by Poppy Coburn
Friday, 4
June 2021
Idea
17:49

There’s nothing radical about subversive art anymore

The Fourth Plinth shortlist shows a cultural elite at a creative dead end
by Poppy Coburn
A truly subversive piece of art in Trafalgar Square. Credit: Getty

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.

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.

Join the discussion


  • Two things I would like to see change.
    The first is for people to stop calling the Prime Minister ‘Boris’.

    The second is for people to stop referring to that useless bunch of effete nonentities as the ‘cultural elite’.

    They just aren’t. They are just some people who know there are five different types of coffee to drink and that it is important to say
    ‘yah, absolutely’ when walking around a gallery.

  • When, exactly, did this infernal myth start doing the rounds – that art must be subversive to have any cultural value? Was it Marcel Duchamp who started the wrecking ball swinging? Would his ghost be sniggering gleefully as the 21st century art world celebrates the “subversive genius” of Banksy and Tracy Emin (who a feminist critic declared the equal of Michaelangelo).

  • Without the activities of people like Colston and Rhodes, there wouldn’t be nowhere near as many top-class English educational institutions for blacks to attend, so you’re right indeed: without the activities of people like Colston we wouldn’t be bothered by the BLM mob.

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