For art’s sake, let’s get our spending priorities in order

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One day two weavers arrived at court offering to make him the finest set of clothes ever seen. So fine that it was only visible to those with cultured tastes and supreme intellects.

The king was immediately sold on the idea and placed his order with money being no object …

As Hans Christian Anderson fairy-tale continues, the reader soon discovers that the weavers are con artists.

When the tricksters deliver the clothes it is apparent to all that there is nothing whatsoever on the hangers but not one, even the king, wishes to appear to be uneducated – so they admire the craftsmanship while flattering their liege on his good taste.

When he parades before the people, wearing nothing but underwear and a crown, no one dares to speak out – until an innocent child, untainted by vanity and the desire to appear cultivated exclaims: ‘The king doesn’t have any clothes on!’

Anderson’s tale exposes hypocrisy and snobbery while delivering the message that people should never be afraid to voice their opinions for fear of appearing stupid in the eyes of others.

The moral of the story is very much applicable to the appreciation of art which is not only subjective but also in the eye of the beholder. As with the king’s clothes, we are all guilty of pretending to understand and admire works of art.

In wishing not to appear uncultivated in the presence of our peers we nod our heads, furrow brows and make complimentary noises rather than being perfectly candid and admitting that the work of art before us is – in our opinion – a load of tosh.

What we should do, if we are to be true to ourselves, is follow the example of the little boy in the crowd and say what we think – and none more so than when it comes to public art. Has the Waterfront been enhanced by the curious looking metal tree commissioned to mark the 60th anniversary of the Liberation? Or has the very tall and pointy Jubilee needle improved the appearance of the Albert Pier? I think not.

Works of art have been an important part of human culture since cave dwellers decorated their dingy surroundings with sketches of animals and handprints. Over the ages, as man has evolved, so has ‘art’ and the role it plays in society, serving many purposes in the process from satisfying the human desire to surrounding ourselves with beautiful things to conveying political messages. Yet public art comes at a cost and in the current economic climate is it a luxury we can ill afford?

When the economy is in recession and money is tight, cuts have to be made and that applies across the social spectrum from government spending on public services to household budgets.

As the Island prepares to reduce social services and widen the tax net to encompass lower earners and pensioners, I was gobsmacked to learn that the tatty old statue of George II in the Royal Square was to undergo a £22,000 facelift just eleven years after its last one. At this rate the cost of continually replacing the king’s clothes this century alone could top a quarter of a million quid – excluding inflation!

Old George may be losing his cloth of gold but how can our political masters and their retinue of bureaucrats contemplate spending so much money on a statue that most people have no idea who it commemorates and what it is supposed to represent? If it is going to cost more than £20,000 every ten years then it is a luxury we can ill-afford, even if on this occasion the bill is being footed from the Percentage for Art scheme.

Under this scheme, owners of large residential and commercial developments are encouraged to invest a percentage of the development costs into the provision of art in the built environment. Following similar initiatives around the world, the aim is to create a portfolio of art and sculptures – and no doubt the very odd trendy ‘installation’ – to be enjoyed by the public and for the benefit of generations to come.

Here lies the crux – and dilemma – of such an ambitious project: as art is subjective and its acceptance every much in the eye of the beholder, who is to say that the fickle Jersey public will enjoy it when it is unveiled or far into the future? Many would probably prefer shorter waiting times for hospital appointments, less of the population relying on charity to celebrate Christmas or lower taxes.

Notwithstanding the list of other things this development cut could be spent on, no matter how remarkable the end product a work of art will do nothing to enhance in Islanders’ eyes a new development that sticks out like a sore thumb in a cherished local beauty spot.

Rather than levying a percentage for art, why not invest the money in environmental projects to restore what it left of our rural heritage before it is lost forever, or to protect the pristine coastline that has so far escaped the blight of ‘iconic’ or condominium style developments.

In changing the face of St Helier’s waterfront, Portelet Bay, Corbière and La Coupe, developers should be made to invest in environmental projects such as the protection of wetlands, heathlands and dunes, the restoration of roadside walls and hedgerows and the reinstatement of forgotten footpaths to improve public access throughout the countryside.

As for the king with the tatty clothes in the Royal Square the time has come for a revolution. Rather than replacing him with a statue of some past local political grandee or financial wizard, why don’t we follow the example of the Fourth Plinth public art project in Trafalgar Square?

Allowing Islanders – beloved politicians excluded – their hour of fame in such a prominent location would be a work of public art worth investing in, not only to attract attention but also to let the people have the freedom to speak their minds.

That should draw the crowds like no other art exhibition in the Island ever has.

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