Thursday, 23 July 2009

One & Other

I would have gotten around to blogging about the Fourth Plinth at some point or another, but a friend specifically asked me to write a response to AA Gill's review of the Plinth in the Guardian. And so it goes.

If you haven't heard of the Fourth Plinth project by now (or the One & Other project, which I think is the official name) you must be living under a rock. Or not in the UK. Or at the very least, not in London. Despite my reservations about Antony Gormley, and there are a few, I love that he works in the public domain and on a very large scale - his work has the ability to get the public involved in heated debate in ways which few other artists can only dream.

So yes, it gets boring after about 3 minutes (in some circumstances, as when the person just sits there and munches a sandwich while reading a paper), but people have been surprising, incredibly witty, brilliantly creative, or just plain funny. The woman dressed up as a pigeon throwing bits of bread to passers by or the woman dressed up as a giant CCTV camera silently surveying plinth-watchers are good examples of zany, eccentric creativity. The best plinther I've seen by far though, has to be the man conducting an orchestra on the ground below. What a fantastic thing to do for one hour!

And no, it's not really art and here's where I agree wholeheartedly with Gill. Not only is this lazy, but it's also asking the wrong question: "is it art?" is simply not the right question to ask. Not only have we had this debate for the last 150 years, but we've also had the "are ordinary people worthy subjects of art" debate too. Remember that little art movement called Realism? Courbet's Stone Breakers or Millet's Gleaners ring any bells? Within the context of art history and art theory, no one has ever come as close to creating art as "objectively real" as Gormley has with this project.

The One & Other (the hint is in the name!) manages to be both a masterful contemporary art installation while also commenting - unfavourably, in my opinion - on the big brother, fame hungry culture that's so prevalent in our society. Isn't what Gormley's art really about, is how much we'd all actually prefer a quiet, unobtrusive life of ordinary reality rather than our 15 minutes (or in this case, one hour) of fame? The point is eloquently made by the fact that the act most people are comfortable performing for an hour on the plinth are acts of sheer banality and utter normality: eating, reading, sleeping, observing. The pretenders to an exhibitionist throne simply can't fulfil their side of the bargain for a full hour.

To go back to the question of "is it art?" Okay, so Gill and I are in agreement in that not only is this the wrong question, but that it is indeed a question for the culturally insecure. My friend will most likely not approve of me saying this, but art is self-defining. Those who know what art is don't need it explained. They know when they feel inspired or depressed or moved or excited by work - they don't need to turn around and ask, "yes, but is it art?" Strangely, Gill's argument begins to fall flat when he starts saying that ordinary humans aren't worthy subjects of art - only "the great and the heroic are bigger than human [and thus worthy subjects of art], because they've achieved more. On Gormley's plinth, humans seem even more insignificant." Then Gill goes about showing just how clever he is and negates his own argument when he asks whether we, his nameless readership, can name the other heroes who share Trafalgar Square with Nelson. Of course Gill can because he has google at his disposal when writing comment pieces. Without looking it up myself, no, I haven't a clue who shares Nelson's stage. But as per the pointlessness of the is it art question, I don't care which other dead mean hang out in Trafalgar Square. Dead generals aren't interesting to me in this context.

Gill says that what the constant stream of lottery winners proves is that art is not made by chance, or by the ordinary, but by people who are extraordinary. Despite the contradiction - the statues in Trafalgar Square are worthy objects of art because they are extraordinary people, not because the creators of the statues of the generals are extraordinary - when Gill says, "we are failing to live up to the square" it's difficult to understand exactly what he means. Not everyone on the square deserves to be on it. In the same way that "is it art" is surely the wrong question, "who deserves to be on the Fourth Plinth" must also be the wrong question. Yes, perhaps some humans achieve more extraordinary accomplishments than others, but you know what - we all sleep, observe, eat, and read - that's part of the beauty of the banalities of human life. Alternatively, for every trivial act such as brushing one's teeth, there will be an equally beautiful appreciation of a sunset - who is really to say which accomplishments or appreciations are more or less worthy than others.

What AA Gill seems to be forgetting is that, from a theoretical point of view, despite what the individuals on the plinth may do with their 60 minutes, they still act as a kind of composition - they are the oils and acrylics - on a much larger scale. This art is Gormley's, after all, who has done what the best artists always have to do at some point: let go of the work and give it to the people.

1 comment:

Rosalind said...

Good post.