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

A Critical View

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering