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The return of ‘statuemania’

The British elite is promoting public art in an attempt to plug the hole in public life.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Public artworks are springing up everywhere in Britain’s towns and cities. Victorian statues of royalty, local philanthropists and military heroes have had the rule of public places for over 100 years. Now they are fighting for space with modern sculptures.

Evidence suggests that public art has been steadily growing since the mid-1980s. In 1984, there were an estimated 550 works of modern public art in Britain; by 1993, it was estimated that 750 public art installations had been created over the previous 10 years (1).

Almost every local authority now has a public art programme and a public art manager. Public art isn’t just clustered in metropolitan squares – it’s in small towns, villages, by the coast or in woods. There are 100 works planned for regeneration along the Tyne river; seven works were recently installed on the Blackpool promenade; 22 works have been erected in the centre of Basingstoke since 1990; even the rural Mersea Island in Essex has its own public artwork (2).

Substantial sums of money are being channelled into public art. £986,500 was spent on public art for the Bridlington promenade, while Coventry’s nine-piece Phoenix Initiative similarly cost some £1million. In 2002, the National Lottery reported that in the previous six years it had spent £72.5million on 1500 varying public art projects (3).

Centralised information about Britain’s public art is patchy. One of the rare few national surveys is a database built up by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) – and reading statistics from this suggests that the present boom in public art is unprecedented, bigger even that the ‘statuemania’ of Victorian times. The PMSA has documented the type, date and sculptor for permanent public sculptures across the country (using data gathered by 14 regional archive centres, which amounts to coverage of around 60 per cent of Britain, and involves a balance between rural and urban areas). Coverage is thorough up until 2001, the point at which the PMSA completed the grant-aided section of its survey.

Here are the decade-by-decade results for the number of public sculptures and statues erected (excluding war memorials), when the date of the sculpture is known:

1870-9 – 85
1880-9 – 95
1890-9 – 84
1900-9 – 106
1910-9 – 73
1920-9 – 52
1930-9 – 74
1940-9 – 11
1950-9 – 58
1960-9 – 117
1970-9 – 84
1980-9 – 185
1990-9 – 659

These figures suggest that in the decade of the 1990s there were over six times more sculptures than there were at the high point of statuemania, between 1900 and 1909. Art historian Paul Usherwood, who surveyed the northeast region for the PMSA, said that he had noted a ‘tremendous proliferation’ of works since the 1990s. ‘We surveyed from the Middle Ages, and most of it by far was in the past few years.’ The date of erection was known for two thirds of the sculptures. Even if we allow for the fact that more past sculpture will be of an unknown date than recent works, and so will not register in the statistics, this would not wipe out the lead of the 1990s. In fact, in another sense these results may underestimate today’s obsession with public art, given that many public artworks today are temporary, use digital media, or are a staged ‘event’, rather than a permanent sculpture.

Today’s public art has a phantom quality. It isn’t a response to public demand – we do not have public campaigns to erect a statue to this or that local personage, as there were in the nineteenth century. Public art often appears in local squares unbidden, funded by grants from faceless official bodies. And we barely notice it. There are none of the public processions or rallies that would often accompany nineteenth century unveilings. Few public artworks become a focus for public feeling.

Even if public artworks are in a square, they seem to lurk in the background – they are unassuming, blending into the environment. ‘Today’s public art overall is less concrete, less substantial’, says Jo Darke from the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA): ‘They often don’t claim so much space; they don’t say “I’m a statue, I’m a monument”.’ Paul Usherwood argues that ‘most artworks aren’t much to do with the place in any profound sense. They are often pieces of sculpture that have the same meaning wherever they are, plonked down outside the gallery’. Other artworks seem bland or clichéd – dealing with waves, trees, or birds – and so make little impression.

While on the surface it appears that public art has undergone something of a renaissance, its substance has changed fundamentally. In the past, public art was clearly the expression of political interests. Most public artworks of the nineteenth century came out of politically motivated campaigns launched by associations and groups, mainly resulting in statues of army generals, politicians or royalty. The increase in public art in the 1990s, however, came at a time of growing political malaise, with both the elite and the public retreating from political life.

In marked contrast to the British elite that presided over the Victorians’ statuemania, the elite today does not have a strong ideology; nor does it have heroes to celebrate or a clear set of values to which it wants to win people over. An apt symbol is the vacuous fiasco of the Millennium Dome, New Labour’s single attempt at putting on a national show. And there is no dynamic mass public marching on the streets and calling for its interests to be represented. Participation in elections or political movements is at a low, and public spaces are populated by individuals simply trying to get from A to B.

The boom in public art is an expression of the vacuum in public life. Public art is being promoted by an isolated elite, in an attempt to forge connections with the population and create new forms of civic identity.

Today’s public art is more a state-sponsored initiative than was that of the nineteenth century. The Albert Memorial was among the many Victorian statues that were largely paid for by public subscription. Nelson’s column was partly paid for by donations from the City. A monument to Wellington, representing him as the naked allegorical figure Achilles, was (to the amusement of some) financed from donations by British countrywomen (4). If somebody wanted to put up a statue, he or she would often call a public meeting and open an account for subscriptions.

Public subscriptions for artworks are virtually unheard of now. All the funds and impetus for public art come from official bodies, such as the Arts Council and National Lottery Fund. Another major source of funding comes from regeneration and regional development organisations, and local authorities. It was estimated in the 1990s that around two-thirds of public art funding came from official sources, and only one third from private funders or individuals (5). And when private organisations do fund public art, it is often as part of an official project – the ‘per cent for arts’ scheme, for example, which was set up by the Arts Council in the 1980s. Under this, one per cent of the costs of capital projects, such as rebuilding or refurbishment, would be spent on public artworks – so a new statue would come as an automatic accompaniment to a new set of buildings. Today some local authorities operate a version of this scheme on a voluntary basis, and others have even made it compulsory.

The public art renaissance is driven by a sense that the public is fragmented and voiceless, in need of something to identify with and a means to speak. A recent Arts Council report argued that public art can ‘help to forge a new identity’, ‘create a sense of ownership’ of public space, and be ‘a driver for social renewal’ (6). Bristol Public Art Strategy said that public art could be used to ‘enhance identity and distinctiveness’, ‘enhance civic pride’, and ‘enhance community involvement and empowerment’. The objective is to make Bristol into a ‘legible city’ – ‘to provide the city with a clear identity and to reinforce the character of its individual neighbourhoods’ (7). Derby Public Art Strategy aims towards ‘repairing or regenerating communities… restoring a sense of worth, or achievement and value’ (8).

The hope is that art will humanise public spaces, sparking debate and becoming a focus for the community. One writer on public art, Patricia C Phillips, said in the mid-1990s that the role should be: ‘to assist in the production of a public – to encourage…a participatory audience where none seemed to exist.’ (9) Another, Malcolm Miles, in the late 1980s, lamented the ‘alarming inhumanity’ of public places, ‘a feeling that ordinary people have no claim to the spaces of daily public living’, and posited art as the solution: ‘the role of art is to transform spaces into places, the public into people.’ (10)

Public art of the past

This turns the very idea of public art upside down. Public art was supposed to be about representing the public, not inventing it. It was only with the development of bourgeois democratic society in the late eighteenth century that we encounter a recognisable ‘public art’ – art that embodies the will, consciousness or ideals of a people. When the mass of people came on the scene as political subjects, and leaders were forced to found their legitimacy in the popular will, public art became possible.

Prior to this time, art was placed in public places, but it was little more than a leader’s personal display of power. Roman or Egyptian statues were often plastered with boastful statements about the number of wars they had won or the great buildings they had constructed. In the poem Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelly writes of the ruined Egyptian statue’s ‘sneer of cold command’, and the inscription: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ In this kind of art, the leader is representing himself before the people. The role allotted to the people was to be a passive audience for his statue, to admire his great achievements.

Democratic public art has a two-fold relationship with the public. The first is as an expression of a society’s passions and aims. The artist crystallises out these aims; he concentrates them into a statue. The designer of the Statue of Liberty said that it should be seen as containing the American people (11). Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ – a statue of a man bowed down, deep in thought with his muscles tensed, as if ready to spring into action – was heralded by the public and eventually placed in front of the Pantheon in Paris in 1906. This statue was produced at a time of labour unrest, and Rodin described it as ‘in itself a social symbol’: ‘It magnifies the fertile thought of those humble people of the soils who are nonetheless producers of fertile energies.’ (12)

The second aspect of the relationship is that public art influences society. Because it concentrates society’s ideals and aims, public art helps society to become more conscious of the direction that it is going in. A young man looking at Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’, for example, is supposed to feel inspired, to go away with a new zest to work out what is right and to put this into action. As one writer commented at the time: ‘The statue will uplift the crowd from which genius is born.’ (13) Statues celebrating liberty inspire people to continue fighting for freedom. One monument, a ‘column of liberty’ designed after the French Revolution, aimed to lift up and focus future generations; the plan was that each year the community would gather at the statue and swear to live free or die (14). The designers’ aim was that their gains should not be lost.

This model of public art has only really been realised at the most radical points in history, such as at the dawn of bourgeois democratic society. It was when people were mobilised, and the fetters were removed, that public art could work as a natural expression for the community. Just after the French Revolution, for example, allegorical monuments to Liberty sprang up all over Paris. People made their own temporary artworks, displaying them in plazas or carrying them around in public processions. A fertile iconography was produced; new figures, flags and songs were invented to represent the new society. In these circumstances, the artist has a natural and direct relationship with the people – his role is just to re-present popular slogans and icons in visual form.

In general, however, things are complicated by the fact that democratic society is made up of conflicting interests. Representing ‘the will of the people’ as a whole is difficult when there are conflicting interests. All of those rebelling against the ancien regime might have subscribed to the ideal of liberty during the French Revolution, but it soon became clear that the new bourgeois elite supported only a very limited sort of freedom. Only eight years after the revolution the plaster statues of liberty were demolished and replaced with symbols of order – Napoleon on a column, the imperial eagle, and other symbols of prudence and justice (15). Public art had gone from being a spontaneous expression of popular will to a way of restraining and quietening the public down. It became one of the ways in which the elite tried to win support for the status quo.

Although the statues of military heroes in Trafalgar Square claimed to represent the will of the British people, they embodied exclusive interests. It was the British elite, not the workers in Manchester factories, who were so pleased with Admiral Horatio Nelson for clearing the seas for British trading ships. Parts of the public were openly hostile to Nelson’s Column. As a result, the column spent long years virtually under siege. At one demonstration in 1848, crowds tore up stones from around its base to attack it; after that, the column was boarded up, and demonstrations were banned from the square. Trafalgar Square was adapted to prevent large crowds from gathering, building ridiculously huge fountains to take up standing ground and removing the steps from around Nelson’s column. A square that had been intended for representing the public ended up being fenced off from it.

But nineteenth-century public art was partly successful in winning people over. This was a time of excitement and innovation. A measure of the British elite’s self-confidence can be seen in the Albert Memorial in London, which shows Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert at the centre of Africa, Asia, America; Engineering, Manufacturing, Agriculture; not to mention every great person from Pythagoras onwards.

Today’s public art, by contrast, is put up by an insecure elite without a political mission. Local authorities don’t send artists off to build a monument to the Queen, Tony Blair, or the Iraq War. Instead, it gives the artists an open brief, saying ‘go and create debate and spark public participation, go and regenerate communities and create public identity. How you do that is up to you’.

This gives art a very new role. In previous eras, public art was the handmaiden of politics. It was the artist’s job to express social ideals – be it popular sentiment or elite political agendas. The artist often had very little autonomy: when the Duke of Wellington was pushing to get Nelson’s column up, he overrode the concerns of the artistic community (an angry Art Union said that it hoped that a strong wind would blow the column down on top of the National Gallery, which it also disliked) (16). But today the artist is invested with almost magical powers to solve social problems, and is given free rein to go where he likes. The artist is asked to conjure up the public, to create points of public identification and allegiance. He is a paid-up missionary without a mission.

By funding this kind of public art, the elite is aiming to build connections with the public. But this strategy actually reinforces its distance from the public. It is really a hands-off strategy, a way of avoiding talking to the public directly and instead employing an intermediary. Rather than engaging in public debate, and trying to win allegiance for particular ideas, the elite asks artists to do its job. Artistic creativity is seen as a balm for all ills, a magic power that can get people to relate to one another again and to create new forms of legitimacy for democratic society.

The artist and the people

When artists go out trying to create public identity they can only alienate themselves from their audience – and produce work that means little to anyone.

We can identify three forms of alienated public art that exist today. In the first, which I will term megalomaniac public art, the artist is a blown-up figure that thinks he can give the community an identity. In the second, suicidal public art, the artist becomes the community’s voicebox, simply writing down whatever people say, which means giving up his responsibility for aesthetic form and presenting experiences in the raw. A third form of public art focuses on building relationships, so that any kind of friendship or interaction is seen as ‘public art’.

Megalomaniac public art

The artist’s attempt to give society the identity and energy that it supposedly lacks is an impossible task. No artist, however brilliant, can invent these things. A statue only works if it tells the viewer things that they already know, if it embodies things that they already believe. It can make ideas clearer or more attractive, but it cannot start from scratch. William Hubbard argued that in this respect public monuments function as do religious icons: ‘the power of icon-reading consists in letting us “re-know” something in a new, perhaps more profound, way.’ (17)

Artists who think they have the power to invent identity come up with arbitrary stuff. They often just pick bits of a town or village’s history. Peter Dunn’s ‘Wymering Wall’ in Wymering, Portsmouth, is made up of 90 meters of ‘twisting brickwork’, inscribed with community names, quotes, dates and fossils (18). Sarah Cunnington’s statue for West Malling is of a woman striding forward with a dove in her upraised hand; the statue’s cloak is marked with a pattern depicting the history of West Malling (19). Woolston’s Millennium garden in Southampton has brick paving inscribed with key dates and events in its history, including a list of the local people who served on the Titanic (20). In a public art project organised by the University of Plymouth called ‘window sills’, artist Edwina Fitzpatrick reintroduced species of plants that had been lost to a local area.

Alternatively, artists draw on the local environment. Public art projects in seaside towns generally depict waves, fish, dolphins, sea birds and so on. Morecambe Bay is littered with sculptures of local birds, including seagulls, coots and terns (21). Whitehaven in Cumbria got fish sculptures, a bench framed by a whale’s tale, and leaping fish sculptures (22). The series of sculptures on Bridlington promenade all dealt with the themes of wind and water (23).

These are random choices. Why pick this event from a village’s history rather than another; why pick fish rather than waves? The emphasis on history and the environment is a caricatured idea of community identity. In fact, each community relates in different ways to its history and environment, depending on its present-day values. Artists cannot just assume that a seaside town will want to see statues of fish – especially now that fishing industries have gone and local people tend to buy their fish from the supermarket.

Another kind of public art aims to animate the community. These artists are sometimes even called ‘animators’ – the aim is to shock the public out of its numbness, to make people think and discuss ideas.

The competition to find a new statue for Trafalgar Square’s empty plinth is in this vein. There is no aim to represent public values, or to find a permanent statue for the plinth. Instead, it is all about sparking an ongoing public debate, ‘continually generating new comments’. A spokesman for the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group told me that ‘whatever you put up there will make people passionate, mad, move them. That’s a good thing’. The aim is to get people talking about ‘what public monuments are for, what public art does, what Trafalgar Square is for’. Marc Quinn’s statue of a naked pregnant disabled woman, his artist friend Alison Lapper, summed up this provocative stance. The statue’s veiled message is that people need to be shocked out of their prejudices about disabled people. ‘[N]ow I’m up there, 15ft – you can’t avoid me any more’, said Lapper (24).

Because the aim is merely to excite the public, artists are pleased when their artwork draws negative reactions. When Jody Pinto’s sculpture was vandalised she said that it was ‘wonderful. If art can stimulate that kind of discussion and really make people think…’ (25). One director of a public art agency said: ‘controversy is all to the good if it makes people think and talk.’ (26) Another artist noted that ‘Many works of art provoke scattered grumbling and protests’ – but said that ‘this may in itself be a good thing, for the art therefore fulfils one of its functions by encouraging the exchange of ideas and the excitation of responses and reactions.’ (27)

The public is either seen as a blank slate to be drawn upon, as the artist chooses bits of history for it to identify with; or it is seen as a sullen crowd that the artist has to jog into action. There is no sense of the artist’s responsibility to represent popular sentiments. The artist is the agent with all the power, the public his passive material. The idea is that the problems of public life – such as widespread social fragmentation, the absence of common values or political ideologies – can only be resolved by the artist’s creativity, a magic source of energy that can strike society from outside.

The public can only feel alienated from this kind of art. Art that deals with village history or the local environment is clichéd and anodyne, and work designed to provoke reaction is irritating. Public hostility to artworks isn’t in itself anything that the artist should be pleased about. A negative reaction can just be an expression of the fact that people don’t feel any connection with an artwork, or that they feel they are being mocked. In these cases, public reaction to art isn’t a sign of debate opening up – it is a sign of increasing hostility and cynicism, and debate closing down.

Suicidal public art

Suicidal public art is the inverse of the art described above. Instead of the artist substituting himself for the community, he lets the community speak on its own, in the raw. If the artist were to think too much about aesthetics, goes the argument, this would shut the public out. The only way that he can create something that is genuinely public is by removing himself. Artist Sheila de Bretteville said: ‘They’re speaking and I’m not mediating their speech. I’m simply gathering it and giving it form for others.’ (28)

The artist Jochen Gerz calls this method ‘public authorship’. He designed an artwork for Coventry City Centre called ‘public bench’, a 45-metre-long bench covered with plaques featuring the names and dates of local people. Another Gerz piece, the ‘Harburg monument against Fascism’, was a plain lead-covered column on which local people were invited to engrave their comments. Most of Gerz’s public art objects are plain because this cuts his own expression to a minimum. As one art historian explained: ‘A more artistically distinguished object would be perceived as an exclusive act of creative expression on the part of an individual artist; the more “expressive” the artwork, the more it signifies the personality of the artist and thus (even if subliminally) detracts from its “public” objectives.’ (29)

Bruce Williams’ art project in Skelmersdale, Lancashire involved taking photographs of local people, which were enlarged on billboards on a roundabout coming into the city (30). Another public art project, ‘Moments’, took snapshots of people’s lives and stuck them up on buses or around the city (31). A project called ‘Mapping home’ recorded accounts of the area by children and old people, and played them back over a loudspeaker (32).

Behind all these projects is the idea that the public is best represented directly – in its own words, images and voices. For the artist to mediate these expressions would exclude people.

But once the artist commits suicide in this way, the result is a fragmented series of comments stuck on a plain obelisk; a multiplicity of undecipherable personal portraits; a cacophony of voices. Something that could be said to be ‘public’ is that which lurks in all of us, beneath these individual comments and photographs. It was the role of the artist in genuinely public art to reach for these commonalities. The artist’s concern with aesthetics wasn’t just about showing off – it was about trying to find a way of expressing social values. It turns out that by committing artistic suicide the artist also degrades collective consciousness. He leaves it as a heap of broken images rather than building these fragments into a picture.

This kind of public art also distorts the personal experiences that it draws upon. When people’s photographs, comments and words are made into a public work of art, these things come to seem strange to their owners. The photos on the Skelmersdale roundabout are like the snapshots you would find in a family photo album. Individuals are being thrust into the public arena, which can make things uncomfortable for themselves and for others. As one of the women who had her photo put up in Skelmersdale said: ‘it is quite strange having your face up there, 20-feet high, greeting you every time you come into the town’, and she wondered what her (then seven-year-old) daughter would think when she grew up (33). She also noted how the work had sparked some resentment in the town: ‘There were letters flying into the local press, with people asking why the people on the artwork had been chosen over everybody else.’

The images, figures and inscriptions in traditional public art claimed to represent something common to everybody. Representation wasn’t a literal matter: after all, few French people looked like the figure of liberty, Marianne, with her robes and cap. The point of these figures was to symbolise values that people held dear. By contrast, merely thrusting individuals’ comments and images into the public sphere leaves them fragmented.

Relationship public art

A third form of public art focuses on building relationships between the artist and the public. This is all about process – people’s interactions in the course of making the artwork – rather than the end product of the art itself.

There is a relationship-building school of public art called ‘connective aesthetics’, promoted by the artist Suzi Gablik. One artist went around shaking hands with American sanitation workers – the public art was in the handshake, in the ‘empathetic identification’ that had a ‘healing’ effect (34). Another project, ‘window sills’ in Plymouth, emphasised the ‘exchange and reciprocity’ among those who were part of the project. The focus was on people coming together and participating in the project, rather than the outcome of that participation.

This is a therapeutic reconciliation rather than a relationship. People are merely reaching out and acknowledging each other’s presence, rather than going somewhere new together. Gablik talks about ‘the need for openness, the need for contact, the need for wholeness’ (35). The art project with sanitation workers didn’t try to draw on people’s experiences, or enhance people’s understanding of their situation. The focus is on the simple contact between people – putting aside any thoughts about what might be the purpose of this contact.

These artists might claim that it was more democratic to focus on their relationship with the public, rather than on the art object. Instead of thinking about the expression and posture of a statue, they are thinking about real live people. They see the ‘end product’ of art as a distraction from the process of interaction between people.

But the point is that proper public art is a concretised social relationship. When an artist is thinking hard about his statue’s expression or posture, he isn’t making a purely aesthetic decision and ignoring the public. He is deciding how best to sum up this or that value, how best to represent a victorious battle or revolution. This means trying to go to the root of ‘liberty’ or ‘bravery’, to work out what is its essence. Taking care with the statue, then, also meant trying to get to the bottom of the subject.

Indifference to the quality of art is actually a sign of artists’ indifference to the quality of social relationships. They don’t care about the particular form of public art because they don’t have any views about the particular values that underlie it. They are pursuing relationships with the public as an end in themselves, regardless of their content or quality.

Relationship public art involves the worst aspects of the first two forms of public art. In megalomaniac public art the artist spoke and the public was silent; in suicidal public art the public spoke and the artist was silent; in relationship public art, neither speaks. The only way that they can relate, it seems, is just to connect, to shake hands and let that be that.

A new deal for public art

The renaissance in public art is fuelled by the vacuum in public life. Art is being funded and promoted by official bodies such as the Arts Council and local authorities, in an attempt to create new sources of public identity, to regenerate communities and increase social interaction. But today’s public art reproduces the very problems of social alienation that it is supposed to solve.

Public art increases the elite’s distance from the public. The elite is effectively employing artists as intermediaries to help relate to people, expecting artists to regenerate community identity and spark democratic engagement. Rather than directly engaging the public in debate, the elite is keeping its distance.

Artistic creativity is not a magic salve that can regenerate public life; the artist cannot animate communities, or become people’s voicebox in the public realm. An improvement in public life can only come through the long and hard road of people debating and organising together, deciding what kind of society they want to live in. Attempts to create the public’s identity is likely to result in art that is alienated from it. Rather than bringing people together, this will emphasise their disconnection and make them feel even less the owners of public spaces.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Many of our urban spaces are indeed barren and soulless. This is what the sociologist Richard Sennett calls ‘dead public space’: space that people walk through on their way to somewhere else, rather than a place for meeting and conversing with others. Public art could be part of an attempt to humanise our towns and cities, adding character to chain shops and traffic islands. It could help people to reflect on their relationships with others, and to feel more at home in public spaces. Or it could be lighthearted, sparking interest by being funny, beautiful or mysterious.

For this to happen we would need a more balanced relationship between the elite, artists and the public. Here are a couple of suggestions for how public art could be taken in a new direction.

Cut off the official breadline for public art: When artists are told to go and invent community identity, they have an open brief to indulge their ideas of what that community should be – hence all the excavations of local history, and statues of dolphins and fish. It would be much better if artists had to appeal for public and private subscription for their projects, as they did back in the nineteenth century. They would have to justify their artwork to society and appeal for the public’s support. Artists would have to argue why, for example, it was important to have a statue about village history, or why abstract sculpture would enhance the public space. The public would not just be the passive recipient of a piece of art, but would decide whether it went ahead or not. There might be fewer public art projects, but hopefully those that there were would be more meaningful.

Artists should concentrate on their art: Rather than trying to invent public values, artists should take more responsibility for their art. They should try to find artistic forms that sum up contemporary social experience, and look to the future. How to produce art that makes people more aware of their situation; that presents their aspirations; that sparks their curiosity? Given the present absence of strong political ideologies, it probably is not possible for public art to present an explicit set of values, or hold up particular events or heroes as did public art of the past. Yet it can point the way forward.

Antony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ is a fine example here. This is a 20-metre-high statue on the hill above the A1 in Gateshead, its arms spread wide and its body tilting forward slightly. The angel has no features, and its precise meaning is left open – but its steel structure references the area’s traditional industry, and the figure is aspirational, as well as a protector watching over the region. The angel stands for the hope for a better world – a hope that has yet to find a ‘face’, yet to be expressed in particular values and slogans. Gormley said: ‘I’m just interested in loosening things up and making the world a more exciting place to live.’ (36) Former chairman of the Arts Council Lord Gowrie echoed this, saying: ‘The Angel is trying to ask “is that all we can be?”.’ (37)

The fact that the Angel of the North was partly funded by the Arts Council shows that it is not impossible for artists to use official funding to produce works that resonate with the public. But there would be far more resonant public art if artists had to appeal to the public to justify their work. The removal of official funding would surely spell the end to sculptures of fish, or benches covered with people’s names.

We should see this as a process of negotiation and debate, with the artist trying to persuade the public of the value of his sculpture, rather than accepting the first reaction as final. The immediate public reaction is often very different from the considered one; many public art projects have been clouded in controversy, but have worked out in the end. So long as the artist is sincere about what he has made, rather than just trying to animate people by creating a hullabaloo, controversy is productive.

This way an argument about the kind of art we want for our squares and parks could really help to fill the gap in public life.

(1) The Benefits of Public Art, Sara Selwood, PSI, 1995, p21

(2) Art on the coast; The Great Promenade Show, Public Art Online; Public art, Basingstoke and Deane

(3) ‘Pride of Place: how the lottery contributed £1 billion to the arts in England’, Arts Council England 2002

(4) Victorian Sculpture, Benedict Reed, Yale University Press, 1982, p91

(5) The Benefits of Public Art, Sara Selwood, PSI, 1995

(6) ‘Public art in the South East’, Arts Council South East and SEEDA, 2001

(7) Bristol Public Art Strategy

(8) Derby Public Art Strategy

(9) Patricia C Phillips, in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (ed) Suzanne Lacy, 1995

(10) Art for Public Places, Malcolm Miles, Winchester School of Art, 1989, p4

(11) ‘The public as sculpture’, Michael North, in Art and the Public Sphere, WJT Mitchell, 1992

(12) Rodin’s thinker and the Dilemmas of Modern Public Sculpture, Albert E Elsen, Yale University Press, 1985

(13) Rodin’s thinker and the Dilemmas of Modern Public Sculpture, Albert E Elsen, Yale University Press, 1985

(14) Space and Revolution: Projects for Monuments, Squares, and Public Buildings in France, 1789-1799, James A Leith, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991, p60

(15) Marianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France, 1789-1880, Maurice Agulhon, Cambridge, 1981

(16) Victorian Sculpture, Benedict Reed, Yale University Press, 1982, p87

(17) ‘A meaning for monuments’, in The Public Face of Architecture, (eds) Glazer and Lilla, Free Press, 1987, p128

(18) ‘Public Art in the South East’, Arts Council, 2001

(19) ‘Public Art in the South East’, Arts Council, 2001

(20) ‘Public Art in the South East’, Arts Council, 2001

(21) ‘Public Art Northwest’, Northwest Development Agency, 2003

(22) ‘Public Art Northwest’, Northwest Development Agency, 2003

(23) ‘Pride of Place: how the lottery contributed £1 billion to the arts in England’, Arts Council England, 2002

(24) ‘Why shouldn’t my body be art?’, Guardian 17 March

(25) ‘The malignant object: thoughts on public sculpture’, Douglas Stalker and Clark Glymour, in The Public Face of Architecture, 1982

(26) The Benefits of Public Art, Sara Selwood, PSI, 1995, p56

(27) The Benefits of Public Art, Sara Selwood, PSI, 1995, p57

(28) Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, (ed) Suzanne Lacy, 1995

(29) ’Public art as public authorship’, Jonathan Vickery, Public Art Online

(30) ‘Public Art Northwest’, Northwest Development Agency, 2003

(31) Locality, Regeneration and Diver(c)ities, Sarah Bennett and John Bulter, Intellect 2000, p124

(32) Locality, Regeneration and Diver(c)ities, Sarah Bennett and John Bulter, Intellect 2000

(33) ‘Public Art Northwest’, Northwest Development Agency, 2003, p36

(34) The Reenchantment of Art, Susi Gablik, Thames and Hudson, 1991, p74

(35) The Reenchantment of Art, Susi Gablik, Thames and Hudson, 1991, p7

(36) Introducing the Angel

(37) What people are saying about the Angel of the North

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