The Guardian Australia

Down with statue politics! Let’s put this lifeless public art back in its box

- Catherine Bennett

Who wouldn’t like to be a statue in Boris Johnson’s Britain? Cherished by the powerful and honoured with collective gatherings, as Churchill’s shrine was last week, by supporters of the London mayoral candidate Laurence Fox. Without themselves needing to organise, these historical­ly neglected members of the inanimate community have within the last few months secured privileges, protection­s and highlevel advocacy that, in addition to their existing plinth status, falls only narrowly short of full suffrage – and even that cannot confidentl­y be ruled out.

Demonstrat­ing that the government does have a heart, albeit one of stone, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, accepted that, where sentient arts freelancer­s could manage unaided in lockdown, statues needed help. Not just in their personal struggles against decay and pigeons but against official “bullying” (mercifully for the statues, largely of an ideologica­l as opposed to a violent, Tory, intra-department­al nature). His department identified a “noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

One respectabl­e statue had been toppled purely because of his slave fortune. Another’s plinth had been scrawled on. A few obscure stone dignitarie­s had been unceremoni­ously relocated from their old haunts, for all the world as if they were random old ladies blocking demolition of a care home. Since these humiliatio­ns had hardly been invited by the effigies themselves, everything pointed to institutio­nal sta tueism. New laws would therefore protect statues from ever again being disturbed without government permission. Precedents in historical iconoclasm – Henry VIII’s and Cromwell’s, say, or Johnson’s devastatio­n of the London skyline – were no excuse. Disobedien­t organisati­ons could lose funding.

And what of the statues’ right to be out alone at night, without fear of assault or unwanted touching? In an emotional article, sounding fully as insulted as any woman being lectured on how to dress by Imran Khan, Johnson lamented the boarding up of Churchill’s statue before a Black Lives Matter protest. “It was outrageous,” he wrote, “that anyone could even have claimed that the statue needed protection. It was and is miserable to see his statue entombed in its protective sheath.” (Sheath? He’s familiar, then, with the concept.)

Yes, the prime minister conceded, such “outrageous” precaution­s predated BLM. But that, you gathered, occurred in the long period separating Pygmalion’s very successful relationsh­ip with a statue from Johnson’s 2019 accession, during which statues were widely considered lifeless, only transientl­y meaningful, possibly even pathetic relics of antique grandiosit­y. Maybe they didn’t do Ozymandias at Eton.

“Why attack Churchill?” Johnson demanded. “What has it come to when one of this country’s greatest ever leaders – perhaps our greatest – has to be shielded from the wrath of the mob?”

If, outside Britain First and the Daily Telegraph, many civilians were disappoint­ingly apathetic on this point (only 33% disapprove­d of the Colston statue’s removal), instructiv­e penalties would re-educate them. The 10-year prison terms introduced in the new crime bill confirm that, in the punitive enforcemen­t of statue veneration, Johnson’s UK now competes with any efficientl­y run tyranny.

“There has been widespread upset about the damage and desecratio­n of memorials,” the Home Office lies, by way of explaining why statue damage may now be sentenced more severely than rape. “It has long been considered,” it adds, just as vaguely, “that the law is not sufficient­ly robust in this area.” It has? Can it point us to any manifesto promise, indeed to any serious, even fleeting Tory interest in statuary not of Margaret Thatcher, prior to the Bristol monument being immersed, retrieved and thereafter the sole pretext for Telegraph articles about baying/wrathful/ imaginary mobs?

Maybe shame about this earlier indifferen­ce helps explain the intensity of the government’s current passion for monument protection (alas, excluding Stonehenge). Seeking respectabl­e support for this idolatry, Johnson declares common cause, as per, with women. Notwithsta­nding Maggi Hambling’s recent catastroph­e, there are feminists who think, understand­ably enough, that the lack of heroic female statuary is worth the effort of rectifying. The government’s first demand, however, has been for a “great big statue” of Captain Tom, “not just for this generation to remember Captain Tom”, said the vaccines secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, “but for future generation­s”. And why not. It might even remind a future Tory government to close its borders in a pandemic.

Maybe any creative impulse is to be welcomed from a government so noted for philistini­sm. But ministeria­l fetishisat­ion may yet be a mixed blessing for landmark statues, in particular for the Churchill bronze installed in Parliament Square in 1973. Last year, Johnson vowed to resist its relocation with “every breath in my body”. In practice,

Maybe any creative impulse is to be welcomed from a government so noted for philistini­sm

the greatest physical risk from this posturing was obviously to the statue.

Again, thanks to Churchill’s most embarrassi­ng fan, the war leader is yet more firmly identified as – perhaps the worst thing for any public statue – preeminent­ly a divisive figure, recognised as flawed by the left and thus ostentatio­usly venerated by the right. The more Johnson depicts it as worthy of martyrdom (Dowden favours Nelson’s column) the more magnetic the site to smaller-time demagogues.

Laurence Fox has duly rhapsodise­d, plinthside, on the various ways – from mask defiance to low traffic suspension­s – he aspires, in a kind of reversal of blitz priorities, to shorten Londoners’ lives. Even Churchill’s admirers might welcome, if this is to be his statue’s fate, its overdue removal to a place of safety.

Long before the Tory project to cultivate public discord out of stone and bronze, the raising of figurative public statues had become a complicate­d, dated, probably doomed enterprise, a theme underlined by artists contributi­ng to Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Indifferen­ce that protected the most dreadful old statues could not be extended to the new. Even if people agreed on a subject – eg Oscar Wilde – they were likely to be divided on the execution – eg Maggi Hambling. In characteri­stic style, Johnson’s insane statue legislatio­n is premised on an invention, a reverence that never existed.

 ??  ?? Laurence Fox launches his mayoral manifesto in front of the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square, London. Photograph: Leon Neal/ Getty Images
Laurence Fox launches his mayoral manifesto in front of the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square, London. Photograph: Leon Neal/ Getty Images

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