In defence of public sculpture
Whenever a writer, an artist, an architect or any practitioner of the arts places his or her work in the public domain there will always be those who like it and those who don’t. This can result in controversy. If artists were to respond to every criticism they would never create anything.
In all fields of life there is so much more beyond our own experience. It is the artist’s job to show the way by courageously exploring the new. In my view, liking an artwork is not really what matters. It’s more a question of how art challenges us or finds a way to speak to us, to open up a new awareness.
I remember a public sculpture by Ron Robertson Swan designed for the Town Square in central Melbourne. The sculpture, accepted by the Council, was vilified by then City of Melbourne Mayor who, using art as a political football, renamed it the ‘yellow peril’ from ‘the vault’. This new ‘title’ stuck and shaped the general public’s response to the art work. Is there, I wonder, a role for our leaders to guide citizens into an understanding of new artworks?
All this says less about the quality of art and more about people who stoke the flames of artificially created controversies. They have not done the work, have not taken the risks, their lives and livelihood are not bound up at every moment with what they are making, who have given thought to the medium or the method. Artists take risks by exposing their ideas in the public realm. At every moment their lives are bound up with whatever they are making, with exploring new boundaries.
Many years ago I designed a work for Swanston Street Melbourne- a shard of architecture emerging out of the pavement- may hated the idea, thought it was inappropriate and expressed these sentiments even before the work was installed. However, I persevered and the council saw its merit even if not many amongst the populace did. In time, the work was installed and has since grown to become one of Melbourne’s icons plus a well loved sculpture.
Over the years the sculpture has gained popularity and received awards locally and internationally: a Melbourne newspaper poll voted it the most popular sculpture in town. Recently it was included in an internet survey of the top 25 creative sculptures around the world. The prestigious magazine ‘Architectural Digest’ included ‘Architectural Fragment’ as one amongst eleven of the most fascinating sculptures in the world.
I remember the hullabaloo created by citizens of Melbourne when plans for that huge sculpture, which is Federation Square, were made public. Since then it has become one of the most loved and popular meeting places in the land. The new and change are always challenging. But without change and the new we would still be in the dark ages.
There were similar controversies surrounding the Sydney opera house, another iconic blend of architecture and sculpture that now, along with Uluru, is the image representing Australia to many around world.
Arts advisory panels exist all around the world promoting creative endeavours within their communities, connecting past, present and future, opening our eyes to things we may not see, unlocking rooms that may be closed within us, helping to make meaning of our lives and, in the words of Anne Michaels ‘to find a way to make beauty necessary and a way to make necessity beautiful’.
I will leave you with the following thought. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s finance minister said Britain should cut arts funding to support the war effort. Churchill’s response: “Then what are we fighting for?”