Boris Johnson – 2008 Speech on the Fourth Plinth

Below is the text of the speech made by Boris Johnson, the then Mayor of London, at the Royal Academy on 3 June 2008.

I rise with the terror of someone who barely passed Art A-level after working for two weeks on a drawing of a decomposing lobster and yet who is now called upon not only to address this famous academy that has done so much to help make London the cultural and artistic capital of the world, but who is also asked to make judgements, as Mayor, about some of the most bitterly contested battlegrounds of our national Kulturkampf.

And I mean in particular the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, where I am told I must choose.

I can go for a dead white male war hero, gloved, goggled, moustached, forged in traditional bronze and thereby – so I am warned – earn the odium of the entire liberal funkapolitan art world, or else I can continue to support the rotation of strange and wonderful works of contemporary art and enrage those who think these conversation pieces are out of keeping with Nelson’s square and that a failure to install Sir Keith Park is a disservice to the memory of those who saved our country from tyranny in 1940.

As I have wrestled with this problem, I have seen how elegantly I appear to be politically and intellectually skewered.

If we go for Keith Park, we seem to be saying snooks to modern art, remember the war, and on with the great western European tradition 2500 years old of casting military heroes in bronze. Though he is not a Vitruvian model of anatomical perfection, the Keith Park statue is recognisably a human being, and of course there is a large part of me that yearns to memorialise this amazingly brave New Zealand fighter ace.

Yes, I do worry that we have lost interest in our history and in traditional artistic skills and I mourn the loss of so much music teaching in schools and as Mayor I want to help restore it and I grieve that kids have so little time to learn to draw properly. I get pretty steamed up about the general mushy-minded cultural relativism of our age and I assert the total superiority of Homer over the epic of Gilgamesh and I think the artistic output of 15th century Italy was much better than the artistic output of 15th century meso-America and I congratulate Neil McGregor on getting the Terracotta army to London but when you compare those universal imperial henchmen with the Panathenaic frieze you can see why democracy and individualism got going in western Europe rather than in East Asia.

And yet before there is some kind of international incident I want to reassure you that the moment I hear myself arguing in this vein I realise that it does not reflect all that is in my heart because I love Chinese art and I admire those Aztec skulls and I like Damien Hirst’s flagrant rip-off of Aztec skulls and I nod with pleasure and agreement at Richard Dorment’s elucidations of the YBAs. When I was editing the Spectator I was thrilled to print an exclusive original Jake and Dinos Chapman showing one of their dildo-rich Hieronymus Bosch scenes, and I cannot help noticing that large numbers of Londoners are with me in liking the art on the Fourth Plinth and I trust in the sublime instincts of an ancient people.

And that is why I hope we can find a compromise that reflects the division in my heart and that Keith Park will be allowed temporarily to occupy the plinth in the run-up to the anniversary in 2010 while we look for another site. I say to the Keith Park campaigners ‘some day your plinth will come’. Frankly I am prepared to go so far as to rename Hyde Park Keith Park. Of course there will be people on both sides who object to my solution and as the battle rages on we should realise that the row itself is as old as art.

The Keith Park campaigners and the modern art campaigners have the joy of a cultural foe and in their passion they illuminate themselves and they illuminate the other side and they illuminate art, because neither proposition would be half so interesting without the other.

So it has hit me that my function as mayor is not to presume to arbitrate – I leave that to you, the Jedi of the artistic world. My function is to promote this eternal argument, to let a hundred flowers bloom, to be a kind of Don King of the debate between tradition and revolution, to build on the achievements of the previous mayor, to end the tick-box culture, to support and encourage the creative and cultural sectors in any way I can and to make absolutely no distinction between heritage London and the dynamic contemporary scene because, as I have made clear, the two depend on their juxtaposition – incarnated in Trafalgar Square – to make this the most artistically exciting city on the planet.