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Our public art is being dumbed down and made ugly by a ‘right-thinking’ elite

Art is supposed to be enduring, beautiful and interesting – but in 2020, genuine creativity is at risk of box-tickers everywhere

Holding Hands, a sculpture by street artist 'STIK', in London's Hoxton Square
Holding Hands, a sculpture by street artist 'STIK', in London's Hoxton Square Credit: Reuters

Who would be a sculptor in 2020? Never since Hans Holbein was despatched across Europe to capture prospective Tudor wives have artistic commissions been so fraught with political intrigue. The erection of Maggi Hambling’s baffling tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft, in the form of a gaudy silver nude on a funereal plinth in north London, has caused about as much interest in the court of Twitter as Anne of Cleves’s portrait might have done in Hampton almost 500 years ago.

Commemoration is tricky. Go too close to direct representation and you become a slave to upkeep: in Dublin, Vera Klute’s 2019 sculpture of Luke Kelly’s head is constantly in need of a hairdo, as the elements turn his ginger locks blond. Go too abstract, and you risk missing the point entirely: in south London, almost 60 years since the opening of the Michael Faraday Memorial in Elephant and Castle, most people still mistake it for a car park.

Hambling’s conceptual nod to Wollstonecraft’s legacy has caused a stir for all the wrong reasons. Late last night, someone jumped over the gates of Newington Green and stuck black tape on the statuette’s giant pubic bone and impossibly perky nipples – an act of censorship that Wollstonecraft, who wrote against treating women “as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood”, might have had something to say about. But while prudes might object to a generic nude representing the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Womanthe more interesting question is why public art – and statues in particular – has recently become such a talking point.

The trend for yanking down statues of mean old white guys began in Cape Town in 2015, with the removal of Cecil Rhodes. Since then, the penchant for imbuing public works with almost supernatural powers has become a Western norm. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Oxford gained fame for trying to bring down their own statue of the man. (Some pointed out the irony that many of the wealthy students were Rhodes scholars themselves.) Earlier this year, in response to the brutal killing of George Floyd by American police, Bristolian youngsters rolled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the harbour. 

Protesters argued that the very presence of such commemorative public art caused psychological damage to those who walked by it. But if Colston caused political harm, what came after was no less fraught – its plinth was occupied overnight by Marc Quinn’s unauthorised resin statue of protester Jen Reid, which was, in turn, criticised as both ugly and inauthentic. Scores of commentators questioned whether Quinn’s motives were really to champion Black Lives Matter as a concept, or whether he (a white, male artist) was simply using the movement as a publicity stunt. As fellow sculptor Thomas J Price put it, Quinn had “literally created the votive statue to appropriation”. The message was clear – only a black artist could conceive of the right way to challenge the legacy of slavery in public art.

Maggi Hambling's statue of Mary Wollstonecraft has caused controversy since its unveiling yesterday Credit: Reuters

For some, faced with pressure such as this, the answer to the thorny questions of who to honour and how is simply to refuse to do it at all. In my local borough of Hackney, mayor Philip Glanville has made plans for a series of new public artworks, inspired by the removal of Colston. “This isn’t about choosing different great men or women from history and seeing them represented,” he said, “this is about real, locally-produced work telling local stories through sculpture.” In short, we’re too cowardly to commemorate anyone, and abstract art is the only answer.

In a sense, Glanville is right: no one can claim that Holding Handsa sculpture in Hoxton Square, a collaboration between street artist Stik and Hackney Town Hall officials, is politically suspect. It’s two gormless stick figures; there is, quite literally, nothing to say about them. Stik said that the sculptures were “intended as a timeless and inclusive meeting place for all, regardless of race, sexuality, gender, faith, or social status”.

Is this the future of abstract public art – a council-led solution to avoid Twitter spats about what qualifies as a great man or woman of history? Why can’t sculptures of real people or real events or real ideas do the same? Do you have to be an East End Jew to feel moved by the magnitude of the Cable Street mural? Do you have to be male to feel an affinity with the unshakeable humanity of Gormley’s iron men on Crosby beach?

We should be concerned about what public art says about us. After all, it’s often done on our behalf, and using our cash. The problem is, that much of contemporary public art reflects an elite political trend to want to sanitise and relativise for fear of causing offence, rather than tapping in to actual public sentiment.

Berlin's 'Buddy Bears', Ella Whelan writes, are 'odious' and 'garish' Credit: Getty

Two years ago, a giant statue of Marx, donated by China, was erected in the political economist’s birthplace in Trier and caused a fuss; some bitter Alternative für Deutschland​ protesters claimed it was disrespectful to the “victims of communism”. Meanwhile, a handful of communists bemoaned the prospect of tourists and locals posing next to Marx, unable to truly appreciate the seriousness of his work or the political implications of a Chinese commission.

But the statue is fun, and quite beautiful for a 14-foot bronze work; my husband and I took some snaps under it on our honeymoon, holding our battered copy of Capital upside down in an act of self-mockery. Even the most die-hard capitalist would agree that this Marx is far preferable to Berlin’s odious Buddy Bears, spreading “tolerance” across the world, one garish painted bear at a time.

We shouldn’t underestimate the public’s ability to take what they want from art, without the need for critics or commissioners to lose sleep over whether it’ll strike the right tone. For almost 100 years, the equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington stood proud outside Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, and for the last 40 of those, he’s worn a cone, courtesy of the local citizens.

Hambling’s commemoration of Wollstonecraft might be ugly, but at least it forces us to ask the question of what public art should be for. Is it an exercise in therapy, designed to make local residents feel “included” and “safe”? Is it simply a box-ticking exercise, making sure there’s one feminist statue here, another diverse representation over there? Or should it be a dynamic space where artists attempt to capture something about public life – and the public – in the middle of where it’s all happening? 

The real question is still a traditional one. Will it last, is it beautiful, and does it say something interesting? Holbein risked his royal patronage after his flattering portrait of Anne of Cleves failed to sway a fat old king – in the end, it was Thomas Cromwell who paid the price for that diplomatic blunder. Perhaps it’s time we took a similarly cut-throat eye to what art the public will tolerate.