Why don’t we just… have decent public art?

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In the bigger scheme theme of things, and with many more pressing issues facing British society, it seems very trivial to get angry at the current poor quality of new public art. But I believe it symbolises wider issues, most notably a regression into a more conservative and less progressive society and a general paucity of ambition and imagination.

One only has to look at some public art that has appeared in our cities in the last few years to see bland, anachronistic and frankly downright poor examples of the discipline. New, high-profile public art has consisted mostly of statues in recent years. This seems to be a complete rejection of the abstract and histrionic nature of the majority of public art that proliferated from the 1950s onwards.

Figurative statues were rejected, quite rightly in my opinion, by Modernist sculptors because they represented an oppressive patriarchy. Public sculpture of the 19th and early 20th century usually represented men, usually upper class and more often than not military or political figures. The horrors of the First World War and the memorials erected to the dead did something to break this mould and whilst I wouldn’t condone rewriting  history and removing fugitive statues they are surely a thing of the past.

The subject matter of public art has thankfully moved on from war “heroes” and aristocracy but to use a technique that evokes a bygone age is depressing and uninspiring. In Manchester, for example, two recent sculptures have been of Emmeline Pankhurst and Alan Turing. Both of these people deserve a memorial and their lives celebrating but these are outdated figurative statues, no matter how well crafted or well intentioned. Are they the best we can come up with and do they really do justice to the spirit of two people who were both radicals and who have encouraged imaginative and expansive thinking? The statues that have been raised to these inspiring people do not do their legacy justice.

In Liverpool the first sight that many visitors are confronted with as they enter Lime Street station are the statues to Ken Dodd and Bettie Braddock. I’m not going to argue whether or not they are worthy of statues in themselves but I would argue that they are downright ugly and poorly executed, clumsily plonked on the station concourse. I’m more than a little creeped out by both of them.

In Bury a statue was recently unveiled to one of its most loved daughters, Victoria Wood, and I was not alone in being taken aback at not only its lack of a decent likeness but at how badly it was executed. I feel it unfair to question the sculpting skills of the artist responsible but it’s no Rodin’s The Kiss, that’s for sure. Likewise, I feel it’s unfair to criticise the artist of the statue dedicated to Chopin on Manchester’s Deansgate but the whole ensemble is an ugly mess and awkwardly composed, lacking any grace or charm and with very tenuous reasons for its place on Manchester’s streets. I find it all a little bit embarrassing.

I’d like us to move away from cringeworthy statues and be more imaginative and bolder when it comes to our public art. There are many interesting artists out there who are capable of enlivening and invigorating not only our streets but our imaginations, so let’s use them and stop cluttering our streets with poor public art.

Eddy Rhead is a member of the Modernist Society (modernist-society.org)

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