Art for all?

Today in his column in The Guardian Oliver Wainwright takes a pop at public art.

Today in his column in The Guardian  Oliver Wainwright takes a pop at public art.

In some ways it is too easy a target. Most public art can be divided into two categories – the stuff we love to hate, and the stuff that our eyes just glide over. And there is always that argument about art that is publicly funded, whether directly or indirectly – can we afford it? Wouldn’t the money be better spent elsewhere? How can we justify spending on art,  when the money could be spent on more social housing, on hospital beds, on education, on social care?

It is the great unanswerable and is of course why arts budgets are, and should be, protected. Still, not much of today’s public art seems very uplifting. Wainwright talks encouragingly about projects where locals are involved in the creation of the art, and there are also projects where an artist lends a fresh eye and designs something so integral to the architecture that you hardly notice it – except that the place feels better and more exciting.

I agree in principle with a lot of what Wainwright says and certainly dislike the targets he singles out. But we need to be careful when we have a government that sees art tuition as an inessential luxury, and art as a frippery that we do not have a reductionist functionalist approach to everything. After all, questions of what we ‘can’ afford must be set against the fact that we are one of the most affluent nations in a world that is more affluent than ever. If the artists become ‘unnecessary’ today, then surely it will be the architects tomorrow?

This weekend I discovered that my local church, St Luke’s in Battersea, not only gives some stellar concerts – international renowned pianist Mitsuko Uchida played on Saturday – but it is something of a pioneer in the world of lighting.

Completed in the 1890s, the handsome brick basilica was gifted with electric light in 1903, apparently making it the first church in London to enjoy this privilege. And there was nothing modest about the design.

The electroliers in the nave were designed from a pendant jewel by Bevenuto Cellini in the Pitti Palace, Florence; while those in the chancel are after paintings by Fra Angelico. The bronze candelabra in the sanctuary, standing upon green Florentine marble, are cast from an original by Giovanni da Bologna. The electric lamp in the Lady Chapel is a reproduction of one hanging before the shrine of St. Charles Borromea in the crypt of Milan Cathedral.

The magnificent light switches, set in marble, are also still present, although no longer operational. Electric light was new enough then that it was celebrated with great ornateness rather than the far more serviceable but less visually exciting switches and dimmers that we use today.


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