Mind the Gap: why Hockney’s Piccadilly Line roundel uproar signifies a deepening disconnect between art and the public

Eddy Frankel explores why a slapdash but inoffensive logo design by the celebrated artist has caused such outrage, and how it symbolises the slow but sure decimation of arts education in Britain.

18 May 2021

When contemporary art makes the headlines or causes uproar on social media, it’s usually because it’s in some way shocking or offensive or (sometimes) shockingly and offensively pretentious. Sharks in formaldehyde, unmade beds, bits of Blu Tack, statues of Christ submerged in piss, that sort of thing. But sometimes, art makes headlines and causes uproar on social media because the general public just really, really hates it.

Enter one of the most successful living painters, David Hockney, with a commission to redesign the Piccadilly Circus roundel. Armed with just an iPad, Hockney whipped up a cheeky little logo that must have taken him all of ten minutes, if that. It’s childish, playfully naive, and full of intentional mistakes and digital smudgery. It follows on from a similar slapdash logo he whipped up for The Sun a couple of years back, all MS Paint aesthetics brought crashing into 2021.

And people can’t stand it. It has been called lazy, ugly and childish, and has elicited countless “I could do that” reactions. Part of me thinks, well, at least people are talking about art. But there’s a deeper malaise that’s being laid bare by the ire Hockney is engendering.

Because to anyone with any kind of love of modern art, this slapdash little logo is totally inoffensive. It’s just some colourful public art by a big name. There’s nothing revolutionary or life-changing about it. If anything, as the writer Elise Bell pointed out in her article about the roundel, it’s a nice little up yours to the endlessly dull and totally ignorable kind of public art our cities are absolutely full of.

You chew on your M&S sandwich underneath a Henry Moore at some train station, you skive off work next to a Richard Serra, you do your laces up against a Barbara Hepworth. And you don’t notice the art, ever. We’re surrounded by art that’s been put there for us to ignore.

So how did an 80-year-old with an iPad manage to cause uproar? Because the government is cutting 50 per cent of funding to higher level arts education in the UK. Because kids aren’t taken around museums, because they’re not taught about why cubism matters, or why a urinal can be art.

The temptation is to blame everyday people for not getting Hockney, when the truth is that this is the result of years and years of arts education being shoved into the background and decimated through an endless, attritional cultural war.

The education secretary Gavin Williamson just said: “The record number of people taking up science and engineering demonstrates that many are already starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt.”

He’s genuinely gleeful about people not studying art. That’s what it means to the people in power, and that heinous attitude trickles down through every facet of society.

We are now decades after the YBAs, half a century after Jackson Pollock and a hundred years after Duchamp’s urinal, and public perception of art still hasn’t moved on. People still look at a drip painting or a Rothko and think “I could do that”. Art is frozen in the past, in a world where the more a painting looks like a photo the better it is, and that’s been done on purpose.

Twitter is full of “sure, you art nerds might like it, but what about the average person in the street?”. The presumption is that Sally from HR, sipping her Costa on her way to some faceless office off Bond Street with her measly three A-levels, has no chance of ever possibly understanding the conceptual brilliance of a messy, lazy David Hockney iPad doodle. Which is bullshit, frankly. It’s just that art education has withered to the point that people aren’t given the knowledge to approach something as basic as a stupid iPad roundel with any kind of context. What I’m saying is that I don’t want people to hate it because they think they could do it, or because “it’s not art,” I want people to hate it because they know it’s a bit shit.

There’s obviously a deep schism between the bozos with art history degrees like me and the general public, and that schism is only getting deeper. The more art education gets torn to shreds, the worse that will get. The result is a world where art exists only for the privileged elite, and that should be causing a lot more uproar than an iPad drawing by a harmless OAP.


David Hockney: Piccadilly Circus roundel (Courtesy of The Mayor of London and TFL)

Hero Header

David Hockney: Piccadilly Circus roundel (Courtesy of The Mayor of London and TFL)

Share Article

Further Info

About the Author

Eddy Frankel

Eddy Frankel is a London-based art critic. He’s Time Out’s art and culture editor, and has written about art for publications including The Guardian, ArtReview, The Art Newspaper and Vanity Fair. He’s also the founder and editor of OOF, a magazine about the intersection of art and football.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.