Hello, Mum! Village fete mentality on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth

Antony Gormley's art project only goes to show what a feeble, unimaginative nation we are, argues Tim Lott

If there has been, or ever will be, a more dispiriting art project than Antony Gormley's One & Other on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square, I cannot imagine what it might be. And that's particularly depressing because I have a lot more imagination than most of the people on it. Which isn't saying much: so does my half-senile cat.

The empty plinth at least contained some sense of latency. Now that it has been handed over to "the people" it can be plainly seen what a dull, unimaginative, lazy bunch we truly are. One & Other is, in its way, art, although I haven't yet seen a single plinther make anything remotely approaching an artistic statement. It's art, because, as Gormley intended, it holds a mirror up to society. And what is reflected is a mild, dull, indifferent world of lazy, occasionally well-meaning, narcissists.

This view is at variance with the official view propounded through the Sky website: "From the quiet dignity of the first plinthian, Rachel, through the iconic imagery of Jill and her green balloons, through t'ai chi, marathon running, glorious storytelling, fantastic attempts at construction with trees, bread and cards – the journey through the creation of this art has been as diverse as we are and broader than the artist's imagination."

Well, up to a point, Lord Blogger. I have so far watched dozens of the plinthers on the live internet stream. It is catastrophically boring, and it isn't improved by going there to see it live. I went there on Friday in person. One woman held a sign advertising a library in Northern Ireland. Another drank a bottle of champagne. One punter shouted the most apt comment yet: "Why don't you do something?"

Just in case you wonder what you've been missing, here are some of the "living artworks" so far. A woman holding a poster in favour of peace. A man doing t'ai chi. A woman holding a heart balloon. Someone just standing there. Someone just standing there dressed up in yellow waders. Three people who separately had the innovative idea of photographing the crowd. One man standing advertising a pub chain. A man standing in a kilt. A woman reading a book. Another woman reading a book. Another just sitting in a chair doing nothing.

One person has actually made an attempt at a joke and dressed as Lord Lucan, with a sign reading: "What Are You Lucan At?" Well, at least he tried. Others, thinking of only the most literal way to "communicate", took a pen and paper and wrote signs, which usually amounted to little more than "hello" or something anodyne for the benefit of friends, family or the charity they were pushing. They gabble on their mobile phones, they stare witlessly into the middle distance.

Am I being unkind to all these ordinary, decent people – a bitchy little Simon Cowell with a PC instead of a microphone? Perhaps, but then the first thing to learn about an artwork is that when it's for public display it opens you up to criticism. That's why art takes courage. It's about a dialogue. And this is my contribution to the dialogue.

Virtually nobody has made any kind of effort or put any kind of thought into what is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They get up, most of them, in their ordinary, sloppy clothes, looking bemused or bored. Often they ask the time, even though there is a bloody great clock in front of them. They all seem to be carrying identical little backpacks and virtually no props. No one below them pays them much attention.

As I write I am listening to the live feed on the Sky channel. The man on there who thinks the plinth is "cool, great, fantastic" has done nothing other than talk on his mobile phone to friends. He just said "Hello, Mum" to his Mum.

Hello, Mum. And there, in a nutshell, you have what is at the heart of the One & Other art project as it is lived – a village fete mentality, a chance to show off or have a giggle, but no attempt whatsoever to make a creative gesture.

It's not as if it's exactly difficult to think of something interesting. Off the top of my head, you could, let me see, graffiti the plinth. Sit up on a chair in front of a TV and get slowly and blindingly drunk. Take 10 ants on the plinth and execute one every five minutes. Yodel. Spread yourself with bird food and get covered in pigeons. Poison the pigeons (like teams from the council do). Cut your hair off. Paint yourself blue. Surround yourself with curtains so that you can't be seen and do something noisy so that everyone wonders what you are up to.

Not amazing ideas, perhaps, but they only took me about 60 seconds to come up with, and any one of them would have been more interesting than what is appearing.

Both participants and observers are bored. No effort required. How post-modern is that? It's like Britain's Got Talent without the talent. Britain's Got No Talent.

As for the charitable and political statements, no one should confuse art with politics or philanthropy.

To make a moral statement such as "I support world peace" is the opposite of art. It is the stating of the obvious and of what society accepts as being a conventionally correct view. Art, if anything at all, is about helping us to look at the world slightly differently.

I'm not claiming that art has to be "interesting" any more than it has to be beautiful. I have no more right than anyone else to say what art is. But I would suggest what I think it might, at a minimum, involve: that there would be an idea behind the art, however banal, and a sincere attempt being made to express it, however unsuccessfully.

Perhaps One & Other does achieve this as an overall project, but in the most monotonous way imaginable and producing a very discouraging truth: that people, in the main, simply aren't in any sense artistic, or even mildly imaginative. It is the strongest possible recommendation against democracy in art.

It is doubtless true that everybody has "something to say". One & Other makes it plain that what they have to say, however, is almost entirely uninteresting – indeed, that they can barely be bothered to say it.

Perhaps the most valuable thing about the whole project is that it advertises how much we actually do need artists, and what a special breed they are. Instead of people muttering "my five-year-old child could do that" when faced with a modern art project, they will now recognise that not only will their child be unable to do it, they themselves will not be able to do it either.

Or perhaps it's just a question of observing that only artists can be arsed to make any sort of creative effort in the first place. I was genuinely excited when the Gormley project won the fourth space. Now I am commensurately disappointed. Maybe I'm missing the point of the whole thing. It wouldn't be the first time.

I can only conclude with two comments reflecting the sheer excitement of the whole project. Two bloggers, one from Sky Arts and the other from the website of a newspaper.

The latter said: "Wow, what a tedious project. I'd have thought the last thing you'd want to see in an overcrowded city is Yet Another Person, standing on a bit of concrete."

Right on. And, even better still, as the Sky blogger put it: "The fourth plinth, man. It's Big Brother for Guardian readers".

Tim Lott's The Scent of Dried Roses will be published by Penguin Modern Classics on 30 July

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London