Tom Sutcliffe: Get up, stand up for your art

The Week In Culture
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Well no plinth prancing for me, at least not in the initial wave. I got an email on the first of the month telling me I hadn't been picked in the ballot for June, though I can keep my fingers crossed for August, September and October, apparently. A couple of weeks later – presumably after a bit of vetting for their powers of media tantalisation – we were offered a sample of those who will go over the top first as part of Antony Gormley's One and Other project, with those successful in the ballot including a London designer who plans to personally generate enough electrical power to light up a special pink suit, an 83-year-old pensioner who intends to broadcast to the Trafalgar Square with semaphore flags and a hospital porter who will haul up a large cut-out photograph of his late father – temporarily converting the plinth into a monument to the common man.

Or rather he's doing it a little more explicitly than everyone else, since a celebration of commonality is rather centrally the point of One and Other. It privileges nobody in terms of access (even Gormley himself had to submit himself to the computer-assisted lottery, which hands out the one-hour slots), so that it is – to an extraordinary degree – an equal opportunity artwork. At the same time it implicitly insists on the fact that we are all different. It would be quite fun if three or four successive participants colluded to make themselves indistinguishable, but such is the pressure for a moment of undiluted self-expression that it's quite unlikely to happen. Winners, I take it, are going to take advantage of their moment in the sun (or the rain) and go full throttle for personal statement. That's the point really. Gormley doesn't want a herd up there. He wants a human kaleidoscope, a constellation of people who will get a chance to have their say.

And now that I have a bit more time to think about what I might do if I did get a slot I find I've been wondering if there is anything one could do to undermine the unstated suggestion – inseperably connected to this work – that personal expression and sincerity of utterance have anything to do with art.

It is one of the great pieties of our time, after all – encouraged in countless classroom art lessons and creative writing classes – that the truth or authenticity of the "statement" offers – if not a justification for a work – then at least an exculpation of its failings. But it isn't true. Most of the great art in existence isn't self-expression at all. And the democratic purity of a conceptual work of art may only guarantee that it will be a dull one in the end.

I found myself thinking of another of Gormley's exercises in public participation, his wonderfully unsettling installation Field for the British Isles, in which he asked ordinary members of the public to make little clay figurines and then arranged the resulting homunculi across the floor of a gallery. This too was founded on open participation, setting no threshold of skill or craftsmanship. A five-year-old could make as valid a contribution as a third- year student at the Slade. But it was no "hands-off" project as far as Gormley went, since the construction of the little figures was pretty tightly specified in advance, and only he decided what happened to them next. The result was a piece that skittered uneasily (and knowingly I think) on the uneasy question of whether ordinary people – us – are special or not. Every figure was unique, and yet the effect of them massed on the gallery floor – dumb, hollow-eyed, apparently expectant – was of a single indistinguishable crowd. All those different people, it seemed to say, and what is there to choose between them. One and Other – the first real Facebook work of art – may be more varied when it's unveiled, but I doubt it will have anything nearly as interesting to say.

A doctor in the house?

While I was watching one of the late previews of Nicholas Hytner's excellent Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren (below), a woman in the row immediately in front of me slumped unconscious and I heard, for the first time ever in reality, that inquiry as to whether there was a doctor in the house. There were at least two as it turned out, and happily I learned later that the incident wasn't as grave as it initially appeared, though there was no doubting the intense anxiety of the person who was with her at the time. Two thoughts occurred, once the house lights had dipped again and the actors had rewound to the beginning of the scene that had been interrupted. One, was how difficult it must be to launch into a simulation of fear and distress when the entire audience has just been exposed to the real thing (quite apart from picking up the thread of your performance) . The second was to wonder whether the emotional impact of the production was greater or lesser than it might have been without this brief derailment. It can't really be recommended as a regular procedure but I suspect it was the former. From mere spectators we had been turned into a kind of chorus, given a little glimpse of how close the cliff edge is, and the awful climax of Racine's drama was no longer boxed quite as securely within a proscenium arch.

Emerging from Tate Modern's Futurism show I thought what a pity it is that artists don't tend to issue manifestos anymore. Marinetti's call to arms is an irresistible bit of prose, sometimes irresistibly stupid, it's true ("We want to glorify war – the world's only hygiene") but also wonderfully galvanizing in its iconoclasm, with its provocative declaration that a racing car at speed is "more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace".

The English, who wanted to have a go as well, couldn't entirely get the hang of the style. Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist Manifesto is pretty good and funny, its excoriations including the post office and cod-liver oil. But the Futurists themselves seemed oddly solemn; one of their demands, for instance, was that sport should be considered "an essential element of art", which made me think of men in cricket whites. And since then really good manifestos have been a bit thin on the ground. The Stuckist manifesto is a hopeless reactionary whinge and the founding rules for Dogme 95 rather starkly functional. We're well overdue, I think, for another really good spleen venting.