"Brian Fallon"

"It does not seem to occur to the mass of people that the
landscape of a country is in many ways as much a
human creation as cities and towns are”

Since this is essentially a conference on landscape, I don't propose to discuss such forms of popular art as the Macnas parades in Galway, (which I admire, incidentally) or pop-music concerts, or anything in that rather generalised area.  I intend to stick, as far as possible, to works of public art which are created in materials which are lasting, or at least relatively so.  I suppose architecture is the most public of all the arts, since we have to live with the results, to see it every day, to endure it if it is bad, and enjoy when it is good … which is not often!  But I am not really qualified to discuss architecture, though I may hold strong opinions about it … as in fact I do.  

Recently I had an in-depth conversation with one of England's most promising younger architects, about the visual arts in Britain.  He surprised me with a remark, which at first seemed strange or even slightly pretentious, but when I thought about it, I realised it was quite true.  He said that in his opinion, the greatest visual achievement of England over the centuries was the shaping of its landscape, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  I realised that I had forgotten or ignored an important but quite obvious fact - that the landscape not only in England, but also in many other countries, was to a large extent the creation of the landowning aristocracy, or rather of landscapists and gardeners and planners working for the aristocracy.  They cleared scrubland and planted carefully sited woods or groves, they drained wetlands and guided the course of streams, they introduced new species of trees and shrubs and flowers, they created views and vistas which today the ordinary man tends to think were always like that - that is to say, those which have not been built over or vandalised in some way or another.  But we know, of course, that they were not always like that.  It does not seem to occur to the mass of people that the landscape of a country is in many ways as much a human creation as cities and towns are.  

The old landowning aristocracy had semi-autocratic powers, which may be less evident today.  A few contemporary millionaires (usually in America) may have the vision and energy … and the wealth to reshape a whole area of land that they own, but as a rule few of them do.  Perhaps it is just as well - the results might be hideous or vulgar, or at least completely arbitrary.  Yet the creative shaping of our environment is possible today in a way that it never was in the past.  Modern machinery, earthmovers and the like, can accomplish in a few months or even weeks what the old aristocracy could hardly achieve in a lifetime with a far greater workforce.  This is a challenge which sooner or later must be faced, and sooner rather than later.  It is the merest truism that we have allowed private developers, petty local interests, political patronage and vote-catching decisions, to call the tune in this crucial field.  In saying this, I am only saying what any thinking person knows.  It may be an inbuilt feature of our modern commercial democracy, or the decline in public taste, which has come with the dominance of the so-called Common Man … who is very often simply Uncultured Man, or Uneducated Man.  Regions such as Connemara are almost terminally ill from Bungalow Blight; Dublin … particularly Outer Dublin … seems to have gone completely out of control. Rivers and streams are being turned into drainage channels; old landmarks are being obliterated; the whole face of the countryside seems to be changing.   

Modern technology and machinery, of course, have made this physically possible, but the task is now to enlist modern technology and what is loosely called Land Art or more loosely Environmental Art, which is only beginning here and the few examples I know of are not reassuring.  One of the few to impress me is at Sneem, where the artist James Scanlon has created a series of outdoor stone sculptures which resemble the old Irish beehive huts and churches (I regret, by the way, that I do not have a colour slide of this).  He has called this work "The Pyramids." In America, which is still a relatively new country in the landscaping sense, Environmental Art, Earth Art and similar trends have been active for at least two decades.  America, then, can largely take the credit … and also the discredit for initiating this whole movement, if movement it can really or accurately be called.  In some cases, the result has merely been the creation of what in the eighteenth century were called follies.  In other cases, it has produced the merest cultism … the kind of thing, which made the poet-critic John Ashbery remark that for a time, half the artists in America seemed to be busy making, holes in Utah and Arizona.  

One of the most publicised cases was the famous spiral jetty created in the Salt Lake in Utah by the sculptor Robert Smithson.  It was literally that -- a spiral jetty projecting out into the lake, built for purely aesthetic reasons since it was not used for any purpose.  Thousands of tons of rock and gravel were used to lay it.  The level of the lake rose, and the jetty was buried under several feet of water and now survives only in photographs.  

Smithson's work in itself was little more than a period curiosity, a "folly" in the old sense, but it showed what could be done by an artist enlisting the aid of modern technology and, of course, official approval.  It serves as an example of a specific kind his example has proved a fruitful one.  

In America, in France and in several other countries, contemporary artists have been commissioned to create whole environments … to design parks and gardens, to shape what might be called total art.  The great Japanese/American sculptor, Noguchi, was particularly interested in this area, but he is not the only one by any means. Of course, not all these pieces of environmental or outdoor art are good; no doubt some are banal, tasteless, or else cold and unfriendly, and some are merely dull or meretricious.  But in hands of an artist who combines talent and vision with a realistic knowledge of what technology can achieve, such commissions can produce visual miracles.  

Obviously, we are at least a decade behind in Ireland in these developments, yet I do not suggest turning every ambitious young sculptor loose on an area of land with a fleet of JCBs to back him or her up.  The risks are obviously too great, and I do not think in any case that the climate of opinion is ready yet.  It is one thing to give a virtually free hand to a creative genius, but those in whom such authority is vested are as likely to commission a piece of fashionable nonsense from some fast-talking careerist just out of art college.  Nevertheless, we should not be hamstrung by the fear of creating a few modern Follies; after all, a living landscape can absorb a great deal of intrusion and gradually turn even ugliness or pretentiousness to its own account.  During a number of visits I made to Cornwall some years ago, I was greatly struck by how the old lead mines and other remnants of the Industrial Revolution had begun to merge with the overall scenery … how they had become picturesque, ivy-covered or coloured, rather like the false Gothic buildings which 18thcentury landowners used sometimes to erect on their estates.  The past had already tamed their original ugliness, and the landscape had shaped them to its own character.  

Meanwhile, let me turn to the other form of public art, namely sculpture.  We in this country are certainly not behindhand here … in fact, exactly the reverse is true.  Instead of going too slow, we are going too fast and too uncritically.  Personally, I do not want to see an Irish equivalent of the huge winged figure in metal, which the artist Anthony Gormley has recently erected in the North of England.  And I am rather sorry for people who have to live near this massive, rather banal piece and see it every day, dominating the skyline.  Yet the trend has been set, more and more public sculptures are springing up around the country, and the time has come to take stock of them overall and to ask ourselves if we are getting the best which this country can produce.  

Our Century, or at least the closing decades of it, appears to have lost a sense of the proper role of public sculpture, though this was probably inherent in the whole Post-Modernist crisis in art.  I propose, however inadequately, to take stock of this crisis situation … for it is that … and to suggest, very tentatively, a few remedies.  It is a far greater problem than might at first be thought, since it sets up shock waves in other disciplines besides sculpture.  It is, in fact, as much a social or societal issue as it is an aesthetic one.  And at this stage, I ask to be allowed some historical retrospect.

Broadly speaking, it seems to me that the special place which sculpture once had going back to Graeco-Roman times, and even beyond that to the ancient cultures of Egypt, Assyria, China etc. has been virtually abandoned in recent decades.  In all these cultures it played a public, communal role and it spoke in terms and in images, which virtually everybody could understand.  It praised or placated the gods, it depicted gods, heroes and great men in immediately recognisable shapes, it enshrined scenes of mythology as in the Parthenon; in short, it spoke for Everyman as well as the ruling castes of the particular state which erected it.  It is almost impossible to imagine classical Athens without Phidias's great chryselephantine statue of Athena, or Rome without the temples and statuary of the Capitol.  

In the Christian era, Romanesque and Gothic sculpture naturally glorified religion, which entered into every aspect of life, public and private.  With the Renaissance, as most people know, there was a partial reversal to classical, secular culture, and sculptors created statues of rulers and successful soldiers as well as of saints.  Donatello and his successors expressed in bronze or marble the civic pride and patriotism of Florence, and their works still bear witness to it when the Florentine state has long vanished.  In the Baroque Age, Bernini proclaimed the greatness and pomp of the Counter-Reformation Papacy, while in France Coysevox, Coustou and other outstanding court sculptors celebrated the absolutism and centralised monarchy of Louis XIV.  

Totalitarian regimes in this century have fully understood this role, which is why sculpture bulked so large in the plans of Hitler and Mussolini - and, of course, of Stalin too.  They understood very well its propaganda qualities, its silent eloquence, and the fact that it stands there and refuses to go away.  And it is equally significant, though in a negative sense, that the moment these regimes are overthrown, one of the first reactions of the previously oppressed populations is to pull down or demolish the massive statues erected by these tyrants.  No art, except possibly architecture, is more the symbol of a specific regime or society.  The early Christians spent much of their energies destroying pagan statuary, and during the French Revolution some of the earliest victims were the great equestrian statues in bronze of former kings, many of which were melted down to make cannon for France's revolutionary armies.  

In the 19th century, we have the first signs of the aesthetic split which was to widen so much in this century.  The individual tends to take over from communal life and interests. Art … or at least the good art - becomes private rather than public.  That is a very big generalisation, but I shall risk it and stand over it.  The nineteenth century was, of course, a period … or rather periods … which produced much great public and monumental sculpture and architecture; you only have to think of Francois Rude's "Marsellaise" in Paris, or even Foley's statues of Goldsmith and Burke outside Trinity College Dublin.  In each one of these examples, the individual work has become part of the very fabric of a capital city, part of its civic and communal life.  Even if people do not consciously take notice of these sculptures as they pass them by every day, they probably notice them semi-consciously and would miss them if they were destroyed or removed.  

But with the Romantic age there was a deepening rift between public and private art, public and private behaviour, the private individual and the public citizen.  It was, of course, an age of great philanthropy and public projects, a time when great museums and libraries were built, great art collections became accessible to the public instead of remaining in the palaces and mansions of the aristocracy, the first age of mass literacy and popular newspapers and mass printings of new books.  Yet the artists themselves seem to have found it hard to adapt to the new spirit and the new society.  It is true; of course, that they were losing the patronage of both the Church and the aristocracy, for whom they had mainly worked in previous epochs; and the new secular states, did not quite fill the gaps.  There was, of course, a tremendous new demand for art, but much of it was private and came from the new rich class thrown up by the Industrial Revolution.  These people as a rule were more interested in decorating their homes with works of art than in setting up public ones.  The art dealer emerged as a force, the middleman of art, interceding between the artist and his potential patrons.  Many or even most of the major talents of the nineteenth century created for this private, middle-class market rather than for the State or for civic bodies, or indeed for the Church.  

The case of Rodin is instructive in this context.  We are inclined to think of him as a man fully in tune with his time, enjoying the patronage of the State as well as private clients and collectors.  This view is largely mistaken.  Rodin lived mainly from portrait commissions and almost all his major public commissions had a very chequered history.  Generally he found himself at odds with committees and public bodies, so that a number of his public sculptures were either rejected or much modified, or else left unfinished.  Academic sculptors who were vastly inferior to him in talent often fared better.  Much of the blame for this seems to lie in public taste itself.  The Church in previous centuries had known exactly what it wanted, and the cultured aristocracy seems usually … though not always, by any means … to have had innate good taste.  The nineteenth century, however, lacked taste in almost every field, although it was one of the greatest and most creative ages in the whole history of the West.  Perhaps this was partly due to democratic levelling, perhaps it was because traditional methods and iconography were so widely challenged or even rejected, or … the diametric opposite to this … perhaps it was because classical models would no longer serve although people went on trying to imitate them.  It remains a fact, however, that the Romantic Movement was more successful in the private sphere than in the public one.  It was individualist rather than communal, subjective rather than outward looking, concerned more with the private soul or private aspirations and emotions than with society as a whole.  

No doubt this mentality was to a large extent produced by the materialism and commercial vulgarity of the new age.  Money ruled, and while a minority of the new rich were philanthropic and public-minded, the majority were acquisitive and grasping.  The new bourgeois monarchs were themselves little more than private patrons; their homes and even their palaces were often monuments to bad taste, more lavish than those of private citizens but rarely superior in style.  Sensitive souls, sensitive people more often than not reacted to this new society by withdrawing from it into their private sensibilities.  You only have to read the letters of writers such as Flaubert or Baudelaire to realise how such men felt hopelessly estranged from the spirit of their epoch.  

The Modernist movement of this century was largely supported by enlightened private patrons and collectors; it was decades before the new art was welcomed in museums and public galleries. Curiously enough though, many great twentieth-century artists were in full reaction against Romantic individualism; they wanted to reach out to a wider public again, to be the organs of society.  Many of them inclined towards the Left in politics; Picasso, Leger and others were even Communists. But somehow, they did not reach the kind of public they had in mind.  Almost to the end of their lives, they relied on the same mechanism of art dealers and enlightened patrons to keep them going.  The greater public simply was not ready for them.  

There have, of course, been great public works of sculpture in this century.  One obvious one is Zadkine's war memorial in Rotterdam, which commemorates the victims of German bombing there early in the Second World War.  Brancusi, in his native Rumania, created some extraordinary pieces such as his "Endless Column" and incidentally, these are abstract works, which show that public sculpture need not be figurative.  In more recent decades, the great American sculptors … Alexander Calder, David Smith, Noguchi, Beverley Pepper to mention a few … have shown themselves able to meet the challenge of working out of doors on a large, or even a heroic scale and of making themselves intelligible to ordinary people without the equivalent of talking down.  America, in general, has been quicker than Europe to accept Modernism, and its huge spaces and modern urban scene obviously offer great opportunities for the sculptor who can think big and has an eye for a site.  But in Britain, the many public works by Henry Moore mostly look dated, and so does much of Barbara Hepworth.  Here I must apologise for this long, rather ungainly preamble to my main theme, which is Ireland and public sculpture, or even public art in general.  

It is easy to say we have no tradition of it here; in fact we have.  Foley was probably the greatest figure of his kind in Victorian Britain, and even a bronze statue such as Sheppard's Ninety-eight pikeman in the Bull Ring in Wexford town is a masterpiece of its kind.  This is an example of a "popular" work in the best sense, which can be enjoyed both by connoisseurs and by quite simply people, because it speaks a language, which appeals straightaway to the popular imagination, to patriotism in the best sense, to a sense of history.  It is also superbly sited, in the centre of a small square.  Jerome Connor's Lusitania Memorial at Cobh, various works by Andrew O'Connor, are all splendid works which have touched the public's emotions without condescending to vulgarity.  In more recent decades, the late Oisin Kelly created some good, though not necessarily great sculpture in public places including FitzGerald's Park in Cork, and there have been a handful of others.  We cannot say, then, that we have no tradition in this field; we have, in fact, and it is or was a good one.  But it is becoming increasingly less relevant to the mental climate of today; we cannot easily build on its legacy.  

Just why is this?  Is it just a change in taste, or in style?  I believe it is partly those, but it is much more as well.  First of all, there is no obvious mythology or binding beliefs, or communal imagery, which public sculpture can employ.  To erect one more memorial to de Valera, or even to Michael Collins, is merely to celebrate the historical figures of another age, which is now well behind us.  If there is a cultural binding agent in Irish society today, it is no longer the Church or nationalism, it is the commercially oriented Pop Culture.  Does that mean we should erect statues of Elvis Presley in Irish towns, or of U2 or the Boomtown Rats, or whoever?  I sincerely hope not, though I have a horrible feeling that I might yet live to see it.  I am not being facetious; by the way … it is hardly a joking matter.  The fact is, large-scale public portrait sculpture is almost a thing of the past.  I know that statues of Joyce and Oscar Wilde have recently been erected in Dublin, and a sculpture to Yeats in Sligo.  I do not think any of these works is outstanding, or even very good.  In fact, I doubt if they could be good even in the hands of first-rank artists.  I would be more than glad to be proved wrong on this; it is possible, of course, that I will be, but so far the problem of creating public, monumental portraiture is something which no contemporary Irish artist known to me has solved.  Oisin Kelly made a very respectable shot at it in his life-sized bronze of James Connolly in Dublin; but it is a work, which looks back rather than forward.  I do not know how many people here have been recently to the Interpretative Centre in Dunquin and have seen the remarkable stone statue by Michael Quaine called "The Islandman". I think this is outstanding of its kind, but it is sadly untypical of what has been going up in the past ten or fifteen years.  

Be it understood, I am not talking of a failure of talent, since Ireland has a number of gifted living sculptors.  I am discussing the death or at least the dislocation of an old and noble tradition, which is felt in many countries besides Ireland.  It would be too dogmatic to say that neither Modernism nor Post Modernism has been able to come to terms with it, or that both are inherently opposed to it by the very essence of their respective aesthetics.  I know perfectly well that contemporary sculptors such as the American Richard Serra have been given huge (I mean huge, literally, in terms of scale) commissions for metal sculpture in New York, Germany etc. but in my opinion the results have almost always been disastrous.  Serra has not shown any interest in accommodating himself or his style to local conditions, local traditions or local character.  He has simply made yet another Serra, of which there are quite enough in existence already, and his vast, brutalist pieces simply domineer over their surroundings, like an unwanted football stadium or a high-rise building which nobody seems to want, but apparently nobody can stop.  

In the 1970s a new school of metal sculptors emerged in this country, many of them from Cork, or at least trained there.  I mean Vivienne Roche, Eilis O'Connell and certain others, most of whom had been trained by a highly competent Cork-based sculptor, John Burke. At this period, there was a good deal of outdoor sculpture being commissioned to accompany new buildings, which were mostly designed and built in a post-Bauhaus style.  That is to say, these buildings were mostly cube-shaped or rectangular, built of glass and concrete, and the harshly abstract style of the new metal sculpture was considered the natural or at least obvious pendant to them.  The teaming of architecture with sculpture, of course, has an old history and there is no need to enlarge on it here.  So for a time we had rather a proliferation of hard edge abstract sculpture, mainly in steel, and you can see the results as you drive around the country or through our cities.  In general, this type of work is clean-cut in style, well made and finished, and of course deliberately impersonal.  It has the "cool" tone considered essential at the time; it does not make a personal statement, and presumably does everything that the architect and the artist envisaged in the first place.  If I often find the result a little cold and inorganic, that may be my personal bias or taste; more relevantly, I find most of these works lacking in real originality.  In Britain, large metal sculptures proliferated during the Seventies and Eighties, or even earlier, and you can find them in the squares of numerous provincial towns, or standing in the grounds of local supermarkets there.  Already, most of them have a period look, and some simply look big, empty and slightly depressing.  America seems able to carry off this kind of thing with real panache, but the British or Irish version is greatly lacking.  

There are certain metal abstract sculptures of the last few decades, however, which seem to me major achievements.  The first that springs to mind is the late Alexandra Wejchert's big piece … it is more than thirty feet high …at the AIB complex in Ballsbridge, Dublin.  This is a genuine masterpiece, and her outdoor sculpture on the campus of Limerick University is not much inferior to it (I have not yet managed to see her sculpture at University College, Cork, which I regret). Alexandra Weichert had one major advantage; apart from her considerable talent … she was trained as an architect and town planner.  She could therefore gauge the scale, the siting and the harmonising of her works with the surrounding spaces and the surrounding buildings.  In that she remains almost unique; but now she is dead, and we can expect no more sculptures from her, large or small.  What I regret most in her case is that she was never commissioned to create some large-scale outdoor sculpture in an entirely rural setting.  I do not doubt that she would have created something memorable, which could give pointers or signposts to younger sculptors. 


There is also, of course, the question of durability of materials.  I was impressed by James McKenna's big wooden grouping in a wood above Lough Gill in Sligo, called "Fergus and the Brazen Cars", but already it shows signs of weathering, and the hooves of the horses appear to rest on soil.  It will surely absorb more and more water, leading to physical deterioration.  Sculptors such as Michael Warren show greater care for durable materials, for instance in his large two-piece sculpture "Thrones" beside a public road at Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow.


About ten years ago, the Sculpture Society of Ireland together with Dublin Corporation were responsible for a series of outdoor sculptures in various sites around the city.  It was a courageous enterprise, and some of the pieces created have become, as it were, part of the face of Dublin.  I am thinking, for instance, of the skeletal Viking ship on the quays, a sunken piece in metal, or the bronze steps sunk into the pavement at O'Connell Bridge … a charming visual conceit created by Rachel Joynt. . This is not great art, but at least it is effective popular art, and the ordinary people of the city have reacted to it positively and accept it as part of their daily environment.  But there have been other works of the past decade or so which, (in my estimation) are simple miscarriages.  The Anna Livia fountain and figure in O'Connell Street, created by Sean Mulcahy and Eamonn O'Doherty, triggered off some controversy at the time.  I don't find it artistically offensive, but I do find it mediocre and unoriginal. (it is popularly known, of course, as The Floozie in the Jacuzzi) As for the bronze Molly Malone at the bottom of Grafton Street, it is a piece of touristic vulgarity, though again the ordinary Dubliner seems to have taken it to his heart.  It seems to me an example of blowing up an adequate statuette to life-size; as a small tourist souvenir, it would have been harmless and even acceptable.  As a piece of public statuary, however, it merely represents an opportunity wasted.  Compare it with the Burke and Goldsmith statues nearby in front of Trinity College, and you will avert your eyes.


More recently again, we have had … again, chiefly in Dublin … a variety of outdoor works which are, you might say, once-off affairs.  For instance, a series of short texts from Joyce were affixed to public buildings, and sometimes illuminated so that you could see and read them at night.  This kind of thing has its origins in New York, where there was a vogue for semiotics and similar disciplines some years ago; the artist Jenny Holzer is probably the best-known exponent of it.  It probably adds to the gaiety of nations, or at least of cities, and may have a beneficial effect on cultural tourism.  Otherwise, it seems rather a lightweight exercise, really a kind of cultural game of the kind, which the modern art college encourages.  In New York in the Eighties, there was a fashion for large lettered slogans, which, in retrospect, did not say very much and were often pretentious when they were not simply intended to be funny or "Camp." The fact that this kind of thing is usually impermanent is probably one of its main virtues, since we would probably get as tired of these rooftop slogans as we do of Salvation Army posters.


Public art need not be humourless, of course, but ultimately it is not a joke or a game.  The inescapable fact is, people have to live with it, see it every day, accept it as a living and organic part of their environment, whether that environment happens to be urban or rural.  There is a great deal of jargon and cant talked about "site-specific sculpture", but there is no special proof that many contemporary artists do, in fact, accommodate themselves to the site of their commissioned works.  They simply do a piece in their own style and leave it at that.  Apart from the fact that the work itself is usually mediocre, it has no real relationship to its surroundings, and makes no emotional or other appeal to people who live there or who pass it by ever day.  And the number, or volume, or such pieces, is increasing every day.


Here is the nub of another crisis.  The visual arts in Ireland now enjoy what is called a high profile, they are promoted and publicised as never before, and even politicians find that there is prestige and media publicity, if not necessarily actual votes, in being associated with them.  I cannot give figures for lreland's current population of artists, but since we now have more art colleges than ever before, and presumably more graduates, the number must be considerable.  We are reaching a situation comparable to Patrick Kavanagh's famous and much t quoted estimate that "the standing army of Irish poets rarely falls below ten thousand men,"


The present vitality of Irish art is, quite rightly, taken as a positive sign of national health, but you can have too much of a good thing; and too much art, or too many artists, is ultimately not a healthy situation.  To encourage genuine talent is one thing.  To encourage art in bulk, without the essentials of good taste and stringent criticism, is a disastrous policy even if it is a well-meaning one.  In the end, it is simply multiplying mediocrity, producing a situation in which the people of talent … who are never very numerous, even at the best of times … are liable to go unrecognised in a crowd of vocal, self-seeking artistic nonentities who shout them down.  And nowhere is this more dangerous than in sculpture.  Well-meaning arts officers all over the country are only too apt to believe that they have a crop of geniuses at hand, and that their area of jurisdiction can only be improved by putting up sculptures all over the place.  So-called sculpture trails have multiplied, most of them poor in quality and banal in concept. (Here I speak from painful experience as a practicing art critic).  Within a few years, or a few decades at most, they will seem as irrelevant and as obtrusive in the landscape as the "follies" of eighteenth-century landlords do today.  Local towns … many of which are already burdened with wretchedly bad monumental sculptures or statuary from the nineteenth century … stand in danger from similar half-baked visual conceits translated into stone, steel, wood or bronze.  Believe me, I do not exaggerate; I have seen too many creations of just the kind I have described.  No doubt many are trivial and innocuous, but the fact remains that when once they go up, we are stuck with the result for a long time.  And not all of them are or will be innocuous; some are likely to be large, unavoidable, even overpowering, as has happened in other countries recently. Ireland has a unique landscape, which now is increasingly endangered by greedy developers, bungalow blight, agribusiness, the arbitrary draining of boglands and straightening of streams and rivers, turning them … as I think I have said already … into little more than drainage channels.  Near Glendalough, in an area of Wicklow which should have been protected like the Crown Jewels, a housing estate has been built which looks as arbitrary, out of place and disfiguring as a nuclear installation.  It goes without saying that the addition of bad or ephemeral works of art to all these multiple plagues would be to compound the felony. In this era of so-called democracy, we appear to have less control over our environment than before, largely because local politicians collude with local developers, builders and dubious business interests and the ordinary citizen is either helpless to do much about it, or can only be roused to action when it is too late.  I have no obvious solutions to this, since it depends mainly on the public spirit or environmental sense of local people or local bodies.  Neither do I have any answer to the wave of bad rural architecture, which has swept the land in the past three decades.  In the case of all public art, however, I do suggest that it should be closely monitored, by panels or committees of qualified or responsible people, who can genuinely envisage what something will look like from studying a sketch or plan or maquette, and who will be both knowledgeable and critical without being hidebound.  They may include architects, planners, artists, theorists, academics, but they must have a practical role and not merely a theoretic or purely advisory one.  This applies both to urban and rural environments, and I further suggest … though that is outside my brief … that it should apply to architecture as well.  If we continue to erect ugly or nondescript buildings virtually everywhere, how can we expect art to prosper?  And how can even the finest outdoor sculpture have its proper effect if it is sited next to yet another glass-and-concrete excrescence, or in the middle of some grim housing estate which has gone up overnight like a giant fungus? How can it compete with the rule of the concrete block and the pebbledashed surface?


It seems to me that in terms of communal life, we have gone backwards when compared to the genuine civic spirit of classical Greece or Rome.  We do not even have the equivalent of the pageants and triumphal arches of the Renaissance, or of Baroque pomp and circumstance, or of the great religious festivals of the past.  Their modern equivalent is the football match or the big pop-music concert, which as a rule have no aesthetic dimension whatever; they are mere commercial entertainment, nothing else.  The shaping of great modern cities is largely shared between town planners who have no visual sense beyond the drawing board, and property developers whose only criteria are profit and speedy construction – or equally speedy demolition.  Those who could be a brake on all this, such as the Arts Council, An Taisce, etc. are usually without legislative power, and some are little more than official face-savers for adroit and self-interested politicians.


To return to the theme, which I attempted to discuss earlier: can modern sculpture be shaped to produce works which have a genuine social relevance and popular appeal, without surrendering the formal innovations and self-sufficiency of twentieth-century art?  Can they be brought to bear on themes from history, legend, political ideology, local lore, national or international aspirations, the spirit of modern humanism, the achievements of modern science, and the personalities of great men and women of our time?  Or in other words, can the purist vocabulary of modern art be united with the human range which public art had at its command in previous ages?  This, it seems to me, is one of the real, central conundrums of the Post-Modernist age.


I believe myself that it can be done, and that there are already precedents in the art of this century … some of them, too, from quite early in the century, as in the case of Brancusi.  The visual arts have purified and strengthened themselves enormously in the past three generations, but they have paid a price for it too.  By concentrating steadily on formal innovation and formal strength, they have narrowed their range and have lost ground to the cinema, to photography, literature, even ballet and the performing arts.  The present vogue for conceptual and installation art may owe much to the fact that many younger artists find this purism constricting and prefer to "make a statement" in a way that becomes a kind of silent theatre.


For art, which will make at least some attempt to speak to Everyman and Everywoman, a broader, more populist and more inclusive stance is needed.  This will take art out of the public museum and the private art gallery, and give it a wider, less learned but perhaps more vigorous public.  There is nothing Utopian about this; after all, art had this kind of public once, otherwise such a shrewd and pragmatic institution as the medieval Church would never have patronised it.  Art by its nature is no more esoteric than literature; it is simply that the general public has not grown up with it, … been exposed to it from childhood.  The way to appreciate good art is simply to live with it, to integrate it into the lives of ordinary people so that they grow up accepting it as part of their everyday world, not something to be approached in public museums and galleries with factitious awe and barely repressed boredom.  In this integration lies one of the great modern challenges.  The body-starved millions of the nineteenth century were a disgrace to our civilisation, but so are the mind-starved masses of today.  And the trivial popular culture, which they are fed, is the aesthetic equivalent of junk food.  It will not help to scold or lecture them, since that will only antagonise them, nor should art be presented to them as a form of spiritual uplift.  It should be brought to them as part of the organic business of living as of course, in its essence, it is.■