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Art of the matter

ajenda - Crispin Kelly dismissed it as contrived and prescribed, but this week Jay Merrick rushes to the defence of public art, believing its condemnation to be less about place-making rationale and more a sentimental fear of cultural change

Public art is condescending and misdirected, according to Crispin Kelly, whose polemic in a previous Ajenda (AJ 27.1.05) despised not only public art but also the very idea of it. Yet he reveals the same pretensions he seeks to skewer, via a curiously narrow perception of where places - actual, half-perceived, imagined - begin and end. Who is public art for?

Not, evidently, for the exclusive mind or heart.

Mr Kelly's longing for the quotidiana of street scenes suggests a sentimental urbanism shored up by 'instinctive reaction' and 'some random interviews'; and by the example of London's King's Road, which he regards as a salutary series of urban suggestions rather than prescriptions. Place-making and public art? Why, it's Johnny Foreigner, bogus.

But let's be clear: place-making is a word, a 'rumour on the street', to borrow Daniel Libeskind's phrase. An architect or masterplanner may or may not succeed in delivering a collection of buildings or streets that cohere humanely. The word 'masterplan' is automatically hubristic - a masterplan may never produce any masterful result in terms of place. Places contain architecture and streets and even public art, but it's people who trigger their dynamics by sharing different experiences of them.

They include people like Mr Kelly, who say that public art is essentially joyless opinion in solid, bolted-down form, which only the educated may appreciate. 'I don't like the slightly lecturing and hectoring tone these worthy spaces announce, with public art proclaiming the credentials of culture zones, ' he writes.

'The coming together of art, its manifest availability to all, and the fact that someone else has had to pay for it as a penance, is too gross a cocktail of good intentions.' Public art is available, free, to anybody who cares to look, or to look away. Art in white cubes is essentially exclusive and, sometimes, costly to view. People can spit on public art if they don't like it, though they might be less inclined to do so at the Tate Modern, even if the Stygian lighting allowed them clear enough sight of the art to provoke such a reaction in the first place.

And is Mr Kelly right to fret about the quality of public art? Well, he would be if anything in this world - including architecture or the delights of the King's Road - possessed absolute quality. But usually they don't. Any building, any masterplan, any commercial development, any public art, is largely mysterious in both its immediate and longer-term impact, its 'success' or 'failure'. It's not a penance, it's an experiment; some of it works, much of it fails horribly. Public art should be judged specifically, not generally.

There isn't much 'moral rectitude' involved in public art, either. We are generally uninterested in rectitude, or in being told what's good or bad for us by bumptious strangers.

We know too much (and ultimately too little) about things that matter, and don't matter;

we no longer care if the centre holds or not;

irony has become hazy and anodyne, rather than a way of taking a clear position. And art, white-cubed or public, is less and less capable of seeming either dictatorial or distinctly meaningful. It is simply an ingredient in the urban mix. Mr Kelly's imagined world of aspirational Leonard Basts and Mr Pollys being spoon-fed culture via turds in the plaza and lipstick on the face of the gorilla merely advertises his own public artlessness.

His diatribe is ambiguous. It's perfectly possible to insert the phrase 'public art' at those very points where he's seeking to show a telling difference between the nominally meaningful urban experience and the doubtfully arty kind. 'The life of the place, ' he says of the King's Road, 'is in the shops, not necessarily to go shopping, but where objects of desire are displayed and the play is on availability, value and anxiety - something new, something foreign.' And this: 'In the King's Road, the development of the road has benefited from being the product of piecemeal private ambitions: it has brutal kinks at the New Kings Road, which would make a planner blush; the pavement widths jump about, as do the surfaces, from York stone to tiles, with abrupt interruptions and dramatic level changes.'

Objects of desire, value and anxiety, something new and foreign, piecemeal private ambitions, brutal kinks, abrupt interruptions.

Every building in King's Road (and most roads), every facet of its quiddity, was originally a specific and individual intervention.

What, in perceptual terms, is the difference between the fillets of architecture and space that make up the demeanour of the King's Road, and a fillet of public art that might be placed within it? How could an instance of public art ruin the perception of an assuredly loved domain? How can he laud the King's Road's 'individual expressions that had not featured in any design handbook', yet dismiss the individual expressions of public art that also have nothing to do with handbooks?

Mr Kelly smudges his own rationale.

Individual expressions: tick. Small projects and 'looseness': tick. A building 'needs to remember its place in the conversation of the street with signs and decorations, however abstracted': tick, but with an image of nanny with whip. The need to avoid 'single voices':

tick, with double question mark and cartoon of Munch's Scream.

Individual expressions are allowable, yet 'single voices' should be clubbed like baby seals. The comfortingly existent King's Road may be subject to the 'frisson' of passing Bentleys and Ferraris, but must not be disturbed by space invaders that are not as immediately intelligible as Bob, the local angel who 'went home', or which don't carry familiar local brandmarks or, indeed, price-tags.

Mr Kelly's suspicion of 'the received view of public space with its quota of public art' is unhelpfully reductive. And his doubts are not only about public art; his subtext, a fear of clumsy, top-down urban and cultural change, is surely the white whale he seeks - a much bigger and more engrossing subject. Public art - engaging or not - has taken the fall for this threat; a much too tidy, therapeutic fall.

Jay Merrick is the architectural correspondent for the Independent

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