Give us heroes not Damien Hirsts

The point of the statues is to provide figures in bronze to say hello to on the way to the office
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE ISSUE of what to put on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is, by now, almost too long-running an argument to be brought to any conclusion. It would be like answering the Schleswig-Holstein Question. When the square was laid out, three of the four plinths were filled with monumental statues around Nelson, on his column. The fourth was initially intended to be occupied by William IV, but it didn't occur to him to leave money in his will for the purpose, and no one else was tempted to pay for a statue to the fat fool. A later plan to put up a statue to Palmerston came to nothing when the subject himself vetoed the idea, and until this week the plinth has remained empty, since no one has had a better idea.

The problem is really the odd fact that it's the most prominent site in London, but whoever ends up being depicted on it is going to find themselves in relatively undistinguished company. Nobody could argue with Nelson's presence in the square, but the three occupied plinths have a slightly rag-bag air. It's a miscellaneous grouping of King George IV, Sir Henry Havelock and Charles Napier; the only thing anyone can remember about Napier is that he took Sind and is supposed to have sent a telegram that read "Peccavi". The whole thing is rather like an awkward group at an official reception, where no one quite knows who anyone else is.

The fourth plinth, for instance, would have been an insult to Queen Victoria, who instead got that colossal Mr Whippy confection outside Buckingham Palace. Other candidates have either seemed too big, like Churchill brooding opposite the Houses of Parliament, or not quite secure enough in their reputation, like "Bomber" Harris or Captain Scott. It is widely assumed that, in the end, there will be an equestrian portrait of the Queen there but, since there is some kind of rule forbidding the portrayal of living members of the Royal Family, that isn't going to be for decades.

Anyway, a committee has been set up to ponder the issue but, before coming to a permanent solution, it has invited three leading young contemporary artists to place a statue there for a year. Subsequent offerings are being prepared by Phil Woodrow and Rachel Whiteread - who is going to cast the plinth itself in transparent resin, you will not be surprised to hear. The first, however, is a life-size statue of Christ by Mark Wallinger, that splendid metaphysician; a statue of Christ is a distinctly un-English idea, but this one is so poignant and tiny on the plinth, that it solves the problem by its obvious inadequacy.

However, I wonder whether the whole thing is all a bit too late. If sculpture is one of the strongest aspects of British art since the war, it hasn't had much to do with memorial statuary. And the idea of public art, it strikes me, is one to which most artists pay lip-service rather than feel committed. That doesn't mean that no artist, these days, is able to create a successful piece of sculpture in a public space. Antony Gormley's Angel of the North is a genuinely popular piece; it's quickly attained the rare distinction of always being referred to without its creator's name attached, as if it were The Winged Victory of Samothrace. The other spectacularly successful statue of recent years is Maggi Hambling's A Conversation with Oscar Wilde. It's in a busy side-street off the Strand, and you never walk past without seeing someone pause to have a good look at it.

But, like Wallinger's statue of Christ, these are idiosyncratic works of art, unlike every other piece of London statuary. One is a grand and mystical monument; the other is there to remind us that, as Auden said, private faces in public places are wiser and nicer than public faces in private places. And the best and most interesting sculptors in Britain couldn't fill the empty plinth with their work. A Damien Hirst in Trafalgar Square is inconceivable.

The point of the statues in Trafalgar Square isn't, exactly, to provide works of art for Londoners to admire, but to show them their heroes; figures in bronze to say hello to on the way to the office. Who knows, or cares, really, who sculpted the figure of Nelson? The point is that he is on a socking great column in the centre of London, and any child possessing the smallest curiosity will sooner or later want to know why. And that incitement to curiosity lasts throughout one's life. For years, I used to walk down King Charles Street with, at one end, its statue massively inscribed CLIVE, and routinely joke that there ought to be another at the far end inscribed DEREK. But then one day I got bored of my own joke, and went and read a big fat book about the great man, and another, and another, and another. He is now a great hero of mine, and I still don't know or care who his sculptor is.