It is no coincidence that the Fourth Plinth program in London’s Trafalgar Square chose to rotate its commissions every couple of years. Should the novelty be permitted wear off, the public may come to see the series for what it is: junk. So far, the embarrassing sculptures have included a giant blue chicken, a ship in a bottle, and now (until spring 2022) — by far the ugliest and most vacuous — a 30-foot lump of steel and polystyrene resembling a melting dollop of whipped cream with a fly, cherry, and drone on top.
Yet many are claiming they like the piece, titled “The End.” The Observer dubs it a powerful “illusion of tantalizing precariousness,” the National Galley applauds its “exuberance and unease, responding to Trafalgar Square as a site of celebration and protest, that is shared with other forms of life,” and Ekow Eshun, chair of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, said “it expresses something of the fraught times that we’re currently living through.”
This kind of magical thinking isn’t exactly new. Beginning in the 20th century, the movement calling for the replacement of transcendent beauty with transgressive ugliness has been increasingly mainstreamed. In politicizing art, there is also an idea that it ought to be democratized, made more accessible, so that all are able to be artists, that art is “participatory.” Consider the livestreaming drone atop “The End” as this fallacy carried to its logical end. At best, filming unsuspecting citizens going about their day is an absurd gimmick; at worst, it is a wholly unnecessary invasion of their privacy. (Do the mother and child sitting by the fountain know that I am watching them from my desk in New York? Who else is watching, I wonder?)
The dystopian implications of this are deliberate. Heather Phillipson, the (so-called) artist behind the monstrosity, said that her creation magnified “the banal, and our cohabitation with other lifeforms, to apocalyptic proportions.” Phillipson also told the Guardian that her inspiration for the sculpture came in 2016, after the United States presidential election. “For me we’ve been at a point of some kind of entropy for a long time,” she said. “When I was thinking of this work there was a sense for me of an undercurrent that was already there. . . . This feels like a continuation for that.” But there is “the chance for radical change inside any ending,” she said.
The contemptible pretentiousness of this “artistic vision” reminded me of an episode in the recent IFC mockumentary series Documentary Now! Indeed, in season three, episode four, “Waiting for the Artist,” it satirizes the film made about Marina Abramovic’s 2010 exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Artist is Present,” which incorporated Abramovic’s previous attention-seeking stunts and featured her seated silently staring across audience members for hours on end. In the satirical version, the parody of Abramovic’s ex-lover and collaborator, Ulay, a character named Dimo (played by Fred Armisen), explains:
My whole goal as an artist is to deconstruct the idea of working, of effort, because we are raised to believe that great works of art require suffering, I want to show that no, the opposite is true. The best art is made while eating a cookies [sic] drinking a chocolate.
Dimo’s first gallery is therefore called “modern sculptors” and is described as “a series of works, designed to challenge what art was: toy car in glass of water, army men in ice tray, toothbrush next to fork.” He explains: “What I did was I put no thought and no time into it. I waited until opening night and I went to the store right ‘round the corner and bought a bunch of . . . what is the word in English? Crap.” People then paid millions of dollars for this “crap,” which, naturally, he was happy to accept.
The antidote to the nonsense of deconstructionist and postmodern art has been well expressed by Roger Scruton, whose hourlong documentary Why Beauty Matters (available on YouTube) I highly recommend. By way of example, Scruton contrasts the 1828 watercolor of an unmade bed, “Un Lit Defait,” by Eugene Delacroix — it “brings beauty to a thing that lacks it” — with the exhibition of Tracy Emin’s bed (1998), which shares the ugliness that it shows and “makes no attempt to transform the raw material of an idea.”
For Scruton, as for the philosophers and civilizations of old, beauty is inescapably tied to the transcendent: It exists to provide a reminder that we are spiritual beings with spiritual needs, above and beyond our own subjective experiences. We ignore this impulse, or undermine it with ugliness, at our peril. Oscar Wilde put it well when he explained that all art is essentially useless “because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct or influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility.” In other words, real art gives us beauty, which is a mystery, an end — a consolation or a joy — in itself. Real art serves as an affirmation of our humanity, it can stop us in our tracks — giving us a reminder that we were made for greater things.
If, as Dostoevsky once wrote, “beauty will save the world,” then the opposite must also be true, that ugliness will ruin it — one steel white turd at a time.