"Stalinist nonsense" and thunderous applause as distinguished panel debates public art

By Anne Field | 26 May 2009
A picture of a middle-aged man staring into the camera outside a building

Grayson Perry (above) appeared at the debate in his customary attire

Talk: Can the Public be Trusted to Choose Public Art?, The RSA, London, May 20 2009

Public participation is rarely allowed when it comes to choosing art for public spaces, the power falling instead to committees of experts. But in an environment where public art commissions are on the rise, the latest debate at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) posed a simple question: should the public choose public art?

It seemed fitting that the event was organised by The Art Fund to coincide with the four-part Channel 4 series they had backed, Big Art, which follows the issues surrounding public art projects commissioned by seven communities, also supported by Arts Council England.

Kept under control by Jon Snow, the panellists included Jonathan Jones, art critic for the Guardian; Munira Mirza, Cultural Advisor to the Mayor of London; Grayson Perry, the Turner Prize winning artist; Andrew Shoben, an artist of Greyworld and a Professor of Public Art.

After an introduction by Art Fund Deputy Director Andrew MacDonald, clips from the Channel 4 series were played and an initial vote cast. The majority support for citizen involvement in public art elicited an indignant groan from Perry, disconsolate in his bright frock, before he opened the debate with force.

"Maybe they (the public) are spending their own money, but they are far from experts," he argued. "Considering all we've recently heard about our MPs, democracy has terrible taste. If the public had to decide what would go on the fourth plinth you'd have Lady Diana, riding on a dove, winning the Battle of Britain," he added, mocking the "garishly earnest community mural."

"Public art is becoming a completely separate discipline from contemporary art," said Perry, scourging the "carrot-based" nature of the work. "It has to go through all the hoops of health and safety, it must not cause offence, it must fit the budget. If someone waves a cheque in front of an artist suddenly they become all inspired about Burnley or somewhere."

This blatant stab at Andrew Shoben, the artist chosen for a commission in Burnley in Channel 4's series, prompted immediate boos, although his conclusion – "the greatest art is made because an artist needs to make it, not because people voted for it to regenerate their tourist economy" – drew thunderous applause.

Munira Mirza was next to respond to the arguments for public choice in public art, conceding some of Perry’s arguments. "We want excellent public art...and none of us would choose to have mediocre art in our public spaces," she pointed out. "At least when you have mediocre art in a gallery you can avoid the gallery. When it's in the public domain you can’t avoid it, and you feel a bit more at stake."

Mirza pointed to the "long and noble tradition of artists talking with the public as part of their artistic process." "I don't think the avant garde is anti-public," she said. "I think it's about artists being confident of the positions they take and wanting to convince the public of their vision."

Jonathan Jones followed with the conjecture that "people have a contempt for artists – a fear of artists and a dislike of artists." "Whereas most people accept that someone who writes a novel is a respected cultural producer...(it is) still middle of the road opinion to think that Grayson is a fraud and a sham going around in his dress," he explained.

"If I was going to an art gallery and I chose what I wanted to look at before I went in I would be Stalin or Hitler," explained Jones, pleading for the artist's personal development to triumph over public consent: "If we believe in an artist, we let them do what they want. We give them the money and say 'create something fantastic, surprise us,' and if we don't believe in artists and don't believe in public art then we should be honest about that. Those are the two choices. The idea that the public can tell us what to do is Stalinist nonsense."

Andrew Shoben responded by accusing the artists involved. "It's kind arrogant to think 'as an artist I come up with a great idea, slap it in the middle of a town and go home,'" he said. "They don’t live where that work is. They don't get up every morning and have to walk past it or sit next to it.

"We are seeing a shift now where the focus cannot be solely on the greatness of their (the artist's) talent, but also on the ability of audiences to understand the work, to like it, to not like it, to be educated."

Shoben asserted that public consultation was "vital" in moving past "this idea that the artist knows best all the time." The heated debate which ensued questioned everything from why a small committee might be more intelligent than the public ("because they're expert…You wouldn't want to be operated on by someone who is a citizen surgeon would you?" answered Perry) to whether public art really had transformative qualities for regeneration of towns and cities.

The final vote revealed little shift in opinion, with more than 60% of the audience still voting in favour of public involvement in Public Art. The lone audience member to explain his change of heart was Jonathan Swan, the city banker who represented Newham in Channel 4's series.

"I just couldn't understand some of the stuff I was introduced to at the beginning of the program," he admitted. "I still don't understand, and I can't understand the people who claim they understand this stuff."

It was left to Jon Snow to assure his confused addressee. "Deep down none of us understand," he concluded.

The audio recording of the debate is available on the RSA’s website.

Catch The Big Art Project every Sunday at 7pm on Channel 4. Click here to see the first episode (broadcast May 10 2009).

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