Turner Prize

Large bad statue


Public art. As a concept, we should embrace it: art for everyone, in an open and democratic space; its purpose to brighten our day, or provoke comment, or simply make us look at our familiar cityscape anew. And there have been many brilliant examples in London. The fourth plinth project in Trafalgar Square (where the giant blue cock, the subject of a previous post, is still crowing); Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner; Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Olympic Park (which was promptly closed as soon as the big event was over; I am looking forward to its reopening); absolutely anything by Moore or Hepworth.


So when the powers that be get these things right, they are extraordinary and vital additions to the environment. But when they get them wrong …

I have always hated Maggie Hambling’s ‘bench’ sculpture, A Conversation with Oscar Wilde. I compare this to Wilde’s grave, designed by the great Jacob Epstein, which must be one of the most beautiful and appropriate memorials ever created – with Epstein’s stylised male angel in flight, his wings like a ocean spreading behind him. To be fair to Hambling, I have mentioned her Scallop in a previous post, a tribute to Benjamin Britten and Aldeburgh and Peter Grimes, a remarkable piece which is for me wholly successful. But there are several things that work against her Wilde. Firstly, the strange composition, with Wilde’s bronze head emerging from a dark granite block that’s more like a grave – its role as a bench is not apparent, nor is the cold hard granite particularly inviting as a seat. The location doesn’t help – in a thoroughfare behind St Martin’s, across from Charing Cross Station; not a place many people think to stop (apart from the winos who congregate around the tube station exit). The head itself resembles a twisted mass of spaghetti or a horror movie zombie. It’s a strange, misguided piece.


But not as shocking as Meeting Place, the monstrous sculpture of two lovers embracing, like Rodin’s Kiss re-envisioned by Jack Vettriano. It is too huge to ignore, spoiling the beautiful lines of the magnificent St Pancras Station. There was a story that Ruskin used to make a long and indirect detour in his daily walk to avoid having to look at Keble College in Oxford (which offended his architectural sensibilities); no such opportunity for innocent commuters. I was coming off the train, having spent a lovely weekend in Paris, only to encounter the ghastly sight – it’s practically the first thing you see when you arrive in London on Eurostar. Antony Gormley (whose works of public art are always appropriate and resonant – just look at the way people have embraced his Angel of the North or his figures on Crosby Beach) has referred to it as ‘crap’. The sculptor is Paul Day – not exactly a household name – but a quick look on Wikipedia shows that he has other public works on display in London and Brussels. When his monumental piece for St Pancras was unveiled, he came out fighting:

This is not an art work that is going to be selected for the Turner Prize. It isn’t a Damien Hirst sculpture of a pregnant woman stripped down to the constituent parts. It is diametrically opposed to that sort of art. It isn’t about a cynical world view or the artist’s glory.

Some will say it is a chocolate box sculpture. But I don’t want it to be bound by the prevailing view of art. Meeting Place is an appeal to universal values.


I don’t see how a sculpture of a pregnant woman, by Damien Hirst or anyone else, represents a ‘cynical world view’. Also, I would be interested to know what the ‘prevailing view of art’ is exactly, at least as far as Day is concerned. He seems to be defending his own work, and at the same time attacking what he considers to be modern, and therefore not appealing ‘to universal values’. It’s like Munnings attacking Picasso (and who is the more famous of the two today?). Day’s attitude infuriates me, even more than his terrible sculpture, the idea that he’s presenting what people want, a radical campaigner in his extraordinary Daily Mail-type conservatism. Talk about ego …

Speaking of which, what government department, what small group of individuals with clearly no taste but plenty of opinions (and a control of the purse strings – Day’s piece cost £1 million), was actually responsible for choosing it?


Although I am interested in what is contemporary in art, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I would want Hirst’s pregnant woman encountering me in the train station. It goes without saying that public art should be appropriate to its surroundings. Further along the concourse at St Pancras is a work which is not shouting its value systems at its viewers. It is a conventional, figurative piece of sculpture which is also never going to be up for the Turner, but it is a perfect little celebration of one person – the poet John Betjeman – who, as the laureate of both the Northern suburbs of London and the great Victorian structures of the city, would be delighted to find himself, a compass point, in the middle of the throng, his raincoat catching the breeze like a sail.

Poetry and the age

There has been much debate recently (mostly between other poets) as to whether poetry is going through a renaissance or a slow death. In a recent article in The Guardian, Jackie Kay affirms that this is a wonderful time for poetry: ‘In this bleak midwinter, with the recession and bad weather, poetry may be helping us to keep body and soul together. At a time when everything is being cut, closed down, diminished and discontinued, the forecast for poetry is surprisingly fair.’

In one respect, she is right. Poetry is more visible in the broadsheets and on radio and television cultural review programmes (although still the poor relation to fiction), and poets are the recipients of high-profile prizes. But why should that be surprising?! Why do we still need to make excuses for poetry’s existence, and make poetry more palatable to people by telling them how good it will make them feel?

For those of us on the inside, we have been aware of small surges of media interest when there is something ‘interesting’ to report in the poetry world (and what is interesting to the broadsheets is hardly ever the poetry itself). It is still not clear to me, as a poet, how many people out there read poetry (especially those who are not poets themselves) and for what purpose? Is poetry’s purpose ‘to keep body and soul together’? Or is its purpose to challenge the reader in some way, to unsettle, to alter his / her thinking? Can it do both?

Some poets engaged in this current debate feel that poetry (more specifically, poetry in the UK) is going through a conservative period. Although I don’t disagree, I wonder if there has always been a chasm between practitioners’ interests and public reception. Although the Turner Prize is a well-established and reputable award in the art world, every year we go through the predictable tabloid jibes and knee-jerk outrage. Is it really art? Should it get public funding? Instead of trying to understand something which appears to be difficult or challenging, it’s easier (and more fun) to ridicule it.

Not to say that poetry gets that sort of public attention (possibly for financial reasons). Even in this so-called renaissance, I suspect it is still a fairly small percentage of the population who read contemporary poetry, compared to the number of people who attend contemporary art exhibitions. But why should this be? I went back to Randall Jarrell’s excellent essay ‘The Obscurity of the Poet’ and was unsurprised to find that his piece, written in 1950, sadly has not dated, and some of what he says could be said to be true today.

Jarrell’s main argument is that not just modern poetry, but all poetry, could be considered obscure through sheer neglect. He laments the fact that even educated readers no longer make the effort to read poetry, and because they are out of the habit of reading poetry, and because they view poetry as “obscure”, they assume it is therefore “difficult”.

The truth of the matter is that some poetry is difficult. Some poetry, like some art, is meant to be difficult and unsettling and provoking; it’s not meant to make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. But something that challenges and upsets us can also be affirming, in that suddenly we see the world differently, sometimes more clearly.

So instead of saying how wonderful it is that people are bothering to notice poetry at all, shouldn’t the media (and poets who act as spokespeople for other poets in the media) focus on why poetry is important, and not just as a salve for the soul?

I’ll leave the last word to Randall Jarrell:

“Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself. From Christ to Freud we have believed that, if we know the truth, the truth will set us free: art is indispensible because so much of this truth can be learned through works of art and through works of art alone — for which of us could have learned for himself what Proust and Chekhov, Hardy and Yeats and Rilke, Shakespeare and Homer learned for us?”