State of the Art/Art of the State: Public Art in the UK

The aesthetics of public space.

It was John Ruskin who claimed that the "measure of a city's greatness is to be found in the quality of its public spaces." Looking around the London landscape - the 200-strong herd of fibreglass elephants currently roaming the streets, Banksy's signature graffiti, the production line of fourth plinth sculptures - it's hard to imagine the city even registering on Ruskin's fastidious scale of "greatness".

The question of our public spaces - their function, aesthetic form and social value - is something of a hot topic during this, the week of London's biennial Festival of Architecture. With the Olympics spawning architectural and environmental regeneration across the capital, as well as bringing its own spin-off Cultural Olympiad, London's public spaces are coming under new scrutiny.

This scrutiny was given particularly vigorous voice on Monday night. White Cube's Director of Exhibitions Tim Marlow marshalled a six-strong panel - including Janet Street-Porter, Sir Ian Blair and Marc Quinn - through a debate on "The Politics of Cultural Disruption", teasing out the central issues of public art: Should it be community or artist-driven? Who has aesthetic ownership over public space? Where is the line between provocative and outright offensive?

The first of three debates organised by Artichoke, the company behind live art projects The Sultan's Elephant and Anthony Gormley's One and Other, it was more an evening of questions than answers - a pattern Britain's arts organisations and institutions have long struggled to break.

The traditional touchstones - aesthetic subjectivity, funding, value, function - all came in for predictable multi-directional attack, with temporary installations emerging as an unlikely communal point of compromise, a disposable, wipe-clean solution for the products of a disposable age.

Most striking though was the pervasive public concept of art as social functionary. Sarah Gaventa, director of CABE Space, the government's advisor on urban public space, spoke of being issued with a brief to create an art-work that would "reduce anti-social behaviour", and Street-Porter railed at the use of art as an aesthetic sticking-plaster, dismissing artificial attempts to build community through art as the "Angel of the North factor".

Yet this transitive, consumerist culture of art is not easy to escape. Gaventa herself, writing in Monday's Guardian described public space and its associated art as an "essential natural health service, the ultimate drop-in centre - preventative healthcare that is far cheaper than the NHS and without a waiting list."

The responsibility of public art to "disrupt", "amaze", and "create a moment in your day that is unforgettable", was a point of general agreement. Asked for encounters from their own experiences, the panel's examples included participation in London's 1968 anti-Vietnam march, spending an hour as the "exhibit" on the fourth plinth, and a kiss with a girlfriend in a public park - crucially all experiences both interactive and personal.

Hoping to capture some of this same amazement are the entrants for RIBA's Forgotten Spaces competition, currently staged as an exhibition at the National Theatre. Inviting proposals to rework neglected pockets of London land, the competition shortlist includes a light installation on the underside of the M4, a speakers' forum in Brixton and a series of gardens along disused Circle Line ventilation shafts. Only slightly less unusual is Gort Scott's winning project "Reservoir Roofs", which involves the spatial development of reservoirs in the Lee Valley.

One of the competition's guiding principles was the notion of creating new community "hubs", places for recreation, stimulation, and of course interaction. Perhaps, then, this is the beginning of an answer to the fraught question of public space and its art: an understanding that success lies in embracing its uniquely contingent, reflexive relationship with viewers and keeping artistic daydreams of the Kantian thing in itself for the gallery and studio.

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A new BBC program allows us to watch couples undertake mediation

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator is a rather astonishing series - and it's up to the viewer to provide judgement.

Somewhere in Epsom, Surrey, a separated couple, Sue and Peter, are trying with the help of a family mediator to sort out their financial situation. It’s a complicated business. Long ago, when she was in her twenties, Sue lived with a man called Bernard, a partner in the accountancy firm where she worked as a clerk. Bernard, though, was 25 years her senior, and because he already had three children the relationship seemed to have no future. Sue wanted a family of her own, and so she left him for his colleague Peter, whom she married in 1982. In 2015, however, she fell out of love with Peter. One morning in January, she cleaned the house, made a casserole for him and the two of her  three adult sons still living at home, and scarpered back to Bernard.

You wouldn’t call Bernard a Svengali. He is soon to be 80; his major pleasures in life appear to be golf and mah-jong. But he does play a role in all this. Every offer Peter makes, Sue takes home to Bernard, who then goes through the small print. If he sounds gleeful at what he regards as Peter’s pitiful idea of a settlement, she seems not to notice. But then, Sue, a housewife, seems not to notice anything much, least of all that the well-off Bernard insists he can’t keep her, financially speaking – never mind that, come lunchtime, it’s she who’s there in his well-appointed kitchen, dutifully dotting Worcestershire sauce on molten slices of Cheddar. Is Bernard taking his revenge on ­Peter for having nicked the woman he loved all those years ago? Or does he genuinely care only on grounds of fairness that everything is split 50:50? You decide!

I’m not joking: you really do. The BBC’s rather astonishing three-part series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (Tuesdays, 9pm) offers no judgement in the matter of Peter and Sue, or any of the other couples it features. In this, it reflects the mediators, whose sanguine exteriors I find quite disturbing.

“You’ve had some intimacy, yes?” said Judith, a mediator working in King’s Cross, as a woman called Nichola complained that her ex, Martin, had broken into her flat and begged her for sex, an act that required her to have a “full health check” afterwards (post-coitus, she discovered he had joined an internet dating site). Nichola didn’t answer the question, choosing instead to stare at Judith’s earrings (dangly earrings appear to be a requirement for jobs with the Family Mediation service). Meanwhile, Martin walked out, fed up of Nichola’s “snidey remarks”. Another woman, Victoria, had agreed to mediation only if she and her ex-husband could sit in separate rooms; their mediator, Irene, had to shuttle between them every 15 minutes. How the mediators keep their mouth shut when people are behaving like this, I have no idea. To the long list of jobs I can never do, I must add another.

Everything about this documentary series is eye-popping, though that doesn’t mean I’ve much appetite for it. Some people descend into snarling madness when they split up; their hurt, to which they cling as if to a soft toy, makes rational thought all but impossible, and it is horrible to see. I was mildly surprised that National Family Mediation allowed the BBC access, but I suppose they’re only hoping to encourage more people to sign up, the better to avoid expensive court battles. What is far more astonishing is that these couples were willing to be filmed as they yelled and cried and exposed their most intimate flaws and secrets. Why did they do it?

Jason, who sends his ex-wife “helpful” web links mansplaining how a child’s teeth should be cleaned; Nichola, who won’t even talk to her husband when he delivers their small sons back to her (they must run in the dark from his car to the stairwell of her flat); Sue, whose mediation, thanks to Bernard, drags on for three months before she accepts Peter’s offer: I can’t think that any of them is a bad or cruel person. In their misery, however, they seem so. Lots of us have been there. But when things improve, we get to look back in horror, to gaze wonderingly at the sickness that then took hold. For these couples, it’s all preserved for posterity: the meanness, the futility, the mind-turning hate. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain