The good, the bad and the ugly

After taking part in a Radio 5 debate entitled ‘Is public art a waste of money?’ last night, Greyworld founder Andrew Shoben shares his conclusions with Design Week

The age of austerity is upon us! We are being prepped for the spending cuts that will ‘affect us for a generation’. And against this backdrop, I was asked to talk on Radio 5 Live about Public Art.

Andrew Shoben
Andrew Shoben

Surely this is the easiest place for the axe to fall? I mean, who really loves the highly polished rocks that adorn the office forecourts? Who will defend the murals and the cheesy bronze figures on train station platforms?

I feel the itch to write about bad public art here – how for the most part it comes from artists thinking you can do what you do in a gallery, and stick it outside. But its not for this writing.

Let’s be clear. Some public art is very good. Some is very bad. And some is so banal as to be practically invisible. And I am no apologist for the whole lot. But as the radio debate confirmed, this soon becomes a discussion about what role or worth any of this work has in modern life. And to that I say – good public art makes life worth living.

Good art is food for the soul. It challenges us. It comforts us. It places us in our world. Sometimes, it even frustrates and annoys us. All these things are vital.

Sure, public art is often a simple blend of our history and identity, rolled into space and left there. But these objects are often inspirational too. Walk over and touch them. Consider them. Reject them if you want. But they are magnets for this consideration. Nothing offers us this quite like public art.

Public art defenders often mention the economic benefits. These are notoriously difficult to quantify, and while I’m not disagreeing with the idea, we don’t need them to see the vital role that public art plays.

If we need to put up with a few cheesy murals to keep public art alive, that’s a price I’m happy to pay.

Listen to Andrew on the Tony Livesey show here.

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  • Max Holloway November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The ‘what’ and ‘where’ will continue as long as public funding (the how) is part of the package.

    For a public that is seldom (if ever) consulted, the ‘what’ is likely to spark huge debate. We are very good at this in the UK because we are always right… each and every one of us along with our wide-ranging quality-thresholds.

    The ‘where’ debate is easy to address. I recommend we use the parameters of respect and common sense which have been awol for a few years now.

    Whatever, wherever we site in the urban environment the commissioners and appointers would do well to take on board the words of Robert Hughes – “If art can’t tell us something about the world we live in, then there’s no point having it”. Now that’s what I call a ‘why’ criteria.

    Tip – the audio on the iPlayer link doesn’t kick in till around 1hr 40mins. So if you want to avoid big brother and smithy chat, I suggest you scrub through a tad.

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