Last Wednesday, the two or three damaged ‘proverbs’ sculptures were limped off for repair. I wish someone would take it upon him or herself to destroy the rest of them. I also wish the idea would catch on. If there is hope, it lies in the vandals. Certainly it doesn’t lie in the culture-mongerers who from time to time foist some masterpiece of public art on us.
If there is a spot in Valletta which doesn’t need added value, it’s the open space in front of the church of Our Lady of Victory. It’s a place where radically different buildings and forms come together in an improbable harmony. The less it’s tampered with, the better. It’s perfect as is.
But no, Jason tal-kalċer had other ideas. Possibly inspired by the gypsum sculpture galleries of Maltese parapetti, he brought in a bunch of white polystyrene objects. There is nothing particularly the matter with them, except they appear to have been loaned by a playschool. I’m sure they looked fine where they came from. In Valletta, they just look like clutter.
I wasn’t too surprised to see the public spaces of the city vandalised by such rubbish. Valletta 2018 means that art and culture have to be made and seen to be made, rather than lived. It’s a recipe for overkill, pointlessness and triumphalism of the worst sort. Jason Micallef is simply reading from a script.
Nor are his proverbs the only assault on the senses. A few years ago we were told – rightly, I think – that the trees and shrubs in front of Castille were out of place, and that it did not make sense to obstruct one of the best Baroque façades in Malta. The greenery was duly ripped out and an open space recreated that complemented the architecture.
We saw that it was good, for about 10 minutes. Thing is, when trees are removed, they are not replaced with nothing. In the case of Castille we got a forest of bollards, an insipid fountain, and a commemoration of an inconsequential meeting. The last, a huge marble knot that squats right in front of the very Baroque façade that was rescued from trees, is particularly repulsive.
Which is where vandalism comes in. I’m dead serious about this: I’d be a happy man if someone decided to take a spraycan, or preferably a very heavy hammer, to the knot. The only reason why I haven’t done it myself is that I have no wish to go to prison. I’m sure there’s someone, somewhere out there, who’s ready to sacrifice their freedom for the public good. Of course they wouldn’t get their own monument, which would rather defeat the purpose.
The vandalism of stupid ugly things in public spaces is not in the least distressing
The only thing, then, that can save us from the pointless horrors dumped in public places, is what we might call a restorative destruction. Destruction is not necessarily a bad thing. To destroy the proverbs junk and the knot and the million other things is to restore public space to its beauty.
Now I know that those who aimed high kicks at Jason’s jablo might not hold aesthetics as their foremost principle. No matter, I consider them the foot soldiers of a noble cause. If their actions subtract from the ugliness, they can only be good.
There’s another thing. The one term that resonates especially well with the culture babble of Valletta 2018 is ‘public art’. It sounds artistic but also democratic, community-based, anti-elitist, interactive and for-the-people – all of which are convenient adjectives if you happen to be spending public money.
Except it doesn’t make sense to install public art and then proceed to keep the public away from it.
Take the proverbs sculptures, in particular the one about the onion. It would appear that some members of the public thought that there was too much jablo for anatomical completeness, and punched a strategic hole.
No worries there, because public art is meant to be seen, touched, and tampered with by the public. To say otherwise would, I suppose, be anti-democratic.
It is also not terribly interactive to get wardens to patrol the place. (I’m told that that’s now the case in Valletta.) Valletta 2018 should be about creativity, but if people are being forced to interact with public art in scripted ways, there is nothing much left for them to be creative about.
There’s another reason why the vandalism of stupid ugly things in public spaces is not in the least distressing. Every day, we are made to watch the destruction of everything that is beautiful about our natural and built environment. Not a day goes by that the papers do not report a 19th-century villa demolished here, a valley choked in debris there, and so on. The country is being butchered, and it’s all condoned, if not actively sponsored, by government and its agents.
Why, then, should I be shocked and horrified at the loss of a few bits of polystyrene planted in a square in Valletta? What is a bit of harmless damage, compared to the government-sponsored vandalism of towns, villages, and countryside?
At best, I applaud the destruction of the jablo sculptures. At worst, I don’t care.