Art for Arts sake......


In our home town of Darlington, County Durham, on Borough Road, over behind the Civic Theatre, there's a carpet salesroom. It stands in the abandoned shell of a former Fire station and there's a mural on it's outside wall. It's a rich, grand and busy piece, depicting the setting for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in glorious purples and twilight cobalts. It takes up the entire wall which, not surprisingly, forms the view for those dining "al fresco" at the Civic.

This mural has now changed. In it's place are a series of smaller mural panels... mostly nature portraits....

While this is certainly almost guaranteed to be acceptable to the general population, most of whom probably do not recognize the scene anyway, it is gratifying for the propaganda value which it presents to the youngsters who are led past it every day to attend the primary school which is located a little further down the road.

It suggests to these kids that public art is an accepted thing - even maybe a good thing for the community. In the setting of dark winter skies and depressing December gloom, this playful piece of free art is a comfort..... a big chunk of needless frivolity hidden away from the mainstream view for the pure purposes of fun.

I am fortunate to be able to see this mural each day and it reminds me that the British Heritage is rich in the idea of free public art. From giant white hillside chalk horses to massive spreadwinged angels by the highway, Britain continues a tradition that dates back to the dawn of recorded time, and then some. Cave drawings and maybe even Stonehenge reflect the community which created them, to some degree and that, after all, is the purpose of public art.

It struck me, when I first moved to Darlington, how relatively free the town is from graffitti. I use the word "relatively" because there is indeed many an embellishment to be found on bus shelter walls and other harmless public spots, but surprisingly little of it is obscene or even particularly graffic... mostly declarations of undying teenage love and sexual reviews from the depths of fantasy, limited in expertise, adjectives, adverbs and mercy.

On the outer reaches of Yarm Road there is a factory/office building with a massive metal structure proudly dominating it's front lawn.. I suppose it represents something, although it's not clear to me exactly what it is - and yet, even though it's probably equally mysterious to most other folks who pass it by, there it stays without so much as even a minor hue and cry.

And then there's The Train...a brick train coming out of a hill and heading, suggestively, out of town. As sculpture, there's little wrong to be found with it - and I suppose as art one can make no case for the outright destruction of the thing. But hey folks, what symbolism!!!

A brick train...slow, unwieldy, uncomfortable - blandly monochrome and looking for all the world like it's being overtaken and overgrown by the land itself - as though the very earth is ashamed of the darn thing. Thousands of years from now it will confound archeologists and scientists as they try to figure out what happened to the back end and how the haddock this thing ever moved anyone anywhere. What a monument to the overall failure of Art as community reflection... I mean who does this thing represent - and how does it do it.....?? If it's supposed to demonstrate in an abstract sense, the spirit of indomitable effort that produced the railroads in this neck of the woods, then why something is immobile as brick? Why brick which can be easily shattered, brick which is easily eroded by the weather.. brick which best represents eras gone by. How 'bout a simple series of titanium spars, gleaming silver through the dawn fog and orange in the sunset, looking for all the world like a distant supersonic bullet train of the future and planning on being there for the millennium to come... now what does that say about a forward thinking community with a rich history??

Y'see, that's the problem with public art, particularly art bought with public money. It tends to reflect the ideology of the small community which made the decision in the first place. The masses are as ignored as they are apathetic.

When the council spends it's money - your money - on art, it leans towards ballet and theatre, the art of the bloated plutocrat. When the art is to be painted, played, crafted, sculpted or written, if the council buys it - it reflects the council and only the council... it is safe and inoffensive. When the money gets spent on marketplace music, there are no thrash bands or rappers to be seen or heard, but they will get some blues or, like last summer, a "Queen" tribute band. The bizzarre thing, of course, is that "Queen" themselves would have certainly been, for most of their career, far too outrageous for public money and council sensibilities and that the blues is something which is studied in High School and consequently can clearly have little relevance to today's teenagers.

All these things are public art, as are the annual Fireworks display in South Park, the library art gallery and many of the plays and productions at the art centre and even the Civic Theatre. A cursory glance at the public art schedule tells us that little if any art in Darlington is directed at those below voting age and almost all of it reflects the tastes and sensibilities of those mired in the remembered glory of the Sixties and Seventies.

It is, in fact, such very inequality that prompted this ether-mag in the first place. This endeavour is also public art, not yet funded by your tax money, but perhaps soon to be, at least partially. And, sad to say, for the moment it also reflects the tastes and sensibilities of persons far too old to understand it's own marketplace and yet trying....trying.....

And that's really the summation of the intent of public art, whether it be firework music accompaniment or brick halftrains.. public art is the personification of trying.. trying to make things better, more beautiful or peaceful... provoking and testing the limits of acceptability... often failing and yet never giving's an attiTUDE thing.

Whether or not some anonymous scribe truly believes that Julia is the best fish in town and chooses to write it on a bus shelter is not art, in and of itself....but the act of writing it is, and so is the act of reading it. Art without an audience is the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no-one around to hear the crash. So, even if you're not an artist, you have no choice but to be an audience member. Maybe it's a poem on the wall of a bathroom, or a painting on the wall of a carpet store....maybe a busker in an alleyway or a well driven bus. Perhaps it's the layout of the flowers at the roundabout, or silver dolphins on a wall... Maybe the person walking behind you is whistling or humming, or the one in front dressed for the muse rather than the weather... it's all art, folks...public art... free expression of who and what we are - artist or audience.

Go 'head -

be alive -

Art something.



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