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Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square


The main effect of bigging up Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square will be to give a new lease of life to the men already bigged up there. Most of us had long ceased to notice the men  and were happy to leave them to the mercy of pigeons overhead and dogs down below. Fawcett adds one more ugly monument, in Gillian Wearing’s very obvious signature style, to those already there and its newness will temporarily revitalise the entire graveyard.

The common desire to big up dead heroes, some of them not so heroic of course, is probably too atavistic to challenge - though there are strands in religious thought (Wahabbi Islam the most notorious) which object to the practice. The desire has always been a competitive one, as can be seen in any old Roman Catholic graveyard where the wealthy compete to have my drooping angel bigger than your drooping angel. 

Graveyards eventually get bulldozed and nobody much minds. But it is very hard to get rid of these public monuments raised by Public Subscription to assert the importance of this hero or that. There are just too many of them now, cluttering up public space, but there will always be objectors to pulling any one of them down, including the ones who turn out not to have been heroes at all. The only solution is to pull them all down. Individuals are people best remembered in our heads, in the books we read, the museums we visit, and in the causes we support. Hectoring plinths occupied by larger-than-life tasteless monumental sculptures are tiresome and best toppled. A good start could be made in North Korea.

Bodies mummified in bronze are very different to collective memorials, like the Cenotaph just up the road from Parliament Square, to which individuals can respond each in their own way provided only that the monument has  a certain abstractness, a certain symbolic character, which is entirely lacking in the banal literalism of Gillian Wearing’s monument.

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For more on this topic, see the chapter "Death Rituals" in my The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016 or yours for a penny on Amazon)

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