Joan Bakewell: Giant white horses and the dangers of 'plop' art

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The Independent Online

An irresistible chance is now ours to renew the debate about public art. With the unveiling this week of plans for the Ebbsfleet Landmark, people must already be polishing their preferences.

Do you fancy a hill made of recycled rubble with a house perched on top? Or would you go for a construction of 26 steel frames interlocking and rising to the sky? How about a vertical disc – rather like the Jodrell Bank telescope – but with a winged feature attached? Or perhaps a tower of open cubes diminishing in size? Last but by no means least, why not a white horse 33 times natural size standing in a field?

Rachel Whiteread, Richard Deacon, Daniel Buren, Christopher Le Brun, and Mark Wallinger are the artists vying to win the commission for a vast new sculpture, destined to stand 50 metres high near the station at Ebbsfleet and give identity to the yet-to-be-built town of Ebbsfleet itself. Just don't call it the Angel of the South.

Ever since Antony Gormley set his Angel high on a hill near Gateshead, it has become axiomatic that such strong works give a boost to local regeneration and an identity to communities struggling to hold themselves together.

This appears to be the case in the north-east, but it is fanciful to conclude that it was the Angel of the North alone that did it. Other major factors were already at work. That's why it feels a little premature to be offering up for judgement (plans of the short-listed work go on show at the Bluewater Shopping Centre at the end of May) an iconic structure that will represent something that doesn't yet exist.

Nonetheless, we are each invited to have a view, and I am sure opinions will spill out. Public art is there for us all, and people are becoming vocal about their preferences.

Also in the offing: Boris Johnson recently declared while he was still only hoping to be mayor and could risk voicing absolute opinions that he thought the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square should be dedicated to a memorial tribute to a Battle of Britain hero. What a turnaround that would be!

Such a decision would scupper the current Fourth Plinth project, which offers the space to different contemporary artists for a period of 18 months. It would deprive Londoners of the chance to admire, prefer, deplore, enjoy or celebrate this thoroughly exhilarating artistic venture. It would also cancel one of the genuinely popular opportunities to consider and judge modern art without the bother of going to the galleries.

But there's something else going on here, too. In the last few years there's been renewed interest in the Second World War, a surge of memorials to those who died 60-plus years ago. In 2004 we had the Animals in War memorial set in Park Lane. In July 2005 a memorial to the women of the Second World War went up in Whitehall, presumably to those who served in the forces rather than those who stayed at home minding evacuees and making meals out of dried egg. A few months later came the memorial to the Battle of Britain pilots on the banks of the Thames – this by the same sculptor whose trite but monumental Lovers is now drawing such brickbats at St Pancras Station.

Truly, there is a rash of memorials across the capital. Boris's plinth would commemorate Sir Keith Park, a senior commander in the RAF who many grant as much credit for victory in the Battle of Britain as they do to the head of Fighter Command Hugh Dowding. (And while we're at it where's his memorial?). How long can this go on? Are there memorials to Bevin Boys, to munitions workers, to merchant seamen... and if not, why not?

Memorials are one thing and sculpture another. There is renewed interest here too. People want to express their views about the choices made on our behalf by developers, and those august bodies who commission the stuff.

This week a debate at the National Gallery drew a full crowd eager to hear and question the ways public art get chosen, built and paid for. Rachel Whiteread has spoken of her dislike of "plop art" – " where things are just put down in the street and you trip over them". There's certainly a risk of that. On the other hand there are subtle and tender works by Andy Goldsworthy that increase one's pleasure in dry stone walls and patterned leaves.

There are works in unusual places like the Grizedale Forest to take you unawares with their natural beauty. There are sculpture parks from South Yorkshire to Goodwood, and inspiring initiatives like Kew Gardens' display of Henry Moore statues among the pavilions. Truly, our eyes are gorged for beautiful things to look at. No one is afraid of art any more. They're out to enjoy it.