“The trouble with public art…”

The ‘Balls on the Falls’ are nearing completion, at a reported cost of £486,000.  Timely then to read the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones on news that Mark Wallinger’s proposed giant white horse at Ebbsfleet is unlikely to become a reality.  From Jonathan Jones’ blog

The trouble with public art is that it is a load of ugly, pompous, pretentious and narcissistic rubbish dumped on a snoozing public by arrogant bureaucrats and sponsors … Sorry, leapt to the point a bit fast there, let’s rewind.

The trouble with public art is that it requires a set of skills in an artist that are precisely the opposite of the qualities that attend true talent. Real artists only care about their work. They enjoy having wild ideas, creating unexpected images, testing taste and goading imagination. Real art is unpredictable, and a bit mad. It does not fit into readymade boxes – the entire point of it is to leap beyond expectations, to think the unthought. The function of the artist in western history is to create the new. From Michelangelo to Picasso, artists have shown people new possibilities.

Public art, as it is practised in modern Britain, demands a very different set of skills from the ones that give the world great art. The public artist must be able to negotiate with businesses, councils and arts bodies, to explain an idea and to supervise it through complex practical processes. Big art needs big planning. Public art has to be precisely costed and “sold” to potential funders. It also has to be sold to a variety of local interest groups who may object to it. So the public sculptor of today needs to be manager, accountant, politician and PR expert. Is that anyone’s idea of a born artist?

The history of ‘Rise’, “the tallest piece of public art ever commissioned in Northern Ireland”, would tend to support that argument.

‘Rise’ was selected in 2008 after the original 2005 selected design, ‘Trillian’, by Oregon-based artist Ed Carpenter, was crushed, reportedly due to the escalating cost of steel.

As Jonathan Jones concludes

But that’s the nature of the beast; that’s the culture of public art. It is not about crazy ideas getting made. It’s about safe pairs of hands providing PR fodder for cities that think a Gormley of their own will lift them out of the doldrums. It is a production line for boring art, and mavericks have no place in its dreary ethic.

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