When the Arts Council announced that they’d pulled the plug on Anthony MacCall’s column of steam yesterday, we guess the only real surprise was that it took them so long to come to their decision. So much time, and so much money.

We kind of figured that it wasn’t going to work when the Cultural Olympiad commission was still under wraps long after the Olympic flame had been extinguished and the Spice Girls had all fucked off in their fleet of black cabs.

So what have we learned along the way? Well, first let’s remember how we got here.

The commission beat 172 contenders, to represent the north west. That’s 172 other bids, scrupulously fleshed out, with 3D visualisations, project statements and misty-eyed manifestos about inspiration, inclusivity and innovation. Probably. Although, having never had a penny in public funding, we wouldn’t know.

The winning commissions, the Arts Council says, “were selected by independent panels of artists and producers, and were funded by Arts Council England in partnership with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Creative Scotland and the Arts Council of Wales.”

Meanwhile, Echo arts editor Catherine Jones started spouting with excitement: “Liverpool is still a cultural powerhouse as is shown by today’s news that Anthony McCall has won a commission for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.”

But what, exactly, did we have to shout about? That we’d created something amazing? Something profoundly moving and magical in our midst? Something powerhousey?

No. We’d won a tendering opportunity.

The art? That was no more than a pipe dream. And, call us cynics, but we’ve always taken the view that the exciting bit is the art, not the cheque. No matter how eyewatering the amount.

“Projected Column is a spinning column of cloud which will rise a mile high from the Mersey and will be able to be seen 100km (about 60 miles) away,” Jones continued.

But she was getting a little carried away. As were those who handed over £535,000 of our cash. Because the column didn’t exist. It was an application form expertly completed. A flight of fancy.

Backed by FACT and the Biennial it was one of 12 Artists Taking The Lead commissions – ‘Big Art’ designed to be the centrepiece for the Cultural Olympiad, and approved by committee.

So far, so Millennium Dome, then. But, my oh my, did we buy into it.

“I asked Anthony McCall what would happen if he didn’t get the commission and he said the idea would eventually be realised, if somewhere else. Thankfully that is not going to be the case,” Jones concluded.

Well, one thing’s for sure: it ain’t going anywhere else. Unless anyone’s got a spare half a million to piss three miles up the wall.

The delays were blamed on ‘bad weather’ ‘aviation concerns’ ‘planning issues’ ‘migrating birds’ and, erm, ‘wind’. Now we know the real reason – it was based on flawed physics.

The column was based on convection: warm moist air displaced by denser air, causing a spout. But no matter how much complex modelling you do, a MacBook is no match for nature, and the magic just never materialised. MacCall, an interesting and engaging artist, had let Big Art get in the way of big ideas. See also the giant horses, flayed pregnant women and rusting rotundas that have been promised or parachuted into our towns over the past decade. As if a Gormley will revive the fortunes of a depressed corner of England.

“We’ve built several working models which is a way of learning about how the physics of the piece behave and we’ve now got a very good working model that demonstrates the piece in motion,” MacCall had said. “ It works as we hoped but you’re never prepared for the physicality of it – people have described it as mesmerising.”

For us, the modelling and machinations highlight something all too real.

Good art doesn’t happen because it passes a check list. Doesn’t happen because there’s a pot of money waiting with its name on it. Doesn’t happen because consultants and regional arts editors say it’ll be good for us.

Funding for public art has nothing to do with art and everything to do with bureaucracy. It is a system that benefits those who have the ability to negotiate the hideous application process and leads to the revolting spectacle of creative artists advertising for people to fill in application forms for them. It is run by bureaucrats to benefit bureaucrats and the friends of bureaucrats.

It is top down mediocrity, it is patronising and arrogant. It is art as ‘prescribed culture’ – a sticking plaster for crap town communities. It is all of this, but it is not art – no matter how ‘risky’ or ‘ambitious’ (and we have no problem with risk, by the way. Risk is good).

Organisations and individuals who can afford to spend several weeks putting the applications together and can actually survive without the funding are usually the ones who end up with the cash. And so the wheel turns, and another so-so sculpture or intervention appears.

As such, Arts Council funded public art is invariably so shaped by the constraints of health and safety and of bureaucratic hoop jumping that it is nothing except the physical form of all that constrains it.

The people who are shouting the loudest and predicting a cultural apocalypse in which pasty skinned, dead-eyed youth watch endless repeats of Britain’s Got Talent in a featureless wasteland devoid of colour and beauty are exactly the same people who have cut out a niche for themselves in that world and do very nicely thank you very much from it: all the artists who like their arts council stipend for producing anodyne dross that ticks all the boxes, all the curators who whitter on earnestly about empowering the disenfranchised, accessibility and inclusivity but whose bottom line is a big fat grant cheque and an eye on another one.

Art will not die. If there is never another public sculpture or community arts project where an artist ‘starts a conversation’ with residents of a tower block to see how dance can improve their lives, art will not die. People, young people, will always find new forms of expression that are exciting vital and significant and which will have nothing to do with self-serving pen pushers with mouths full of jargon and plastic cups full of Sauvignon Blanc who potter around their sanitised little world doling out largesse to those who speak the same language as them.

Libraries, day centres for the disabled and elderly, child care, community youth centres and public art galleries, yes. Publicly funded art projects decided by committee no.

It is simply impossible to judge the quality of the work through an application form – let alone, as this fiasco shows, whether it will even do what it promises.

Culture – good culture – will out, whatever happens. Maybe not culture that ticks all the boxes. Maybe not culture that keeps the 4.5 million publicly funded ‘art consultants’ on £262 a day while those day centres close. But we’re really not too bothered about that.

Maybe that’s why the column never worked. Real art is unpredictable – not a negotiation between councils, landlords and arts bodies.

This piece? Too much hot air.

5 Responses to “Art For Whose Sake?”

  1. This new york based artist gets thousands to parachute in something that has no conversation with the place, has no real care or interest in the site, and is willing to flounce off to the highest bidder if we didn’t cough up? There is no risk involved in winning a competition and getting cash thrown at it. Risk is doing something yourself, without the public purse getting involved. Risk is doing something that you can’t explain. Risk isn’t this crap art.

  2. I could never make my mind up as to which I thought was the more ridiculous- the idea itself, or the fact it was meant to celebrate the olympics 200 miles away in London, England, or that it was meant to celebrate the 2012 olympics and yet was allowed to drag on after the games had finished, including into 2013.

    Just because something’s technically difficult to achieve, doesn’t make it art.

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