Public Art Network
Art in the public realm: projects, news, events, opportunities.
Friday, 11 March 2011
Jonathan Jones on grief and public art in The Guardian
How much bearing should private grief have on public art?
Opposition to Miya Ando's Thameside 9/11 sculpture is understandable, but civic monuments have a wider import
Would a proposed Thameside sculpture made of steel girders taken from the debris of the twin towers offer a focal point for reflection? Photograph: Peter Morgan/Reuters
In May 1504, a colossal statue carved by the young Michelangelo was moved through the streets of Florence towards its chosen site in the political centre of the city. Mysterious assailants, perhaps supporters of the then-exiled Medici family, threw stones at it under cover of darkness. Public art has been controversial ever since
When a work of art is exhibited in a space defined as "public" rather than "private", its meanings change; it can assume a new kind of power or suffer a new kind of disgrace. Over time, it tends to become part of the local scenery – a generalisation to which David is an obvious exception. But when an artwork is new it can generate controversy that seems inexplicably intense, sometimes tearing down the barrier between fine art and real-life emotions.
such a dispute about a planned monument in London to the victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre
. The 9/11 monument designed by
has been deferred after objections by British relatives of people who died in the attack and the
September 11 UK families support group
. Their discomfort apparently arises from the plan to use surviving steel girders from the wreckage of that dreadful day and present them in what has been called a provocatively "raw" way.
No one would want to lightly dismiss the feelings of these families, but is the monument exclusively for them? It seems a misunderstanding of public art to place decisive emphasis on the private feelings of one group, however potent their victimhood. Anyone who was personally afflicted by that atrocity is sentenced to a life of remembrance, just as no one who lost a son or brother in the first world war needed the
to remind them of their pain. The Cenotaph is also a raw, bleak object, but we are glad it is there, pleased that poppies are worn and a silence held to remember the war. Monuments are not just for us but for the future, keeping history alive in the minds of generations as yet unborn.
Memory is never neutral. It is savagely political: tell me what you remember and I will tell you what side you are on. The memory of the terror attacks on America is particularly contested. It has arguably led to a cycle of further destruction – "the wars of 9/11" – while conspiracy theorists have tried to eat away at the facts of
what happened that day
. But it would be absurd to deny the severity of the event, the human cruelty and loss those twisted girders record, or the need to create a world in which such horrors are never again perpetrated.
Truly cataclysmic historical events exert a macabre charisma that can make their memory seem toxic or burdensome. Yet we can never take a sense of history for granted, and the facts need restating constantly.
Historians sometimes complain that young people leave school with far more knowledge of the Holocaust than any other historical event
– but can we really say there is too much Holocaust history taught in schools? It seems there can
never be enough to educate some people
Nor can it be a good thing to forget 9/11 or treat it as a private matter for the people directly affected. It has shaped our time and we are not out of its shadow. A striking artistic memorial in London would be a focal point for discussion and analysis, for school groups and for anyone wanting to reflect. This memory is, as a contemporary said of David in 1504, "a public thing", and the public would benefit from a permanent place to confront it in London.
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