Seven hundred years ago in the English village of Ockham, a cleric called William had a bright idea. If there were two ways to explain the same thing, the simplest was most likely to be right. Philosophers had thought it before – but William’s idea had such clarity that the notion now carries his name: Ockham’s Razor (also called Occam). Recently, in the iridescent chit-chat of morning radio, someone described how it worked. “Put a bunch of clever people in a room, ask them a simple question and they will come up with an answer of staggering complexity.”
Give that man a medal. In more than half a century, I have never seen a room full of clever people advance the cause of culture. To the contrary: simple propositions vanish in a fog of cleverness or suffocate in a thick layer of personal agendas. Art is not complicated – it’s been around for thousands of years. How art is made is complicated, but that is the business of artists. Art struggles more against the perceived cleverness of city council rooms full of clever people – who think public art is so complicated, fearsome and dangerous they need a panel of “experts” – than it does with any public indifference.
Auckland Council is a fine example. Its public arts process came from Auckland City Council and is under review, rightly. If ever there was a place for Ockham’s Razor, it is here. The policy has 14 pages of repetitive art babble with an additional seven-page guide to its eight-person Advisory Panel for Public Art. Paragraph one of the policy asks: “What is public art?” Having listed almost everything artists do, it concludes that if it is in a public place it must be public art. Wrong. There are three things that make a piece of art a public work: it will transform, commemorate or celebrate.
If a city decides to do one of those three things with a work of art it commissions, is gifted or acquires – looting used to be high on that list – it needs to be clear about which it is. This is not something for rooms of clever people to decide. If the people we elect to run our cities have no idea how to celebrate, transform or commemorate the things we hold dear, we are obviously electing the wrong people.
(William of Ockham only just got away with it. In 1348, a room full of clever people narrowly missed having him tried and burnt for heresy.)