Sarah Ingham: Why is so much art in Britain’s public realm either ugly, witless or pointless?

23 Jul

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Why is so much art in Britain’s public realm either ugly, witless or pointless?

Never mind Rhodes Must Fall, a goodly percentage of the statues, murals and installations in the country’s public spaces should be consigned to the scrapheap.

As well as being a battleground in the nation’s intensifying culture war, the debate on public art went back to basics a few weeks ago, thanks to the unveiling of the Diana memorial statue. Suddenly we were also judging a piece on its aesthetics; how it looks – rather than how we look as we pronounce judgement.

Sadly, the public was none-too-impressed by the pewter Princess. Drawing comparisons with a traditional religious Madonna, The Times’ art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston elevated the debate. Her piece was however headlined “Laura Ashley monument is little better than the usual tat“.

In the hysterical rush to the barricades to defend or attack representations of Britain’s long-dead and usually long-forgotten worthies, few have paused to look – really look – at the works in question. Rhodes should fall – or at least be turned to face the wall of Oxford’s Oriel College – not least because it is a pretty dire representation of such a key player in 19th century colonial history.

There is a certain irony that the Croesus-rich racist white supremacist looks vaguely Asiatic and that his baggy suit is more Albert Steptoe than Savile Row. If the sculptor had been more skilled, gravy stains and dandruff could probably be discerned. This rendering of Rhodes is less The Three Graces than utterly graceless.

Why are Tory Councillors in Essex Censoring Artwork?” demanded The Guardian on Monday. The work in question – a small hexagonal-shaped rose garden framed by three ordinary benches – can be found in a park in Shoeburyness and is part of the Estuary Festival. An English Garden created by Gabriella Hirst is apparently a commentary on Britain’s 1950s nuclear weapons industry. This seems more than a bit of a stretch, even when we learn the roses are a breed called Atom Bomb.

It’s not this drearily anodyne artwork to which some are objecting but the wording on the accompanying plaque. But having to read a work rather than be moved by it is usually a signal to expect bad art and worse prose. It’s always contextualisation, never explanation.

Instead of asking why councillors are censoring artwork, we should be asking why they are not. Indeed, too often they are cheerleaders-in-chief for incongruous cultural blots on our landscapes and ugly blight in our town centres.

A tour of public art in Surrey is to realise that the closest most works get to great is the vaguely Matisse-blue of Bisley’s  quirky Millennium clock tower which seems inspired by a cross between a dovecote and Big Ben. Woking is littered with creepy, garishly-painted oversized figures. Sean Henry’s seven-feet-tall Walking Women is the latest in the series of “much-loved sculptures” declares #WeAreWoking.

If the aim is really “to create new, stimulating and high-quality environments that revitalise public spaces and recognise the importance of culture”, it has failed. The sculptures bring to mind a Zombie Apocalypse, perhaps written about by HG Wells. He is commemorated by the War of the Worlds Martian Tripod, a piece in chrome which is as breathtakingly bad as the giant cockerel with which a former council leader lumbered a Dorking roundabout. Staines offers us the Swan Arches which bring to mind Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad.

Surrey is far from the only sorry place where recent installations of art in the public realm are not fit to be placed near local war memorials. Thankfully, there is beauty in their very simplicity. They have stood the test of time and are a rebuke to “much-loved sculptures” and other pieces of junk foisted upon us.

Art is subjective. One woman’s Venus de Milo is another’s Aphrodite at the Waterhole created by Tony Hancock in The Rebel. Public art, however, raises questions that are too rarely asked. Who decides? Who decides who decides? Who’s paying? Over the last decade matters have been further complicated by the Community Infrastructure Levy, the charge levied on developers, often in addition to the existing Section 106 obligations. Has this caused an upsurge in “art” for art’s sake?

In a bid to curb the nuisance of noisy supercars racing through the streets of the Royal Borough, Kensington and Chelsea Council is seeking to extend its “acoustic camera” scheme funded by the CIL. Judging by the crowds drawn to Sloane Street where wannabe-Hamiltons regularly show off their wheels, the dozens of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens are perceived to be far more beautiful than any works of numerous works of art in the area, including the majestic Wellington Arch Quadriga at Hyde Park Corner. The cameras are a far more resident-friendly way to spend CIL than frittering it away on ugly installations.

Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth has recently been home to a giant blob of cream topped by a red cherry, a black fly (echoes of Damien Hirst 25+years ago) and a drone. The work of Heather Phillipson, it was called THE END.

If only.

Julian Gallant: Politics can support the arts without disturbing the artist

12 Feb

Jullian Gallent is a conductor, composer, pianist, impresario and Treasurer at Conservative Friends of The Arts (Instagram; Facebook).

I’ve been actively involved in Conservative campaigning since 2013, fought the 2019 GE as candidate for Ealing Central and Acton and am currently a Londonwide candidate for the GLA. My profession, though, is music and I’ve never quite understood the stranglehold the left has had on the arts, ever since “left” and “right” have been political concepts.

Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro was certainly considered subversive; the star of the opera is a servant, not a prince. Beethoven’s belief in The Rights of Man, which he grandly expressed by setting Schiller’s Ode to Joy in the Ninth Symphony, probably raised the aristocratic eyebrows of some of his patrons. But this is nothing compared to the outright socialism espoused in the 20th century by artists like Frida Kahlo, John Steinbeck and Ken Russell. It became the thing to be “left-wing” as if the right was too interested in money-making, moralising and nationalism to care about the true, humanist religion of art.

The arts are the product of a natural urge to create in the abstract and a hunger for more than we see lying around us. It is hard to imagine a world without art yet, as Oscar Wilde said in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is quite useless”. People die if they don’t eat, therefore food production is bankable. Illness must be treated, so doctors must be paid. The same for teachers, soldiers and lawyers. And politicians?

Music starts with a heartbeat, a voice and then other voices; rhythm, melody and harmony. Some of the world’s greatest paintings are the ancient ones on the walls of caves. Fine, but professional music, theatre, writing and painting must be rewarded if they are to thrive and this is always uncertain. The first commercial opera theatre opened in Venice in 1630, yet opera and capitalism have never happily coexisted. Handel in the 1720s famously had to seek regal patronage because the fees of Italian opera stars exceeded the entire box office take. I’ve experienced the same when putting on a world famous classical singer in a major London hall.

And don’t think you can just increase the ticket prices; that skews the image of the venue and they won’t have it. People will pay up but they won’t pay over the odds, even at the Royal Opera House. Stall tickets are eye-wateringly expensive for the big shows, yet other seats are sold at much lower prices. On the cost side, there can be over a thousand souls working on one operatic production, all quite rightly expecting a reasonable wage.

So there must be an extraneous financial input, which means some combination of donation, commercial sponsorship and state subsidy. In the USA state subsidies are negligible; donating is at once the main source of funding for big arts organisations and a measure of your social standing. In Germany and France state subsidy is the mainstay. In Britain, it’s a more even distribution of all three; the fundraising departments, known euphemistically as development offices, work overtime.

The gap between ticket income and cost creates opportunities for interference, especially in our big-state era. It’s pointless to cite a smooth transition from rich sponsors like Tchaikovsky’s Nadezhda von Meck (whom he famously never met) to state largesse. The rich patron wants to outlay on creating something beautiful, hence Paul Sacher’s commissioning of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste in 1936. The state wants something back, in the form of allegiance or national glorification or worse.

In the brave new world of the young USSR, artistic freedom and modernism was encouraged. By 1930 the picture was very different; professional writers, painters, actors and musicians had to join All-Soviet Unions. One of my heroes is the composer Nikolai Roslavets, who was published widely in the 1920s. By 1932 he had been forced into obscurity because an unpleasant and ideologically “sound” organisation called RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) thought his music was decadently complicated. He was accused of spying! Dmitri Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony from performance, aware of Stalin’s prudish criticism of his erotically charged opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The composer feared for his life.

All of that still happens, without the threat of the gulag of course. Artists are interfered with, because they do or don’t sign up to this or that ideology. And one of the worst of these ideologies is that public taste is vulgar and the enemy of true creativity. That wasn’t true for Beethoven or Debussy or Prokofiev, who were all big stars and marvellously original in their thinking. The state should carefully determine what needs support and then get out of the way, much easier said than done.

Politics has a constructive role to play, supporting artistic creativity without interfering with content, and there are some good things a-happening. Witness cross-party interest in establishing a 90-day touring visa for UK performing artists in Europe and vice-versa, which were debated in Parliament on February 8, 2021. That should transcend any post-Brexit blame game.

The APPG for Music, chaired by David Warburton, a former composer, has the largest membership of any such group. There’s another APPG for Music Education: one call I was on was attended by over 250 stakeholders nationwide. A £1.5 billion grant by this government, supporting arts organisations during the covid pandemic, puts the lie once and for all to the idea that true Tories are somehow closet Philistines.

I’m part of the recently-founded Conservative Friends of The Arts. We meet once a month to talk about the arts and to share short performances. One such was a recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnet No.18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) by Giles Watling, which sounded bizarrely wonderful over Zoom. I got the impression that day that Shakespeare had no idea at all where the line lay between high art and superb entertainment!

David Skelton and Sam Bowman: Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth should be replaced with a Commonwealth hero

6 Aug

David Skelton is author of ‘Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map’. Sam Bowman is Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

The latest piece of modern art hosted on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth left many people bewildered when it was unveiled last week.

Called ‘The End’, it is a large plastic sculpture of whipped cream with a cherry, a fly and a drone on it. Whatever it is supposed to mean, it is vapid and ugly. Given this is one of Britain’s most important public spaces, we can do better.

One way might be to install a permanent statue of one of the many black, Asian, and minority ethnic people who have made contributions to Britain throughout her history. In particular, the contribution of Empire and Commonwealth soldiers to the British war effort in the First and Second World Wars was immense, and has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves, such as with the Commonwealth Memorial Gates at Hyde Park Corner, put up in 2002.

At a time when existing statues have led to debate and division about the representation of ethnic minorities in public monuments, a statue of a Commonwealth war hero on the fourth plinth could be a fitting tribute to the millions of people who helped Britain to triumph in those struggles and a sign to all that they will never be forgotten.

One such hero is Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Khan, born in the late 19th Century, in what is now Pakistan, served as a machine-gunner during the First World War in the 129th Baluchis.

He was at the front-line as allied forces were desperately trying to protect the ports of Boulogne and Nieuwpoort from the advancing German forces. Both ports were crucial to the Allied war effort. At various points, the German advance looked relentless, with many of the defensive forces being pushed back and the Baluchis being outnumbered five to one. Khan’s machine gun team, though, along with one other, was able to continue the fight until eventually even they were overrun, with all the members of Khan’s team being killed.

Khan was able to play dead until the Germans had gone, when he made his way, badly wounded, back to the regiment. The heroism of Khan and his fellow Baluchis meant that the Germans were held off long enough for Allied reinforcements to arrive, and the ports were kept out of German hands.

His story is a remarkable one, but not as isolated one. In the First World War, some three million soldiers from across the Empire and Commonwealth became involved in the war effort, including 1.5 million from India, 600,000 Canadians, 400,000 Australians, 180,000 from East and West Africa, 100,000 Kiwis and 15,000 from the West Indies. Over five million Commonwealth troops were involved in the struggle against Nazism during World War Two. These were invaluable contributions in these conflicts.

A permanent commemoration of the valour and bravery of Commonwealth troops over the centuries would be a fitting use for the fourth plinth. This could be unifying, reminding people that those who want Nelson’s column to fall are a tiny minority, and that most Britons are proud of the contributions their ancestors have made to the country’s history. It would recognise the contributions of people who have hitherto been given less credit than they deserved.

All of this would be far more meaningful and inspiring than the art that has occupied the fourth plinth since the late 1990s (it had been empty until then). Recent occupants have included a large blue cockerel (“a feminist sculpture”, according to its creator) and ‘Really Good’, a giant bronze thumbs up, which the Guardian described as “a sly parody of the emptiness of public art”. The problem with art like this is that the rest of us have to look at it.

Trafalgar Square should be about commemorating the valour and bravery of British and Commonwealth troops and their contribution to great military victories, not ugly, shallow gimmicks. You might call this campaign “Whipped Cream Must Fall”, although the current occupant should still see out its normal term on the plinth…

But once that’s over, we could take that moment to recognise the sacrifices made by Commonwealth soldiers throughout Britain’s history, saying to them that they deserve pride of place in Britain’s most important celebration of its military past.

A statue of Khudadad Khan, or another hero like him, on the fourth plinth would be the perfect reminder of the sacrifices that so many troops from around the Commonwealth made for our freedom, and a chance to put up a new statue instead of tearing one down.