The Fourth Plinth

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In addition to the famous column featuring Admiral Nelson, there are four plinths in Trafalgar Square. One bears a sculpture of King George the IV. Two others bear sculptures of military men who distinguished themselves through service to the British crown in India--or who embarrassed themselves through service to the British crown in India, depending on which side of history you come down on.

But the fourth plinth... well, that's where things get complicated. When it was built in 1841, there wasn't enough money to commission the statue that was supposed to top it off. And so it stood empty for years.

In 1998, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (also known as "the RSA") commissioned three sculptures that were displayed on the plinth, in sequence, over the next few years. But then responsibility for Trafalgar Square was shifted to the newly-created post of Mayor of London, and the RSA gave up plinth-commissioning and devoted itself to figuring out why exactly "RSA" is an acceptable acronym for "The Royal Society For The Encouragement Of Arts, Manufactures, And Commerce."

Meanwhile, Mayor Ken Livingstone proposed adding a statue of Nelson Mandela to the plinth. That's certainly a reasonable choice; Mandela is one of the towering figures of the 20th century, and his statue would be a suitable addition to any public place--particularly a place such as Trafalgar Square, which was home to numerous anti-Apartheid demonstrations. Furthermore, since so many of the other plinths are dedicated to men who helped expand the British Empire, it's entirely appropriate to dedicate one to a man who helped clean up the mess the Empire left behind. And finally, Trafalgar Square can always use another Nelson, and Mandela seems a worthier Nelson than, say, Willie, or Craig T.

But Livingstone's proposal never got the momentum it needed, and the independent committee that had been charged with resolving the plinth's fate settled on an ongoing series of temporary works of art. Recently, the committee decided among six finalists in the competition for the first of the new commissions. The proposals include such stirring and inspirational figures as a car covered in pigeon droppings and an Erector-set skyscraper. In the end, the winners were a sculpture of a pregnant woman and hotel for the birds; the first will be displayed throughout 2005, and the second will be installed in 2006.

They're both worthy works of art, I'm sure, but I can't help feeling that this whole rotating-selection-of-temporary-works thing is a way of avoiding commitment. I say that Mayor Livingstone was on the right track when he proposed a permanent monument to a brave man who helped correct the mistakes of the British Empire. But I think the Mayor made a tactical error; he would have faced far less resistance if he had proposed somebody who was tied more directly to Great Britain. He might have proposed, for example, a man who had been born a British citizen; a man who came from a noble British family with a centuries-old lineage; a man who served with distinction in the British army; a man who risked everything he had to defend the rights due to an Englishman; and a man without whom, I might add, the United States would never have been able to come to Britain's aid in World War II.

Fortunately, such a man exists. And that is why I hereby submit my own proposal for a statue to rest upon the fourth plinth--not temporarily, as part of a rotating exhibition, but permanently, in eternal honor. Mayor Livingstone, and people of London, mark my words: it's time to put a statue of George Washington in Trafalgar Square.

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This page contains a single entry by Jacob published on April 5, 2004 12:11 PM.

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