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
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?