“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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  • Some good points in this argument but there is also some ugly, pompous, pretentious and narcissistic rubbish.
    Public art can be good; there are plenty of examples. The Tinneys in Strabane, for example. (Declaration – my cousin designed and built it.) The popular name is a Strabane in-joke.
    And great art in the renaissance had to be “sold” too, often to a rich prince of the church.

  • backstage

    ‘Pure’ art, as alluded to in the article has become more practised since the advent of public subsidy in the 1930s and the subsequent creation of Arts Councils, etc, that enable the artist to pursue their own work. Up until then most art was commissioned either for a specific purpose by wealthy patrons or for public consumption. Either way it had to meet the ‘market’ so that the patron and the artist could earn a living – it’s nothing new and it doesn’t prevent innovation, experimentation and great art. The writer does have a point though – it isn’t much evidenced in the UK and certainly not in Belfast.

  • Why wasn’t Trillian redesigned to not use steel and polycarbonate? A lightweight composite design could have worked – or even use actual sails rather than making a rigid structure in the shape of sails.

  • lamhdearg

    “battle of the balls” 11th july 11pm, some iconic pictures to be had/taken, ps i have no inside info on this, it’s just a guess. pete i would have put this on M.P.s post but i am boycotting him.