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.