A google search for ‘Keith Park statue’ brings up, of course the website for the campaign to have a statue of this Hero of the Battle of Britain erected in London. Before that, though, the top result is this piece of gibbering, irritating rubbish from a Guardian art writer.
In a nutshell, Jonathan Jones hates the statue and all that it represents. In being a figurative statue it highlights the stupid divide between ‘proper’ and ‘modern’ art, apparently. In representing Sir Keith Park, it is actually ‘a fascist icon […], brooding over the heart of London’ – and therefore a symbol of all that ‘the Few’ fought against.
I don’t know enough about art to fault Jones on the quality of the statue. His attack on the fact that it is figurative seems a little bizarre when he is criticising the divide in British art. He says that ‘Modern art was called into being by modern life, and as we hurtle into the future there is no sign of its pertinence diminishing.’ Be that as it may, the Fourth Plinth is there for contemporary art, not specifically modern art (which I take to mean it is for chronologically modern, not aesthetically ‘modernist’ or what have you). I don’t think that the Park statue is the best thing that has been on there – the HMS Victory in a bottle is very good. However, the art there is supposed to make a point, and not always an artistic point (much as that might surprise an art critic) – the point in this case being that if Dowding, Harris, Slim, et al, deserve statues, so does Keith Park. You don’t have to be as angered by modern ignorance of 1940 as Clive James is to see that it is a valid argument, even if you disagree over whether a new statue is needed, or is aesthetically pleasing.
More worrying for me is his attitude towards the history. I don’t think many people want to see the plinth permanently taken up by a military figure. We do, though, have a history of building statues to people who played a pivotal role in the nation’s history – especially to save us from tyranny. It is also a very recent history – Slim’s statue was erected in 1990, Harris’s (amid public protest) in 1992 and Alanbrooke‘s in 1994. Since then we have had some collective monuments – including the Battle of Britain Monument on the Victoria Embankment and the dreadful Women of World War Two one on Whitehall. Are these fascist icons?
What Jones seems to miss, or simply not understand, is that fascism revolves around the worship of the collective – a homogeneous whole that does not accept dissent or outsiders in its midst. It is an idea that requires a dynamic leader, but which is based in ideas of a (non-pluralist) collective. Monuments celebrating individual play a role in this, but really they should be attempting to inspire action, which the Park statue does not. The Edith Cavell one perhaps comes closest, with the message ‘Patriotism is not enough.’ No, really, a collective monument that celebrates action is what we need if we want a fascist icon. Not the Cenotaph then, that is to the ‘glorious dead’ and doesn’t inspire action, only memory and mourning – the Women of WW2 one remembers action but does not depict it. Actually, the Battle of Britain memorial is much more appropriate:
It depicts movement and shows the idealised fit young male, all very Junger-esque. Indeed, the whole idea of ‘the Few’ and its retrospective idealisation is much more in line with ‘fascism’ than a statue of one of its leaders looking rather meditative is.
In fact, the word that Jones is looking for is ‘nationalist’, not fascist. The two are not synonyms, much as some might have you think – including the BNP with their ‘nationalist’ name and fascist ideology. But then, of course, it doesn’t make such good copy – and ‘the Few’ were weren’t fighting against nationalism, they were fighting for the survival of their own nation, or rather nations. Fascism is one of those words that journalists like to use for ideas (especially anything so right-wing as celebrating a war hero, apparently) to which they object. In this case, and I suspect many others, it is simply sloppy and inaccurate.