Editor-At-Large: Like it or not, we get the art we deserve

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The Independent Online

I'll say one thing, those BritArt people have certainly cornered the business of enraging Middle England, haven't they? Charles Saatchi's latest exhibition (wittily entitled New Blood) doesn't open until Wednesday and already a row has started over the work of stripper-turned-painter Stella Vine. Vine's portraits of a miserable Princess of

of Wales and the dead heroin addict Rachel Whitear have caused major "offence", according to the press, shades of the Myra Hindley portrait by Marcus Harvey in the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy a few years ago.

Although Vine has pictured Rachel as a charming schoolgirl her parents are said to be mortified that an artist has dared to add to the controversy surrounding the tragic circumstances of their daughter's demise. Her body is now being exhumed as the police continue to examine the exact cause of her death which must be distressing for her family, but I cannot for the life of me see why Vine's artistic endeavours should be so castigated. When Rachel's parents allowed shocking pictures of her dead body to be used in an anti-drug campaign, I am afraid they placed their family in the public domain. Stella Vine's work may not be to your taste, but frankly, one young woman producing an iconic image of another seems pretty OK to me.

Let's also consider the reception that Marc Quinn has faced since his proposed larger-than-life sculpture of Alison Lapper, a victim of the congenital disorder phocomelia, was chosen to adorn the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. Miss Lapper will be shown naked and heavily pregnant. She has no arms and extremely shortened legs. I wasn't too pleased when Ken Livingstone announced the competition for this piece of public art, as it seemed a case of political opportunism on his part. And using £160,000 of public money to fund six maquettes and the dreaded consultation process seemed shameful when the artists could have donated models for free for the publicity.

But the committee, chaired by Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, has come up with a winner that we can be proud of. I'm not so keen on the lego-like Hotel for the Birds by German artist Thomas Schutte which will follow Quinn's sculpture, but there we are. Now sponsorship of £300,000 is being sought to fund the two pieces, which is good news. But what I admire about Marc Quinn's work is that he, like Stella Vine, has managed to touch on a raw nerve with his depiction of 21st-century femininity. Roy Hattersley was quick off the draw, predictably enough in the Daily Mail. Mr Hattersley thinks that Trafalgar Square should be used to celebrate British greatness, and that the statue of Nelson, who lost an eye and an arm, already celebrates a triumph over disability. Alice Thomson in the Telegraph went nuts because Quinn had the temerity to suggest that perhaps Nelson's column was a phallic symbol, and it's about time we had an antidote. Alice feels that Alison is rendered in a "chillingly impersonal way" and that her own achievements as an artist don't get a look-in, and the result is "shocking, bad art". Doesn't the girl have any sense of irony?

Alison herself has a different perspective. She says "disabled artists don't get exhibitions. But now I'm up there. You can't avoid me any more." Most of the modern art on public display in London has been funded by private developers, in places such as Broadgate and Canary Wharf. Walking around the giant sculpture by Fernando Botero at the back of Liverpool Street Station is a delightful experience of which we need more. Public art doesn't have to honour anyone. Let's just celebrate the fact that Britain has produced contemporary artists and architects of world rank, and perhaps consider that very few of our politicians would merit being turned into a bird bath, let alone a monumental likeness in one of the great piazzas of Europe. Each decade gets the art it deserves, and with Stella Vine and Marc Quinn, we are making history.

Don't do it, Esther

Is there a cut-off point at which you turn down a job because it's simply too degrading? I ask because the prospect of watching - in my living room - Esther Rantzen find a new husband on BBC2 is one bit of reality TV I will be only too pleased to avoid. Esther is older than me, and obviously a great deal more thick-skinned. She must be suffering from severe fame withdrawal to contemplate participating in such a demeaning process, as one of the "contestants", if that's the right word, on a new series of Would Like to Meet. As BBC2 decides to celebrate the older generation, Esther was straight off the starting blocks, offering to take advice on what to wear and how to flirt. Get a life! I may have been unsuccessfully married four times, but at least I made all my choices of my own free will, not urged on by cameramen, pushy producers or channel controllers anxious to employ ever more desperate stunts to attract ratings. Now a lecturer at Keele University has identified 27 types of male, which could make Esther's selection process a lot easier. Sadly, this academic didn't come up with the one category I seem to specialise in - Unsuitable. I feel a "Dear Esther, please get a grip" letter coming on.

Too modern for me

The Coliseum, home of the English National Opera, has just reopened after a huge refurbishment programme. This wonderful building looks thoroughly revitalised, with a new space in the fabulous tower, loads more ladies' toilets and better places to sit, eat and drink while you have a culturally enriching night out. Sadly, Phyllida Lloyd's new production of Wagner's Rhinegold, in modern dress just wasn't magical enough for their first endeavour. The most successful films in the world in recent years have been the Lord of the Rings trilogy - fairy stories involving complicated mythology set in complicated worlds with dark secrets and strange language.

So what is to be gained by setting Wagner's tale in something that looks like a cheap flat in Fulham? The bathroom fittings were so ghastly (the wash basin didn't match the loo or the bath) I could barely concentrate. The evening kicked off with three Rhine maidens clad in blue, sequinned minis pole-dancing. One could dance and sing; another could sing and not dance; and one was just embarrassed by the whole idea. I noted that Spearmint Rhino was credited in the programme and I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the "research" sessions at one of their salubrious establishments.

In Lloyd's production, Alberich, in a gangster's bright red suit, is envisaged as a feeble version of Steven Berkoff. Asking singers to sing and act is one thing. Asking sopranos to sing and lap-dance demeans both skills. Wagner's music is haunting, revolutionary and remarkably accessible. Placing his grand concept in the present adds nothing, and ends up being faintly patronising. It reduces a masterpiece to a bit of second-rate musical theatre. And don't let's even discuss the appalling libretto in English. It was about as magical as reading the instructions that came with my new steam iron.

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