The assumption is that public art is somehow good for new buildings and good for all of us. This is a wholemeal notion that is at best vague and at worst patronising. What if a building is better than the art applied to it or standing alongside it? And are there enough good 'public' artists to go round?
There is every indication that contemporary 'art' shows some of the ailments we saw in the old British Leyland motor manufacturer, namely over-manning by badly trained workers producing too much poor-quality work which few want to buy. Architecture and industrial design, on the other hand, two crucial disciplines that really can shape the environment and help the economy, are intellectually and creatively
Understandably then, the ailing art world, in its search for subsidy, is trying (once again) to latch on to buildings, arguing for a reunion of the disciplines of art and architecture separated in the 19th century. But both partners have changed since then and marriage a second time round makes little or no sense.
Good modern architecture needs no art and bad modern architecture cannot be rescued by art. Most public art objects fail because they tend not to be very interesting: they do not capture the imagination because they have less wit, meaning and interest than a cleverly devised and well-executed 45-second lager advertisement on television.
We, the ordinary persons in the street, are good at making visual inferences, picking up on puns and decoding multi-layered imagery because we have been instructed at our leisure by tightly edited television, video and advertising. Public art is for the most part simply not as sophisticated; it cannot hope to capture our imagination.
Good modern architecture, on the other hand, contains within its design and layout its own story. Take, for example, the much-praised buildings by Foster Associates at Stansted Airport, Essex. The metal fabric, the engineering details, the integration of a rail station on one side and the linking of the passenger departure lounge to the aircraft by silent, smooth automatic rail cars create what can be interpreted as a narrative about travelling. It is a gracious demonstration of what a modern designer can provide in terms of a service centred upon the needs of the individual; further mediation by the hand of the artist is not needed. None the less, Stansted has had to have its art.
In the eating area there are stained glass panels by Brian Clarke. While these are well done, what is the relevance of leaded stained glass in a modern airport?
In the passenger lounge there is a stainless steel sculpture, a form of arch by Diane Maclean and Hugh Tessier. It is a metaphor about flight and the wide arc of the sky but both themes are too complex to be encompassed in a simple sculpture. The problem is not that the work is abstract - a figurative interpretation of flight would probably have been embarrassing - but that the industrial design already has its metaphorical aspects - curved metal suggesting flight, for example - so the sculpture adds nothing.
At the airport entrance there is a mobile sculpture called Javelins by Peter Logan which again suggests flight but the aircraft overhead do this for real and the sculpture is redundant.
There is a role for art at Stansted, but perhaps it needs to be oppositional, subversive and even temporary truly to enhance a building so sensitive to the idea as well as the practicality of flight. As much as one may admire Foster Associates and love aircraft design, an airport also represents noise, pollution and the excesses of tourism. An artist could devise arresting images and text to propagate an alternative view of air travel.
Guerrilla political public artists do exist (Krzystof Wodiczko is one; he projected a swastika on to the front of South Africa House in Trafalgar Square) but one cannot imagine either a public body or a private developer paying for what would appear to be self-
Architects should view the promoters of Per Cent For Art warily. Just look at the sleight of hand contained in this quotation from the Arts Council's book Per Cent For Art: A Review: 'Many works of art provoke scattered grumblings and protests, but this may in itself be a good thing, for the art therefore fulfils one of its functions by encouraging the exchange of ideas and the elicitation of responses and reactions.'
Now what kind of profession is it that manages to get the argument both ways - that states, in effect, that what is bad is good because it's bad? After all, architects who defend buildings people hate, surgeons who perform unnecessary operations or car designers whose vehicles are unsafe are going to have a rough ride if they say, 'Well, at least we got you talking.'
Personally I find most art in public places patronising. The Broadgate office development in London, for example, although clearly superior to most developments of its kind, has a particularly offensive example: there are shades of T S Eliot's magisterial doom and snootiness in George Segal's sculpture Rush Hour depicting commuters not as individuals with vitality but as broken- spirited sheep:
A crowd flowed over
London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had
undone so many.
The recreation by British Rail architects of Liverpool Street station, a part of the Broadgate development, is by contrast a marvellous functioning addition to the quality of commuting. Indeed, public art excepted, the Broadgate development as a whole demonstrates the risk, imagination, organisation and construction that constitutes the culture of invention and manufacture synonymous with our
In the early Eighties, when discussion about the Per Cent For Art scheme was as intense as it is again now, a cliche was coined based on a misrepresentation of a remark made by Norman Foster, that most public art was no more than 'lipstick on the face of a gorilla': art, no matter how fine, could not save an ugly building. In recognising this, the campaign slewed off into arguing that artists should either become involved with architects at the beginning of a design, in order to integrate art with the building, or even oversee aspects of the way a building was planned.
Few people, having thought about public services in Britain, especially transport, would deny the need for higher standards of design and planning - better-functioning, more efficient and prettier. But artists get little enough training in art, let alone design or planning and it seems especially odd that the Arts Council's book Per Cent For Art: A Review should argue for the employment of artists on 'the design team' of a proposed building.
Why? What have artists really got to offer that supplants or improves upon what architects or designers can already provide? After all, architecture and design education is one of the things we do well - it has substance - which is why designers, like so many of our architects, gain important commissions and employment abroad.
Fine art education seems to have little substance. It has been centred (with some exceptions) upon the self-expression and self-discovery of adolescents projected into adulthood. Consequently, unless we want more architecture with spots on, we should resist the general imposition of the Per Cent For Art.