Less is Moore

A debate held in October in London on public sculpture was attended by a broad range of professionals concerned with advising and commissioning as well by many interested members of the public.1 Passions ran deep and there were few voices of dissent from the general view that the proliferation of public sculpture is now completely out of hand. This applies both to commemorative and memorialising works as well as to sculpture for its own sake, with little or no specific historical or social import. The former are rampant, the latter relatively few. Two examples in London particularly disturbed the audience for very different reasons. These were the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, inaugurated earlier this year, and the proposed sale by Tower Hamlets Council of Henry Moore’s Draped seated woman, bought in 1962 by the London County Council.

We had our say on this page a year ago about the Green Park Memorial, before the ground had been broken. The designs and digital impressions were sufficient to indicate that there was much to be afraid of; now that the reality is available, it could hardly be worse. Its architectural impact on the locality is grandiosely authoritarian and yet, placed where it is, curiously weak, its long colonnade having nowhere to go, its sculpted group of airmen – where Biggles meets the Burghers of Calais – turning their backs on the thoroughfare of Piccadilly. Windy triumphalism has won over any sensitive aesthetic concept. At the debate, Westminster City Council was strongly criticised for letting the Memorial go ahead, in the teeth of many objections. Nor did its public sculpture programme escape censure. The seemingly random siting of temporary ‘pop up’ sculptures in central London, especially loans from private dealers, was roundly condemned for its lack of quality control. (Unfortunately one temporary work has recently become permanent – the absurdly inflated Horse at water near Marble Arch.)

Few city councils own a sculpture by a world-class artist, particularly one that involved the benevolent intervention of its creator. Moore’s Draped seated woman was originally purchased by the London County Council and eventually became the property of the Borough of Tower Hamlets where it was situated on the Stifford Estate of tower blocks (since demolished). Moore’s figure should be seen not only as a fine work in itself but in the context of that philanthropic, even utopian, culture that flourished in the decades after the Second World War. It was a culture that saw sculpture in public places as integral to the built environment, not as ‘costume jewellery’, in the phrase of the architect Frederick Gibberd.2 But the unfortunate result of this was that a good deal of contemporary sculpture was found difficult, even laughable, to a public more accustomed to bronze notables and memorials to the fallen. Vandalism increased; maintenance (if at all undertaken) was expensive. Fifteen years ago Moore’s figure was transported for its own safety (and immediate restoration) to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where it remains on loan (Fig.I). But not perhaps for long. Tower Hamlets wishes to sell the work to fund ‘housing, education and community projects’. As originally acquired, the sculpture, in effect, belongs to London. Objections by the Council that it is costly to insure and maintain and could easily be stolen to be melted down can be overcome (it is surely more likely to be stolen from northern parkland than from a high-density London borough). The proposed sale, if it goes ahead, is indeed a kind of theft on a very grand scale, for the Council is helping itself to a work that, by rights, belongs to the capital. The case has parallels with the sale in 2006 by Bury City Council of a painting by L.S. Lowry, bought in 1951 for the local Museum and Art Gallery, with the artist’s help. Against very considerable outcry the work was sold to help fund the Council’s public services deficit of £10 million. It hardly bears thinking about if similar measures were taken up at a national level.

One of the overriding problems about public sculpture today is that we are constantly told, in its justification, that it is good for the public. It isn’t. It is frequently bad for the public as it lowers expectations and feeds on transient sentiment. The contemplation of it might give a frisson of pleasure or pain but it is not a means to ‘the good’ in the ethical sense propounded by G.E. Moore. Draped seated woman is a cut above most other public sculptures of recent times – a highly representative and ‘accessible’ work by a pre-eminent artist. But for every Moore there are dozens of mediocre public works (with an almost weekly threat of future additions). At the debate there was considerable agreement that a national advisory body should be convened to offer expertise, along the lines of the old Royal Fine Art Commission. Expertise these days is too often confounded with elitism but it is exactly that kind of knowledgeable and discriminating advice that is urgently needed if we are to keep Britain tidy.

1    The debate ‘Less is More’, a Frieze-related event organised by Brunswick Arts, was held on 9th October in the Aviva headquarters, City of London.

2    See I. Toronyi-Lalic: What’s That Thing? A Report on Public Art, New Culture Forum, London 2012, p.21.