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Charles Darwent on Art Everywhere: Look out! Someone's trying to sell you art

The money behind this project to publicise the nation’s favourite artworks would have been better spent on helping cash-strapped institutions

I have seen precisely one of the works in Art Everywhere, which, depending on how you look at it, is 1.75438596 per cent of the exhibition, or 0.00454545 per cent if you count reproductions of its reproductions.

Neither, statistically, seems adequate for a review. On the other hand, a quick scan of the show’s website suggests I have seen 85.9649123 per cent of the originals from which these reproduced reproductions were made, which may improve my chances.

As you’ll probably have read, the founder of Innocent Drinks and others have taken 22,000 advertising spaces around Britain – billboards, supermarket displays, London buses – on which, for a fortnight, to display 57 works of British art, or rather posters of those works.

These were chosen from the project’s website by public vote – 30,000 people entered – the uneven final number explained by the fact that seven of the 50 pictures originally meant to be selected came in tied. The nation’s favourite artwork turns out to be John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, with Millais’s Ophelia a close second. What this taste in images of dying, waterborne, posh madwomen has to say about the national psyche, I will leave you to judge. 

There are so many assumptions underlying Art Everywhere that it is hard to know where to start with them. The first, presumably, is that the voters who chose the works will have been as British as the works themselves, although, the internet being what it is, this must surely have been impossible to police. Perhaps all those votes for drowning dames came from Spaniards, in revenge for Gibraltar.

Then there is the apparently demotic nature of the process, with Joe (or José) Public free to choose at will from all the works in British collections. This was not quite the case. Before mere people were allowed to vote, those millions of publicly owned artworks had been whittled down to a longlist of just over a hundred by a committee of curators and other artfolk.

This explains why, for example, the Scottish painter Jack Vettriano did not place first (or at all) in the Art Everywhere selection, despite being the most widely reproduced living British artist. It also suggests why, of the 57 works chosen, not a single one is religious (and certainly not Christian), unless you count Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows and Raeburn’s wintry vicar, Rev Dr Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch.

I am willing, sadly, to believe that the hold of the Pre-Raphaelites over the national taste persists. But – on grounds of familiarity, and if free to choose – would the public not have gone for William Holman Hunt’s Light of the World rather than the far less well known Waterhouse? It doesn’t ring true, somehow. Neither does the cheerily multicultural, multiracial, pacifist, atheist view of British society that seems to emerge from Art Everywhere’s final list, much as one might wish it were so.Underlying all of these is what you might call a meta-assumption, more depressing, and more convincing, than the rest: that modern Britons look at ads, but do not look at art.

The one Art Everywhere work I have seen in, as it were, real life is a poster of John Singer Sargent’s frieze-like canvas, Gassed, a group of blinded Great War Tommies leading each other through the trenches. I cannot tell you how good this poster is, since it is hung from a railway viaduct over a busy road near my home. Quality of reproduction is not the point. But what is?

Well, the point – or the hope – is that commuters driving or cycling by will be struck by the Athenian horror of Sargent’s image and want to know more about it. This they can learn, in less precariously placed posters, by downloading an app on their mobile phones and pointing them at the image. If you could get close enough to my local Gassed, it would tell you, among other things, that the original painting is just half a mile away, in the Imperial War Museum. You will, then or later, turn your car or bike towards the museum to see it for yourself.

I do hope I’m wrong, but won’t people see Art Everywhere’s posters as advertisements, and advertisements as suspect? How different, in the public mind, an ad for Ophelia is from an ad for a bra is a moot point. Then there is the £3m that the billboard owners donated in kind to the project. I am reminded of John Wanamaker, father of modern marketing: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted,” Wanamaker said. “The trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Even £1.5m would have made a difference to many of the bodies with works in this show.

To 25 Aug (arteverywhere.org.uk

Critic's Choice

As part of the Edinburgh Art Festival, Peter Doig entrances with painting that combines traditional skills and a contemporary world view in No Foreign Lands at the Scottish National Gallery (until  3 Nov). At Tate Modern in London, the small and beautiful show dedicated to the veteran Lebanese modernist Saloua Raouda Choucair continues until 20 October. The artist draws on mathematics and poetry from her cultural heritage.