Thursday, February 21, 2008

Public art

There's been a bit of a rumble recently about the number (and quality) of statues in the UK's public places. Some in the art establishment have been suggesting that there are too many pieces of public art - and that they are mostly rubbish - I'm afraid I don't agree.

Firstly, there seems to be a bit of a myth floating about that the statues of generations gone by were somehow superior to the current generation. Loathe as I am to voice criticism of the pug faced Churchill in Parliament Square or the Nelson who no one can see because he's on top of a very tall pillar but what's so special about them *as statues* - not much as far as I can see.

London in particular is littered with life sized statues of generals on their horses. There's loads of them - but no one seems worried about these rather creepy, un-inspiring hangovers from the colonial era. My personal vision is that after the revolution we'll keep them all in place, but simply rename them - after the horses. "Mr Snibs, with rider" for instance.

It's interesting that those putting this idea forward have focused on Mandela and the Unknown Construction Worker which are derided as "sentimental" rather than the host of Colonel Sir what's-his-name-darkie-slayers which should be smashed up with hammers on account of being vile. Why on Earth we should be honouring those who organised the killing rather than those who refused to take part is beyond me.

The common thread appears to be not a rejection of public art but a rejection of new public art and modern liberal values. If a policy that removed these pieces was adopted it would lead to an enormous deteriation in the quality of our public spaces.

Take Harlow, even it's greatest fans tend not to describe it as a humanist utopia - but rather a concrete cess pit unfit for human habitation... and that's the posh bit. Anyway, Harlow is littered with Henry Moore statues, not tucked away into art galleries cum ghettos but out in the main squares and plazas, seemingly designed for the "yoof" to lounge on them whilst waiting to happy-slap their friends or eating their foul MacDonalds.

These statues are universally loved because they fit into the living spaces and are a seamless part of Harlow's public areas. They don't conform to the reactionary desire for art to simply replicate convincingly what already exists, or honour some bloated plutocrat whose contempt for the masses was matched only by their insistence that they be worshipped by them. Moore's pieces flow with the essence of life and demonstrate that "high art" can be understood and loved by more than a tiny critique clique.

If we leave public art to the advertisers it may drive up the prices of elite's art collections but it wont do anything for those of us who like to see some organic quality to our cultural life, free from the commercialism and profit motives of those who demand control over every aspect of our lives. Pop cideos are often slick and well produced - but I want something different from modern culture than vehicles for product placement.

Take graffiti. There seems to be a near consensus now that, properly done, spray can art in illicit places improves rather than degrades its surroundings. Stripped of these "informal" art works most cities are collections of concrete surfaces. Without beautiful buildings (both old and new) public art and illegal graffiti - along with fly posted material too I'd argue - there's nothing to take the unrelentingly inhuman edge off of the living spaces we've constructed for ourselves.

Instead of building expectations that every new piece of art has to be up there with the best of Picasso we should encourage open minds with innovation and hands on ownership of spaces by the people who live there, not just the people with the deeds to the land. Part of claiming ownership over our lives is the feeling that place where we live belongs to us, together.

There's plenty of old art that modernists can appreciate (see Mike Marqusee on CiF) but that doesn't mean we have to reject a sense of playfulness in public space, as this can be far more influential over our consciousness than the "great works of art" we see but rarely in our day to day lives, tucked away as they are in these special places called galleries that are designed to intimidate and exclude as many working class people as possible.

As I saw on the poetry on the tube the other day "But play, you must, a tone beyond us, yet ourselves." Let's keep the best of the old but celebrate the modern where ever we can. These calls to reject statues to ordinary people, or the great symbols of a changing world like Mandela, are really calls to reject the best of the modern world - not the worst.


buttercupvn said...

There used to be a great statue outside the Game on Broadway shop in Bradford of a bull/pig like thing. Nobody could work out what it actually was but it made everybody smile. Kind of round and jolly like a big metal slightly warped childrens toy. They took him down because he wasnt a permanent installation but he is missed now. Its just a bit of a road at the end of a building site again. He cheered everything up. I cant find a picture of him but i didnt dream him up im sure. Public art rocks, gives a bit of life to places and something to talk about. I wish there was some on every street corner.

Renegade Eye said...

I agree with you.

In Minneapolis several Latino businesses, have Mexican folkloric murals, on their outside wall.

The more art, the better.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

Yes, I have to say I appreciate a good bit of (especially witty) grafitti.
On the old monuments, I remember being in Liverpool to get my passport renewed a year or two ago and sitting in a park that had a huge monumnet to the boer war - it's basically all ideological propaganda.