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20 May, 2009

The public can’t be trusted to commission public art

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Public art is not a matter for the majority – people should simply cough up and stand back as talented artists indulge themselves

So last night I participated in a panel discussion with the campaigning charity Changing Faces. It was chaired by Sandy Nairne, who was very nice considering some of the things I’ve written about the National Portrait gallery (of which he is director), and featured among other speakers Marc Crank, whose name I spelled wrong in my previous comment on this subject. Crank was sitting near the compelling portrait of himself by Alastair Adams that I reproduced with my blog a couple of days ago. It was fascinating to hear artist and model talk about the portrait sessions, and the more I look at this painting, the more impressed I am. It is done in what might be called standard National Portrait gallery style – an accurate and traditional portrait, but Marc’s striking appearance makes it a powerful, moving image.

Disfigurement is a good subject for artists. Many painters and photographers in the audience expressed their interest in taking it on. The three portraits on view were not directly commissioned by Changing Faces but taken on for political, artistic and personal reasons by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, whose annual exhibition at the Mall galleries was the setting for the event.

And this brings me to the second debate I’m doing this week, which kicks off at 8.15 tonight at the Royal Society of Arts. This promises to be much more aggressive. It’s called the Big Art Debate, is staged by the Art Fund and connected with the current Channel 4 series, the Big Art Project. Jon Snow chairs. It asks: Can the public be trusted to choose public art? Grayson Perry and I will argue that no, they bloody well can’t. Munira Mirza and Andrew Shoben will argue that they can.

As it happens, the Changing Faces discussion provided interesting evidence of why artists must always do their own thing. The public must cough up the cash then stand well back; they must trust artists and encourage their experiments. Many of the paintings on the walls at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters are commissioned works. By contrast the pictures we were talking about at the debate were different in motivation, more personal and original.

The public artist’s lot in modern Britain is similar to that of the portrait painter. In this century, we’ve fallen in love with public art; every city wants its Angel of the North. But just as the British portrait has been restricted for centuries by the tastes of the commissioning classes, public art is never going to be great art so long as it has to conform to the prejudices, enthusiasms and assumptions of the majority.

It’s as if we have, as a nation, turned into the board of some big company commissioning a portrait of the managing director. Or, rather, a bronze statue of John Betjeman, or maybe a gigantic homage to a sprinter like Manchester’s B of the Bang (bang and it’s gone). Most of the public art we’re putting up is worthless.

The best interventions in public space by artists are often confrontational and controversial, from Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc to Rachel Whiteread’s House. All good art is private before it is public. The secret to finding great art for public spaces – and, for that matter, great art to change attitudes to disfigurement – is to find talented artists who happen to be interested in working in that arena. Then let them indulge themselves.

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