I have wanted to write something about the truly amazing recent public art record of Newcastle City Council. It is amazing for scoring a hundred per cent flop rate. Each and every attempt to do something artistic on the streets has resulted in failure. Every time. That has to be a record for anywhere. Just simple laws of averages must mean one of these projects turns out well, surely?
Once upon a time however, things were different. Statues were placed around towns and cities that celebrated local heroes. (Usually, it must be pointed out, male) These were sculptures put in place by people who believed in something more than money. It is possible, but rarely happens today that an art commission makes a contribution to the space it inhabits and thereby somehow invests it with greater significance, that and a general sense of a place.
Cardinal Basil Hume (1923-1999) in this memorial that stands beside the city's Roman Catholic St Mary's catheral church is both bold and humble; the well loved cleric is not raised above us on a plinth, but on our level.
The space in front of St Mary's is a newly created public area and today plenty of people came to sit in the very warm sunshine and share in something – well being, ease or simply peaceful relaxation. Whatever one's views, faith or no faith, this is now a place with meaning and grace.
St Mary's architercture helps. The spire was designed by AWN Pugin, the Victorian enthusiast for the Gothic Revival.
Round the corner from St Mary's, alongside the line of the old city wall at the junction of Westgate Road and Pink Lane, is a 'thing'. I suppose it is meant to convey something, but I cannot say for certain what that could be. It gleams like some missile pinning the streets together. It is simply, in that phrase used to cover a multitude of possibilities going no where fast, an "art object"? It reminds me of a pen holder, the kind used by the more pretentious business person.
The feeling of overwhelming contrivance must be obvious to any one. Happily, since it is essentailly meaningless, it threatens no one, which I suppose might be the point (no pun intended).
Further along Westgate Road is another 'representational' statue, this one to a forgotten son of the city, Joseph Cowan. An elected Member of Parliament, Cowan's first speeches in the House of Commons had some of his hearers believing he was speaking in Latin, such was their unfamiliarity with the local Geordie accent. Cowan represents a moment when the wider populace in the large industrial cities around Britain and Ireland were making their voices heard in the seat of power. His life and career mean something to those who can bear a little learning.
However ... That was an age when people felt civic pride amounted to more than shopping.
Outside 'The Gate' entertainment complex stands this obelisk. Less '2001' monolith, more chief executive officer desk ornament. Like the gleaming pin beside the city wall, it is essentially devoid of significance and therefore, 'safe'.
Which reminds me. The famous London Festival of Britain 'Skylon' (1951) was also abstract in concept yet had some kind of memorability. Destroyed by reactionaries as soon as possible after the exhibition it stood over closed down, the Skylon never was forgotten by those who saw it and with it a sense of renewal and hope for a war devastated country.
Now guess which of the above public art ventures were the result of the City Council's initiative? No prizes.
Part II of Arts for arts sake and –
– Jesmond Old Cemetary.