Once upon a time Bathgate had a castle, then it had British Leyland, then it had a “face”. The earthwork known as the Bathgate Face occupies a site on which stood a castle that Robert the Bruce gifted to his daughter as a wedding present (an event which brought about the founding of the royal house of Stewart). Such historical provenance is usually reserved for the nearby town of Linlithgow, the palace there being the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. Linlithgow preserved a county town status whereas Bathgate gained industrial fame with the discovery of paraffin by local man James Young. This miniscule potted history leads up to nothing more than what many people already know, i.e. that Bathgate is an industrial area which is predominantly working-class. As social history demands, industrial West Lothian has evolved with little provision for high culture and this is especially noticeable in the visual arts. Art galleries are rare, and it would seem that residents should be content with the odd piece of public art doled out from time to time.
And, what more patronising piece of public art could be conceived as the Bathgate Face? It is tragic that the artist responsible Lumir Soukup died recently at a young age. However, this is no excuse for the nonsense that has been written about the sculpture and its upkeep (or lack of it) since Soukup passed away. Public art should be primarily easily accessible to the public; however, The Bathgate Face is as elusive as those hundreds of socially deprived children who some commentators believe live in Bathgate (they are working-class not socially deprived). These same children are also believed to have been miraculously changed by having their faces measured by a friendly artist while being told they are average. Time for a reality check – who wants to be told they are average?
This is a badly conceived piece and, what is more, it is disrespectful to the people of Bathgate. Far from being a “homage” the basic concept implies that the entire population of the town can be averaged out into one homogenous proletarian lump of earth and bricks. The fact that it resembles a face is neither here nor there. It is probably best that it is off the beaten track and mainly visible only to cyclists, the odd jogger and of course the local winos who allegedly congregate in the eye sockets. It is little wonder the Bathgate public treat the work with indifference since they did not ask for it – it was foisted upon them. Disrespect breeds disrespect.
The arts impresario Richard Demarco is quoted in a local newspaper as saying the people of Bathgate have a “moral obligation” to maintain the work. Well – no, actually they do not, the people or body who commissioned it are responsible for its upkeep. Demarco also implies that the artist was doing them a favour when he “dedicated a considerable amount of time to giving the town a public artwork they needed” Well – no doubt Mr Soukup was paid for his efforts. Demarco’s remarks are not helpful, and he should be well aware of the situation in Bathgate after trying unsuccessfully to turn the old Bathgate Academy building into a public art gallery. The neglect of the cultural needs of an entire community is, after all, a more culpable art crime than the neglect of an average face, which does not even belong to the people of Bathgate.