Artillery Row

Can public art ever be any good?

Nobody could accuse Hockney of over-exerting himself

It was an unfortunate side-effect of Sadiq Khan’s less than crushing victory in the London mayoral elections that practically the first thing that he did after resuming office was to unveil David Hockney’s new design for the Piccadilly Circus roundel.

Hockney, who remains probably the greatest living artist in the world, could not have been accused of over-exerting himself in this particular regard. The design, proudly unveiled by Khan on his mayoral Twitter account, resembled nothing so much as a yellow doughnut with an apologetic purple line through it, emblazoned with childish writing. The only nod to artistry is that the final “S” was slightly lowered, although this may have simply been a result of Hockney running out of time, shrugging his shoulders and sending in the sketch anyway.

It is not the first time that an organisation has co-opted Hockney in an attempt to give their brand some artistic gravitas (and, one imagines, a touch of creative inspiration), only for him to produce something that seems like an elegant piece of trolling. When the Sun hired him to temporarily redesign their logo in 2017, the Guardian’s art critic might have praised it as something that “reminds us of the joy of living on a planet warmed by that yellow star” and that “this perky drawing manages to distill the utopian essence of his greatest works”, but most other people would have seen the newspaper’s famous logo with a childish image of a sun in the top-left corner. Hockney might have been making a provocative point about consumerism and utopianism, or he may simply have nodded at the fee, doodled for a moment on his iPad, pressed “send” and then got on with the rest of his day.

Khan praised Hockney’s re-imagining of Frank Pick’s roundel as “brilliant work”, which seems a stretch, and then suggested that this would be the first in a series of what he called “major art projects” that would form part of a new campaign called Let’s Do London. Although there was no further detail given by the re-elected mayor (and, on a sidenote, if Shaun Bailey had been elected, would he have been duty-bound to proceed with the no doubt expensive project?), the idea of more public art coming to London is an intriguing one. 

It is a city that has always attracted some of the country’s greatest talents, whether it is Barbara Hepworth’s “Winged Figure” adorning the John Lewis building on Oxford Street, Eric Gill’s designs for Broadcasting House or, as far back as the nineteenth century, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ dinosaurs roaming around Crystal Palace Park. And, more recently, Heather Phillipson’s 2020 sculpture for the Fourth Plinth continues a rich tradition of commissioning striking and interesting work, whether it’s Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s Ship In A Bottle” or Katharina Fristch’s “Hatch/Cock”, both of which had something witty and provocative to say about the iconography of Trafalgar Square itself and the ever-triumphant, ever-priapic image of Nelson’s Column.

There will undoubtedly be a greater emphasis on art that does fulfil various criteria

 Of course, for every piece of public art that energises London, there is something else that fails it. Like John Ruskin averting his eyes from the newly constructed Keble College on his daily walks through Oxford’s University Parks, I find myself unable to look at Anish Kapoor’s vile, and vilely named “ArceloMittal Orbit” at the Olympic Stadium, and whenever I travel East by train I find an excuse to bury myself in whatever book I am reading. And some of the more flamboyant works of the Johnson and Khan eras, such as Alex Chinneck’s Greenwich-based A Bullet From A Shooting Star at the Greenwich Peninsula, may have served their purpose in the year that they were constructed, but swiftly look dated. One cannot imagine that they will have the longevity of Waterhouse Hawkins’ much-loved dinosaurs. 

London is forever a city that is trying to match its ideas of public art and architecture with aesthetic achievement. Such works as Norman Foster’s Gherkin, Richard Rogers’ Lloyds Building and, more recently, Will Alsop’s deservedly Stirling Prize-winning Peckham Library have all combined architectural integrity with artistic flair, meaning that their presence on the skyline remains welcome for both functional and ornamental reasons. Yet the controversy about Thomas Heatherwick’s rejected Garden Bridge design, where rows about overspending and cronyism led to Khan pointedly scrapping it in his first term as Mayor, remind us that, unlike many European cities, there remains an attitude of hostility and suspicion to “the wrong sort” of public art. While many might question whether Hockney’s back-of-an-envelope sketch of Piccadilly Circus’s sign is itself “the right sort”, it is impossible to separate the political and the aesthetic from such decisions.

We remain fortunate that we live in a time where public money can be spent on art, and that its usage hasn’t all been qualified by civil servants ticking off various boxes for which kind of artist is given funding and which ones are not. Yet it would be naïve to believe that we inhabit a benevolent Sadiq Khan-overseen utopia of visionary projects that are funded out of an unlimited pot. With a new covid-driven age of austerity imminently upon us, there will undoubtedly be a greater emphasis on art that does fulfil various criteria. Given how the Arts Council has changed its qualification for support from “excellence” to “relevance” of late, one can only fear that the quality of what will be produced will suffer. 

Therefore, as we alternately admire Hockney’s chutzpah and good-naturedly sigh at his design’s breezily tossed-off nature, we should prepare ourselves for Let’s Do London being less a golden age of artistic innovation, and more a hand-wringing exercise in box-ticking for the next few years. Only time will tell whether this becomes a metaphor for the second (and final?) act of Khan’s mayoralty.

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