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.

Photo: Getty
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Women’s stories triumph at the Emmys

Winners were original stories told by diverse voices, that shone a light on society's injustices, or engaged with the current political landscape in the USA head on.

The 69th Emmy Awards was a great night for stories about women, starring women, and written by women. The biggest winners of the night, which celebrates excellence in television, were The Handmaid’s Tale (with five awards) and Big Little Lies (also with five awards). Both are female-fronted series tackling wider issues of patriarchal violence in a sexist political climate. Black Mirror: San Junipero and Veep also picked up multiple awards.

The Handmaid’s Tale won the biggest award of the night: Outstanding Drama Series. But it also picked up awards in every category it was nominated. That meant awards for drama writing and direction, while Elisabeth Moss won the Emmy for a lead actress in drama. Ann Dowd won the best supporting role award for the terrifying Aunt Lydia, while Alexis Bledel picked up the award for best guest performance, announced at the Creative Emmy Awards last week.

Big Little Lies won Outstanding Limited Series, with Alexander Skarsgård, Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman all picking up acting awards: Kidman delivered a powerful speech on the importance of representing stories of domestic abuse.

Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for her work on Master of None, thanking her “LGBTQIA family”. Black Mirror won Outstanding TV Movie and a writing award for its love story between two women, “San Junipero”.

It was a night of firsts more generally: Donald Glover became the first black winner of Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, and Riz Ahmed became the first man of Asian decent, and the first Muslim, to win an acting Emmy.

Firsts aside, Julia Louis-Dreyfus made Emmy history for the most awards won by a single performer for one role, picking up her sixth consecutive award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for Veep. Reed Morano of The Handmaid's Tale became the first woman to win the award for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series in 22 years, while Sterling K Brown from This Is Us became the first black man to win Outstanding Lead Actor In a Drama in 19 years.

All in all, the winners, be it The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Saturday Night Live, Veep, The Night Of, This is Us, Black Mirror: San Junipero, or Atlanta, were generally original stories that placed diverse voices at the centre, shone a light on societal injustices, or engaged with the current political landscape in the USA head on.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks were snubbed: they weren’t eligible.

The full list of winners can be found here.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.