Paul Little at large

Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Art paints a picture about us

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In every great city it's the art travellers remember. Photo / NZ Herald
In every great city it's the art travellers remember. Photo / NZ Herald

The idea that the curtain for your library has to be an artwork by one of the country's foremost artists is very, you know, Devonport.

But at least that community is showing an interest in the quality of its surroundings by planning a functional curtain that will also be a $100,000 piece of art by Judy Millar.

After the announcement comes the fuss, as predictable as a post-match interview.

On the one side are those seeking an opportunity to make life more fulfilling, on the other side, the "don't get it" brigade, who think art should cost about, oh, maybe $100. Their numbers are large.

Even the cultural commissars at Radio New Zealand headed their story "Big spend on artsy library curtain" rather than "Whillikers — lucky old Devonport Library".

Part of the reason many people dislike spending money on art is we have so little of it that they haven't learned how to enjoy it.

For many Aucklanders, public art consists of "you know that triffid-ey thing in town near where you go on the motorway", which is not a great advertisement.

We do have some. It's generally tucked away where it won't frighten anyone — the Auckland Botanical Gardens is a hotbed and there's a scattering around the Viaduct, but a look at the relevant section on the council's website reveals an embarrassingly paltry amount — about what you would expect at an upmarket high school. But if you're interested in creating a great city — and why shouldn't we be? — then a generous amount of public art of high quality has to be a central component.

In every great city it's the art travellers remember, whether it's the intriguing Mobius sculpture in Melbourne, the hilarious Gundam Robot of Tokyo or nearly all of Barcelona and Paris.

Wellington has made this a priority and its great variety of public sculpture and other artworks is one of the best reasons to go there. And visitors are responding accordingly.

Public artworks are an extremely efficient use of rates. Unlike subsidised theatre companies that may put on a couple of productions a year which will be attended by a few thousand people, the art is there around the clock and free for all.

A healthy amount of public art tells you a lot about a community.

It says our lives are about more than balance sheets and productivity, that somewhere inside ourselves we have a mysterious part that can be moved and thrilled by seeing something beautiful, no matter what other dreariness occupies our existence.

But the best thing of all about public art is its inclusiveness.

It's the ultimate egalitarian gesture. Kids who may never get taken to an art gallery or have the opportunity to study art at school can, nevertheless, get the benefits.

It's easy not to spend money on public art. It's hard to live in a city without it.

There is an early contender for the That's Rich Coming from Him/Her Award this year, which looks likely to go to the late actor Phil Seymour Hoffman.

In his will, details of which were released last week, he refused to put some of his US$35 million ($40 million) into trust for his three children, saying he didn't want them to become trust fund kids. It's at best paradoxical that the actor should reach out from beyond the grave to ensure he gave his offspring some boundaries and teach them self-discipline.

To acquire, in other words, qualities he showed he lacked by being unable to control his heroin intake to the extent that he overdosed and died.

- Herald on Sunday

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