Responding to Art

By The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich - 21 April 2017
A picture of the Antony Gormley sculpture at UEA
Tomorrow sees the official unveiling of sculptures by Antony Gormley on the campus of the University of East Anglia here in Norwich. One of them, a human figure put in place before Easter, stands at the edge of the roof of the University Library. The choice of location has been criticised locally as “inappropriate and offensive” and even “reckless”. It’s been suggested the sculpture should be relocated somewhere the figure seems less at risk, and argued this would be more sensitive to those suffering mental illness or their anxious families.

It’s a serious point. It highlights the way art has an inbuilt capacity to inspire very different interpretations. My own first impression of Gormley’s figure was of its dignity, standing so upright and seemingly confident. There’s something majestic about the human form crowning the rather severe library building, implying human values are greater than utilitarian ones.

But I realise I’m not looking at it when under intense personal stress or anxiety. Since so much of Antony Gormley’s work is about our relationship with our own bodies, it seems inevitable our own self-image will shape our response more than we think. Even to raise such issues is already to respond to the artist’s creation.

Just before Easter another sculpture of a human figure was placed at the top of the steps outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo will be there for six weeks. It was the first work to occupy the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square back in 1999. Jesus stands with his hands bound behind his back, wearing a crown not of thorns but of barbed wire. Naked, bar a loin cloth, he seems extremely vulnerable, the victim of injustice and a braying crowd. It’s not really a sculpture for a happy selfie. Some even turn their eyes from it. It’s a disturbing and vivid reminder of a
world where show-trials and corrupt regimes as well as the torture and execution of the innocent are still commonplace. Although he has a robust physique Jesus seems defenceless and fragile. Ecce Homo means “behold the man”. The words are those of Pontius Pilate. He was mocking Jesus, as those with arbitrary power are liable to do with the weak and disposable.

Our human bodies are very frail when set against the powers of the world. Yet somehow Ecce Homo also conveys human dignity rather than diminishment. Both Gormley and Wallinger, in their different ways, invite us to explore what it is to be authentically human.

This blog is an adapted transcript from a BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, broadcast on Friday 21 April 2017 by The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich. To listen to and read more Thought for the Day features, please visit the BBC website.

2 comments

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  1. A Wellwisher | Apr 24, 2017
    Thank you for writing this.  (I'll listen to the broadcast when I've time.)  You have moderated my reaction to it to make it slightly more acceptable but I'd still rather not see it so prominently.  My reaction was "Yuck, that's ugly in any setting" and provoked an argument with my arty farty (sic - it's literally true I'm afraid) brother whom I love dearly but in my opinion has weird taste in art, and similarly wants to shove it in my face - sibling powermongering perhaps.  That which I call art is something which uplifts us humans, and produces/increases harmony, something which may be subtle or shocking in impact but positively, creatively, encouragingly, fostering Life.  I try to avoid "in-your-face" grossness, not because I have not overcome aversion, but because as a frequently stressed or depressed person it is important to me to see inspiring things, beautiful things, in my/our environment, to have prompts to hope for the best, to believe in goodness having the power to wash away harmful, fearful or chaotic thoughts/thinking.  There's nothing wrong with choosing to accept ugliness/strife/stress as a means to develop some virtue but I resent it being forced upon me or anyone else. Sorry, ye artists who believe in the freedom of the individual and want to label what you produce as art, but you can keep it in your own backyard as far as I'm concerned.  Please don't hate me for my view.  All views are troublesome; only truth and beauty are not.  I love you for your endeavours!!!  Enjoy their fruits (by yourself and with those who are attracted to them).
  2. Lorna | Apr 22, 2017

    I am someone who has many times through my life dealt with periods of very severe depression, anxiety and suicidal urges. Though I can see why people may feel concerned about the figure, it is, I believe, highly unlikely to compel or provoke anyone to kill themselves.  Do I feel upset by seeing it, no, nor do I by other images that may fall under this concern. 

    It is a piece of work by an artist. I believe it should stay where it is.

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