I was on high scepticism alert (amber, with flashing lights) as I cycled over to the launch of Art Everywhere, a scheme dreamt up by Richard Reed of Innocent Drinks to fill Britain’s billboards with homegrown art, rather than advertising, for two weeks in mid-August.
The venue, Westfield Shopping Centre, didn’t help: remember the months after its opening when, on the A40 approach into west London, the sign pointing the way to Europe’s premier shopping centre was larger than that for Westminster, the home of its (arguably) premier democracy? Never having set foot inside the place, I found Westfield to have a curious, disembodied feel – like an airport terminal with no aircraft, or like an animated version of an architect’s impression, with people sketched in as an afterthought.
Other grounds for scepticism were legion. Advertising has mined and exploited art for so long – using and twisting its images for ulterior purposes – that I doubted whether art could reverse the process; wouldn’t art on billboards still look like advertising? Also, are advertising hoardings really the place to appreciate art? These are sites you pass at speed (usually the faster the better) – quite the opposite of the kind of spaces beloved of Slow Lane, where you can give artworks the quiet, unhurried attention they need.
I had qualms about the selection process too. First, a longlist of 100 works of British art was drawn up by a committee chaired by Caroline Collier, director of Tate National. Then the public voted online for their 57 favourites. Essentially that boiled down to lots of “likes” on Facebook, more than 30,000 in all, which might seem quite an impressive number – but then my friend Jim Parton can garner 100 or so for every cute photo he posts of his pet tawny owl.
The results, not so surprisingly, tended to favour narrative and figurative paintings with easily recognisable themes, rather than anything abstract or enigmatic (Cornelia Parker’s “Cold Dark Matter” is an exception). The Victorians are over-represented – is John William Waterhouse’s mawkish, over-literal painting based on Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” really Britain’s favourite work of art? Peter Blake is there, at numbers 14 and 55 – but the more radical William Blake is not.
In fact, Peter Blake was there in person at the opening – a little older and stouter than in his 1981-83 painting “The Meeting or Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney”, but with his sense of humour intact: “Then the stick was for show; now it’s for use,” he commented ruefully. Blake is the ideal poster boy for the project, because it fits so perfectly with his pop art aesthetic and his aim of making art accessible to everyone.
Now let me lower my scepticism level and admit that the effect of seeing Blake’s affable, easy-going depiction of three painter friends meeting amid rollerskaters and palm trees at Venice Beach, Los Angeles, and plastered on a giant hoarding was distinctly pleasant. Even more striking was the sight of Lucian Freud’s “Man’s Head (Self-Portrait 1)” high above Talgarth Road en route to Heathrow. Freud’s gaze is coolly sceptical and appraising, suggesting that what lies behind a person’s eyes is dark and mysterious; quite unsettling in fact, and not the sort of look you expect from a billboard.
Even if you don’t want to be unsettled or challenged, there is a blessed relief in allowing the eye to range over images that have no design over you; images that are not aimed at making you feel inadequate or dissatisfied. Some might remind you of the ecstasy or tragedy of love (Millais’s “Ophelia”), or the poignancy of change (Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire”); some might make you think, even about matters as abstruse as the second law of thermodynamics (Cornelia Parker again). So two cheers, at least, for Art Everywhere.
But my scepticism alert hadn’t switched off completely as I walked back to my bike through Westfield’s strangely empty malls on a beautiful late summer day when west London looked as radiant as Venice Beach. Something was nagging at me, and I realised that it had to do with the challenges thrown out by the great critic Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.
Benjamin, you may remember, argued that new media and means of reproduction had radically changed the nature of art, destroying the aura of the unique, ritualistic artwork and replacing it with something much more mobile: a reproducible artwork that came to meet you halfway. Not only the nature but the purpose of art would be changed; art would become radically politicised, aimed at transforming the unfair power relations of capitalism.
That did not happen, or hasn’t happened yet. Art Everywhere is not political in the least, and sits happily in the consumerist world of late capitalism. But it might just remind you of what it is to be human, and one should be grateful for small mercies.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres