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

Wednesday 01 April 2009 00:00 BST

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.

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