There’s nothing radical about subversive art anymore
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.
Re-erect Colston here? Now that would be edgy…
There’s been loads of public art that put up to deliberately shock and offend, we’re told, if you don’t like it, to suck it up, it’s art, it’s intentionally about twisting the knife. Colostomy ( I like the auto corrects sense of humour so I’m leaving it in) would be absolutely perfect for rubbing salt in an open sore and maybe starting a PROPER, grown up, conversation about WORLD slavery and national figures.
Indeed, and also an educational campaign to underline the Royal Navy’s huge role in eradicating slavery.
Brilliant idea! Let’s celebrate Empire not denigrate it.
Absolutely!! And make it permanent.
As for the Khan’s proposed shortlist of transfæces and junktree, i say keep the cherry, drone, cream & fly statue instead. Nice little drone, looks like an old Syma specimen.
Just a little thought — without the activities of people like Colston, maybe we wouldn’t be bothered by Black Lives Matter.
Oh come on, and lose all the joy of the reverse colonization? The sales of popcorn are phenomenal!
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.
I’ve often guiltily thought the same myself; that I’m being unfairly punished for the sins of people who came long before me just by constantly being forced to listen to these racial grievance-mongers. I’m told that, having been born white, I have “unearned privilege”, while at the same time I carry a personal responsibility for the sins of historic systemic racism, and that if I don’t spend my life activity fighting it – being an “anti-racist” IOW, as opposed to simply a non-racist, which is no longer adequate – I am every bit as bad as people like Colston. It is inherently illogical; if privilege is unearned by anything other than personal actions, then so is culpability.
BTW I was born in Bristol. When I mentioned that to some white SJW here in Canada over two decades ago, he immediately went into a self-righteous rant about the role of that city in the Atlantic slave trade. I interrupted him with, “I wasn’t there.” That was enough to shut him up, back then.
America is now paying a very steep price for importing slaves and that’s a fact
Interesting observation – you can only be publicly subversive in an establishment that embraces subversion and therefore negates the need for it. Its like the teenager with overly permissive parents – there is nothing to rebel against.
The subversive has now become mainstream – I’m not clear just what members of the establishment the subversive are supposed to be ‘sticking it to’ when they do these things – after all, they are the establishment and have been for some time. We are currently at the beginning of an entire month were we all celebrate Gay Pride and the rainbow flag is ubiquitous. Anyone who disagreed with this publicly would be at risk of censure. You could only actually subvert the establishment by – therefore – supporting people the subversive find unpalatable.
Maybe erect a statue of a few of those ‘dead white males’ the establishment hates so much or a statue depicting the obsessive and unaware self loathing of the middle class white liberal (maybe a blind folded man self flagellating themselves – see if people get it). How about a statue of a young mother being forcefully made to wear a face mask by a hazmat suite wearing computer modeller, as the said mother reaches out desperately for contact with her new child?
That would be very anti establishment – not very PC though; might upset the Twitter mob.
Yes. If you want to create really subversive public art today, commission a statue of Moses or the Holy Trinity or King James or Saint George. Fainting wokes would be hitting the ground like rain.
Agreed & thats why they go against the traditional statues and ‘street furniture’ like plinths there to commemorate national figures or events as they are trying to destroy history They don’t seem to realise that they are just a trojan horse for a group that won’t allow any statues and won’t be bothered with these silly people and their games .
A NFT (non-fungible token) web address!!!!!!!!!! Yes, be up to the times. Now what the NFT should be, well there are all kinds of sport figures, and even the totally evil Dorsey’s first tweet is one –
We are so past the last generations ‘Physical Art’ and now is the day of invisible digital art.
Speaking of which, all us digital creatures are to meet our winnowing on Tuesday night, presumably at 12 Midnight, or with this modern age, maybe more Thirteen
“George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) begins: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.'”
Or Thurber’s amazing tale, ‘The Thirteen Clocks’ where they all finally strike midnight, and the jewels turn back into tears, and the Grollux appears to kill the duke for being insufficiently evil…
But anyway, after Tuesday I am banned with, I suppose, others, so good by all….
I will miss you Artzen! And all the others too. Oh well, was nice while it lasted (i’m still fairly new here). If any of you frequents Breitbart London i’m Broccoli Bob there (another of my malegendered nom de plumes, although i’m an old biddy), and i troll the Guardian as Schinkelschneider these days. Au revoir, friends.
Shall we go out with a bang on Tuesday night?
‘Missing you already’ as our American friends might say! I fear 95p is far too much for this poor old pensioner to pay for a moan. Shall look up your recommendation. Cheers and bye
Yes and it’ goodbye from me too. I shall miss contributing my ten penneth on here too but not so much as to warrant 95 penneth I fear!
Superb article. Far from “subverting” power and authority, the cretins in charge are producing yet another propaganda stunt on behalf of their own stale, sixties Marxism, which rules the roost, brooks no dissent and stifles opposition. Worse, it has nothing – but nothing to offer, beyond denigrating what came before. It is the most sterile, corrupt, dead, worthless, joyless tide of crud ever to have afflicted a civilisation, the froth of decline, the sputum of putrescence. Until and unless it is spurned and defeated, we will drift closer and closer to the abyss.
Commission Bansky, go all the way to rock bottom, so the nation’s art culture can begin recovery.
How about a statute of Margret Thatcher vanquishing the male oppressors, Michael Foot and Arthur Scargill. Now that would be subversive
Like the Statue of St Patric pinning down the serpent with his heel – yes, Thatcher, and Scargill as the serpent.
It would make a nice change if the supposedly ‘subversive’ was deliberately avoided.
When the creators of almost all cultural products are claiming to ‘subvert the genre’, nobody is doing any such thing – they’re being clichéd.
“Subversive” is dead. It died with the onset of pervasive institutional wokery. The artform formerly known as “subversive” has been reclassified as “controversial”, and is therefore verboten.
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.
stop referring to that useless bunch of effete nonentities as the ‘cultural elite’.
Absolutely. That irks me too somewhat badly.
And while we’re at it, stop referring to ourselves as “ordinary people”, or – even worse – “left behinds”.
I know a few people who might welcome My Khan having a spell sitting on the plinth – receiving a pelting of soft missiles
They should let me have a go. I would do them a muriel (sic) which I would nick from Goya and adapt for my purposes.
I would entitle the piece ‘the last white heterosexual man in Britain is shot for being a white heterosexual man in Britain when this is clearly against the law’. (By order of the Guardian. Woke Heil).
The about to be shot man would be lounging aggressively ( to communicate his contempt for non heterosexual white men) against a wall, and lined up in a row to shoot him would be all the representatives of the now people, in all their finery.
There would be a speech bubble coming out of the bad man’s mouth (because this is pop art) and it would say: “Well, I suppose I deserve it”.
Would it be possible for you to be slightly more inclusive; maybe a hint of ‘trans’ or ‘non binary gender fluid’ in your attire? A ball gown, a tiara perhaps (non African blood diamonds of course); or maybe a slight lisp when you speak?
Please may we have more inspiration for the Thunberg generation? Contorted, screaming white faces, or better, young p.o.c., arms folded defiantly, with that prison yard, no-future stare, that represents taking no prisoners, which we see so often staring back to us in advertisements? I want to celebrate militancy and upheaval and anger! It is the path to the glorious future! When the First World is the Third World, let us celebrate our outdoor free-range prisons!
I started noticing a couple of decades ago that a lot of the expressions kids and teens had in advertisements were scowling, resentful, and defiant, as if they were all thinking, “F*** you, elders!” I wondered what was behind it, why there was suddenly something hip and edgy and positive about images of unhappy, angry children.
When everyone can easily create art, what is the job of the artist? Similarly when everyone can freely publish their story, what is the job of a writer?
Chances are that Khan will channel his inner “Happy Prince” and erect a permanent statue of himself.
How about a statue of Khan lying on an unmade bed having a Barclays.
There hasn’t been anything ‘radical about subversive art’ since abut 1965, and possibly even earlier than that.
I’d say since 1917 (Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’). Everything since has been derivative trash intended simply to Épater la bourgeoisie
Yes, I tend to agree with you, but I thought I would provide a more random and perhaps slightly less tendentious date.
More defiant girl statues? Different colors of course. And men womenfacing as girls perhaps? Give us what we want!
Statue? Waste of money, as the Left will simply declare it “racist” and tear it down.
When was it first mooted that the necessary natural condition of the human being was ‘subversiveness’ or ‘rebellion’?
There is no need to do anything (for nothing can be done). People’s natural interests (family, good manners, stability, critical conformity (rather than ‘slavish’), curiosity etc), currently being deranged by activists, will re-asssert themselves in time. However, depending on the state of degradation, it may be a rather long time.
Well, there was Admiral Byng, who did not close enough with the enemy (as it would mean his destruction, and felt would be better to live to fight another day) and was shot after a court-martial for this incident. Voltaire put in his book Candide.
“”In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others” (pour encouragerles autres).
I say use him as the whole thing is open to much debate, and showed the once martial spirit of this land become scared of its own shadow, whose greatest fear is to offend incorrectly, and to walk past someone without a mask..
Why not place an invisible sculpture such as the one recently sold by one Salvatore Grau ?
Yes indeed, what do you do, when the establishment wears anti-establishment clothes.
I suggest looking north, to the Queen’s, Scottish, sculptor in ordinary, Alexander Stoddart. Not only brilliant and intellectually agile, but a man of integrity and a true artist. He is a coroscating critic of the left and of modernism,which is why you’re unlikely to have heard of him. However his work is much admired here and in the US.
YouTuber Paul Joseph Watson has an excellent – and frequently hilarious – series of videos on why modern Western “art” – not just visual art, but theatre, dance, music, poetry, and architecture – is such hideous s**t.
Well not an artistic masterpiece but compared with what the black lives Marxists left behind on June 7 2020 I can only say that it comes as a relief that the anti-merit squad was not there this time!
No contest, let’s have greatest man who ever lived:
Imperator Caesar divi filius Augustus.
surely Genghis Khan, or Hitler & Mussolini. Or how about Newton, Einstien, Feynman, Bohr, John Wilkinson. There will also be women, but people who changed the human world, now are forgotton.
The others were all pygmies by comparison with Augustus.
Damn – This gets right to the point of things… Good Work!
Sir John Hawkins (also spelled Hawkyns) (1532 – 12 November 1595
Commemoration image for the Fourth Plinth? Gareth Southgate and the England football team all taking the knee.
all taking the knee
Will never fathom what’s the big deal with the knee that all want it. It’s all bone & sinew, good only for the stock pot. Gimme the bacon any day.
It’s a gesture of weakness; I think that’s what’s behind the “taking the knee” during the playing of the national anthem. Standing during the national anthem is a way of showing both respect and strength. Taking the knee is saying, “I don’t love this country enough to defend it.”
Absolutely; i was just taking the p¡ss of that extremely irritating phrase of “taking the knee“. It’s called kneeling. Or, shall we want to apply decorum, genuflecting. But i stick with kneeling, a perfectly good English word to describe the act. “Taking the knee” reeks of bombastic self-aggrandisement.
I think all these kneelers really do deserve to take a knee… right between the legs, good and hard and often.
‘A gesture of weakness?’ No. Here it’s a gesture of defiance against racism in football everywhere. As some white English people still have a problem evidently with some English black people being successful, particulalry in football, it’s only too right that the gesture is adopted by the English football team. (Not all those ‘taking the knee would’ agree with all of BLM’s politics. But the gesture does not belong to BLM.)
Football is meant to be the ‘national game’. Those leaving racial slurs on social media are not ‘patriots’.
Conservatism is the new counter-culture.
I didn’t finish reading the comments so maybe someone else has made this point – can we have some ART subversive or otherwise not something that looks like a combination beachcomber/welder has just had a bad hair day.
I thought art had reached its nadir with the Turner prize going to “room with lights going on and off” (or whatever the official title was) but it seems I was wrong.
Why do you assume institutional public art is
Meant to be subversive? Why do you say “modern art” is trying to be “subversive”. This is ultra conservative substanceless rant in which dead ideas are flung around accompanied by a chorus of “ look at how reactionary I can be.” Pathetic unintelligent bilge.
Perhaps this just shows how different modern art is from all past movements.
From the Renaissance onward, much of western art has actually been informed by a return to past, but neglected models. The interest in Classical civilization (facilitated by things like the re-discovery of Nero’s Domus Aurea) helped create the Renaissance. Ditto for the Classical period. Then much 19th Century art was a return to medieval models. On a more banal note, early popular images for futuristic science fiction usually just borrowed from some earlier Roman or Greek model. Evr see teh original Flash Gordon serials?
But the future itself can give us no models, and thus no template, for new art. Jackson Pollock emphasized that, when he rigorously excluded any form in his paintings that was recognizable as something in the real world.
That’s probably why post-modern attempts have become so politicized. If there is no yardstick for what is good or bad, the only thing left is something that all artists are smart enough to do: flatter the patron.
Indeed, it contemporary art most resembles the Soviet Union in its last days.
Everybody knows it’s coming to its end–but nobody has the wit to think of what might come next.
So you think Realism, Impressionism, Post impressionism, Art Noveau, Symbolism, and Early Photography was a return to Medieval models?
Why is the short list so short? Out of the entrants, I prefer Antelope by Samson Kambalu or Ibrahim Mahama’s On Hunger and Famine in the Skies of the Past 1957-1966. Both seem quite sensible and thought-provoking to me, at least… Are they going to start charging an entry fee to Unherd on Tuesday, then?
I don’t want to defend the current work that’s on the plinth, but it’s hard to see how it’s intended to be ‘subversive: ‘playful’ more likely, as is a lot of Heather Phillipson’s other work. There has been a great variety of work on the plinth and some of it has been really good. Why are you assuming that these artists are trying to be subversive? What is it they’re trying to subvert? It’s not clear from your essay, nor is it clear why you characterise the work as ‘stunts’. There’s a long history of interventionist and site-specific sculpture by artists like Claes Oldenberg. I certainly don’t see much merit in putting a statue of a military leader on the plinth, unless it were a general involved in the Iraq war. That might conceivably be subversive. Another point: a great many rebels join the establishment, it’s not something that’s peculiar to certain generations, as you claim. Some of them join the establishment but continue to criticise it from ‘within’ and rightly so.
There never was any excreta placed ‘atop Nelson’s Column’ (misleading). Middle class white girls beating themselves up on social media? (relevance?) All trying to make connections with the ‘cultural elite’ ‘indoctrinating’ the younger generation. Quite desperate stuff.
Quite often absurd, sometimes dull sometimes thought-provoking for a minute or so, the Fourth Plinth commissions were never meant to be ‘subversive’ or ‘radical’. What would be the point in antagonising so many people from everywhere?
We have no need of public ‘bronze-cast’ heroes and heroines any more. As time progresses the more ridiculous and potentially divisive erecting statues becomes. Statue of Margaret Thatcher (London Guildhall) – Wikipedia
What placing a ‘historical admiral’ on the Fourth Plinth would achieve really is hard to guess. Does anyone know about any admirals apart from Horatio Nelson? But maybe we could have two ‘Nelsons’ in Trafalgar Square. Yes, Nelson Mandela and Horatio Nelson.
Nelson Mandela and Horatio Nelson.
Why on earth would anyone want to erect or see a statue of a South African terrorist sympathiser?
We have no need of public ‘bronze-cast’ heroes and heroines any more.
Even though i may agree to some degree about casting new ones (heroism is pastiche), we need to preserve the ones already erected.
In any event, there he is in Parliament Square, barely a stone’s throw away from our Nelson.
I loves a statue I do.
What I want, what I really, really want, is a statue of Tommy Robinson on the scale of the Colossus of Rhodes, standing with his hands on his hips and his c()k out, pissing on the Mayor’s office.
It can’t be done, I hear you cry. Of course it can. They built the Post Office Tower, did they not, and the waterworks ought to be a simple feat for any half decent mechanical engineer.
Even though i’m acutely cash-poor, i would find the way to contribute to a statue like that. Majestic.
I like your imagination.
Statues aren’t divisive, they are commemorative. You would rob us of our culture, you really would. And what, in turn, do you propose?
A public address system over which Guardian editorials will be read on a never ending loop, all done in that whiny nasal voice so characteristic of the newly self-appointed representatives of the moral high ground?
F()k me, that would really be the end.
The first three words say it all. Of course many of them are ‘divisive’, aren’t they?
Except of course statues of people like Bill Shankly, Billy Fury, Ken Dodd, Lawrence Olivier etc.
Remove all statues of politicians, military figures, slave traders etc. from public view.
A PA system reading editorials from The Mail, The Sun & The Guardian on a loop? Yeah, that would be funny. La di dah – cockney – nasal ‘met elite’, alternating… reading each other’s editorials…great idea.
Remove all statues of polititians and military figures from public view…why? Politicians and military figures, like them or not, are the reasons a nation exists. They’re the ones who did the work of building and defending a nation. Lazy and useless people who are triggered by a statue of Churchill, or a soldier in uniform, need to get that into their thick heads. They probably wouldn’t be standing there in the public square b**ching about it, if it weren’t for these historical figures. They don’t have to look at these statues if they find them so horrible. I see horrible public art every damn day in my city, but I put up with it.
All people are why nations exist. We live in a divided age. Rightly or wrongly, effigies of politicians and military leaders etc., come under scrutiny. Statues are not ‘history’.
I suppose the only excreta on top of Nelson’s column was left by pigeons. I remember John Noakes going up there with no safety gear to clean it off. That was before the Great Cull by Ken Livingstone. So if we can’t have Colston, how about a giant statue of the Unknown Pigeon, crapping copiously on Ken?
Doing its business on Khan would be better
There never was any excreta placed ‘atop Nelson’s Column’
Not Nelson’s, you’re right. The embedded link leads to some bloke dressed as a great big log atop the 4th plinth, apparently drawing the public’s attention to Nigeria’s national programme to end open defecation, as detailed in this 2019 Guardian article:
If public defecation is a problem in Nigeria, then such clever albeit tasteless PR stunts should be confined to Nigeria, not foisted upon the British who (mostly, at least for now) already know that s***ting in public is disgusting.
If public defecation is a problem in Nigeria
Apparently it is, so endemic and widespread that an expensive nationwide campaign (largely funded by Western aid) is necessary to goad the reticent population (201 million & growing) into using toilets like normal people do. In the 21st century, ffs. All “cultures” being equal & all that, heh.
Yes, the article is from 2009. (In the article Boris Johnson as London Mayor is quoted as being fully behind the enterprise.)
No disrespect to Nelson Mandela, but why the hell should there be a statue of him in a public square in Britain? He wasn’t British, and did nothing for Britain.
Perhaps a more appropriate statue could be of Dr. Alexander Fleming, who developed the use of penicillin which saved hundreds of thousands of British lives, particularly during WW II.
Dr. Fleming, being a scientifically inclined white male, js automatically excluded from public commemoration in our brave, New Britain.
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