Are we becoming a city of philistines? I ask this as public art is becoming more vulnerable to deliberate damage or theft, for until recently works of art left out in public spaces only had to contend with the occasional pigeon defecation.
In the past anyone who had good reason to despise a statue would limit their protests to something impermanent. Gladstone’s statue is a case in point.
[T]heodore Bryant director of the Bryant & May match factory, a prominent liberal, had deducted a shilling [5p] from the wages of his staff as a contribution to the erection Gladstone’s statue near the factory. The match girls who worked in appalling conditions for a pittance went to the unveiling, and a gruesome story is told by Annie Besant that some cut their arms and let their blood trickle on the marble, paid for, in truth, by their blood.
The Duke of York statue just off The Mall cost £25,000 to build and finance was raised by subscription – each individual in the army was required to contribute a day’s pay. Although many in the army resented this deduction the statute was never desecrated.
But recently we have had a Barbara Hepworth stolen from Dulwich Park and probably sold for scrap, the charming bronze Doctor Salter’s Daydream which once sat on a bench in Bermondsey has been stolen while the accompanying piece – the good doctor’s daughter holding a cat – has been n forced into hiding. A Banksy by that most ephemeral of artists, who expects his pieces to be painted over, has been ripped from the wall it was painted upon to end up in an American auction house and when a statue of Bomber Harris was installed outside St. Clement’s Church a spate of red paint throwing occurred protesting about the bombing of Germany in World War II.
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is proposing to sell a Henry Moore entitled ‘Draped Seated Women’ known to the locals as ‘Old Flo’ hoping to raise £20 million and another Moore ‘Knife Edge Piece’, which stood on Abingdon Green near the Houses of Parliament, has been undergoing restoration after decades of graffiti artist’s work.
Now with the death of Baroness Thatcher a debate has arisen upon where to site a suitable monument. Its detractors argue that any representation of her in a public space will inevitable be vandalised. Hardly surprising since in 2002 at Guildhall Art Gallery a marble statue of the Iron Lady was decapitated first by a cricket bat and when that failed a metal rope.
So what is the future of public art? Will our parks be devoid of any artworks unless guarded night and day?