Urban philistines

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?

4 thoughts on “Urban philistines”

  1. Thanks for this.

    The match girl story is quite telling.

    What’s the old 10cc line, ‘art for art’s sake – money for god’s sake’?

    That sort of thing.


  2. It is tempting to wring one’s hands over what one sees as evidence of a decline in social mores, so tempting in fact, that people have been doing it for centuries! Like you, I deplore vandalism but I think that deploring it is only half the job. The other half is to find out why it is happening and perhaps as a result to discover remedies.

    The reason for the theft of metal sculptures is easy to find: it is a combination of the high demand for metal and insufficient controls in the metal market. Metal theft on this scale is new to us and, unsurprisingly therefore, no effectual measures are in place to deal with it. In the meantime, we must either protect public sculptures or display replicas made of fibreglass.

    As for the “desecration” of effigies of public figures, this too is by no means inexplicable, whatever we might think of its morality. Statues of public figures are put up by the governing class, all of whom are themselves aspiring public figures, hoping for their statue in due course. Why should they expect the public to approve of those effigies that they foist upon our environment without asking our opinion? If they nevertheless install them, then they must expect the consequences. Putting up a statue is, after all, a political statement and people therefore have a right to reply to it. If you lack political power, then you have to find other ways to put your message across.

    I enjoy public art and love to see the works of artists dotted around the city in our public spaces, where they can be enjoyed and admired close up. A statue of Thatcher is not by any definition “public art”. It is a statement by the political class that it honours a member of their class that many of us despise and whose legacy we believe is still damaging our society today. They must expect it to attract hostile reactions.

    I will not attack the statue and I may even go and photograph it for my blog. However, that does not mean I will like it or approve of it. If it is attacked, I will deplore the act but understand the motives.


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