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Art or Ice Cream?

Apr 24, 2015 Art

The decision to invite the public to have its say on the Queens Wharf sculpture is stupid. Here’s why.

Since you asked, I think the Michael Parekowhai state-house sculpture on Queens Wharf should have porthole windows, not square ones. And it should be smaller, and taller, and painted a more interesting colour than white. And seriously, if you put a child’s plastic slide out the front, wouldn’t that show all the visitors to Auckland that a happy family lives here?

Mind you, do we really want a sculpture at all? What about an ice-cream shop instead? Let’s have a vote – I’ll bet my own house that ice cream would win.

I’m so looking forward to the public consultation on the Queens Wharf sculpture, aren’t you? Yes, I know, Linda Cooper, who chairs the council committee that’s decided we need to have our say, reckons the consultation will be limited to the placement of the artwork. We won’t be invited to comment on the merits of the art itself. But that’s not going to stop anyone, is it? Already, some of the other councillors sound remarkably like they can’t wait to decide what’s a good piece of art and what’s not.

That’s the very last thing I voted for any of them to do, and I doubt my view on this is uncommon.

There are two values in conflict here. One is democratic: it’s the perfectly legitimate public expectation that we will be asked what we think should happen in the public spaces we own. Queens Wharf is the people’s wharf, as John Dalzell, CEO of Waterfront Auckland, likes to say.

The other is artistic: it’s the recognition that “good art” is an intrinsically undemocratic concept. If good public art is a public good (is there any real disagreement on that?), the surest way not to get it is to turn the decisions over to a committee. And if that “committee” happens to be dictated to by broad public opinion, even worse. The result, almost inevitably, will be a dispiriting mediocrity.

The problem here is that the nincompoops we call our councillors have got their processes out of whack. The time for public consultation on artworks is before the work is presented to us. We should have been consulted on what we want on Queens Wharf, and we should have been asked if we want a major piece of public art there.

We should not be asked to choose the art, or – because it amounts to the same thing – engage in a process that will be overwhelmed by our current view of the art. The problem is that we, the public, are not good at firing up our imaginations. We like what we know. We see things as they are, and not as they might be. It’s one of the reasons we value artists in the first place: in theory at least, they are more likely than the rest of us to be able to imagine how good something completely new will be.

Let’s put it this way. If the public had got to decide, Wellington would not have its magnificent wooden bridge over Jervois Quay, complete with Para Matchett scultures. Paris would not have an Eiffel Tower (everybody hated that when it was proposed). All over the world, major works by the likes of Richard Serra, Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor would not have been built. Kapoor’s enormous bubble-like Cloud Gate in Chicago has been wonderfully invigorating for that city, but it  was publicly opposed at the time.

So what’s the best way to get good public art? As it happens, it’s not to leave it to the artist. They often get it wrong, as any number of existing public artworks can attest. (Visual art, remember, is like any other creative expression: there are good songs and bad, good books and bad, and good sculpture and bad. But the existence of the bad doesn’t mean you give up on the good.)

The best guarantee is to give the decision making to someone with good taste, and have them work with the artists. The best example of that is Alan Gibbs’ farm on the Kaipara. Gibbs doesn’t commission artists and then cross his fingers. He invites them to submit a proposal, works with them to improve it, and when he’s happy he releases the funds. The result is a farm with arguably as high a strike rate of great art as you will find anywhere in the world.

How do you find someone with good taste? That’s harder – at least, it’s harder to agree on. So maybe a small group of two or three have to be given the job. Two or three brave, discerning, independent and altogether excellent people, none of whom are likely to be councillors.

Meanwhile, quite apart from the absurdity of asking the public to have their say on the Parekowhai at this point, the decision has another problem. It’s a silly distraction. It’s councillors puffing out their chests to strike a blow for democracy on Queens Wharf, at the very time Ports of Auckland continues with its outrageous vandalism of the harbour just a hundred or so metres along the quayside. If Auckland Council wants something to get all democratic about, how about they take a stronger stand against the extensions to Bledisloe Wharf?


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