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Rumours reach me that people are just a bit, well, bored of Britain’s celebrated sculptor Antony Gormley, who is just opening yet another new exhibition at White Cube in south London. I don’t believe it. Gormley, after all, is not just that bloke who casts his own body to make passive metal men. His imagination reaches from homunculi to colossi. Surely it is inexhaustible.
Yet it is Gormley’s readiness to reinvent his art that has, in recent years, made him less fashionable among the so-called art world. His project for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square was controversial. An editorial in the magazine Art Monthly accused him of manipulative populism, for getting ordinary folk to stand on a plinth to be admired by the London crowds. By the time the big book of Gormley’s plinth people came out, critics were loudly wondering if One and Other really meant much.
Has Gormley weakened his impact by diffusing the sculptural authority of his calm metal figures with trendy interactive art? The silent watchers on the Merseyside shore that he cast a few years ago are mysterious and unique – they are creations of his mind. In choosing interaction, has he thrown away this artistic seriousness?
At this point, I must come clean. I have no idea if Gormley’s new show will confirm his fame or see it diminish – and I don’t care either. Artists are good or bad, not fashionable or unfashionable. The tragedy of art today is that it is caught up in an empty fashion game that goes against the very nature of creativity, as artists are judged to be in or out, not for their merits, but their supposed buzzy immediacy. The truth is Gormley has always been overrated. I mean since the 1980s. He is a decent artist but has never been daring or original. His popularity comes from the fact that he makes modern-looking, cool, yet accessible images of the human form. These bland statues have an appeal at once “progressive” and “traditional”. They make the onlooker feel contemporary without feeling anxious. In reality they are deeply ordinary sculptures, that will look as uninteresting to later generations as statues of Queen Victoria look to us. Gormley has been raised to the level of great modern art because too many Britons have no idea what great modern art looks like. Is his bubble of fake importance about to burst? Probably not. But one day, Gormley will be recognised as a monument to the dodgy taste of our age.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010