Magazine article The Spectator

The Plinth Dilemma

Magazine article The Spectator

The Plinth Dilemma

Article excerpt

At a theoretical level, the level of Plato and Aristotle, politics and aesthetics are linked together with ethics - and much else of course - into a consistent world view. This is all very well, but at ground level things are different. There are clashes. On moving south-east from west London to Kennington Park, near the Oval, my local MP became Simon Hughes, the prominent Liberal Democrat spokesman. He is noted for supporting ethnic minorities in various ways. Given that you welcome or at least accept the reality of pluralism and multi-culturalism here and now, this must surely be an ethically sound, sensible and politically correct idea, albeit an idea quite foreign to the ideal Republic (or closed society as Karl Popper thought) envisaged by Plato.

The high profile of Hughes's support for such minority groups does sometimes raise questions or eyebrows in local pubs and restaurants about `what has he ever done for' the indigenous community. Be that as it may, he recently raised his own profile, at least, by focusing on a problem belonging to a central London square which is easily reachable from his constituency being a couple of stops after Big Ben on the number 159 bus route. In so doing Hughes (who lists music and theatre as interests) dramatically introduced an aesthetic dimension to his politics.

As though surfing on a wave of loyalty provoked by her funeral, he suddenly campaigned to put a sculpture of the Queen Mother between Nelson's Column and the National Gallery. He passionately wanted a Queen Mum statue on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. `Would she be wearing something frilly?' a female friend asked, thereby envisaging an essentially comic outcome of the proposal. And what age would she be? Her longevity makes the Queen Mother's image complex and harder to sum up than, say, Lady Di's in a statue, especially if it were placed in the shadow of the victor of Trafalgar's huge column with its almost brutally simple message. Few would contest that the Queen Mother was a great, lovely, praiseworthy and wonderful lady; and judging by her arrangements for her own funeral, she was also an excellent organiser who could have taught a thing or two to many a recent minister of transport. But, to put it plainly, she was not only the wrong shape for this particular plinth, she was also in the wrong profession.

As regards her achievements, including that of popularising the monarchy, what living sculptor could have done them justice? There is a current shortage of reincarnated Rodins and contemporary Canovas. We don't even have a Francis Chantrey, whose equestrian statue of George IV in Trafalgar Square is rather elegant. Rightly or wrongly, the majority of well-known creative and imaginative sculptors remain sniffy about the possibilities of portraiture as a major art form - with the possible exception of self-portraiture. To have chosen a little-known academic sculptor to attempt the task might have been to plump for an anachronism. On the other hand, the stalwarts of the famous neo-academic YBA group tend to favour direct casting, often from their own bodies - a somewhat impractical method for producing an image of the deceased Queen Mother. Unconventional media such as elephant dung and formaldehyde, dear to the heart of the typical YBA, could be even more curatorially problematic in the open air than they already are under the roots of museums, galleries and the London residence of their principal patron, Charles Saatchi, where a builder is reported to have melted the Marc Quinn self-portrait in frozen blood by accidentally turning off the electricity. …

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