this is essentially a conference on landscape, I don't propose to
discuss such forms of popular art as the Macnas parades in Galway,
(which I admire, incidentally) or pop-music concerts, or anything
in that rather generalised area.
I intend to stick, as far as possible, to works of public
art which are created in materials which are lasting, or at least
relatively so. I
suppose architecture is the most public of all the arts, since we
have to live with the results, to see it every day, to endure it
if it is bad, and enjoy when it is good
which is not often!
But I am not really qualified to discuss architecture,
though I may hold strong opinions about it
as in fact I do.
I had an in-depth conversation with one of England's most
promising younger architects, about the visual arts in Britain.
He surprised me with a remark, which at first seemed
strange or even slightly pretentious, but when I thought about it,
it was quite true. He
said that in his opinion, the greatest visual achievement of
England over the centuries was the shaping of its landscape,
particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
I realised that I had forgotten or ignored an important but
quite obvious fact - that the landscape not only in England, but
also in many other countries, was to a large extent the creation
of the landowning aristocracy, or rather of landscapists and
gardeners and planners working for the aristocracy.
They cleared scrubland and planted carefully sited woods or
groves, they drained wetlands and guided the course of streams,
they introduced new species of trees and shrubs and flowers, they
created views and vistas which today the ordinary man tends to
think were always like that - that is to say, those which have not
been built over or vandalised in some way or another.
But we know, of course, that they were not always like
that. It does not seem
to occur to the mass of people that the landscape of a country is
in many ways as much a human creation as cities and towns are.
old landowning aristocracy had semi-autocratic powers, which may
be less evident today. A
few contemporary millionaires (usually in America) may have the
vision and energy
and the wealth to reshape a whole area of
land that they own, but as a rule few of them do.
Perhaps it is just as well - the results might be hideous
or vulgar, or at least completely arbitrary.
Yet the creative shaping of our environment is possible
today in a way that it never was in the past.
Modern machinery, earthmovers and the like, can accomplish
in a few months or even weeks what the old aristocracy could
hardly achieve in a lifetime with a far greater workforce.
This is a challenge which sooner or later must be faced,
and sooner rather than later.
It is the merest truism that we have allowed private
developers, petty local interests, political patronage and
vote-catching decisions, to call the tune in this crucial field.
In saying this, I am only saying what any thinking person
knows. It may be an
inbuilt feature of our modern commercial democracy, or the decline
in public taste, which has come with the dominance of the
so-called Common Man
who is very often simply Uncultured Man,
or Uneducated Man. Regions
such as Connemara are almost terminally ill from Bungalow Blight;
particularly Outer Dublin
seems to have gone
completely out of control. Rivers and streams are being turned
into drainage channels; old landmarks are being obliterated; the
whole face of the countryside seems to be changing.
technology and machinery, of course, have made this physically
possible, but the task is now to enlist modern technology and what
is loosely called Land Art or more loosely Environmental Art,
which is only beginning here and the few examples I know of are
not reassuring. One of
the few to impress me is at Sneem, where the artist James Scanlon
has created a series of outdoor stone sculptures which resemble
the old Irish beehive huts and churches (I regret, by the way,
that I do not have a colour slide of this).
He has called this work "The Pyramids." In
America, which is still a relatively new country in the
landscaping sense, Environmental Art, Earth Art and similar trends
have been active for at least two decades.
America, then, can largely take the credit
and also the
discredit for initiating this whole movement, if movement it can
really or accurately be called.
In some cases, the result has merely been the creation of
what in the eighteenth century were called follies.
In other cases, it has produced the merest cultism
kind of thing, which made the poet-critic John Ashbery remark that
for a time, half the artists in America seemed to be busy making,
holes in Utah and Arizona.
of the most publicised cases was the famous spiral jetty created
in the Salt Lake in Utah by the sculptor Robert Smithson.
It was literally that -- a spiral jetty projecting out into
the lake, built for purely aesthetic reasons since it was not used
for any purpose. Thousands
of tons of rock and gravel were used to lay it.
The level of the lake rose, and the jetty was buried under
several feet of water and now survives only in photographs.
work in itself was little more than a period curiosity, a
"folly" in the old sense, but it showed what could be
done by an artist enlisting the aid of modern technology and, of
course, official approval. It
serves as an example of a specific kind his example has proved a
America, in France and in several other countries, contemporary
artists have been commissioned to create whole environments
design parks and gardens, to shape what might be called total art.
The great Japanese/American sculptor, Noguchi, was
particularly interested in this area, but he is not the only one
by any means. Of course, not all these pieces of environmental or
outdoor art are good; no doubt some are banal, tasteless, or else
cold and unfriendly, and some are merely dull or meretricious.
But in hands of an artist who combines talent and vision
with a realistic knowledge of what technology can achieve, such
commissions can produce visual miracles.
we are at least a decade behind in Ireland in these developments,
yet I do not suggest turning every ambitious young sculptor loose
on an area of land with a fleet of JCBs to back him or her up.
The risks are obviously too great, and I do not think in
any case that the climate of opinion is ready yet.
It is one thing to give a virtually free hand to a creative
genius, but those in whom such authority is vested are as likely
to commission a piece of fashionable nonsense from some
fast-talking careerist just out of art college.
Nevertheless, we should not be hamstrung by the fear of
creating a few modern Follies; after all, a living landscape can
absorb a great deal of intrusion and gradually turn even ugliness
or pretentiousness to its own account.
During a number of visits I made to Cornwall some years
ago, I was greatly struck by how the old lead mines and other
remnants of the Industrial Revolution had begun to merge with the
how they had become picturesque, ivy-covered
or coloured, rather like the false Gothic buildings which
18thcentury landowners used sometimes to erect on their estates.
The past had already tamed their original ugliness, and the
landscape had shaped them to its own character.
let me turn to the other form of public art, namely sculpture.
We in this country are certainly not behindhand here
fact, exactly the reverse is true.
Instead of going too slow, we are going too fast and too
I do not want to see an Irish equivalent of the huge winged figure
in metal, which the artist Anthony Gormley has recently erected in
the North of England. And
I am rather sorry for people who have to live near this massive,
rather banal piece and see it every day, dominating the skyline.
Yet the trend has been set, more and more public sculptures
are springing up around the country, and the time has come to take
stock of them overall and to ask ourselves if we are getting the
best which this country can produce.
Century, or at least the closing decades of it, appears to have
lost a sense of the proper role of public sculpture, though this
was probably inherent in the whole Post-Modernist crisis in art.
I propose, however inadequately, to take stock of this
for it is that
and to suggest, very
tentatively, a few remedies. It
is a far greater problem than might at first be thought, since it
sets up shock waves in other disciplines besides sculpture.
It is, in fact, as much a social or societal issue as it is
an aesthetic one. And
at this stage, I ask to be allowed some historical retrospect.
speaking, it seems to me that the special place which sculpture
once had going back to Graeco-Roman times, and even beyond that to
the ancient cultures of Egypt, Assyria, China etc. has been
virtually abandoned in recent decades.
In all these cultures it played a public, communal role and
it spoke in terms and in images, which virtually everybody could
understand. It praised
or placated the gods, it depicted gods, heroes and great men in
immediately recognisable shapes, it enshrined scenes of mythology
as in the Parthenon; in short, it spoke for Everyman as well as
the ruling castes of the particular state which erected it.
It is almost impossible to imagine classical Athens without
Phidias's great chryselephantine statue of Athena, or Rome without
the temples and statuary of the Capitol.
the Christian era, Romanesque and Gothic sculpture naturally
glorified religion, which entered into every aspect of life,
public and private. With
the Renaissance, as most people know, there was a partial reversal
to classical, secular culture, and sculptors created statues of
rulers and successful soldiers as well as of saints.
Donatello and his successors expressed in bronze or marble
the civic pride and patriotism of Florence, and their works still
bear witness to it when the Florentine state has long vanished.
In the Baroque Age, Bernini proclaimed the greatness and
pomp of the Counter-Reformation Papacy, while in France Coysevox,
Coustou and other outstanding court sculptors celebrated the
absolutism and centralised monarchy of Louis XIV.
regimes in this century have fully understood this role, which is
why sculpture bulked so large in the plans of Hitler and Mussolini
- and, of course, of Stalin too.
They understood very well its propaganda qualities, its
silent eloquence, and the fact that it stands there and refuses to
go away. And it is
equally significant, though in a negative sense, that the moment
these regimes are overthrown, one of the first reactions of the
previously oppressed populations is to pull down or demolish the
massive statues erected by these tyrants.
No art, except possibly architecture, is more the symbol of
a specific regime or society.
The early Christians spent much of their energies
destroying pagan statuary, and during the French Revolution some
of the earliest victims were the great equestrian statues in
bronze of former kings, many of which were melted down to make
cannon for France's revolutionary armies.
the 19th century, we have the first signs of the aesthetic split
which was to widen so much in this century.
The individual tends to take over from communal life and
or at least the good art - becomes private
rather than public. That
is a very big generalisation, but I shall risk it and stand over it.
The nineteenth century was, of course, a period
which produced much great public and monumental
sculpture and architecture; you only have to think of Francois
Rude's "Marsellaise" in Paris, or even Foley's statues of Goldsmith and Burke outside
Trinity College Dublin. In
each one of these examples, the individual work has become part of
the very fabric of a capital city, part of its civic and communal
life. Even if people
do not consciously take notice of these sculptures as they pass
them by every day, they probably notice them semi-consciously and
would miss them if they were destroyed or removed.
with the Romantic age there was a deepening rift between public
and private art, public and private behaviour, the private
individual and the public citizen.
It was, of course, an age of great philanthropy and public
projects, a time when great museums and libraries were built,
great art collections became accessible to the public instead of
remaining in the palaces and mansions of the aristocracy, the
first age of mass literacy and popular newspapers and mass
printings of new books. Yet
the artists themselves seem to have found it hard to adapt to the
new spirit and the new society.
It is true; of course, that they were losing the patronage
of both the Church and the aristocracy, for whom they had mainly
worked in previous epochs; and the new secular states, did not
quite fill the gaps. There
was, of course, a tremendous new demand for art, but much of it
was private and came from the new rich class thrown up by the
Industrial Revolution. These
people as a rule were more interested in decorating their homes
with works of art than in setting up public ones.
The art dealer emerged as a force, the middleman of art,
interceding between the artist and his potential patrons.
Many or even most of the major talents of the nineteenth
century created for this private, middle-class market rather than
for the State or for civic bodies, or indeed for the Church.
case of Rodin is instructive in this context.
We are inclined to think of him as a man fully in tune with
his time, enjoying the patronage of the State as well as private
clients and collectors. This
view is largely mistaken. Rodin
lived mainly from portrait commissions and almost all his major
public commissions had a very chequered history.
Generally he found himself at odds with committees and
public bodies, so that a number of his public sculptures were
either rejected or much modified, or else left unfinished.
Academic sculptors who were vastly inferior to him in
talent often fared better. Much
of the blame for this seems to lie in public taste itself.
The Church in previous centuries had known exactly what it
wanted, and the cultured aristocracy seems usually
always, by any means
to have had innate good taste.
The nineteenth century, however, lacked taste in almost
every field, although it was one of the greatest and most creative
ages in the whole history of the West.
Perhaps this was partly due to democratic levelling,
perhaps it was because traditional methods and iconography were so
widely challenged or even rejected, or
the diametric opposite
perhaps it was because classical models would no
longer serve although people went on trying to imitate them.
It remains a fact, however, that the Romantic Movement was
more successful in the private sphere than in the public one.
It was individualist rather than communal, subjective
rather than outward looking, concerned more with the private soul
or private aspirations and emotions than with society as a whole.
doubt this mentality was to a large extent produced by the
materialism and commercial vulgarity of the new age.
Money ruled, and while a minority of the new rich were
philanthropic and public-minded, the majority were acquisitive and
grasping. The new
bourgeois monarchs were themselves little more than private
patrons; their homes and even their palaces were often monuments
to bad taste, more lavish than those of private citizens but
rarely superior in style. Sensitive
souls, sensitive people more often than not reacted to this new
society by withdrawing from it into their private sensibilities.
You only have to read the letters of writers such as
Flaubert or Baudelaire to realise how such men felt hopelessly
estranged from the spirit of their epoch.
Modernist movement of this century was largely supported by
enlightened private patrons and collectors; it was decades before
the new art was welcomed in museums and public galleries.
Curiously enough though, many great twentieth-century artists were
in full reaction against Romantic individualism; they wanted to
reach out to a wider public again, to be the organs of society.
Many of them inclined towards the Left in politics;
Picasso, Leger and others were even Communists. But somehow, they
did not reach the kind of public they had in mind.
Almost to the end of their lives, they relied on the same
mechanism of art dealers and enlightened patrons to keep them
going. The greater
public simply was not ready for them.
have, of course, been great public works of sculpture in this
century. One obvious
one is Zadkine's war memorial in Rotterdam, which commemorates the
victims of German bombing there early in the Second World War.
Brancusi, in his native Rumania, created some extraordinary
pieces such as his "Endless Column" and incidentally,
these are abstract works, which show that public sculpture need
not be figurative. In
more recent decades, the great American sculptors
Calder, David Smith, Noguchi, Beverley Pepper to mention a few
have shown themselves able to meet the challenge of working out of
doors on a large, or even a heroic scale and of making themselves
intelligible to ordinary people without the equivalent of talking
down. America, in
general, has been quicker than Europe to accept Modernism, and its
huge spaces and modern urban scene obviously offer great
opportunities for the sculptor who can think big and has an eye
for a site. But in
Britain, the many public works by Henry Moore mostly look dated,
and so does much of Barbara Hepworth.
Here I must apologise for this long, rather ungainly
preamble to my main theme, which is Ireland and public sculpture,
or even public art in general.
is easy to say we have no tradition of it here; in fact we have.
Foley was probably the greatest figure of his kind in
Victorian Britain, and even a bronze statue such as Sheppard's
Ninety-eight pikeman in the Bull Ring in Wexford town is a
masterpiece of its kind. This
is an example of a "popular" work in the best sense,
which can be enjoyed both by connoisseurs and by quite simply
people, because it speaks a language, which appeals straightaway
to the popular imagination, to patriotism in the best sense, to a
sense of history. It
is also superbly sited, in the centre of a small square.
Jerome Connor's Lusitania Memorial at Cobh, various works
by Andrew O'Connor, are all splendid works which have touched the
public's emotions without condescending to vulgarity.
In more recent decades, the late Oisin Kelly created some
good, though not necessarily great sculpture in public places
including FitzGerald's Park in Cork, and there have been a handful
of others. We cannot
say, then, that we have no tradition in this field; we have, in
fact, and it is or was a good one.
But it is becoming increasingly less relevant to the mental
climate of today; we cannot easily build on its legacy.
why is this? Is it
just a change in taste, or in style?
I believe it is partly those, but it is much more as well.
First of all, there is no obvious mythology or binding
beliefs, or communal imagery, which public sculpture can employ.
To erect one more memorial to de Valera, or even to Michael
Collins, is merely to celebrate the historical figures of another
age, which is now well behind us.
If there is a cultural binding agent in Irish society
today, it is no longer the Church or nationalism, it is the
commercially oriented Pop Culture.
Does that mean we should erect statues of Elvis Presley in
Irish towns, or of U2 or the Boomtown Rats, or whoever?
I sincerely hope not, though I have a horrible feeling that
I might yet live to see it. I
am not being facetious; by the way
it is hardly a joking
matter. The fact is,
large-scale public portrait sculpture is almost a thing of the
past. I know that
statues of Joyce and Oscar Wilde have recently been erected in
Dublin, and a sculpture to Yeats in Sligo.
I do not think any of these works is outstanding, or even
very good. In fact, I
doubt if they could be good even in the hands of first-rank
artists. I would be
more than glad to be proved wrong on this; it is possible, of
course, that I will be, but so far the problem of creating public,
monumental portraiture is something which no contemporary Irish
artist known to me has solved.
Oisin Kelly made a very respectable shot at it in his
life-sized bronze of James Connolly in Dublin; but it is a work,
which looks back rather than forward.
I do not know how many people here have been recently to
the Interpretative Centre in Dunquin and have seen the remarkable
stone statue by Michael Quaine called "The Islandman". I
think this is outstanding of its kind, but it is sadly untypical
of what has been going up in the past ten or fifteen years.
it understood, I am not talking of a failure of talent, since
Ireland has a number of gifted living sculptors.
I am discussing the death or at least the dislocation of an
old and noble tradition, which is felt in many countries besides
Ireland. It would be
too dogmatic to say that neither Modernism nor Post Modernism has
been able to come to terms with it, or that both are inherently
opposed to it by the very essence of their respective aesthetics.
I know perfectly well that contemporary sculptors such as
the American Richard Serra have been given huge (I mean huge,
literally, in terms of scale) commissions for metal sculpture in
New York, Germany etc. but in my opinion the results have almost
always been disastrous. Serra
has not shown any interest in accommodating himself or his style
to local conditions, local traditions or local character.
He has simply made yet another Serra, of which there are
quite enough in existence already, and his vast, brutalist pieces
simply domineer over their surroundings, like an unwanted football
stadium or a high-rise building which nobody seems to want, but
apparently nobody can stop.
the 1970s a new school of metal sculptors emerged in this country,
many of them from Cork, or at least trained there.
I mean Vivienne Roche, Eilis O'Connell and certain others,
most of whom had been trained by a highly competent Cork-based
sculptor, John Burke. At this period, there was a good deal of
outdoor sculpture being commissioned to accompany new buildings,
which were mostly designed and built in a post-Bauhaus style.
That is to say, these buildings were mostly cube-shaped or
rectangular, built of glass and concrete, and the harshly abstract
style of the new metal sculpture was considered the natural or at
least obvious pendant to them.
The teaming of architecture with sculpture, of course, has
an old history and there is no need to enlarge on it here.
So for a time we had rather a proliferation of hard edge
abstract sculpture, mainly in steel, and you can see the results
as you drive around the country or through our cities.
In general, this type of work is clean-cut in style, well
made and finished, and of course deliberately impersonal.
It has the "cool" tone considered essential at
the time; it does not make a personal statement, and presumably
does everything that the architect and the artist envisaged in the
first place. If I
often find the result a little cold and inorganic, that may be my
personal bias or taste; more relevantly, I find most of these
works lacking in real originality.
In Britain, large metal sculptures proliferated during the
Seventies and Eighties, or even earlier, and you can find them in
the squares of numerous provincial towns, or standing in the
grounds of local supermarkets there.
Already, most of them have a period look, and some simply
look big, empty and slightly depressing.
America seems able to carry off this kind of thing with
real panache, but the British or Irish version is greatly lacking.
are certain metal abstract sculptures of the last few decades,
however, which seem to me major achievements.
The first that springs to mind is the late Alexandra
Wejchert's big piece
it is more than thirty feet high
the AIB complex in Ballsbridge, Dublin.
This is a genuine masterpiece, and her outdoor sculpture on
the campus of Limerick University is not much inferior to it (I
have not yet managed to see her sculpture at University College,
Cork, which I regret). Alexandra Weichert had one major advantage;
apart from her considerable talent
she was trained as an
architect and town planner. She
could therefore gauge the scale, the siting and the harmonising of
her works with the surrounding spaces and the surrounding
buildings. In that she
remains almost unique; but now she is dead, and we can expect no
more sculptures from her, large or small.
What I regret most in her case is that she was never
commissioned to create some large-scale outdoor sculpture in an
entirely rural setting. I
do not doubt that she would have created something memorable,
which could give pointers or signposts to younger sculptors.
is also, of course, the question of durability of materials.
I was impressed by James McKenna's big wooden grouping in a
wood above Lough Gill in Sligo, called "Fergus and the Brazen
Cars", but already it shows signs of weathering, and the
hooves of the horses appear to rest on soil.
It will surely absorb more and more water, leading to
physical deterioration. Sculptors
such as Michael Warren show greater care for durable materials,
for instance in his large two-piece sculpture "Thrones"
beside a public road at Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow.
ten years ago, the Sculpture Society of Ireland together with
Dublin Corporation were responsible for a series of outdoor
sculptures in various sites around the city.
It was a courageous enterprise, and some of the pieces
created have become, as it were, part of the face of Dublin.
I am thinking, for instance, of the skeletal Viking ship on
the quays, a sunken piece in metal, or the bronze steps sunk into
the pavement at O'Connell Bridge
a charming visual conceit
created by Rachel Joynt. . This is not great art, but at least it
is effective popular art, and the ordinary people of the city have
reacted to it positively and accept it as part of their daily
environment. But there
have been other works of the past decade or so which, (in my
estimation) are simple miscarriages.
The Anna Livia fountain and figure in O'Connell Street,
created by Sean Mulcahy and Eamonn O'Doherty, triggered off some
controversy at the time. I
don't find it artistically offensive, but I do find it mediocre
and unoriginal. (it is popularly known, of course, as The Floozie
in the Jacuzzi) As for the bronze Molly Malone at the bottom of
Grafton Street, it is a piece of touristic vulgarity, though again
the ordinary Dubliner seems to have taken it to his heart.
It seems to me an example of blowing up an adequate
statuette to life-size; as a small tourist souvenir, it would have
been harmless and even acceptable.
As a piece of public statuary, however, it merely
represents an opportunity wasted.
Compare it with the Burke and Goldsmith statues nearby in
front of Trinity College, and you will avert your eyes.
recently again, we have had
again, chiefly in Dublin
variety of outdoor works which are, you might say, once-off
affairs. For instance,
a series of short texts from Joyce were affixed to public
buildings, and sometimes illuminated so that you could see and
read them at night. This
kind of thing has its origins in New York, where there was a vogue
for semiotics and similar disciplines some years ago; the artist
Jenny Holzer is probably the best-known exponent of it.
It probably adds to the gaiety of nations, or at least of
cities, and may have a beneficial effect on cultural tourism.
Otherwise, it seems rather a lightweight exercise, really a
kind of cultural game of the kind, which the modern art college
encourages. In New
York in the Eighties, there was a fashion for large lettered
slogans, which, in retrospect, did not say very much and were
often pretentious when they were not simply intended to be funny
or "Camp." The fact that this kind of thing is usually
impermanent is probably one of its main virtues, since we would
probably get as tired of these rooftop slogans as we do of
Salvation Army posters.
art need not be humourless, of course, but ultimately it is not a
joke or a game. The
inescapable fact is, people have to live with it, see it every
day, accept it as a living and organic part of their environment,
whether that environment happens to be urban or rural.
There is a great deal of jargon and cant talked about
"site-specific sculpture", but there is no special proof
that many contemporary artists do, in fact, accommodate themselves
to the site of their commissioned works.
They simply do a piece in their own style and leave it at
that. Apart from the
fact that the work itself is usually mediocre, it has no real
relationship to its surroundings, and makes no emotional or other
appeal to people who live there or who pass it by ever day.
And the number, or volume, or such pieces, is increasing
is the nub of another crisis.
The visual arts in Ireland now enjoy what is called a high
profile, they are promoted and publicised as never before, and
even politicians find that there is prestige and media publicity,
if not necessarily actual votes, in being associated with them.
I cannot give figures for lreland's current population of
artists, but since we now have more art colleges than ever before,
and presumably more graduates, the number must be considerable.
We are reaching a situation comparable to Patrick
Kavanagh's famous and much t quoted estimate that "the
standing army of Irish poets rarely falls below ten thousand
present vitality of Irish art is, quite rightly, taken as a
positive sign of national health, but you can have too much of a
good thing; and too much art, or too many artists, is ultimately
not a healthy situation. To
encourage genuine talent is one thing.
To encourage art in bulk, without the essentials of good
taste and stringent criticism, is a disastrous policy even if it
is a well-meaning one. In
the end, it is simply multiplying mediocrity, producing a
situation in which the people of talent
who are never very
numerous, even at the best of times
are liable to go
unrecognised in a crowd of vocal, self-seeking artistic
nonentities who shout them down.
And nowhere is this more dangerous than in sculpture.
Well-meaning arts officers all over the country are only
too apt to believe that they have a crop of geniuses at hand, and
that their area of jurisdiction can only be improved by putting up
sculptures all over the place.
So-called sculpture trails have multiplied, most of them
poor in quality and banal in concept. (Here I speak from painful
experience as a practicing art critic).
Within a few years, or a few decades at most, they will
seem as irrelevant and as obtrusive in the landscape as the
"follies" of eighteenth-century landlords do today.
many of which are already burdened with
wretchedly bad monumental sculptures or statuary from the
stand in danger from similar half-baked
visual conceits translated into stone, steel, wood or bronze.
Believe me, I do not exaggerate; I have seen too many
creations of just the kind I have described.
No doubt many are trivial and innocuous, but the fact
remains that when once they go up, we are stuck with the result
for a long time. And
not all of them are or will be innocuous; some are likely to be
large, unavoidable, even overpowering, as has happened in other
countries recently. Ireland has a unique landscape, which now is
increasingly endangered by greedy developers, bungalow blight,
agribusiness, the arbitrary draining of boglands and straightening
of streams and rivers, turning them
as I think I have said
into little more than drainage channels.
Near Glendalough, in an area of Wicklow which should have
been protected like the Crown Jewels, a housing estate has been
built which looks as arbitrary, out of place and disfiguring as a
nuclear installation. It
goes without saying that the addition of bad or ephemeral works of
art to all these multiple plagues would be to compound the felony.
In this era of so-called democracy, we appear to have less control
over our environment than before, largely because local
politicians collude with local developers, builders and dubious
business interests and the ordinary citizen is either helpless to
do much about it, or can only be roused to action when it is too
late. I have no
obvious solutions to this, since it depends mainly on the public
spirit or environmental sense of local people or local bodies.
Neither do I have any answer to the wave of bad rural
architecture, which has swept the land in the past three decades.
In the case of all public art, however, I do suggest that
it should be closely monitored, by panels or committees of
qualified or responsible people, who can genuinely envisage what
something will look like from studying a sketch or plan or
maquette, and who will be both knowledgeable and critical without
being hidebound. They
may include architects, planners, artists, theorists, academics,
but they must have a practical role and not merely a theoretic or
purely advisory one. This
applies both to urban and rural environments, and I further
though that is outside my brief
that it should
apply to architecture as well.
If we continue to erect ugly or nondescript buildings
virtually everywhere, how can we expect art to prosper?
And how can even the finest outdoor sculpture have its
proper effect if it is sited next to yet another
glass-and-concrete excrescence, or in the middle of some grim
housing estate which has gone up overnight like a giant fungus?
How can it compete with the rule of the concrete block and the
seems to me that in terms of communal life, we have gone backwards
when compared to the genuine civic spirit of classical Greece or
Rome. We do not even
have the equivalent of the pageants and triumphal arches of the
Renaissance, or of Baroque pomp and circumstance, or of the great
religious festivals of the past.
Their modern equivalent is the football match or the big
pop-music concert, which as a rule have no aesthetic dimension
whatever; they are mere commercial entertainment, nothing else.
The shaping of great modern cities is largely shared
between town planners who have no visual sense beyond the drawing
board, and property developers whose only criteria are profit and
speedy construction or equally speedy demolition.
Those who could be a brake on all this, such as the Arts
Council, An Taisce, etc. are usually without legislative power,
and some are little more than official face-savers for adroit and
return to the theme, which I attempted to discuss earlier: can
modern sculpture be shaped to produce works which have a genuine
social relevance and popular appeal, without surrendering the
formal innovations and self-sufficiency of twentieth-century art?
Can they be brought to bear on themes from history, legend,
political ideology, local lore, national or international
aspirations, the spirit of modern humanism, the achievements of
modern science, and the personalities of great men and women of
our time? Or in other
words, can the purist vocabulary of modern art be united with the
human range which public art had at its command in previous ages?
This, it seems to me, is one of the real, central
conundrums of the Post-Modernist age.
believe myself that it can be done, and that there are already
precedents in the art of this century
some of them, too, from
quite early in the century, as in the case of Brancusi.
The visual arts have purified and strengthened themselves
enormously in the past three generations, but they have paid a
price for it too. By
concentrating steadily on formal innovation and formal strength,
they have narrowed their range and have lost ground to the cinema,
to photography, literature, even ballet and the performing arts.
The present vogue for conceptual and installation art may
owe much to the fact that many younger artists find this purism
constricting and prefer to "make a statement" in a way
that becomes a kind of silent theatre.
art, which will make at least some attempt to speak to Everyman
and Everywoman, a broader, more populist and more inclusive stance
is needed. This will
take art out of the public museum and the private art gallery, and
give it a wider, less learned but perhaps more vigorous public.
There is nothing Utopian about this; after all, art had
this kind of public once, otherwise such a shrewd and pragmatic
institution as the medieval Church would never have patronised it.
Art by its nature is no more esoteric than literature; it
is simply that the general public has not grown up with it,
been exposed to it from childhood.
The way to appreciate good art is simply to live with it,
to integrate it into the lives of ordinary people so that they
grow up accepting it as part of their everyday world, not
something to be approached in public museums and galleries with
factitious awe and barely repressed boredom.
In this integration lies one of the great modern
body-starved millions of the nineteenth century were a disgrace to
our civilisation, but so are the mind-starved masses of today.
And the trivial popular culture, which they are fed, is the
aesthetic equivalent of junk food.
It will not help to scold or lecture them, since that will
only antagonise them, nor should art be presented to them as a
form of spiritual uplift. It
should be brought to them as part of the organic business of
living as of course, in its essence, it is.■