There has long been an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, London’s grand public space in front of the National Gallery, in the center of which stands Nelson’s column, the country’s tribute to its great naval hero. London’s city council recently announced a competition among sculptors to top the empty plinth with a statue.
The competition resulted, as you would have expected, in a festival of politically correct nihilism: cruise missiles vied with a wrecked red car, covered in bird droppings on a gigantic scale. The winner of the competition, however, was a 15-foot-tall nude statue of Alison Lapper, an artist born without arms and with abnormally short legs.
With admirable courage, Lapper has overcome her disability to become an artist—with, alas, all the tedious conformism of her professional tribe: it goes almost without saying that she is a single mother sporting ironmongery in her nose. Her own art, according to a eulogistic website, “questions notions of physical normality in a society that considers her deformed because she was born without arms.” The eulogizer, however, does not spot the contradiction or irony here: that Lapper has shrewdly (and, in the circumstances, understandably) commodified her armlessness, turning it to an advantage. If people truly considered her condition either normal or beautiful, it would be disastrous for her career.
So what exactly is wrong with the proposal to put a huge sculpture of her in Trafalgar Square? After all, some of the greatest paintings by one of the greatest artists of all time, Diego Velázquez, are of dwarfs. There is a dwarf in Las Meninas; and the portraits of Sebastian de Morra, Don Diego de Acedo, Francisco Lezcano, and Antonio el Ingles—all of them dwarfs—are of an unequaled intensity of humanity.
The pronouncements of the prizewinning sculptor, Marc Quinn, clarify the difference. “Nelson’s monument is the epitome of a phallic male monument,” he said. “In the past, heroes such as Nelson conquered the outside world. Now it seems to me [heroes] conquer their own circumstances and the prejudices of others, and I believe Alison’s portrait will symbolize this.”
Quite so: whereas Velázquez’s portraits are a statement of his deeply felt and completely sincere humanity—as well as a memento mori for himself and his viewers (you too are but suffering flesh and blood; you too will die)—the sculpted portrait of Alison Lapper is both a self-consciously ideological appeal to reject the past and a subtle form of flattery of the demotic, asserting that everyone who faces some difficulty in his life, which is to say everyone, is (ex officio, as it were) a hero.
As many commentators have pointed out, Alison Lapper and Horatio Nelson have one thing in common: their handicap. But there is a conflation here between the passive and the active. Nelson lost his eye and his arm in the course of his duties, accepting the risk of mutilation and death for what he believed was a higher purpose. Alison Lapper had no choice in the matter, however bravely, if self-advertisingly, she may have overcome her handicap. In other words, the ideas of heroism, duty, and service to others have given way to those of narcissism, self-pity, and self-obsession. So the plinth will remain, in a real sense, empty.