The plinth in the northwest corner of London's Trafalgar Square was supposed to hold a statue of William IV on horseback, but it never materialized, perhaps because His Highness, who died in 1837, perhaps of exhaustion, was most remarkable for fathering 10 children with just one of his mistresses. So why not a statue of her? (Click here to follow George F. Will)
She could have done a star turn on the plinth if the 19th century been sufficiently advanced to achieve the 21st-century sensibility recently displayed in the square. For 100 days, around the clock, the plinth was a small stage on which 2,400 persons, one per hour, expressed themselves. The event was an unqualified success.
Of course, failure was impossible because there were no qualifications for participants: Whatever they did was authentically them and authenticity was the point. A British politician (Arthur Balfour) once said of another (Herbert Asquith) that his clarity was a liability because he had nothing to say. But as the very democratic Dodo said to Alice, in Wonderland: "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes."
Some plinthers, as they were called, just sat and knitted. Others advocated causes: A man dressed as a large piece of excrement urged concern for people without potable water or proper toilets. One of the nine plinthers who were nude, or mostly so, wore only boots while sitting on a rocking horse and explaining the virtues of nudity to people watching from below or on Webcam coverage. A pole dancer who took her pole onto the plinth caused the Web site to crash from the avalanche of interest from arts enthusiasts. Another person sat naked on a beach towel and read Treasure Island. A woman on roller skates explained the history of the flat-track roller derby. A woman sat and wrote a letter, thereby proving, she said, that "you can reflect on who you are irregardless of the labels of identity that society has given you."
All this was, of course, celebrated as making vivid Britain's "diversity." We are in deep philosophic waters: Do many manifestations of a single phenomenon—exhibitionism—add up to something diverse? Can something that is valued because it is scarce—say, fame or heroism—be declared ubiquitous without becoming banal?
In America, Us Weekly, a symptom of the national determination to democratize celebrity, always has a page titled "Stars—They're Just Like Us." It shows stars eating, drinking coffee, pushing grocery carts. Who knew?
Ronald Reagan, in his first Inaugural Address, explained that America is planted thick, everywhere and always, with heroes: They are found wherever people are farming, or "going in and out of factory gates." Indeed, "you meet heroes across a counter—and they are on both sides of that counter." Yes, everyone partakes of quotidian heroism, which evidently is not an oxymoron.
The Trafalgar Square extravaganza was a homage to ordinariness—or to what is ordinary for self-absorbed self-dramatizers, some of whom are today called tweeters. It was organized by Antony Gormley, who is an artist, but an egalitarian one. When in 1994 he won an arts prize, he said he was "embarrassed and guilty to have won—it's like being a Holocaust survivor. In the moment of winning there is a sense the others have been diminished." One purpose of his Trafalgar Square project was to make "artist" a classification from which no one can escape because everything, even just sitting and knitting, is an expressive activity, and therefore "performance art."
It is an iron law of avant-garde art that theorizing expands to fill a void of content. The void, however, is eloquent. It expresses the rejection of content as inherently elitist: Some content might be considered superior. Pulling out all the stops on the organ of today's culture-speak, Gormley said that the point of the 2,400 hours was "to celebrate the living who make up Britain in all its magnificence." The event had an "existential feel" in "bearing witness to how we live now," demonstrating that "we are all absolutely free individuals." Actually, free from even a soup on of magnificence.
"All the monuments in the square are about the past," Gormley said, "but this has been about now." All the monuments, such as the statue of Admiral Nelson high above the square, commemorate achievements, such as the defeat of Napoleon's fleet in the battle for which the square is named. The defect of achievements is that they are not democratically distributed.
Soon the plinth, now again empty, will hold, for a while, a statue of Sir Keith Park, a Royal Air Force hero of the Battle of Britain. He helped save democracy, of which the plinthers illustrated one current understanding.