AAJ Press
Art & Public Space, Commissions & Projects

The fate of Wallinger’s horse shows why public art cannot be good art. Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. July 5 2011

The cost of Mark Wallinger’s Ebbsfleet Landmark, a giant white horse planned for the Kent countryside, is now estimated at £12 million and unlikely to happen. Jonathan Jones in his On Art blog in The Guardian ruminates on the nature of the (public) artist. 

“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 … …..”

……”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.”

The public art that developed in the last twenty years was a very specific art genre that grew out of a desire to change the environment and add back in some of the culture that was being lost through a wholesale modernisation of towns throughout Britain in the 60s, 70s and 80s. This still continues as cities are deracinated as shopping behemoths become extinct or move out to retail parks leaving the old commercial town centres empty and confused. There was also a parallel but fairly separate Situationist type activity (Gordon Matta-Clark is a good example) where artists did wacky interesting things outside the studio.

What changed was a philanthropic mixture of over a billion pounds of lottery funding together with a government keen on art and regeneration that supported an artistic and administrative activism to manage art and environmental projects on an unheard of scale. It was a bit of an adventure as there was no central strategy for this spend of an estimated £150 million a year in the UK over twenty years, and no central recording or evaluation of all the stuff produced. So no wonder that what happened was a Stargazy Pie of all sorts of good, bad and indifferent art in public places.

What we are looking at now is the Ozymandias part of the cycle of vast dislocated trunkless legs of stone, grand projets where the economic support and the political and social will has changed. We will still see the odd iconic landmark but budgets for grand public art projects are increasingly justified only for sound marketing and tourism reasons. Its worth looking at Cecil Balmond’s contribution as a civil engineer involved as Praxiteles’s chisel holder in both the ArcelorMittel Orbit sculpture at the Olympic Park (with Anish Kapoor) and the giant Star of Caledonia gateway sculpture at Gretna (with Charles Jencks). Mark Wallinger’s Ebbsfleet Landmark was a fun project but its primary Medicean commissioning concept was as a Mount Rushmore style marketing image for the Eurostar link. I am afraid it has missed its time.

The next generation of art activity will be stimulated from artists’ studios where ideas are valued as much as social engineering art projects. They will be exploring the world of digital communications and Pop-up temporary shops and spaces. Most of the public art of the last twenty years was ephemeral and will pass out of memory and its legacy will be the desperate investigations of PhD researchers bravely trying to piece together what actually happened.

The irony is that the predominant image of Britain left over from this extended public art festival will be the hardcore establishment plinths in Whitehall celebrating military triumphalism and political worthies, and the strange cult seen with the Michael Jackson statue at Fulham FC as part of a trend for civic and celebrity veneration. Although an unacknowledged area of public art commissions are the ever growing memorials for footballers. They may have nothing to do with contemporary art but there are now 100 of these traditional bronze statues on plinths and memorials outside football grounds. A perfect round of public art chosen, and subscribed to, by the people for the people.

(read full article in The Guardian online)


About jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space


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