Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Bad Public Art

Coincidence is a sometimes a very strange thing. Yesterday I read a brief review of a new biography of the American modernist post Marianne Moore in which a brief maxim about art, attributed to Leonardo, caught my eye. The maxim is: "Art breathes from containment and suffocates from freedom". Clearly, the thought is ripped out of context, and my brief attempt to find where it was taken from was unsuccessful, but I take it to be saying something like, great art is more often the product of constraint than freedom. One reason I would like to see the context in which this thought occurs is that I suspect it is subject to important qualifications, but lets set these aside for the moment.

Much later yesterday I was listening to the 5:00pm news on BBC Radio 4 while pottering around the kitchen and a story appeared about Ukrainian protesters pulling down and destroying a statue of Lenin in Kiev. I didn't realise there were many of these left to pull down and destroy, but my heart was warmed by the renewed sense that the destruction of public sculpture can be a powerfully symbolic way of making a wider political point. (For those who hadn't heard of the protests they were directed at the Ukrainian government for having pulled out of an free trade agreement with the EU just prior to its formal signing, and indicated that they would instead join up with a Russian-led customs union. This has not yet resolved itself, and mass protests continue.) And it was in the course of the report of the Lenin sculpture being destroyed that the coincidence occurred.

The news presenter interviewed someone named Andrew Shoben of an artists collective called Greyworld, "a group of artists that create public art - usually in urban spaces."  In the course of the interview Shoben decried the poor quality of much public art, referring to much of it as 'beige'. So far, so good, so much we are in agreement - though I have a sneaking suspicion we might identify different exemplars of the mediocre public art, but who knows. But then Shoben diagnosed the problem, saying that if artists were given free reign they would not produce such poor work. The problem was down to the constraints placed upon artists by those who commissioned the works, and then selected from among the available artists and proposals. Artists can be 'scary people', and those responsible for commissioning works choose the safe, unchallenging and (therefore) mediocre.

Shoben, it seems to me, is conflating two very different things. On the one hand the constraints upon artists that come with and are contained within "the brief" for a work of public art, and the taste of those who commission and select proposed works. I'm sure there are many instances when such poor taste - call it judgment if you prefer - has resulted in the commissioning of mediocre or poor works of public art. But it should also be noted that there are many factors influencing the commissioning and selection of public art other than the taste of the selectors, no least the reaction (judgment again) of the many people who in various ways have to live with what they select. Wanting to 'get it right', and to choose something that will be loved by as many people as possible is just as likely to lead to mediocre work as poor taste.

But is more or less unconstrained artistic freedom the solution? I doubt Shoben it right to think it is, and that is because I believe Leonardo was onto something right about the conditions under which great art is created. But its hard to even make the point without introducing some of the qualifications I alluded to earlier. Clearly great art cannot be created if the artist is totally constrained, forced to follow a set of narrow instructions that negate any possibility for their imaginative or creative contribution. At the same time it is difficult to imagine any public art that is not to some extent constrained, if only by what the law and public will accept. So the real issue is about the proper balance between artistic constraint and freedom.

Shoben, along with the majority of contemporary artists, suppose a far greater amount of freedom is necessary to achieve this balance than one typically finds on the history of the arts. To choose an extreme example, just think of how much freedom Shostakovich had, or Pasternak? or what about those artists who work within artistic forms? The constraints of the sonnet and the sonata are pretty severe, and it would be frankly odd to suppose poetry and music suddenly became great when such shackles were discarded. (Or consider the very different but very extreme constraint upon Marianne Moore, outlined in this review of the aforementioned biography - though a different review to the one mentioned above)

Even if I don't believe that the production of mediocre public art would end if only artists were free to do what they wanted, I likewise don't think we can solve the problem by greater constraint, or trying to rebalance these two ingredients. It is a sad fact that great public art is a rare thing, and perhaps the most we should ever reasonably hope for is a popular public art, beloved by those who live with it. This is almost certainly because public art, because it is public, has to satisfy far too much to be successful on every level and for everyone. Maybe one measure of such love is a willingness to honour the work by putting a traffic cone on it - do you want to know why people do this? - though clearly some works are at a greater advantage than others in relation to this success condition. Here is another example of how the public can express love, of a sort, for a work of public art.

It would probably do us the world of good if we could occasionally throw some of the stuff away. But I would prefer to not have to live through a national trauma for this to happen.


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