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So cool … Tinsley Towers power station, Sheffield. Photograph: Martin Jenkinson/Alamy

The need has arisen in me to ascend my soapbox once again and bang on about public art, by which I mean street art, motorway art, art on the loose, art everywhere – which is where it belongs. Art is not a matter primarily for artists, or even curators and connoisseurs. First and foremost, it involves ways of seeing. Nothing sensible or durable will be accomplished by the four pundits who were given the job of selecting the seven sites for the current Channel 4 Big Art project if the public remains unable to see the point, or comprehend the nature of the things that will come to clutter their landscape. Artists simply do what they must, whether other people understand it or not. It is the job of critics and experts to explain what is going on. I hope someone will come along to explain to me what I should like about Mark Wallinger’s white horse sculpture, due to be raised at Ebbsfleet. Right now, I hate it.

I am hardly mollified to learn that Wallinger’s ghastly effigy is conceived as a marketing symbol-cum-landmark, and has been funded by the London and Continental Railways consortium. I hail from the land of hideous big things, all of them funded in similar ways, and all of them inspired by a soul-deep indifference to the existing landscape. At the last count, Australia (population: 21.5 million) boasted more than 50 outsize replicas of all kinds of objects, from giant apples, oranges, mangoes, pineapples and bananas to a crab, two prawns, a lobster, a galah, a koala, and a 50ft-high merino ram. These poorly designed and badly executed objects at least bear some relation to the way in which the locals earn their living. If Wallinger’s white horse has any relevance at all, it is as a presager of death, as pale horses tend to be in northern mythologies. This way to the knacker’s yard, folks.

Before people can comprehend the newness of a new thing, they need to be awakened to the extraordinariness of the old. All over Britain monuments of the recent industrial past are being demolished. Gasworks have been pulverised to make hard core for supermarket car parks. Gas holders, those vast pachyderms that once loomed over the murk and mist of all our old industrial precincts, have been dragged down and carted away. Only 22 were ever listed for preservation; Transco has since demolished all the others. The seven surviving gas holders at St Pancras were decommissioned in 1999, to make way for the Channel tunnel rail link terminal. All but four have since been demolished (the other four are listed). The uncharacteristically ornate frame of Gas Holder 8 is to be taken down, restored and re-erected as a setting for open-air events, so it will be a gas holder no longer. The other three, the famous linked-together triplets, have already been dismantled, with a view to restoration, and re-erection, again of the frames only, with new-build apartment blocks inside them. This is what passes for preservation in the case of gas holders.

Cooling towers are even more fabulous creatures. Their hugeness, 400ft or so high, already approaches the sublime, even before we notice that with every change in our ever-changing light, they appear different: less or more substantial, lowering or floating. Those who have to live amid them may feel different, much as a pebble would do under a jackboot; the solution is not to wish the towers away, but to build better housing in a place out of their shadow. Nowadays, cooling towers seldom wear their plumes of cloud; we don’t often see their whirling shadow patterns on their great grey flanks. I’d pump hot water into them for high days and holidays – much as we run the most extravagant fountains only when there’s something to celebrate. I would even allow the projection of images on to the towers and their steam clouds as part of the fun, at a pinch.

The Tinsley cooling towers in Sheffield were not among my favourites, mainly because of their girdles of finicking detail; but they were real wonders to be experienced by the people flying past on the M1. The horizontality of the suspended Tinsley viaduct, and the extreme mobility of the passing vehicles, dramatised the stillness of the hulking towers in a uniquely thrilling way. The towers were already art objects, and shouldn’t have had to be falsified to function as art galleries and cafes or whatever else. Their uselessness is an essential part of the role of art object. Nevertheless, their suitability for transformation into something else – a skate park, a pair of giant tankards – had them top of the national vote for sites for the Channel 4 Big Art project. Last August, possession being at least nine-tenths of the law, E.ON UK, owners of the Tinsley towers, blew them up.

When local authorities announce their intention of taking down dangerously senescent street trees, citizens hit the streets demanding a stay of execution, as if death were not as inevitable for trees as it is for us. Those same people, who cannot tell a sick tree when they see one, see nothing to love in the extraordinary human-made devices that made the 20th century possible. These will not come again from seed. When they are gone, they are gone for ever.

Germaine Greer
Guardian

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Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Kate Moss modelling for Topshop were cited as contrasting ideals of beauty by Roger Scruton in a debate on whether or Britain has become indifferent to beauty. Photograph: Corbis/AFP

The great thing about the present economic calamity is that it is forcing a thoughtful re-examination of values, rather than the coarse pursuit of acquiring more stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have.

So, right on cue, the National Trust, guardian of collective memory, has held its first public “Quality of Life” debate, organised by Intelligence Squared, the business that makes brainy argument into an extreme sport for urban intellectuals. During last Thursday’s cocktail hour at the Royal Geographical Society, 700 guests paid to hear a debate on whether “Britain has become indifferent to beauty”.

For the motion was David Starkey, the rebarbative, reactionary telly-don who has turned history into a queenly costume drama. With him, the amiable Roger Scruton: a foxhunting High Tory philosopher in corduroy who is everyone’s idea of a dotty professor. Starkey and Scruton see culture as a serial that has been recorded in episodes and canned in perpetuity for posterity. The task, in their view, is not to augment architectural history with up-to-date improvements, but regularly to revisit the past for edification and instruction.

Bereft of optimism or enthusiasm, bloated with sly and knowing cynicism, they see no value in contemporary life. Nothing to them is so howlingly funny as poor people going shopping in Tesco. In their panelled common rooms they slap their thighs and shriek with laughter at the crude appetites of people who drive cars or go on holidays.

John Betjeman was the same. He found dual-carriageways and council houses signs of perdition. Betjeman called Nikolaus Pevsner, our greatest architectural historian and unblinking champion of Modernism, “plebsveneer”.

Against the motion, Germaine Greer and myself. Greer is, after Clive James, our Greatest Living Australian National Treasure, although – to be honest – being told that she recently appeared on television in pop socks had made me a bit alarmed about the integrity of our argument. Greer is, her strident feminist years now gone the way of Starkey’s codpieces as a fashion accessory, an ocean-going intellect of, pop socks notwithstanding, some grandeur.

For me, the debate was a chance to go rhetorical about the single cultural principle I hold most dear: that history and tradition are things you build on with pride and conviction, not resorts you scurry back to when you can think of nothing better to do. I believe that to deny the present is to shortchange the future. These things I learnt from Nikolaus Pevsner.

The debate was chaired, with steely aplomb, by the Guardian columnist and National Trust chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins.

My argument was that, while Britain is most certainly in radical need of wholesale top-to-tail improvements to its fabric and its manners and attitudes, it is insulting and ignorant to say that this entire civilisation is “indifferent to beauty”. Beauty is fugitive and takes different forms at different historical moments. No one, Dr Starkey, writes madrigals any more.

On the other hand, Scruton and Starkey argued that no one discusses beauty any more. What they mean is that in their arid, isolated and increasingly irrelevant academic circles, beauty is a taboo. They need to get out more. Where I travel, in architectural offices and design consultancies and advertising agencies, beauty is discussed all the time.

And the public, consciously or not, is always in pursuit. I don’t know when Starkey or Scruton last visited TopShop on Oxford Street, but here they would find a huge, inspired and energetic audience in pursuit of … beauty, or, at least a version of it. The clothes in TopShop fall straight out of the British art school system, the oldest and best in the world, one that gets Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Matthew Williamson to be in charge of international fashion houses whose ideas feed beautiful clothes to the high street.

This same art and design education system stimulates the liveliest architectural culture on the planet. Most car designers are educated in Britain. And this same art education system produces Jonathan Ive, designer of the iPod. Last year millions of British consumers bought one because they are passionate about its beauty. They paid a premium price for a machine which, technologically, is no different to its MP3 rivals.

Britain, the country that Starkey and Scruton believe is indifferent to beauty, has by far the world’s most active design culture. Italy (the traditional home of bella figura) is pitiably backward in comparison. Scruton showed a picture of Botticelli’s Venus shoulder-to-shoulder with Kate Moss and told the audience how cruddy our culture is. I had to explain to him that Botticelli’s model was a common Florentine hooker called Simonetta Vespucci, painted nude to titillate his client.

Whether in fashion, products, packaging or buildings, design is by definition mass-market and to satisfy that mass market, you have to design beautiful, attractive objects. As pioneer design consultant Raymond Loewy knew, “ugliness sells badly”. But Starkey feels that selling is a transaction between pimps and whores, a view which may reveal more of his personal experience than it does of national life.

The motion wobbled as the audience saw the prejudice inherent in it: greater interest in beauty existed in the past. Yet people have a selective view of the past and its benefits: Starkey did not, I think, travel to London on an Elizabethan train. And he is corrupted by “survival bias”, the fact that only the best of the past survives and influences us disproportionately. Anyone who has read the accounts by Daniel Defoe or Celia Fiennes of travelling around Ye Olde Britaine know the squalor and ugliness of the past. Engels’s Condition of the Working Class (1844) describes a culture contemptuous of beauty. And let’s not forget George Orwell during his down-and-out period. I personally would not swap Wigan Pier for the London Eye or Liverpool Seaman’s Orphanage of 1885 for the impressive new Westminster Academy.

Design is about the popularisation of beauty. So, far from being “visually illiterate”, we enjoy popular advertising whose visual sophistication and coded language would have baffled a Sorbonne professor 25 years ago. It is readily de-coded by millions of adepts every night. Scruton called this sophisticated act of interpretation “pollution”.

Then there are our art galleries and museums. Seven out of 40 of the world’s most popular galleries are in London. Tate Modern gets 5.23m visitors a year and they are not all tourists: 67% are from the UK and are repeat customers. And what of the National Trust itself? Scruton and Starkey had problems arguing that its 3.5 million members belonged to an aesthetically indifferent culture.

But beauty can be abstract as well as visual. London is the cultural and gastronomic capital of the world. Better now to eat here than in Paris. Same goes for music and theatre. We spend more time in and more money on gardens than any other culture.

Britain is not indifferent to beauty. Anybody who has been on a diet, gone to a gym, dreamed about a holiday or wondered about a new car, watched Dan Pearson on television, enjoyed the London Eye or admired Tate Modern or felt Swiss Re makes an interesting contribution to the London skyline is in dedicated pursuit of … beauty.

Greer and I won the debate overwhelmingly, by a margin that made chairman Jenkins blink. This was not because we were so very clever, but because Starkey and Scruton were so very wrong. And what was the turning point? One, Greer said what a beautiful spring day it was. Whose mood was not enhanced by sunshine and flowers and blue skies? No dissenters, there. Two, in despair at their negativism, cynicism and defeatism, I asked Starkey and Scruton: “Why is it I like what you like (which is to say: medieval, renaissance and Victorian), but why you are so limited and snitty and crabby you see no value in what I like?” No dissenters here, either.

Wonderful to prove that the British are not, indeed, indifferent to beauty.

Stephen Bayley
Guardian

It was my good fortune a week or so ago to hear the Luce annual lecture on American creativity, given by pioneer feminist art historian Linda Nochlin. The title of her lecture was Dislocating Tradition: Women Artists and the Body, from Cassatt to Whiteread. Having for years grappled in vain with the peculiar role of the body as both medium and message in women’s art, I hotfooted down to the Royal Academy and prepared to have my perplexities unknotted and my vestigial puritan revulsions dispelled.

It is a truism of feminist history that women have been regarded primarily as body, passive, fertile body, as essential to human survival as earth. If women artists were ever to engage with anything, they were going to have to engage with body as earnestly as Cézanne engages with landscape, and so they did. The model became the artist, but at the same time she clung to her role as model, so that she became her own subject. At first, this was manifest in a tendency to produce an inordinate number of self-portraits. In 18th-century France, Vigée-Le Brun never tired of painting flattering portraits of herself, which was quite a good move for a society portrait painter, who was expected to do a similar job on her clients. At the same time, Angelika Kauffmann produced dozens of dreamy versions of herself not only in portraits, but also in allegorical paintings in which she figured as the personification of art or music or both. Frida Kahlo could engage with no subject other than her fictionalised and glamorised self. Her proliferating faux-naive paintings are advertisements for the performance that was her life.

For the women artists of surrealism, in the words of Whitney Chadwick, “the idealised version of the woman as muse was no help … rejecting the idea of the Muse as Other, they turned instead to their own images and their own realities as sources for their art. Even when the subject of the work is not the self-portrait per se, there is a persistent anchoring of the imagery in recognisable depiction of the artist.” The thought of art as solipsism has me tearing my hair. The convention of the muse is simply a trope figuring forth male creativity; if the convention was useless to women, they could simply have done without it, but, as most of them also chose to become sexually involved with male artists, they wasted a good deal of time playing the muse’s illusory role, apparently unaware that the muse is rarely the artist’s actual bedmate. A male artist’s recognition of his consort in the role of muse is mere gallantry. Why did the women artists of surrealism have to follow such a sterile, narcissistic paradigm? As for their images being recognisable, they made sure of that by posing for at least as many photographs as they made paintings. Most of them put more paint on their faces in a lifetime than they did on canvas.

The advent of performance art produced a tide of women artists, many of whom were not content with starring in their own show without stripping. Since the 1960s, when Carolee Schneeman took off her clothes to perform art in New York basements, I have wondered what the connection might be between art and exhibitionism, and why it was that so many of the nude female performance artists had beautiful bodies. Could it have been coincidence? Even Helen Chadwick, a serious artist, took pride in displaying her own wonderfully elegant young body when somebody else’s would have done.

Professor Nochlin explained to us that Sam Taylor-Wood’s Portrait (1993) in a Fuck Suck Spunk Wank T-shirt, with her trousers around her ankles, was a “marvellous parody” of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. She pointed out that the cabbage on the table was a reference to the volute out of which the goddess steps in Botticelli’s painting, but she didn’t explain why Taylor-Wood chose to pose herself and let someone else (Stephen White) take the photograph. Any of Taylor-Wood’s art-school chums could have put on the T-shirt and adopted the pose, and Taylor-Wood could have taken the photograph herself. Sarah Lucas’s self-portrait with fried eggs on her chest was correctly described as “as arrogant as any male portrait”, but why did Lucas pose it herself? The fried-egg reference would be as appropriate to any other woman, no? Why is Tracey Emin the subject of all her own work? Is this good or is it pathological? Why does Jenny Saville deconstruct her own body? Why can’t she use someone else’s? There is a possible answer, which is that the use of the nude is necessarily exploitative, and therefore a female artist who needs to use a body has no option but to use her own, but surely it can be no more than a sophistry. Why does a female artist need to use flesh in the first place?

The feminist art historian can no more ask these questions than she can ask why most women’s art is no good. Her duty is to cry up women’s work, to see it as reactive and transgressive, as dislocating tradition indeed, when the painterly tradition is always being jolted and set off on contradictory tangents, more often and more fundamentally by men than by women. The woman who displays her own body as her artwork seems to me to be travelling in the tracks of an outworn tradition that spirals downward and inward to nothingness.

Germaine Greer
The Guardian