Street art can stir up opinion and create a sense of pride in the community

Hymn by Damien Hirst outside Norwich University of the Arts in Norwich.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Hymn by Damien Hirst outside Norwich University of the Arts in Norwich.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Love it or loathe it, public art intrudes in our lives because it's there, in your face, when you walk around Norwich.

Vanessa Trevelyan. Photo: The Norwich Society

Vanessa Trevelyan. Photo: The Norwich Society - Credit: The Norwich Society

Public art occupies a unique position within the art world. In comparison with big-name gallery shows, it is often under appreciated.

If it is controversial, it is a constant reminder of divergent views. If it is safe and conservative, then it just becomes part of the landscape and ignored.

But there is lots to applaud: public art is open to everyone, it's free, people don't have to dress up to go and see it, and you can view it alone or in groups.

Works that commemorate local heroes or events can become powerful symbols of community pride.

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Norwich boasts a wonderful range of public art that takes many forms.

Commemorating the great and the good is one of the most common reasons for putting up a monument.

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Cathedral Close currently houses statues of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Nelson was a pupil at the Norwich School for a short time so there is some local reason for this statue, but that of Wellington was no doubt following the national fashion for commemorating great military figures.

These are both lifelike representations of their subjects but Norwich has done different by installing a thought provoking representation of Sir Thomas Browne's Brain on Haymarket, opposite a more conventional statue.

When this sculpture – inspired by Browne's prodigious intellect – was installed it was met with bemusement by some, but has now become a much-loved landmark and useful seating area.

Public art is also considered to enhance an area, whether to complement a pleasant location or cheer up a murky corner.

When St George's Street was pedestrianised in 2008 a sculpture by Dame Barbara Hepworth, Sea Form (Atlantic), formerly in the gardens of Castle Meadow, was relocated in front of the Playhouse and adjacent to Norwich University of the Arts.

This 1964 bronze was inspired by the countryside and ancient stones of Cornwall, where the artist lived and worked, so there is no local connection. Nevertheless, the sculpture enhances a very pleasant cultural corner of Norwich.

At the other end of the spectrum are the seven public murals commissioned by Norwich's Business Improvement District that enhance otherwise dark, redundant or blank spaces. These celebrate Norwich as a city of stories and provide a welcome burst of colour and artistic flair.

Archant has also contributed to augmenting the public domain with Bernard Meadows' massive sculpture installed outside Prospect House in 1969, which dominates the road junction with its enigmatic dimpled bronze balls (a reference to the adjoining Golden Ball Street).

I once had an interesting discussion with a group of drunk young men about exactly what balls the sculpture represented.

At its most engaging, public art involves the community in both making and experiencing the art; GoGoHares and all the previous incarnations of GoGoGorillas, GoGoElephants and GoGoDragons being excellent examples.

The individual decorations of the sculptures by professional and amateur artists have provided a treasure trove of designs and the Go Go trails have encouraged people to explore parts of Norwich they never knew existed.

Some sculpture is intended to stir up opinions. Damien Hirst's sculpture Hymn, a 5.9m tall bronze replica of an anatomical toy, is a coup for the city and a sign of Norwich's status on the international and global art map.

It will provide a stimulus for debate about the role of public sculpture and many will surely say that a replica of a toy cannot be art.

In past centuries wealthy householders included sculpture in the decoration of the outside of their houses to demonstrate their wealth, status and culture.

Samson and Hercules House in Tombland is a rare survival of that art form. The house was built by Christopher Jay in 1657 when he was mayor of Norwich. The statues of Samson and Hercules were installed in 1657.

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