Politicians tend to fall into traps when straying into visual arts territory

At a theoretical level, the level of Plato and Aristotle, politics and aesthetics are linked together with ethics–and much else of course–into a consistent world view. This is all very well, but at ground level things are different. There are clashes. On moving south-east from west London to Kennington Park, near the Oval, my local MP became Simon Hughes, the prominent Liberal Democrat spokesman. He is noted for supporting ethnic minorities in various ways. Given that you welcome or at least accept the reality of pluralism and multi-culturalism here and now, this must surely be an ethically sound, sensible and politically correct idea, albeit an idea quite foreign to the ideal Republic (or closed society as Karl Popper thought) envisaged by Plato.

The high profile of Hughes’s support for such minority groups does sometimes raise questions or eyebrows in local pubs and restaurants about `what has he ever done for’ the indigenous community. Be that as it may, he recently raised his own profile, at least, by focusing on a problem belonging to a central London square which is easily reachable from his constituency being a couple of stops after Big Ben on the number 159 bus route. In so doing Hughes (who lists music and theatre as interests) dramatically introduced an aesthetic dimension to his politics.

As though surfing on a wave of loyalty provoked by her funeral, he suddenly campaigned to put a sculpture of the Queen Mother between Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery. He passionately wanted a Queen Mum statue on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. `Would she be wearing something frilly?’ a female friend asked, thereby envisaging an essentially comic outcome of the proposal. And what age would she be? Her longevity makes the Queen Mother’s image complex and harder to sum up than, say, Lady Di’s in a statue, especially if it were placed in the shadow of the victor of Trafalgar’s huge column with its almost brutally simple message. Few would contest that the Queen Mother was a great, lovely, praiseworthy and wonderful lady; and judging by her arrangements for her own funeral, she was also an excellent organiser who could have taught a thing or two to many a recent minister of transport. But, to put it plainly, she was not only the wrong shape for this particular plinth, she was also in the wrong profession.

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As regards her achievements, including that of popularising the monarchy, what living sculptor could have done them justice? There is a current shortage of reincarnated Rodins and contemporary Canovas. We don’t even have a Francis Chantrey, whose equestrian statue of George IV in Trafalgar Square is rather elegant. Rightly or wrongly, the majority of well-known creative and imaginative sculptors remain sniffy about the possibilities of portraiture as a major art form–with the possible exception of self-portraiture. To have chosen a little-known academic sculptor to attempt the task might have been to plump for an anachronism. On the other hand, the stalwarts of the famous neo-academic YBA group tend to favour direct casting, often from their own bodies–a somewhat impractical method for producing an image of the deceased Queen Mother. Unconventional media such as elephant dung and formaldehyde, dear to the heart of the typical YBA, could be even more curatorially problematic in the open air than they already are under the roofs of museums, galleries and the London residence of their principal patron, Charles Saatchi, where a builder is reported to have melted the Marc Quinn self-portrait in frozen blood by accidentally turning off the electricity.

The statue of a public figure provides an opportunity for aesthetics to join hands with politics. The idea of a Queen Mother memorial in Trafalgar Square failed to catch on. A huge bronze pigeon, upon which the flocks of living pigeons might more appropriately lavish their droppings, might have a better chance, given that tourists tend to select backdrops of the lions or the dolphins for their happy snaps. The affair reminded me of how politicians often seem to get the wrong end of the stick in matters concerning the visual arts.

In Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, the characters’ responses to events such as a controversial sculpture by Epstein in Hyde Park are often symbolic. One can rely on Widmerpool to run true to form. `Who exactly buys art books?’ he once asked of the narrator–who published them. He is too philistine even to imagine such a person.

Would Kenneth Widmerpool, who later became a Labour MP, have fallen into the same trap as Neil Kinnock? When Kinnock was leader of the Labour party in opposition, Melina Mercouri, campaigning for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, mounted a charm offensive on him–and it worked. Kinnock blurted out something like, `I suggested that maybe we could have them half the year and they have them the other half.’ Far from exemplifying the British genius for compromise, and quite apart from the principle issue, this remark perhaps typifies a non-specialist’s ignorance about the practicalities of conservation.

No political party, however, has a monopoly on imperfect behaviour in relation to the visual arts. Harold Wilson told the tale, on television, of how Churchill used his brushes and paints to brighten up the mouse made almost invisible by darkening varnish in Rubens’s `The Lion and the Mouse’ at Chequers. `Would that make it more valuable?’ asked a London taxi-driver to whom I passed on this story. Even if the answer were yes, it would not make the act of the former leader of the Conservative party more aesthetically and conservationally correct. At least his well-intentioned act was reversible, unlike Clementine Churchill’s famous destruction of the portrait of Sir Winston by Graham Sutherland. According to Robert Boothby, the great man recognised and hated the bullying streak which Sutherland had so successfully captured.

It is undeniably more important that our politicians are sound on the defence of the realm than sound on visual arts questions. Fortunately some of them have been sound on both. Jo Grimond, who collected paintings, would have known better than to campaign for a Queen Mum statue in Trafalgar Square. Denis Healey would not have suggested that the Greeks have the Elgin Marbles for half the year. David Eccles, who chaired the British Museum, would not have interfered with a Rubens or destroyed a Sutherland.