Artists have been commissioned to produce works of art for centuries. The route from the “Medicis” to the “Saatchis” describes the changing states of art – but it fundamentally follows the propaganda machine of “Church and State”.
Along the route artists have been either compliant or have quietly subverted the masters’ message. Art itself is a deceptive practice – ‘ce nest pas un pipe’ expressed the illusion and it was the artist, Magritte, who illustrated the practice. Today public art is a powerful expression of corporate taste. Decisions which determine what we see ‘in public’ are not necessarily arrived at through democratic process whether commissions are paid for through the public or the private purse. The Greater London Authority’s “Fourth Plinth” art commission project had a stab at bringing some democracy into the process but again the process is rooted into a very selective starting point and given criteria - a list of artists are invited to submit work from which ‘experts’ determine a winner. Given the very public world heritage site in which the ‘Fourth Plinth’ is located – Trafalgar Square – there is generous acceptance that the works exhibited should have some prestige as well as be of high quality. In some way this has perpetuated a culture of safe practice with safe artists ‘being asked’ to produce predictable works. Yet the “4th Plinth” project has challenged this precept and most of the works to date have not been disappointing.
The ‘Fourth Plinth’ itself is contentious. There are many established influential pressure groups who have plans for that space and arguments for maintaining traditional approaches. The intellectual tussle between the “conservative traditionalists” and the “progressives” is constantly overlaid with the suffocating regal spoiler about carbuncles and old friends.
Thankfully the future of the “4th plinth” appears to have been secured for the progressives with the conservatives yeilding to public pressure in support for the project. After the political regime change in the Greater London Authority, the body which “manages” Trafalgar Square, there were attempts to get rid of this contemporary upstart by gerrymandering tactics of putting yet another Military war hero on the plinth (Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park). A truce was called and the day was saved. With all it’s inherent faults the 4th Plinth project continues to provide a brilliantly generous opportunity for artists. It’s quality of thought is borne out of a socialist policy that insists on space for free cultural / artistic expression without fear. To counter the traditionalists argument – the contemporary “fourth plinth” gives itself up to display those very principles fought for by the stone faced warriors who surround the square – ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’.
The plinth commission shows that artists can still confound those who are rigidly set as the arbiters of culture and controllers of ‘taste’: Antony Gormley introduced elements into the work which democratised the process by allotting the space on top of the plinth for an hour to anyone who wanted to be there – exorcising the plinth from its pedestal past through 2400 people taking up his offer. Other artists have approached the space more traditionally but all with a twist – Yinka Shonibare placed a ship in a bottle, the ship being Nelson’s “Victory” but with sails of printed ‘African’ fabric – Marc Quinn located ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, a huge marble torso-bust of a naked disabled woman – nordic artists Elmgreen & Dragset’s child’s nursery rocking horse made of bronze playfully challenges the militarist equestrian statues which rear up across London.
The ethos embedded in each of the works shown so far needs to enter into the process of how public art commissions are procured. Public art sails close to the “cultural fascism” of the Medicis and the Saatchis. Artists can manipulate the situation they find themselves in but the direction we go is determined by the position of feet and the first steps taken. In May this year there is an election for a Mayor of London and positions may change – who ever the mayor may be artists need to continue to protect their rights and achieve those rights we don’t yet have.
AND Is holding a series of ‘sunday discussions’ on artist rights (resale, exhibition, intellectual property and copy rights) as well as economics and welfare (percent for arts, placements, commissions).