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Letter from London: Plinth of Thieves

Effigy of David Beckham temporarily installed on the empty plinth in 2002

Effigy of David Beckham temporarily installed on the empty plinth in 2002

Good news! We’re living in “a golden age of public art,” characterized by “a change in art’s very nature, from an aesthetic, spiritual and intellectual function to a principally social one.” Woo hoo! What a relief, eh?

In London, public art means either the Turbine Hall commissions in Tate Modern or the famous Fourth Plinth—the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square used as a site for public art commissions for a few years now. Since the road that runs in front of the gallery was pedestrianized several years ago, the area has become a catch-all public space: amateur artists sketch out copies of Botticelli paintings, opera singers blast out an aria or two, people balance stuff on their noses and rattle buckets at the audience afterward. You might have seen the square occupied with hordes of unaccountably ecstatic people waving Union Jacks on the announcement of London’s hosting of the Olympics in 2012. It’s that sort of place, the city’s town square, center of innumerable celebrations of the various ethnicities that constitute London, meeting point for protesters and stag nighters and neon-backpacked Italian school groups.

The plinth’s prominence as the only one of the four not occupied by an equestrian bronze of a hero of war or empire made it an iconoclastic presence in this locus of national celebration. Previous commissions have aimed to “subvert” the historical resonance of the place: Rachel Whiteread displayed a flipped-over resin cast of the plinth itself, Marc Quinn showed a marble cast of thalidomide victim Alison Lapper, and Mark Wallinger put a life-size human figure on the plinth’s edge—a contemporary Christ with crown of thorns. For all of these artists, the plinth offered perhaps their most public venue and certainly made their work the most photographed of any they had produced up to then (Wallinger’s proposed huge horse at Ebbsfleet will certainly supersede that).

But as with so much public art, any subversive intent played second fiddle to civic demands founded on specific ideas about what public art is for. The question of more relevance, it seems to me, is what the public for art is. This is particularly relevant in the light of the latest commission for the fourth plinth: Antony Gormley’s One and Other, the sculptor’s proposal to allow members of the public to apply to occupy the plinth on their own, for an hour at any time of day, starting this summer for a total stretch of a hundred days.

The choice of Gormley as the winner of the commission is perhaps not surprising, as he is the creator of the UK’s most popular (ie, most reproduced, most pilloried, most parodied) public sculpture, The Angel of the North (which is, sadly, far better cared for than the unloved Stonehenge). The other submissions—from Tracey Emin, Bob and Roberta Smith, and Anish Kapoor—felt like truncated versions of more successful works by these artists in other contexts. Only Jeremy Deller’s proposal—a real burnt-out car destroyed in a civilian attack in Iraq—would have had a genuinely iconoclastic effect (referencing the display of spoils of war found on Roman triumphal columns that are the aesthetic forebears of Nelson’s Column in the center of the square). Gormley, who has a slightly awkward position within the canon of contemporary British art (as befits a supremely popular artist, he and his legions of followers feel as though they’re backing the underdog, and constantly bang on about it) has hit upon an idea of such perfect congruence with (post-) Blairite notions of what art should provide for the public that the sound of hands slapping foreheads in consternation was heard ringing from Parliament as soon as his idea was announced.

The way Gormley’s proposal will work is explained in some detail on the Fourth Plinth website, on which this spectacularly hubristic game plan is laid out:

[Gormley] is asking the people of the UK to occupy the empty Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in London, a space normally reserved for statues of Kings and Generals, in an image of themselves, and a representation of the whole of humanity (!!!). [triple exclamation points mine]

Only a culture so profoundly in love, as the UK is, with the process of celebrification could endorse a proposal that equates mere self-expression with art. The project description is full of phrases that are begging for qualifying air quotes: “Participants will be picked at random, chosen from the thousands who enter, to represent the entire population of the UK” [italics mine]. Gormley has the temerity to suggest that he has been the victim of press “snobbery”; surely pomposity of that Meatlovian scale is crying out for some leavening criticism. The use of the political buzzword “participant” shows how neatly the rhetoric of contemporary art has, since 1997, dovetailed with the rerouting of political discourse towards an emphasis on “openness,” “transparency,” and “interactivity” while actually being none of those things. The suggestion of the term participant is that the person has an active role in the creation of the work of art, whereas the truth of much participatory contemporary art is that the participant simply becomes the medium for the artist to express whatever it is he or she is expressing (usually a toothless critique of the patron rubber-stamped by same).

For Gormley’s project, as for much contemporary political discourse, language is bent to purpose. That dreaded term empowerment is so beloved of official arts bodies when angling for funding is dragged in, but what does it mean here? And to what extent is this, in Gormley’s words, “about the democratization of art”? It means that after what will certainly be a protracted screening process, members of the public, who have conflated exposure with success, will be allowed to spend an hour of their time gesticulating slightly out of earshot above the tinkling fountains and rumbling buses. Some of them will moon Nelson. Gormley and the subsidizing bodies will feel good about “democratizing” art and “empowering the public.” That all this is happening in the shadow of the National Gallery, one of the world’s best collections of painting (and free to enter), has a ring of embarrassment about it. We get the public art we deserve, I suppose.

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