Janet Street-Porter: Public art has become a vile pollutant

Related Topics

One of my most treasured possessions is a dog-eared copy of Alfred Wainwright's Coast to Coast guide – the table of each day's progress he so thoughtfully provided was filled in by me during the wettest summer on record, adorned with a splodge of rook poo. It's about the best tribute anyone could give grumpy old Wainwright, patron saint of fell walkers, lover of gloomy weather and unspoilt northern scenery.

Wainwright was a private individual, who hated fuss, always appearing very reticent on the rare occasions when he was interviewed. Now, Kendal, the town where he lived, has controversially decided to commemorate the great man with an £80,000 sculpture and relatives and friends are appalled. Even worse, the hot favourite to produce the work is Graham Ibbeson, responsible for the banal renditions of Eric Morecambe, (on the seafront in Morecambe) and Laurel and Hardy (in Ulverston, Cumbria).

Kendal council can waffle about wanting to "honour" Mr Wainwright, but the truth is, they are just signing up to the latest fashion, which is using art in public places to re-brand a town or perk up a dreary bit of countryside. Kendal is nice – but it clearly needs more tourists, hence the belated (Wainwright died in 1991) decision to commission a sculpture.

Public art is what everyone thinks will give their community an "identity" right now. Ever since the wonderful Angel of the North helped put Gateshead on the map (I was there and it was an unforgettable occasion) art busybodies have been trying to emulate its success. Now, in a recession, the big question is whether this is money well spent and, more importantly, is the resulting art something we can be proud of?

Next month, Channel 4 will be airing a four-part series, Big Art, which asked members of the public to nominate places in the UK which they felt would benefit from a new artwork. The series looks at how seven different sites have benefited from working with artists and assesses the impact on the local community.

There's already been controversy over the 60ft-high concrete and marble sculpture of a girl's head called Dream, by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, currently being erected on a former slag heap by the M62 in St Helens outside Liverpool. If ever there was a strong argument for not allowing the public to choose art, this is it.

Put baldly, it is completely without merit, the only plus being the local council did not pay for it. But the ex-miners who chose the artist are ecstatic. Burnley has already unveiled its Big Art project – a group of 15 teenagers worked with the artists' collective Greyworld, creating a series of installations which can only be seen using ultraviolet light. One of them said "it's going to change the way people think about Burnley" – somehow I doubt it, although the locals enjoyed their part in the artistic process.

We are concerned about pylons desecrating the landscape, but public art, if it's not of the first order, is an equally vile pollutant. I don't care if everyone thinks Mark Wallinger's £2m giant white horse (to be constructed at Ebbsfleet in the Thames estuary) is "ironic" – I find it an embarrassment, from an artist who could do so much better. Is this really how we want visitors to remember their arrival in the UK?

Finally, remember the demise of another piece of public art – the £1.42m steel starburst entitled B of the Bang, by Thomas Heatherwick. Erected in Manchester in 2005 to commemorate the Commonwealth Games, 22 bits have fell off and the sculptor has agreed to pay the council £1.7m in an out-of-court settlement last November. Now they have voted to take it down.

At least a white marble head by the M62 will be easier to deal with when we grow tired of it, although I doubt there will be many takers for a crumbling white horse in 50 years time. We are busy constructing the follies of our age.

Don't blame Little Britain, but little Englanders

Matt Lucas and David Walliams have been found guilty of encouraging schoolkids to behave badly. I am sure I know what their answer would be to that particular charge. Far from setting out to give the nation's youth subversive role models, most of the characters in Little Britain are derived from people they've met in real life, Vicki Pollard being a very good example. I've been filming in parts of Sunderland where there are so many Vikki Pollards with prams you can't be sure if you've wandered into a Little Britain theme park.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers asked 800 teachers what they thought caused bad behaviour in class – and the majority wanted television programmes to be classified by age, like movies. But there is already a system in place, called the 9pm watershed – and most of the programmes the teachers complain about are transmitted after that. They moan that pupils emulate bad language and crude behaviour seen on television – it couldn't possibly be as a result of watching what goes on in their homes regardless of whether the telly is on or off? Comedy stars can't be role models when their job is to entertain us.

Madonna's children need their true voices

The Madonna adoption saga continues, with the queen of pop ensconced in her luxury lodge, pounding the treadmill coached by her personal trainer as she awaits a court decision this Friday. The saddest part of this selfish saga is that her adopted son David has already lost his native language, Chichewa, and could only converse with his father via an interpreter when they met for the first time in two years.

If Madonna wins the right to remove a little girl from Malawi, the government should insist that both children are taught their own language – I'm sure Madonna could afford it. Without a connection to their roots, these kids are just like bits of luggage who will be carted around the world, with home just being the place they get fed and clothed by their rich new mum.

* I realise we live in an age of political correctness, but am I the only person who finds the new uniform for female firefighters who happen to be Muslims completely ludicrous? The fire service proudly unveiled the specially adapted uniform yesterday – and it featured an ankle-length skirt, a long-sleeved blouse, and a hijab headscarf. Apart from anything else, this get-up looks like it would be extremely hot to wear, let alone when you're facing a wall of flames. And an ankle-length skirt isn't exactly easy to manoeuvre when you need to shin up a pole or climb a swaying ladder.

But if the service does manage to meet its targets and attract the correct quota of Muslim women, can we be sure that they will be allowed in the front line of fire-fighting duties and not given special treatment? This uniform is a joke in the name of racial equality, and I bet not one single female firefighter will sign up for the chance to wear it.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards

Costa Rica’s wildlife makes me mourn our paradise lost

Michael McCarthy
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence