Arts feature

The Spectator declares war on bad public art

Stephen Bayley announces the launch of The Spectator’s inaugural What’s That Thing? Award for the worst piece of public art of 2015

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

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.

‘B of the Bang’, Manchester, by Thomas Heatherwick Studio
‘B of the Bang’, Manchester, by Thomas Heatherwick Studio

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.

Live-action graphic of a city’s beating heart: gasholder at Kensal Green
Live-action graphic of a city’s beating heart: gasholder at Kensal Green

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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Email your candidates for the worst piece of public art of 2015 to The shortlist for the inaugural What’s That Thing? Award will be announced at the end of the year. A winner will be chosen early next year. Stephen Bayley, who launches ‘What’s that thing?’, The Spectator’s prize for bad public art, is the author, among other things, of A Dictionary of Idiocy and Charm: A Victim’s Guide.

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Show comments
  • WFB56

    An excellent thought provoking article with a particularly good line which is a broader commentarty on Britain today, “One, we have no heroes, nor any agreed values.”

  • edithgrove

    “It will pursue Gormley’s ‘crap’ ”

    Your sentence should have ended there, he’s the biggest offender.

  • Barba Rossa

    The Kelpies, are quite awesome…had they been displayed in some art gallery big enough to take them … No doubt would find many punters willing to pay to see them..but then again the simply effect of putting a traffic cone on the head of the Duke of Wellington, is most effective, and reflects his esteeme in certain parts.

  • Phil Jones

    Drivel. It’s hardly surprising that we live in a Britain where “we have no heroes, nor any agreed values” when attempts to provoke thought and discussion are shot down with such sniping, self-satisfied glee.

    If you really want to encourage genius the best way is to… encourage genius. Don’t just bang on about all the examples you don’t feel are up to scratch. It’s art, for heaven’s sake. You don’t like it but someone else probably does, that’s pretty much the point.

    And why are you spreading false ideas about the way public art comes into being? (“worried into existence by ambitious arts administrators with
    unemployed ‘sculptors’ or aesthetically inclined welders on their books”) Surely you know that’s nonsense.

    Stephen, I’m guessing from the title of your book that you’re one of those people that thinks they have “good taste”. Oh dear. I feel sorry for you and even more sorry for those around you.

    • adonbilivit

      Okay you’ve shot him down with gainsay and insult, so what actual evidence do you have? I can name several pieces of horrible art, taxpayer funded and offensively badly put together. I think he’s right.

      • Phil Jones

        Evidence for what?

        • adonbilivit

          All you’ve done is contradict him and insult him.

          • Phil Jones

            Yes, that was my intention. Evidence for what though?

          • adonbilivit

            Okay, you’re wrong, and you’re obviously a public sector lefty PC bore. See what I did there?

          • Phil Jones

            Ouch. Evidence for what though?

        • Perpetually Astonished

          Evidence for:
          (1) “attempts to provoke thought and discussion are shot down with such sniping, self-satisfied glee” (well actually your comment is an example of what you condemn so I suppose you can overlook the need for evidence in this case).
          (2) “If you really want to encourage genius the best way is to… encourage genius.”(evidence, I suppose, that this is anything but a vacuous tautology.
          (3) “You don’t like it but someone else probably does” (evidence that just because someone likes something we should care about their quite possibly feeble and ill-informed preferences)
          (4) “false ideas about the way public art comes into being” (evidence that you know anything about how public art ‘comes into being’)

          (5) evidence that you’re capable of comment that addresses the question rather than merely insults the author.

          • Phil Jones

            1) I didn’t start it.
            2) The vacuousness of the tautology is deliberate. I’m trying to draw attention to the insincere claim that the award is designed to encourage rather than shame.

            3) Evidence that you should care about other people as well as yourself? I’m not really sure what kind of form that evidence would take.

            4) Where is the author’s evidence that this is how public art is commissioned? Maybe that would be the logical place to start.

            5) You sound lovely.

    • the result of PC-bloat.

  • Bill chapman

    No reference to street art here. It may not be publicly funded per se but it is by far the most relevant medium of public art currently. Genuine wit, intelligence, and social commentary can be found easily.

    • post_x_it

      “Genuine wit, intelligence, and social commentary”, i.e. Free Gaza, *** Da Police, ****** Woz Ere, Tory Scum… any others you’ve recently seen?

  • adonbilivit

    Excellent. I have my personal “favourite” which I will be arguing the case for.

  • Just Looking

    First thought was that it will much harder to decide which piece of bad public art should get the award – there being so many! – than to find one good enough to deserve a more positive accolade.

    Relatively speaking, I agree with M Bayley that ‘The Angel of the North’ is preferable to ‘The Meeting Place’, but only because the former just might work on another site, whereas the latter would be unspeakable anywhere*. As for the idea that Gormley “has since advanced his art with great subtlety”, too much of his output is that of a self-obsessed one-trick-pony in desperate need of a new idea.

    (*the nearby Betjeman statue is marginally better, but perhaps only because it isn’t burdened with quite as much sickly sentiment.)

    But I strongly disagree with Bayley’s verdict on ‘B of the Bang’. I hope someone somewhere will work out how to get it safely back on display soon. It totally captures the sense of energy and movement in the instant of its inspiration. In this age of the selfie it could become a destination of itself, something people would travel miles to see and pick their own spike. Perhaps some local entrepreneur would foot the bill?

  • John Andrews

    Art requires tasteful patrons. Committees cannot commission great art.

    • Surely, over and above the taste of the sponsor Art requires talented artists.

      • John Andrews

        If you rely entirely on the artist’s judgement then talent may be enough. Bad patronage can de-rail an artist (I think).

  • dalai guevara

    Crazy Horses = Jaume Plensa done badly.

  • Fraser Bailey

    Well, yes, some of us have been saying this for years. Some time ago I proposed that the Crap Towns/Crap Cars series be extended with a book entitled Crap Public Art. There are countless examples to choose from, all commissioned by imbecilic local councillors and executed by terrible artists.

  • Rossminster

    Great article, and a fun idea. But re. Anthony Gormley’s Angel Of The North. This is an example of public art which is hugely popular. It is certainly impressive, either at a distance or close-up, and was pretty much instantly taken to the hearts of north-easterners who – in my experience at least – know it well and like it equally.

  • Art, like journalism, very much at the behest of Emporers clothes.

  • William Pate

    I have your winner. From Austin, Texas, USA, comes: Weird blue panels with no purpose! (Seriously. It’s public art.)

  • Lucy Hawthorne

    Serra’s Tilted Arc was never meant to be ‘the result of joyous public participation – it was meant to disrupt. Unlike the sanitised public artworks popular at the time, his sculpture wasn’t meant to be a pretty thing to look at; rather, it made people re-examine the open space in a new way. It was deliberately antagonistic and uncomfortable, preventing people from easily crossing the space, providing no seating or shade, and thus revealed the social divisions that public spaces generally hide (and to be honest, its removal probably made it *more* successful). The fact that a terrorist expert was called in testify that Serra’s sculpture could encourage a bomb threat, demonstrates the hysteria surrounding the issue and eventual court case. The backlash wasn’t an immediate thing either – it was initiated by a wealthy businessman with arguably vested interests. What’s more, the local media and key opponents conjured up a false nostalgia for the pre-artwork square, which wasn’t exactly the ‘remembered’ people-friendly place. One legacy of this drama was that administrators are still scared of commissioning anything too challenging or critical, which is why we end up with so many of the banal sculptures described in this article. The case is similar to the removal of Ron Robertson-Swann’s ‘Vault’ (1980) in Melbourne, Australia, which also ‘scarred’ decision-makers, and continues to influence Australian public art policies to this day; for instance, commissioning notes almost always have a clause that allows the work’s removal without question.