rnThe 9th edition of the Battle of Ideas, held throughout the Barbican Centre over two days, brought together an intellectually-inclined audience and a variety of experts and intellectuals, to tackle topics from economics and welfare to culture and technology.

Convened and chaired by Dr Wendy Earle, the panel debate Is public art an insult to the public? pitted Helen Marriage, director of Artichoke, and David Fagan, councillor and regeneration convenor for North Lanarkshire Council, in a friendly battle against Fisun Güner, visual arts editor at The Arts Desk, and Josie Appleton, director of the Manifesto Club.

The Institute of Ideas are known for their accent on freedom of speech and individual liberties, and this was not one of those artist bashing, anti public art forums (though there were a couple of comments from the floor to this effect). Instead, it was a battle between commissioners and their critics around agendas and processes in the public sphere. Well, not exactly a battle – there was a consensus that responsibility and artistic integrity win out – more a case of a few minor differences.

Public art – ‘a social salve’

Both Josie Appleton and Fisun Güner took to task the idea that art should be good for the public, with Güner questioning the veracity of local authority studies that suggest art benefits people’s health. Appleton meanwhile expressed concern at how easily art becomes a “social salve” when local authorities don’t know what else to do with a disadvantaged area.

“Exposing people to art seems to be an end in itself without addressing the deeper question,” said Güner. “Commissioning bodies neglect to ask one question: Why are they commissioning this artwork in this place? There has to be a reason for it to exist in a particular place.”

Where Güner’s concern was predominantly with contextual artistic quality, Appleton’s reflective analysis sought to tease out where and why public art had gained its negative image. Her conclusion was the utilitarian commissioning rationales that range from “putting a place on the map” to “encouraging a sense of identity”. All these she sees as potentially leading to the disenfranchisement of the public from the narratives constructed around their communities.

“Today’s art has a very strange quality, almost like a meteorite… you don’t really know where it’s come from, it doesn’t seem to have much connection to the place,” said Appleton, adding that commissioners “have a burden of responsibility.”

Extraordinary disruptions

For David Fagan, the burden of responsibility is absolutely clear – it’s about commissioning good artists to make good art. “I believe that the public respond to rich sensory public experiences,” he explained, saying that his commissioning approach was less concerned with consultation and more with risk.

Helen Marriage of Artichoke, the commissioners responsible for The Sultan’s Elepahnt, ‘the largest piece of free theatre ever brought to London’ in 2006, also spoke of risk as an essential factor, describing how this is what her company trades in, with their ephemeral temporary productions that aim for “the temporary transformation of public space into something extraordinary.”

Always thinking about the public, Marriage described how bringing The Sultan’s Elephant to London was a four-year process of conversations and relationship building. However, she agreed there was a limit to consultation – for instance, asking if people mind central London being shut down for an event. For Marriage, facilitating and accommodating the public, rather than consultation, is key. “The work you are going to realise in this temporal transformation of a place has to be fantastic,” she said.

It was refreshing to see trust in the artist, accorded within both Fagan and Marriage’s distinct approaches. As commissioners, they showed another way of working that appeared to value quality and experience over policy objectives. Said Marriage: “Change is actually quite disturbing; public art is about changing from normal.”

Ultimately, said Fagan, a commissioner is going to get flack whatever approach they take: “If I am going to be kicked for a piece of public art that I’ve commissioned, which I will be no matter what, I’d rather be kicked for my views and values.”

Is public art an insult to the public? took place on 20 October 2013 at the Barbican Centre, London. www.battleofideas.org.uk