Artillery Row

Maggi Hambling’s sculpture is simply bad art

Perhaps if it were a simply better artwork, then Hambling’s statue would have been more warmly received

The ancient pastime of railing against statuary is popular again, and the crowd has just been presented with a new opportunity for outrage: the unveiling of Maggi Hambling’s monument to Mary Wollstonecraft – feminist pioneer, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – in Newington Green.

In this case the motives behind the outrage are different from usual, but in intriguing ways, so it is worth revisiting the other recent statue-related scandals, to gain some sense of the whole story.

When campaigning against statues of men who once may have profited from slavery or empire, the crowd was disapproving of the subject-matter. The crowd certainly had a point, that it would be perverse to continue to celebrate such men whose deeds now seem unconscionable; but it was a point against which very few, if any, would ever have wished to argue. After all, it is not as if the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was regularly garlanded by local worshippers.

Memorialisation and celebration need not go together; and the arguments of those who wished for the statue of Colston – or Rhodes, or Codrington, or any of the others – to fall, are wrong, so far as they deny the possibility that the significance of a monument may change over time.

Memorialisation and celebration need not go together

On the other hand, defenders of these historical statues worry that, by removing them, aspects of our local history – however unsavoury – will be erased. In this they too have a point. But, really, they are motivated by fear: putting Colston et al aside for a moment, it is genuinely frightening for anyone with a sense of history to watch statues being attacked, because it usually happens at times of desperate social upheaval. And because, from the Calvinist iconoclasm to the French Revolution, to Maoism and even to ISIS, attacking statues seems always to have been motivated by fanatical adherence to a powerfully simple – or simplistic – new idea.

But even for those of us who would still rescue certain things from the past, it is in reality very difficult to enthuse about defending these particular statues on moral or artistic grounds. The statues that the Protestants, the Revolutionaries – French or Chinese – and the Islamists destroyed were of a different order altogether.

Indeed, the most interesting thing about almost all public statuary made in the last couple of hundred years – whether it happens to remember noble or ignoble men – is that it is pretty well invisible; abstract or figurative, it manages to appear so aesthetically neutral that we hardly ever register its existence.

So the crowd has to be told to get angry about these statues, to notice them in the first place; then the other, less demonstrative crowd, on the defensive side, has to be told that its ideological enemies are about to smash some statues before deciding that these very statues, hitherto ignored, might actually be valid tokens of our past. No one really cared before. The indignant sentiments on both sides are phony. But they are also revealing, for the religious quality of their justifications.

Perhaps art and art criticism are always quasi-religious

This brings us back to Hambling’s new statue of Wollstonecraft. The same sort of crowd – or, at least, pundits of the same political persuasion – who complained of the existence of memorials to old men of whom we cannot approve, now complain about the methods of memorialising an old woman of whom we can, and should, approve. Here their approach is also quasi-religious, but less Protestant and more Catholic, in the vein of the Counter-Reformation, as they seek not to purge but to protect a historical tradition – the feminist tradition – with which they really are concerned. Their instinct is to argue against artistic license, insofar as it might interfere with the orthodox message – exactly the same instinct that directed discussion about public art at the Council of Trent, in 1563.

In the years that followed, endless tracts were written by theologically-minded critics about the appropriate standards for public art, in subject-matter but also in mode of presentation.

It is a splendid coincidence that the outrage about Hambling’s statue has to do with nudity, as this was also a problem for the Council (of Trent, rather than Islington). As a result of their decrees it was decided, infamously, that the rude bits of the figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel should be covered up.

Of course, given that many of the pundits who have railed against Hambling’s statue find our old culture so distasteful, they have not bothered to study it. The proof is that they object to the nudity of the little female figure atop Hambling’s statue, saying that no historical male figure would ever have been celebrated nude. For just one counterexample, what about Canova’s extremely famous statue of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, in Apsley House? (Though Napoleon himself did criticise the statue as too athletic, perhaps even anticipating Hambling’s critics who now see the svelte figure she has sculpted as an encouragement to body-image issues.)

And in their arguments, they do not merely ignore artistic precedents, they ignorantly mistake the artist’s own intentions; as Hambling herself has sought to clarify, the female figure was never meant to represent the historical Wollstonecraft. Instead, the figure is “everywoman”, and she is nude because her significance is eternal (the more sophisticated art critics of the Counter-Reformation, such as Federico Borromeo, Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan, also argued that nudity could have its place, as a sign of spiritual purity).

Hambling’s “everywoman” rises out of a swirling mass of feminine magma; she is Eve, now born independently of Adam. It may be a wishy-washy idea – and quasi-religious too – but at least Hambling aspires to the conditions of art in her work.

Obviously, hers is not a good work of art. The crude little figure – silvered, appearing like a rough prototype for a 1930s car ornament – stands rigidly straight and square in that telling pose that Berenson recognised, in his essay on “The Arch of Constantine”, and Gombrich recognised, in his book The Preference for the Primitive, as a sure sign of artistic decline. Compare Hambling’s “everywoman” to Donatello’s Eve emerging in relief – her adult face fresh with a baby-like wonder at life, as God the Father pulls her into his arms – to see just how far we have fallen, artistically, since the Renaissance.

However, bad as Hambling’s sculpture may be, it is not bad in the ways most critics are saying: they attack it precisely because of Hambling’s poetical intent, which is all that would seem to redeem her effort. I can only speculate whether it is out of ignorance or fear that they recoil from fancy; but it is certainly interesting how literal-minded they are. A critic writing for The Guardian unfavourably compared Hambling’s work to Gillian Wearing’s monument for Millicent Fawcett, recently installed in Parliament Square. Wearing’s Fawcett is fully, properly, clothed, with the sort of period detail that Hambling resisted as antithetical to art.

Michaelangelo’s David could have been responsible for the body-image issues of five centuries of Florentine men

As such, the bronze figure “provoked a great surge of joy” in this same critic, who admitted that she was pleased most of all by the banner Fawcett holds up, upon which it is inscribed: “COURAGE CALLS TO COURAGE EVERYWHERE”. In her praise, this critic distantly – accidentally – echoed the sentiments of the theologian Gilio da Fabriano, who, in 1564, wrote that “A thing is beautiful in proportion as it is clear and evident.” Gilio also happened to complain about how artists of his time were always uselessly twisting their figures’ heads, arms and legs; well at least he wouldn’t have to worry about that nowadays – inevitably, Wearing’s Fawcett, like Hambling’s “everywoman” (and like Mark Quinn’s temporary replacement for Colston, in Bristol), stands rigidly straight and square. What more could we hope for, in such enlightened times?

Perhaps art and art criticism are always quasi-religious. But the conversations are easier to develop when we have decided what that quasi-religion – and its principles – should be; and our prospective cultural revolutionaries have not yet found a compelling answer to that. There is a final irony in their puritanical, literal-minded, and depressingly ignorant outrage about Hambling’s statue for Wollstonecraft: they who now regret Hambling’s use of artistic license are for the most part people who would trot along to Tate Modern and there trot out dreary clichés about art being whatever the artist says it is.

Yes, it could be argued that there should be different standards for art in the museum and art in the street: we choose to enter the museum, to be “challenged” by the works it contains, while we do not choose to be challenged by what purports to be art in the street. But our museums, like our streets, are really public spaces: the works in both have mostly been publicly funded, and they are always made by the same few favoured artists. So, it seems only to be a minor distinction.

And then, it is worth remembering that Michelangelo’s nude David was installed outdoors, surely without much consideration for the offence he might cause. So tall and athletic, so smooth, so white, David could have been responsible for the body-image issues of five centuries of Florentine young men. Perhaps he should come down too?

Hambling’s monument for Mary Wollstonecraft, though, is not comparable to Michelangelo’s David in very many ways (David’s head, arms and legs even twist a bit). So, the outrage about it will abate, the weather – and the youths of Newington Green – will spoil its shiny finish, and it will soon be forgotten. It will become invisible, like all the rest.

Perhaps if it were a better artwork – more sophisticated and subtler, rather than as strictly prosaic as some would prefer – then it would have been more warmly received. It is always nice to believe that art alone has the power to convince – though that thought too requires a certain faith. It could be a great step forward, if we really were now ready to protest against bad art; but please, let us be consistent in our criticisms.

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