Magazine article The Spectator

Space Invaders

Magazine article The Spectator

Space Invaders

Article excerpt

Gerald Laing calls for greater intellectual rigour in the commissioning of public sculpture

Public sculpture is a vital element in the built environment.

It expresses the sense of identity, the intellectual and aesthetic sophistication, and the moral compass of those who engender, adopt and accept it. At first glance, therefore, you might think that the obligation to spend a certain proportion of new-build costs on the commissioning of works of art would be welcome and beneficial.

But when it was first introduced in the US about 30 years ago, all that resulted was the sudden appearance of abstract knots of steel, remarkable for their vacuity, in front of every new building. These objects, many of which seemed merely to respond grudgingly to a perceived artistic obligation, produced confusion, irritation and alienation. The most notorious is Richard Serra's 'Tilted Arc' in Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan, which inconvenienced those who had to live and work around it so much that they agitated for its removal. This was only achieved after a furious legal battle during which, as is usual when criticism is brought to bear on certain contemporary art manifestations, the fascist burning of books was invoked. More often, the public, while resolutely declining to be 'educated' into the acceptance of incomprehensible works of art, simply ignore them.

Art is only really useful when it deals with the eternal problems and questions of the human race in a manner relevant to the present. This requires a process of renewal.

The sum of history is always at the service of the present and is continuously moulded to suit its particular needs; but the present is itself constantly becoming history. Public sculpture is a versatile means of expressing this process, and of remembering what we have learnt and are learning.

While there are, and continue to be, sublime examples of abstraction, I am of the opinion that most abstract art is tantamount to taking a tranquilliser or escaping to an ivory tower. In addition, it is a simple and obvious truth that the quality of figurative sculpture is easier to judge than that of abstract, in both form and content. Many artists, mostly of the abstract persuasion, indulge in a coy symbolism, as if they are fearful of committing themselves to an idea or a position. The most egregious example of this is Daniel Libeskind's claim that the height of his proposed replacement for the World Trade Center - 1776 ft - would commemorate the Declaration of Independence.

This immediately begs the question whether, if America were to adopt the metric system, this significance could continue? Closer to home, we have the New Zealand Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, the proximity of which to Jagger's Artillery masterpiece serves only to emphasise its banality.

Good public sculpture attracts anecdote and legend. Bronze accepts time, wear and even damage gracefully. It bears its scars well, like the figure of the Roman boxer whose honourable wounds were inlaid with gold and silver. Cromwell ordered the equestrian statue of Charles I at Trafalgar Square to be melted down; instead, the blacksmith from Seven Dials, to whom the task was assigned, buried it and dug it up after the Restoration. A coat button is missing from Houdon's George Washington (a bronze version of which is outside the National Gallery) in order to show him as a man of the people. The broken and retied bootlace of the dead soldier on Jagger's wonderful Artillery Memorial serves as a meditation on mortality. …

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