Tom Sutcliffe: The critic who made mountains out of public art's molehills of mediocrity

A Critical View

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The Independent Culture

Do we have too much public art? Igor Toronyi-Lalic certainly thinks so, and he's put the case quite vigorously in What's That Thing?, a report for a think-tank – The New Culture Forum – which aims to counter the left's domination of the cultural agenda. What's That Thing? is about the boom in installations and sculptures in public spaces which has, he argues, left us with a "mountain of mediocrity". I agreed with quite a lot of what Toronyi-Lalic says in his paper but I jibbed a little at that phrase. A "mountain of mediocrity", after all, sounds as if it might actually be quite spectacular – the kind of civic gigantism which councils often believe can turn round a failing economy. You can imagine the posters: "Come and climb Rotherham's Mountain of Mediocrity!" What we actually have, unfortunately, is a lot of molehills of mediocrity, which is the worst of all worlds.

But on the flimsiness of the intellectual justification for much public art, Toronyi-Lalic is on pretty solid ground. He rightly questions the grand claims for regeneration that are often attached to taxpayer-funded initiatives, and is also sceptical about the morality of such enterprises. "It disenfranchises people threefold," he argues: "the people who – by and large – pay for it: money is taken from them without their consent; art is commissioned without their consent; and the pieces are then installed without their consent." He's scornful about the consultancies and bureaucrats who advise on how to spend the money and has some killer quotes from artists and critics who could never be described as ideologically on the right.

He also pushes forward a truth that is particularly pertinent in the year of the Cultural Olympiad, when, in an inversion of the natural order of things, money is rushing around looking for suitable ideas rather than the other way round. It's hard to gainsay the sense that the last few years have been a Renaissance of the inconsequential in public art, with works generated and shaped purely by the fact that there's some cash around to pay for them and it might be embarrassing if it isn't spent.

But I'm not sure that all his arguments are consistent, and my uncertainty was crystallised by this early remark in his report: "For every memorable work of imagination there are 10 more that beg to be ignored and forgotten." Toronyi-Lalic appears to regard this as an arraignment of the organisational arrangements currently in place rather than a statement of an eternal truth about all art. It's no use hoping that a better way of consulting the public is going to put such a ratio right – and never mind the fact that he can't seem to make his mind up whether the public should be consulted or not (at one point he criticises their exclusion from the commissioning process and at another warns against "the problem of the tyranny of the public").

His examples, good and bad, seem a bit odd too. More than once Mohamed al Fayed's execrable statue of Michael Jackson is cited as a signal failure of recent public art when it is in fact the private folly of a rich businessman. And Richard Wilson's Turning the Place Over is (rightly) praised as exemplary, even though it was subject to just the kind of public disgruntlement about costs that is quoted against other schemes. On the evidence, Toronyi-Lalic's taste is better than his logic.

A different kind of committee isn't going to solve things, and while less public art certainly wouldn't do a lot of harm right now, the price you pay may well be fewer great works of public art. The truth is that you can't buy excellence, schedule it or recruit it. It strikes like lightning – and far less often than we'd like.

When a comic's lines fail to shine

Thea Sharrock's revival of The Sunshine Boys, just opened at the Savoy Theatre in London, makes for an interesting study in comic cadence, but not one that is always comfortable for one of its two stars. Danny DeVito is in clover as one half of a bickering double act, his accent and voice perfectly attuned to the Jewish-American rhythms of the dialogue. Richard Griffiths is not. He's a wonderful comic actor but he comes from a tradition in which the laugh is frequently drawn from an audience by understatement or sly self-deprecation. In English comedy dialogue you parry the blow as often as you return it. So the patter doesn't quite work. Sharrock should have told him to forget about Noo Yawk and learn to talk Borscht.

The Queen doesn't rule in school

We're going to have to brace ourselves for lists, with the Jubilee about to break, and if they irritate you as much as they do me it's worth remembering that their job is to be wrong. The point was well made by the BBC's New Elizabethans list the other day and by a Diamond Jubilee list of British films from Filmclub, the organisation that helps school screen quality films. It has picked one for every year of the Queen's reign, and there's a fight on every entry. Take 2006, which is represented by Suzie Templeton's animated Peter & the Wolf. One can quite see that London to Brighton or Andrea Arnold's Red Road might have been tricky for a school audience. And similar considerations might rule out Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal or Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering. But to pass on The Queen? Come on. If you want to join the fight the full list is here.