Mike White writes: I recently attended a presentation in Gateshead by Maeve Blackman, a Durham Ph. D student, on her completed thesis inquiring into whether Antony Gormley’s landmark sculpture the Angel of the North impacts on the well-being of local people. To fend off the inevitable controversy over public art, I detect an increasing requirement for it to take us on a cultural journey for which it may be road-tested in the pathology of the environment to suggest it is good for us. I confess I have a vested interest in this kind of ‘intervention’ as I helped manage the commissioning of Gateshead’s defining art work in the 1990s. Gormley’s assertion back then that the Angel would become a “reservoir for feelings” seems borne out in Blackman’s findings. Her door-to-door survey of 300 locals reveals a possible correlation between liking the sculpture and general life satisfaction, amounting to a 10% appreciable difference in well-being among the Angel’s fans in deprived areas. 72% of those interviewed reported “feeling good” whenever they saw the Angel, and 89% considered it had made Gateshead a distinctive place. Likert-scale responses reveal that older age groups are more emotionally attached to the sculpture, but younger people are more interactive in their engagement with it. Furthermore, several focus groups gathered from local community organisations associated The Winged One with notions of ‘home’, ‘special’ and ‘ours’. It might have been interesting to assess a comparator in the emotional landscape of Tyneside, not in another artwork necessarily but in, say, Grey’s Monument or St. James’s Park.
The Angel is now so specifically iconic (Britain’s most over-used word) that it seems to me impossible to generalise conclusions about public art from Blackman’s findings. In reflecting upon her research, however, she has cogently applied Raymond Williams’ interpretation of cultural artefacts as “structures of feeling”, through which he draws attention away from the aesthetic surfaces of selectively traditional ‘cultural treasures’, which hegemonic forces have incorporated and abstracted, by locating the actively lived structure of feeling through which it is possible to retrace the lines from the past to the present, pursuing alternate but suppressed narratives – the “consciousness of aspirations and possibilities” – in order to differently understand the present. Gormley might well agree with this as I recall him saying early on that the Angel was conceived as a collective earthbound figure in a post-industrial narrative, its hollow interior offered as a repository of dreams.
The Angel of the North is a dream opportunity for the marketing executive as well as the cultural historian, and it is equally loved and loathed in media commentary which is perhaps why it is our nation’s most referenced work of contemporary art. The iconoclastic appropriation of ‘Wor Angel’ reached a new low last month when agents of Morrisons supermarket projected a nocturnal image of a golden baguette upon its outstretched wings, badged with the words “I’m cheaper”.
The Guardian accumulated 458 comments about it in 24 hours in a feeding frenzy of the fors-and-againsts. I chose to join the affray by writing to the manager of the Morrisons store in Jarrow where I occasionally shop and where on the forecourt there is (in my view) a dreadfully crass arrangement of metal figures, commissioned by the store, sentimentally commemorating the Jarrow March of 1936 in the cause of exploitative commerce. I inquired whether someone from Morrisons would like to stick baguettes in the hands of the figures, or would that be considered disrespectful to the locals?
I welcome Blackman’s study as a chronicle of the appeal of public art to influence community well-being but its findings seem too light to substantiate a meaningful argument about the utility of art in a cynical society. When well-being is measured as a general life satisfaction, the impact tends to evaporate quickly. Well-being’s classic narrative conclusion of people ‘living happily ever after’ is one we are not permitted to enter into further, and it is frustrating to have data that is rich in emotional detail but cushioned in impact as a result. We need more facts in this Gradgrind world of evidence-based policy- making. I find myself painted into a corner of the art world where my job is to muster serious evidence that art improves health and makes for a flourishing life. It is hard to do this un-pompously when the everyday appropriation of famous art work is trashed for commercial ends with the vandal’s excuse of ‘a bit of fun’. It is not so much the stunt as the precedent it sets which bothers me. Is it the Angel’s nemesis to become just a piece of roadside advertising. There is a pervasive pressure to be accepting of this kind of mad men’s persuasion. Well, I’m not laughing and I don’t do selfies – but my face is a picture.
PS Three cheers to Dr. Maeve Blackman, awarded her Ph.D last week after a successful viva. She says a job now awaits her in New Zealand. Typical student then, funded through our taxes and now hot-footing it to a better life in Middle Earth. I’m choking on the baguette – and just joking!