Art for All?

Crosby Beach, Liverpool.

100 identical cast-iron Antony Gormleys stand, spread across two miles of shoreline. Fixated. All facing ominously out to sea. The piece has an immediate impact, although it’s not initially clear what to think or feel. The installation hits the primal psyche. You don’t need to know anything about the artist or art history. It just works.

‘Another Place’ was installed in 2005, and, except for the handful given a bucket hat or bikini, they remain fairly undisturbed. It has become an incredibly popular tourist attraction. It deepened Liverpool’s cultural identity. Its composition is contemporary. Its preference of concept over beauty is contemporary, yet it still subscribes to the tradition of public sculpture in the UK.

Some would describe the figures in ‘Another Place’ as ceremonial, like they have gathered to watch the setting or rising of the Sun, as if they wait eagerly for some magnificent occurrence, or perhaps to welcome some foreign sea-farers. Simultaneously, one can imagine the opposite, a sense of escape perhaps, as if the sea’s horizon is beckoning. One could envisage the vast crowd suddenly diving into the ocean, never to return. However you interpret the piece, there is undoubtedly a powerful energy that pulsates between the figures, an immense sense of anticipation.

First off, ‘Another Place’ is, obviously, figurative. It makes use of the human figure to create a direct connection between the work and the viewer. Secondly, it’s made of cast-iron, and metal is the most used material for this genre of artwork. But what happens when an artist tries to really push the boundaries of art in the public realm?

Rachel Whiteread’s seminal piece ‘House’ (1993) is the perfect example of this dichotomy between the progress made within London’s thriving art scene, and the stagnant conventions of the general public.

In the 90s, Thatcher’s ‘regeneration’ plans began to take hold, and so much of London’s East End was demolished and subsequently revamped. One area, due for annihilation was Wennington Green. Whiteread, a relatively unknown Young British Artist at the time, had the idea of preserving one of the houses as a statement of protest against the sprawl of gentrification.

She acquired a house, number 193 Grove Road, and filled it with concrete. Then, by carefully peeling away the Georgian façade, she revealed ‘House’. A chillingly powerful piece, like a ghostly memorial to the lives lived within the walls. The adjacent houses had all been torn down, leaving this grey megalith, standing alone.

It was a brilliant work of public art, not only because of the emotional sensibility, but also because it’s political undertones. ‘House’ ultimately lead to Whiteread winning that year’s Turner Prize, the most prestigious award for ‘up-and-coming’ artists.

It’s less obvious than Gormley’s work. It requires time, thought, and some historical understanding. To the general public, it was an ugly waste of space. ‘House’ stood for only 11 weeks, before a mob of protestors rallied for its destruction.

As much as I admire the work, I believe it was right to knock it down. You can’t expect everyone to care about the ‘deeper meaning’ or indeed to have any interest in art at all. It’s just like those people in cars who blast techno out their windows as they drive. Now I really hate techno… or, for the sake of this article, I don’t understand techno, and so I find myself baffled by the audacity and arrogance of said drivers. Now imagine them playing something objectively decent, ‘Coffee and TV’ by Blur for example. Suddenly, everything is ok.

The public realm is not the place of challenging art. It’s presumptuous to assume so. The suitability of public art should not be based on taste, but on how direct, lucid and understandable is it at a glance. At least then, everyone will get what it’s about. It is art for all, after all.

Liverpool+London

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