Thursday, 10 July 2014

Wand of Undoing

There's an Anne Frank sculpture located in the basement of the British Library. Anne Frank is unquestionably a noble and legitimate subject for commemoration but that doesn't mean we have to put up with bad art. The bust is honourably representational and in a sense beyond criticism - but like too much public sculpture incarnates a Franklin Mint aesthetic.

There's no shortage of extraordinarily bad art in Colin St. John Wilson's beautiful building. In the basement next to the cloakroom and a few feet from Anne Frank are Patrick Hughes's gimmicky 3D optical illusion Paradoxymoron (which might as well be called Paradoxycretin) and a pastel-coloured terracotta mermaid that belongs in a branch of Starbucks. On the ground floor and dominating the lobby is a vast and disorganised Kitaj tapestry.

Also in the lobby is the plug-ugly Sitting on History by Bill Woodrow, a bronze book (doubling as a bench) attached to (see if you can figure out what the artist is trying to tell us here) a ball and chain. There's the Roubilllac statue of Shakespeare (gifted by the V & A in 200, not bad but horribly sited) and some busts of T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and others at the entrance to Rare Books and Manuscripts. There's a Hockney etching nearby - good but not especially great and more suited to a private setting than a public mezzanine. Outside in the slippery piazza squats the colossal figure of Isaac Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi.

If I could wield a magic Wand of Undoing I'd get rid of every damned one of his horrible impositions on the capital - from the ghastly fast-degrading mosaics in Tottenham Court Road station to the plug-ugly alcove-robot in Fleet Street. In fact the latter was removed recently, having been flogged (ideally for scrap) by the building's owners (the building itslef being a typically stomach-turning piece of 1980s po-mo tat). Then there's his chunky ingot at Euston Square (regularly 'tagged' by graffiti vandals) and the bulky stained aluminium filing cabinet in Pimlico.

I'm researching, on and off, a cultural history of philistinism (both productive and receptive, if you see what I mean), and thinking about the kind of painting (and sculpture, but mainly painting) that can be seen on the northern railings of Hyde Park on Sundays. Where does it all come from? Who makes it? Who buys it? What makes it so bad, if we agree, as we surely must, that it is bad?  How do we write objectively about it? What would happen if, one day, one stumbled across some park railing art which was really, really good?

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