The new sculpture atop Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth was revealed last week to almost universal bemusement. Heather Phillipson’s The End (pictured below) was delayed for months due to a virus you may have heard about. In hindsight, perhaps it was best that the public’s patience wasn’t tested further during the early hysteria of Covid’s onset.
Whilst a small cartel of charlatans in the art world cheered at the desecration of one of the capital’s most iconic hubs, the majority of normal Londoners have to bear the burden of The End‘s unsightliness, whilst the many tourists who flock to London are presented with even more evidence that Britain’s position as a cultural leader is set to remain firmly in its past.
The work, as you can see, depicts a whirl of cream topped with a cherry à la cartoon American dessert, itself topped by a drone and flanked by a horsefly. The work depicts the instability of the established political order in banal transparency: the dessert is about to fall either by melting in the summer sun or by the cherry falling off (no doubt hastened by the drone, obviously representing state surveillance and military technology).
It is a work that radiates naive self-importance, as if a GCSE media studies student has had their first encounter with pop art. It coexists uneasily, perhaps miraculously, beside the majesty of the national gallery and Nelson’s column. Onlookers could easily look at The End and presume the National Gallery (which it sits in front of) would be filled with similar embarrassments, rather than the timeless brilliance of Van Dyck, Titian and Monet.
An Ugliness Culture
The End is so typical of an artistic era characterised by cheap gimmick, feigned insight and wilful ugliness. Those well-acquainted with modern art will be aware of how the consensus around the obligation of art to be beautiful deteriorated in the 20th-century. Marchel Duchamp’s ‘fountain’ (see below) started as an attempt to satirise the art world but was quickly accepted as a watershed: 1) aesthetic value was no longer concerned with beauty and 2) art didn’t even need to be designed intentionally as art. Embedded in this is the idea that the beauty is merely subjective, an idea which, when taken to its conclusion, simply means that beauty isn’t even a meaningful category. No wonder then that 20th-century art has been so frequently entangled in sheer ugliness in a gambit to appear tasteful: it may look ugly to you, but to me (because I’m so insightful) it is beautiful.
Hence a sort of contest began in the second half of the twentieth century: who could create the ugliest art, and hence confer upon themselves the impression of superior taste. The majority find the work reprehensible? All the more convincing the case becomes that you are the superior artist, fighting the status quo. I think it’s a tragedy that the art world looks down on real beauty as something backward or uncultured, when precisely the opposite was true for all human history prior to the first world war. Examples of such wilful ugliness abound: they populate any modern art gallery you are likely to have visited. Some of the most famous are Manzoni’s 1961 Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit) in which he canned his own excrement, Serrano’s 1987 Piss Christ in which he pickled a crucifix in his own urine, or any number of works by Damian Hirst involving animals rotting or preserved in formaldehyde. It seems that such histrionics are the lingua Franca of the art world.
Just as art became divorced from any obligation to be beautiful, so too architects distanced themselves from any obligation to produce works which existed in harmony with their surroundings, and the very worst works of architecture would indulge in a similar ‘novelty ahead of beauty’ dynamic as in visual art. Sadly, whilst contrived art generates attention then is consigned to the history books, ugly architecture stands as a monument to its own ugliness for decades. Coexisting awkwardly between sculpture and architecture is the Arcelor Mittal Orbit Sculpture, an unsightly blunder commissioned for the 2012 London Olympics, hence broadcasting Britain’s tastelessness to the world (see below).
Does it need to be this way?
How anyone could feel at ease, let alone at home, in the same neighbourhood as Acelor is beyond me, and I doubt this consideration played even the slightest part in the commission. Why should art no longer be beautiful? Many would argue that modern art needs to reflect the disjointedness and alienation of modern life in the absence of any metaphysical certainties or faith in civic institutions. But does populating the horizon with nihilistic works of contorted steel make us more or less alienated? Just because elements of modern life are disparate and lack harmony, do architects and artists need to make it more so? Can art and culture not be a soothing balm for the pangs of modern alienation? Do we need to make a virtue out of incoherence, when incoherence is so ubiquitous and coherence so hard to come by?
Whilst the particularities of modern alienation are new to our times, artists and creators of all kinds have responded to suffering for all human history, yet it is only very recently that artists have decided that the appropriate response is self-indulgence and wilful ugliness. In short, I don’t think this is the only option, and I think it worsens the problem rather than helps us to come to terms with it. Perhaps the nihilism of modern times could be confronted by the most subversive thing of all: beauty. Not the cliched ‘it’s beautiful to me’; rather, the dizzying repture of Beethoven’s 9th or the wide-eyed amazement of encountering the Sistine Chapel. Humans haven’t changed so much that we no longer appreciate such things, but sadly the art world is hell-bent on pretending otherwise.
Would this mean fleeing to the past, churning out 19th-century pastiche until the end of time? Perhaps the innovations of recent times can be integrated into a style which need not divorce itself from beauty and our entire culture heritage, but rather embraces them like long-lost Mother and Father.
The End‘s antecedents on the fourth plinth have ranged from uninspiring curiosities to downright eyesores, though the very first commission, Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo (1999, see below), was an outlier. Ecce Homo, Latin for ‘behold the man’, refers to Pontius Pilate presenting Jesus as a prisoner to the baying crowd. Wallinger’s Jesus, with a golden crown of barbed wire and shaved head, symbolises all those who are wrongly imprisoned under tyranny today, whose defiance in the name of truth puts them under the boot of state power. Ecce Homo is merely the size of the average man and lacks the heroic physique or piercing features of the typically macho state leader sculpture. Its simple frailty speaks to the vulnerability that characterises all human experience and, when juxtaposed with the military grandeur of Trafalgar Square, presented a timeless corrective to the tyrannical potential of state power.
You may be aware that the fourth plinth was left unadorned after funding ran out in 1841; how ironic, that a monument to state power should simultaneously be a monument to state incompetence; how suitable that it became the base for the austere beauty of Wallinger’s work rather than yet another equestrian sculpture of a monarch.
Notice that Wallinger’s piece is still modern in its idiom by its use of barbed wire, simple postmodern contrast and an unconventional representation of Jesus. Just like much modern work, it confronts political problems and attempts to come to terms with modern human suffering. Unlike much modern art, it integrates its modern idiom within a cultural lineage spanning 2 millenia, and places the suffering of the individual in its proper place: not the isolated, self-aggrandised lamentations of our social media generation, but as a human universal. The contemplator perceiving Ecce Homo‘s beauty, regardless of their religious disposition, can identify with it as a symbol of human impermanence and frailty, but also courageous moral strength.
What could be less alienating than feeling oneself in the full scope of human culture? This is why our tired, nihilistic age needs beautiful art: to stir us into emotion and hence provide incontrovertible evidence that modern life can be meaningful, rather than a pointless march to the end. This is why politicians and town planners need to stop indulging a small clique of ideological fanatics in the art world and start populating our cities with the kind of beauty that makes us feel at home in our countries and in the full sweep of human history. Perhaps the disdain of the British public towards The End will convince them that it really should be so: the end of wilfull ugliness in art and all its narcissism.