The Fourth Plinth shortlist shows a cultural elite at a creative dead end
Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, currently adorned with a sculpture of ice cream, is now ready for its next bold, thought-provoking display of public art. Last week, freshly-reelected Mayor of London Sadiq Khan shared the shortlist for the new piece, encouraging the public to “cast a vote” for their favourite artist. Boasting a cosmopolitan lineup of creators from “America, Germany, Ghana, Mexico”, the representative works include a “jewellery tree” covered in assorted junk — coffee cups, crushed beer cans, and the medals of Lord Nelson. Another piece, proposed by Teresa Margolles, features the “casts of the faces of 850 trans people, most of whom are sex workers”.
Designed to be radical, it is difficult to escape the feeling that this shortlist is anything but. With no cultural taboos left to break, the subversive thrill of modern art has dissipated. Who in twenty-first century London would be truly shocked by the sight of the cast of 850 trans people in Trafalgar Square? Myra Breckenridge, it is not.
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A more pressing question, therefore, is why is our political class is bothering with these public stunts?
A clue may be in the ages of those making the decisions. Sadiq Khan and Justine Simmons, London’s Deputy Mayor for Culture and the Creative Industries, who described the Fourth Plinth as “London’s Greatest Idea”, were both born in 1970. They are a part of a generation that emerged from the rubble left behind by the cultural revolution of the 1960s. But whereas their ideological predecessors once rebelled against the establishment, this generation have become it.
Nevertheless, the urge to shock remains. Which is why we have been treated to delights such as placing a giant turd atop Nelson’s Column. Our capacity for shock is becoming exhausted. And unfortunately, nothing on that plinth can rival the performance art of teenage girls ritually flagellating themselves on social media for the mortal sin of being born with white privilege.
If you have been taught your whole life that, say, Britain has always been multicultural, a statue that claims this will only reinforce what you have already been led to believe is true. Perhaps the most unexpected thing to do with the plinth would be to simply — with as little fanfare as possible — install a bronze statue of some historical admiral, keeping in with the style of the rest of the square. That would certainly ‘start a conversation’. Of course, we know that this will never happen. Perhaps our cultural elite, obsessed with fighting the ideological battles of the past, will live to regret indoctrinating a new generation with no respect for any aspect of our country’s heritage — themselves included.