Ninety percent of all public art is bad — a fact that is not mitigated by good intentions. We saw it recently in New York, and now there’s a similar folly in London, the British artist Maggi Hambling’s statue of the pioneering feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Yes, we need more non-allegorical statues of actual women in public. But the shambolic mess looks a Rolls-Royce hood ornament by way of a sketchy Disney Fantasia figure. It’s an affront to this titan: Picture a faux-digital swirly silver molten metal twisty smoke-gust thing sputtering out a miniature naked female figure with — at first glance, at least — pubic hair that looks like a brain. It was explained to the mystified public that this fake-Expressionist piece of Art Nouveau mediocrity represents “a combination of female forms which commingle and rise together as if one.” In fact it represents a set of 100 percent generic ideas about figurative sculpture from the 1920s, the worst strains of dead-end academicism masquerading as art. This is kitsch.
Why? Because it condescends to the imagination, has no original ideas of form or material, packs the visual charisma of a doorknob, and is simultaneously solemn, shallow, feebleminded, and homely. It has no presence at all. It’s a whirl of metal with a naked genie popping out of the top — strangely and inappropriately ejaculatory. It’s an image that should appear next to the word “bathos” in the dictionary: a ludicrous descent from the exalted to the commonplace, displaying sentimentality, mawkishness, triteness, and triviality in style. Just like our own nude female figure outside the courthouse on Centre Street — another travesty, ignored by the public as the intellectual optical nullity that it is.
According to a statement from the misguided “Mary on the Green” committee that commissioned and placed the thing — and reportedly wasted $190,000 on it — the work “is Everywoman, her own person, ready to confront the world … a combination of female forms which commingle and rise together as if one.” Whatever it’s supposed to be or represent or depict, it’s a dud.
Shall I be mean about British art? Okay. Realism and literature haunts almost all British art. I surmise that the capacious feel for language, narrative, and drama that seems to be inculcated in the British brain causes a lot of British art to fall into clever commentary, agitprop, or academicism — or be pulled back into realism. Great Britain’s is a primarily literary art; this doesn’t work well visually. I further surmise that abstraction is not foremost in the British mind. So much for my silly xenophobia. The real answer for why most public sculpture is bad — and why this keeps happening with art, much architecture, and too many governments — is bureaucracy and populism and the rule of the common denominator, a need to not offend, to please, to be liked (at least by the people making the choice), to be popular, and to not change. It defaults to the “traditional values” of whatever white hegemony dominated that culture 150 years ago — at the apex of American and European colonialism. When it comes to public sculpture, this usually means hackneyed figurative art that claims to signify or represent an idea or person but really only represents lazy and regressive ideas.