If we have learned anything recently, it is that statues matter. For decades, we’ve ignored the public sculpture in our streets: nothing, the adage goes, is as invisible as a monument in bronze or marble.
Not now, though; not in the light of Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall. In future histories of British art, the toppling of the statue of 17th-century slaver Edward Colston in Bristol will, I suspect, be written up as a watershed. The issue of who we collectively celebrate, by plonking likenesses of them on plinths, suddenly feels more urgent and important than ever before. Now, art is on our front pages, at the centre of national debate. And, for a critic like me, that’s exciting.
What isn’t exciting is this week’s attention-grabbing contribution to that debate from Marc Quinn – which seems, to me, more vainglorious stunt than high-minded protest art. He says that his ebony-coloured resin statue is a collaboration with the Black Lives Matter activist it represents, as though that legitimises him weighing in on such a vexed topic. But it doesn’t. Nobody asked Quinn to create his sculpture, which he installed stealthily overnight, without permission.
And, frankly, the last person I want to hear from about Black Lives Matter is this wealthy, white 56-year-old, notorious for churning out meretricious artworks designed to lure the super-rich. Remember his solid 18-carat gold bauble of fashion model Kate Moss, improbably bending her body in a contorted yoga pose? It was unveiled in 2008, the year of the global financial crisis, when the YBA movement, to which Quinn belongs, definitively spiralled out of touch.
Specialising in slick, glitzy work fit for the penthouse, Quinn is an artist for the one per cent. I can’t shake the feeling that, somehow, Jen Reid – powerful though she looks, with her fist raised – has been gobbled up by Quinn’s ego. By contrast, when, in 2018, Turner Prize-winner Gillian Wearing unveiled her quietly superb statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, it felt like a happy match of artist, subject and execution.
And that’s before we analyse the artistic merits of Quinn’s statue. He’s right, of course, that the image posted on Instagram which inspired him is a powerful photograph. But memorialising it (albeit temporarily) by fanatically replicating it in three dimensions commits one of the cardinal sins of public sculpture: literalness. Slick as a bar of novelty soap, this is a glossily produced but straightforwardly figurative, stylistically humdrum piece.
As Ekow Eshun, who chairs the commissioning group behind the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, put it to me today, “The aesthetics are less significant than the idea of the work, which is supposed to articulate the ambitions and goals of Black Lives Matter.” Eshun is more sympathetic than I am to the notion that Quinn is a fitting advocate for the movement. “The intentions come from the right place,” he argues.
Still, the backstory of Colston’s statue remains so raw – there are those, after all, who frankly feel uncomfortable that a crowd, rather than due process, “cancelled” it in the first place – that Reid’s black-power stance may seem a provocation. If I were Bristol’s mayor, I would “topple” Quinn’s sculpture right away, and establish a competition to commission a replacement for Colston’s monument, now a site of international interest. Here, Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth could provide a useful model.
Crucially, whatever ends up in Colston’s place must not stint on artistic quality. Even more importantly, it must not be imposed arbitrarily and top-down, à la Quinn, but should emerge organically, with widespread local support.