Public art: awesome or awful?

Does your heart leap when you pass a statue in the town centre, or do you believe putting it up was a waste of money? Can we make public art more meaningful for a greater number of people? Steven Russell talks to an academic who says we should be asking the question

Steven Russell

Does your heart leap when you pass a statue in the town centre, or do you believe putting it up was a waste of money? Can we make public art more meaningful for a greater number of people? Steven Russell talks to an academic who says we should be asking the question

LIKE politics and religion, art can polarise opinion. In-your-face public art is more divisive still. And when it's contemporary public art . . . well . . . light the blue touch-paper and stand well back. Take Maggi Hambling's Scallop (which didn't actually draw from the public purse but has a high profile on Aldeburgh beach) and The Angel of the North (which did - �1million, in round numbers, via the National Lottery.) Take, too, the ongoing controversy over both the look and cost of the not-yet-open firstsite contemporary visual arts building in Colchester ? an artistic statement in itself. Unveil some sculpture in a town street and there will be folk who like it and those who don't, purely on aesthetic grounds. Others will dismiss it as irrelevant. Some will resent it because they feel it's been imposed on them by a ruling elite that otherwise cares little about their lives. Rubbing salt into the wounds will be the thought that public money - cash that could have been better spent elsewhere, perhaps - has paid for the new addition.

There's further tension because of the symbolism of public art: the messages and motives behind it. Towns, cities and regions undergoing regeneration are wont to use art to send a signal that they're bold and bright, full of vitality and innovative inhabitants, going places and open for business - so please come and invest here by opening a factory, office or science park. Such drum-banging calls for art that pushes the boundaries and attracts attention - hence so many works are from the modern school (and therefore liable to alienate significant numbers of locals).


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Issues like these will be considered by academic Matthew Poole, thrilled to be following in the footsteps of luminaries such as former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and giving the 2010 University of Essex Burrows Lecture next month.

His talk has the intriguing title “From chavs to contemporary art: anti-institutionalism and iconoclasm in Essex” and will ask what is appropriate to represent the county, culturally, in the 21st Century. (More about the chavs angle in a moment.)

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He makes it clear he won't be delivering any firm conclusions! “What it will probably be working towards is that the complexity of the power of symbols of culture is what we should be increasingly aware of and most vigilant of - and most proud of as well.”

When you're installing public art, the trick, then, is to get it right - and in Matthew's view it's crucial the public is involved and feels its voice is heard - “connected to the process as much as the final symbol that is produced. That is the central challenge, I think, to local government, central government, and bodies such as the Arts Council and EEDA (the East of England Development Agency)”.

He cites an initiative in Harlow, part of a three-year project developed and funded by Essex County Council to develop feelings of “spirit of place”.

The artwork was abstract and temporary, but seemed to have been positively received because it chimed with the community thanks to a lot of pre-publicity, talks, meetings, performances, chances to talk to the artist and so on.

“In many ways it's a question of visibility and making it publicly known that these things are going on, and that it's not just 'shipped in'. I think that's the real challenge,” says Matthew, who's from the university's Department of Art History and Theory.

There are other hurdles to clear: art often gets a bad press, for instance, and many people believe it to be elitist. He'll tackle that in his lecture, asking “What is legitimate culture? And what forces exist in our society and communities that legitimatise those cultures?” He's adamant public art is not something that should be imposed by art historians or curators like himself. But there's the rub: trying to get people to recognise themselves as a community and decide on something the vast majority would like.

Which is where “chav culture” comes in, with something of a lesson for the rest of us.

“Poor old Essex does suffer from something of a negative reputation because of so-called rowdy, so-called disruptive teenagers who have this clearly-identifiable culture of Burberry caps, tracksuit bottoms and white trainers. And the classic Essex Girl stereotype, and The White Van Man.

“In many ways it's a shame that's regarded as a negative trait within society, because what I'm going to argue is that chav culture perhaps shows us a model of a community working very well: these young kids who feel disaffected with local government and central government, and middle-class values, because there are no jobs in their region or they have to do soul-destroying tasks.

“It's no wonder a culture that is both aggressive and isolationist should emerge, because these kids create something to (make them) feel that they are strong - to substitute for the other weaknesses they might perceive in their lives.

“Several commentators have argued that chav culture is something we should admire, for its consistency and its strength: a sub-culture that really works. It may not have the style or the 'product' that a governing class would approve of, but actually, as a community that self-regulates and has grown organically, it's an incredibly strong model.”

Matthew's not arguing that public art should feature chavish iconography - more that the sub-group “does offer a model of a community that communicates with one another much more directly than other elements of our society. So that's a lesson many of us could learn. It's a model of self-representation and decision-making: organic growth . . . it hasn't been imposed top-down”.

Surely, though, public art has to attempt to unite a wide, diverse and large population - a much harder trick to pull off than pleasing a united section of the populace?

“It's a challenge of understanding and somehow activating the community to recognise itself as a community - as opposed to a society that, some argue, is merely a collection of individuals bound by operational forces such as economics and the need to produce food.

“A community is bound by, let's say, moral imperatives - it's bound by stories that everybody shares in - and the question is about how to create art that would first of all prompt those stories to be produced or recognised or consolidated. At the same time, an important part of that moral communion is also self-reflection: a community understanding that it must, together, make itself better or stronger or more fair. “Public art is a huge indicator of what our aspirations are, what our dreams are, what our images of ourselves as communities are.”

Looking at it can make us pause for reflection: “to have a 'what if? moment and think about some of the basic questions that are all too often squeezed out by thoughts of having to pay the mortgage and feed the kids.

“One can't quantify how useful that's going to be in the future. One just has to have faith in it, I suppose - that people who feel confident and free to ask questions, and to think for themselves, will produce a better community. But it's not measurable, and that's generally why people poo-poo it or are cynical or sceptical about it.

“And, ironically, at a time when we clearly see that the vagaries at the edges of venture capitalism have nearly brought the world to a standstill, this is really a time when we need people to ask 'How else can we organise our society? What other principles, as opposed to the accumulation of capital, could we organise ourselves around?'”

Again, he laughs that his lecture won't be putting forward any magic answers. But we do need to consider the question.

“I certainly don't believe that civic monumental statuary” - of prominent businessmen, politicians, landowners, religious figures, philanthropists and so on - “is the right form to bind communities together, because we don't any longer have a feudal aristocracy. We don't have the same belief system - we're a multi-faith society with a large part of that society not having a religious belief, or sceptical of religious beliefs - and so those sorts of statues don't really do the job any more.”

A tradition begun in the Sixties

THE 2010 Burrows Lecture is at 7.30pm on March 9, in the Lakeside Theatre at the University of Essex. Admission is free but by ticket only ? which can be obtained by ringing 01206 872807 or emailing events@essex.ac.uk

The lecture series began in 1966 after a financial gift from Major J H Burrows, the proprietor of an Essex newspaper group. He asked that each talk be relevant to the county and be open not only to members of the university but the general public, too.

Past speakers have included Bruce Kent, general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and Andrew Motion, then Poet Laureate. Topics have ranged from ice-age mammals to witchcraft.

• Matthew Poole joined the university about seven years ago, after working for galleries in London. He is programme director of Essex's Centre for Curatorial Studies and director of the MA in Gallery Studies and Critical Curating.

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