Leading Article: Great art is not born of committees

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The Independent Culture
IF EVER a country needed public monuments to embellish its surroundings, it is probably Britain. Compared to Spain or Germany, let alone the United States or Mexico, in this century we have appeared tawdry and parsimonious in our outdoor art, our municipal pride limited to concrete lampposts and plastic lavatory cubicles, our squares and shopping centres graced, at best, with a dried up fountain, at worst, with some potted trees.

Times are changing. The companies of the information age are enriching their new headquarters with modern sculpture and even installation art. Individual developers such as Stuart Lipton have accompanied construction with creation. And there are cities, not least Birmingham, that have tried to cheer their citizens with the constructions of the artist. After decades of pretty paintings in the boardroom, art is coming out into the public space and the sculptors are taking on large-scale works to match.

So why aren't the good folk of the North-East celebrating the latest efforts of the Tyne and Wear development corporation to spend a healthy pounds 600,000 of their pounds 3.5m lottery grant on a giant 70ft work for the banks of the river Tyne? It can't be the artist, the highly regarded American sculptor Mark di Suvero, although some of the good burghers mutter the usual nonsense about giving the commission to a local artist. It isn't necessarily the philistinism of the land of "muck and brass".

It's simply that the local people in Tyneside are suffering "sculpture fatigue", the effect of disgorging too much grandeur from a surfeit of lottery money. Single monuments to commemorate a new-found pride or an honoured memory are the reflections of community, or even individual, feelings. A growing line of huge erections displays little but the desire to spend money on conspicuous construction.

Great art can come from lavish self aggrandisement. You have only to look at the Medicis or George I or even the Saatchis to see that. But can great art come from committees set up to grab available state funding? In arts patronage, as in the performing arts, the National Lottery is demonstrating that desire has to precede commissioning, not the other way round.