The Spectator - Space Invaders by Gerald Laing

Gerald Laing calls for greater intellectual rigour in the commissioning of public sculpture.

Public sculpture is a vital element in the built environment. It expresses the sense of identity, the intellectual and aesthetic sophistication, and the moral compass of those who engender, adopt and accept it. At first glance, therefore, you might think that the obligation to spend a certain proportion of new-build costs on the commissioning of works of art would be welcome and beneficial.

But when it was first introduced in the US about 30 years ago, all that resulted was the sudden appearance of abstract knots of steel, remarkable for their vacuity, in front of every new building. These objects, many of which seemed merely to respond grudgingly to a perceived artistic obligation, produced confusion, irritation and alienation. The most notorious is Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ in Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan, which inconvenienced those who had to live and work around it so much that they agitated for its removal. This was only achieved after a furious legal battle during which, as is usual when criticism is brought to bear on certain contemporary art manifestations, the fascist burning of books was invoked. More often, the public, while resolutely declining to be ‘educated’ into the acceptance of incomprehensible works of art, simply ignore them.

Art is only really useful when it deals with the eternal problems and questions of the human race in a manner relevant to the present. This requires a process of renewal. The sum of history is always at the service of the present and is continuously moulded to suit its particular needs; but the present is itself constantly becoming history. Public sculpture is a versatile means of expressing this process, and of remembering what we have learnt and are learning.

While there are, and continue to be, sublime examples of abstraction, I am of the opinion that most abstract art is tantamount to taking a tranquilliser or escaping to an ivory tower. In addition, it is a simple and obvious truth that the quality of figurative sculpture is easier to judge than that of abstract, in both form and content. Many artists, mostly of the abstract persuasion, indulge in a coy symbolism, as if they are fearful of committing themselves to an idea or a position. The most egregious example of this is Daniel Libeskind’s claim that the height of his proposed replacement for the World Trade Center — 1776 ft — would commemorate the Declaration of Independence. This immediately begs the question whether, if America were to adopt the metric system, this significance could continue? Closer to home, we have the New Zealand Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, the proximity of which to Jagger’s Artillery masterpiece serves only to emphasise its banality.

Good public sculpture attracts anecdote and legend. Bronze accepts time, wear and even damage gracefully. It bears its scars well, like the figure of the Roman boxer whose honourable wounds were inlaid with gold and silver. Cromwell ordered the equestrian statue of Charles I at Trafalgar Square to be melted down; instead, the blacksmith from Seven Dials, to whom the task was assigned, buried it and dug it up after the Restoration. A coat button is missing from Houdon’s George Washington (a bronze version of which is outside the National Gallery) in order to show him as a man of the people. The broken and retied bootlace of the dead soldier on Jagger’s wonderful Artillery Memorial serves as a meditation on mortality.

Making portrait heads is an intimate process during which the subject is studied more closely than at any other time in his life, tense in the knowledge that the work is an essay towards immortality. Pavarotti took the modelling tool from my hand, poked at the clay and then handed it back to me with the words, ‘Better, no?’ I made Paul Getty’s bust in his flat in St James’s (it is now in the National Gallery) and during our sessions two retired BBC sound engineers were busily transposing recordings of bel canto opera singers from ancient wax cylinders to CDs, the sort of esoteric act of conservation of which perhaps only Paul was capable.

It is harder to hedge your bets with figurative sculpture. You almost certainly have to reveal yourself. And in that respect we have an added difficulty, because we have lost the language necessary for the intelligent discussion of the human figure in art. Our understanding of the possibilities of the human figure in sculpture, and indeed of the whole canon of figurative art, has been mislaid during the past 50 years or so. This has led to unresolved problems of drawing, interpretation and scale, and, worst of all, the belief that sculpture can be made by casting directly from a living person. A vocabulary and an emotional and intellectual base will have to be reconstructed, so that we can once more perceive and experience intensely passionate and particular emotions combined with the sensuous visual exploration of pure form. We have to understand once more that sculpture is, above all, the finding of sculptural metaphor for our perceived objective reality and recreating it, not imitating it.

I am aware that many of my contemporaries will see this position as reactionary; but that is not my intention. I am simply calling for higher standards, greater awareness and the cohesion of the past, the present and the future. Throwing everything away and starting again from scratch was the big idea of the 1960s, and it has been proved wrong. The range of reference that we can use and expect to be understood is now vast, and all of it is useful. The interregnum has brought a new, better informed and sharper perception and greater freedom — I know this from my personal experience in abstraction — but we must now come back to humanism if we are to be of any real service.

Those who commission public sculpture should understand and respond to this, because it is they who ultimately bear the responsibility as to whether we are surrounded by good or bad sculpture. It is not incompetent artists who are responsible — it is incompetent patrons. And I have long realised that good patrons are even more rare than good artists. It is frightening to think of the atmosphere of extreme ignorance in which such important and far-reaching choices are made. There needs to be much more aesthetic and intellectual rigour in commissioning, for everyone’s sake. In Jagger’s day, the Royal Academy provided this vital function — ‘quality control’ — but, at least as far as contemporary art is concerned, the Royal Academy lost its way years ago. We need a new understanding of this vital subject, one which is, and always has been, a metaphor for our own human condition.

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