among some observers that it contains explosives. Day also produced the wince-making bathos of the ‘Battle of Britain Monument’ on the Victoria Embankment. He sculpts nudes with perky nipples for French hotel gardens. Meanwhile, Anish Kapoor’s Olympic ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’ is a bad dream about Vladimir Tatlin’s ‘Monument to the Third International’, which Stalin had the sense not to build.
Kapoor achieves an effect by enlarging a very small idea to a size that impresses by grossness alone. The sainted Gormley made his reputation in a similar fashion with ‘The Angel of the North’, although he has since advanced his art with great subtlety. Indeed, he categorised Day’s St Pancras statue as ‘crap’. Worse than crap, Liam O’Connor’s Bomber Command memorial in Green Park, which, absurdly, looks like just the sort of thing Albert Speer might have designed for Greater Berlin if the result of the second world war had been different.
There are several bad reasons — toxically mixed — for the decline in public art. One, we have no heroes, nor any agreed values. Two, property developers are required by legislation to spend a (very small) percentage of their budgets on a ‘planning gain’, which, generally, means a piazza with a water feature, some half-hearted planting and an empty canvas for a bit of public art. Alas, the size of available spaces is generally greater than the size of the genius attempting to fill it.
Three, there has been a disruption in the commissioning process. Art was once produced for churches, collectors, dealers or galleries. The emphasis now is on a new generation of annoying, thrusting, mediatised, globalised curators who use the ugly term ‘site-specific installations’ to describe open-air art. This is as if to say the pyramids and Mount Rushmore were not site-specific too.
Four, and this is the important bit, there is a reluctance to make judgments about High and Low Art. The sociologist Herbert Gans got the distinction absolutely right. High Art, he said in 1974, uses subtle ideas and requires a degree of interpretation by the viewer. Low Art depends on crude caricature. Thus the stick-man ‘statue’ of Brunel now planned for east London, stovepipe hat and all, is as Low as it gets.
The hilarious pratfalls experienced by credible artists and designers when attempting public art suggest some of its difficulties. In 1981 the minimalist sculptor Richard Serra erected a structure called ‘Tilted Arc’ in New York’s Foley Square. So far from being the result of joyous public participation, the public, especially local office-workers who had to endure its wind-tunnel effect, detested the thing. Some suggested that it was a security risk since Serra’s vast metal structure would nastily deflect terrorist bomb blasts into their workplaces. Others found it divisive and oppressive. It was, much to Serra’s chagrin, dismantled and put into storage in 1989.
In Manchester, Thomas Heatherwick had a similar dégringolade. His ‘B of the Bang’, celebrating the Commonwealth Games, was also dismantled and put into storage a few years after completion when several of its enormous spikes (which illustrate the explosion of a starting gun) became dangerously detached and threatened to impale otherwise complacent passers-by. Right now, at Tottenham Court Road Tube station, Eduardo Paolozzi’s ceramic murals are being removed for Crossrail. Public outrage is muted.
Writing for the New Yorker about Serra, Calvin Tomkins revealed an essential truth about public art, ‘I think it is perfectly legitimate to question whether public spaces and public funds are the right context for work that appeals to so few people — no matter how far it advances the concept of sculpture.’
So what might good public art be in future? Statues were once a valid medium. It’s wonderful that every monarch except Edward VIII is on show in London. There are even four American presidents. But it’s impossible to imagine what a modern statue with true public resonance might be. Jamie Oliver teaching the Queen how to make focaccia? James Dyson presenting the principles of bagless suction to a grateful nation? Terence Conran, like Dürer’s Melancolia, surrounded by abandoned symbols of achievement — a duvet, a chicken brick and a baguette?
This sort of thing became ridiculous long ago. There is a prissy memorial to the engineer Joseph Bazalgette on Victoria Embankment. His genius is far better memorialised by the monumental conceptual achievement of London’s sewer system or the cheerful, elegant prettiness of Hammersmith Bridge. Infrastructure is almost always superior to the public art that adorns it.
Maybe ‘art’ is no longer a suitable tool for edifying or stimulating the public. Maybe ‘art’ is just a status relic lazily employed to suggest prestige. And who exactly speaks for the public? Is there actually a public that cares? Then again, there may be a new public art waiting to be revealed. Skill, they say, is being able to hit the target. Genius is seeing a target no one else can detect.
The Spectator’s new What’s That Thing? Award does not aim to identify genius. Genius can find its own way. Instead, it will name and shame the perpetrators of vacuous blobs and ugly intrusions into cityscape and countryside. It will pursue Gormley’s ‘crap’ and identify the fatuous and the conceited and the plain stupid. In this way, genius might be encouraged.