Art Or Not, Here's My Solution (31 December 1975)
On the whole, 1975 has been a depressing year. It has, however, had its lighter aspects, one of which we are still undergoing. I refer, of course, to the design for an ornamental fountain for Stanier Square, Bletchley, put forward by Milton Keynes Development Corporation and to the reactions to it.
Milton Keynes Borough Council called the design a load of junk, or words to that effect, and rejected it completely.
The Gazette OK’d the council’s decision. It described the design as resembling a vandalised bus shelter and was promptly sat on for its philistinism by no less an authority than Corporation Chairman Lord Campbell of Eskan.
Lord Eskan’s main point seemed to be that this was the art of the future. It did not matter so much how it would be regarded today as how it would be regarded next century – as if he, or anybody else, artist or no artist, can know that for sure.
The term “abstract,” has been drawn into the argument. My dictionary (Chambers, 1972 edition) says that in the context of painting and sculpture the word means: “representing ideas in geometric and other designs, not the forms of nature.”
As regards “not the forms of nature,” it would seem there has been a lesser or greater degree of the abstract in most sculpture from the stylised forms of the ancient Egyptians right down to the effusions of my namesake, the late Barbara, with whom I deny any connection. To dub a work as “abstract,” therefore, is to praise it rather than to condemn it, if the history of art has any meaning.
To that extent I am firmly on the side of Lord Campbell. Where the design falls down, I think, it(sic) that it is not abstract enough. Instead of being a likeable form, reminiscent of nothing in particular, it reminds someone of a vandalised bus shelter.
And if symbolism be the aim, then it symbolises, if anything, either order arising from chaos or the wreck of the Master Plan, depending on whether you are an optimist as(sic) a pessimist.
Yet, unlike the borough council, I do not reject it out of hand. It has one excellent component. Rising from the general summit is a hyacinth-like form from which I assume the water would fount. I really like that. It shows imagination. It is much better than the old, commonplace candlestick arrangement.
So what to do about it all? Well, here I think we could have a bit of fun to start the New Year.
The Gazette published a picture of the proposed fountain on two successive weeks. By a not-so-strange coincidence there also appeared in the second week, though on another page, a picture of the three-slab, concrete Arc de Triomph that stands four-square on the grassy forecourt of Sherwood House in (Sherwood) Drive, thus partly obscuring another objet d’art coloured dark red that also stands on the forecourt (and how Mr Sherwood himself would have been tickled by it).
I gather from the story accompanying the picture that the borough council intend to dismantle the said Arc and do away with it as soon as possible, which I gather from the heading will be when Sherwood House is paid for.
Well, I have a private art sparrow and it is outraged by this declaration of intended vandalism by the council upon what it calls “my sculpture.”
“Surely you cannot mean that?” I ask it.
“But I assure you I do,” it chirrups. “I am not trying to spoof anybody at all. I find its slab-sided symbolism relevant to the new city and its photogenic properties are undoubtedly superior.
“I cannot understand why it is necessary to go and buy another one. Just transplant it, I say.”
Well, I have considerable respect for my art sparrow’s judgment. Especially when it agrees with mine. Like that the Bletchley Leisure Centre complex is an architectural success, whereas the new market is not in keeping with its immediate surroundings and that it is a pity it cannot be picked up and stowed somewhere else when not in use, which it isn’t on most days of the week.
All right then, so we transplant the Arc to Stanier Square.
But we cannot leave it at that (thinks I, if not my sparrow). The objet d’art has to be a fountain and water has to be seen gushing from it, not from any old hole or holes in concrete, but from something specially for the purpose and at a good height.
Then I remember Lord Campbell’s hyacinth. The very thing! We set this bronze stem-pipe and flower atop the Arc, off-centre in all elevations, but meticulously vertical. Then we match it with a pipe below the slab, also off-centre in all elevations and vertical. And finally we connect the two by means of a sloping shaft driven through the slab. But should the sides then appear too slabby, we lighten them and also achieve a see-through effect by cutting a Henry Moore-style hole in each one.
And there you have it. A symbolic masterpiece, a concrete abstract (if that is not a contradiction in terms), at half the price, and with honour satisfied all round!
Well, you can’t say I haven’t tried to be constructive. And you could always take it down – when the new city is paid for!