Tom Sutcliffe: Would Michelangelo get the nod?

The Week In Culture

Listening to a radio report recently about cultural commissions for the 2012 Olympics – replete with the usual careful hat-tips to regionality and public opinion and jury-led awards – I found myself idly wondering what would have happened if the same principles of accountability and representation had applied during the Renaissance. Instead of calling in Cardinal Alidosi and telling him he had a budget of three thousand ducats to get Michelangelo to sort out the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Pope Julius II would have had to set up a competition, inviting interested artists to submit working sketches for consideration by the Vatican Frescos Working Party. Then there would have been publication of the short list, accompanied by a three-month exhibition of the leading proposals, complete with a comment wall for public reactions and a ballot system arranged so that popular taste could be acknowledged (while not necessarily being heeded).

And finally, after much discussion and cross-consultation, the successful artist would be announced and there'd be a very good chance that it wouldn't have been Michelangelo – not an easy man to work with at the best of times, and, as the Auditor for the Vatican Expenditure had felt obliged to put on record during the due diligence process, one who had little to no experience with the fresco technique. Indeed, Pope Julius's advisers did tell him not to use Michelangelo but – fortunately for all of us – he simply ignored them.

It's not that dictatorial and autocratic regimes are automatically good at creating great art, of course. It takes artists to do that, and no amount of cash or freedom will work if the commissioning authority has bad taste. Had Hitler succeeded in getting the Third Reich as far beyond 1945 as he'd originally planned, he would presumably have left the world with an astonishing legacy of architectural and artistic mediocrity, though it's possible that we wouldn't have felt free to say so, or – human taste being as malleable as it is – even thought so.

But, as we set out to spend public money on what are intended to be lasting pieces of public art, it is perhaps worth asking whether democratic methods are likely to produce real quality or a sort of middling compromise. I thought this too when it was announced that Mark Wallinger had won the commission for a giant piece of sculpture at Ebbsfleet in Kent – not because I disliked his proposal for a giant white horse (I'm childish enough to like giant things, and enjoy what they do to the landscape), but because I thought my liking it wasn't probably the best place to start.

I don't know exactly how the Ebbsfleet discussions went before the final decision was made, but I find it hard to believe that the expert panel could entirely cast from their mind the clear public preference for Wallinger's work – or the prospective unpopularity of choosing something less amenable to public taste. They would have had to show a lot of nerve to go with Rachel Whiteread – which doesn't necessarily mean that in another 50 years we won't be wishing they'd done just that.

Curiously, when it comes to Olympic sculptures we – or rather our ancestors – may have an opportunity to compare directly the public consultation model of art commissioning with essentially private passion. Last year, the Cass sculpture foundation, the creation of the businessman and public sculpture enthusiast William Cass, announced that he was prepared to spend up to £6m on street sculptures for the 2012 Olympics – exactly the same sum that Artists Taking the Lead (as the Olympic enterprise is called) is going to spend. None of us will be around to find out, but in 100 years' time it may be intriguing to see which organisation spent its money better.

The novel laid bare

I'm chairing the jury for the BBC National Short Story Award this year, which has some claim to being one of richest literary prizes around, if you're vulgar enough to calculate on a pound per word-entered basis (which, self-evidently, I am). No entry can be longer than 8,000 words but the winner receives £15,000 and the runner-up £3,000, amounts which go a little way to redressing the undeserved Cinderella status of the form when it comes to commercial publishing.

At the launch yesterday I quoted Ambrose Bierce's crisp definition of a novel as "a short story padded" – a helpful reminder that having 10 times as many pages may not mean 10 times as much content.

Having just finished Jonathan Littell's extraordinary novel The Kindly Ones – 975 pages long, including stunningly detailed diversions into the history of Caucasian dialects and the office politics of the Third Reich – I'd have to add that there are times when padding can be essential. If you de-padded Moby Dick, for example, you'd be surrounded by the wreckage of a great novel and have a rather poor short story in your hands. But I must say I'm looking forward to spending time with a form that has to write its way to solidity and substance, and can never achieve it by sheer dogged pagination.

* Specious comparisons between classical artworks and modern crowd-pleasers are something of a hazard of modern life – from the people who insist that if Shakespeare were still alive he would be churning out scripts for Coronation Street to hapless attempts to claim that Gainsborough was, like, the Hello! magazine of his day.

But I don't think you can deny that the Royal Academy's enlistment of manga comics culture to sell its exhibition of Utagawa Kuniyoshi prints to a wider audience has some real justification. There's a genuine kinship between his images and the skewed angles and perspectival distortions of manga, not to mention with the grotesques that populate some anime cartoons.

He also offers a very early prototype for a pleasure that I thought was exclusive to comics – that wonderful thrill you got as a child when you turned a page and discovered that the frame had suddenly trebled in size or (even better) that one image had been shared across four or five frames. Apparently Kuniyoshi was the first print artist to spread one composition across three blocks – and the effect, of a picture overflowing the means available to show it, is still exciting. I'd be tempted to describe it as the Edo equivalent of CinemaScope – if I didn't know better.