At the Women’s March on Saturday, 21st January, I was surrounded by the rambunctious sights and sounds of what the organisers estimated to be a hundred thousand protesters with their largely uncoordinated, colourful campaign banners and posters. The crowd was there to protest against the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, a man widely seen as a racist, misogynistic megalomaniac.
Standing on the steps of the National Gallery I was utterly taken aback by the aptness of David Shrigley’s installation on the fourth plinth. Shrigley’s Thumbs Up, according to Sadiq Khan, proclaims optimistically that Britain is ‘open for business’.
Sadiq Khan does not see the dark and bitter irony of the installation that I see, or if he does he is keeping it to himself. To me, this is a ‘monstrous carbuncle’ if ever there was one. This is, of course, precisely the extraordinarily powerful achievement of the installation.
Shrigley is poking fun at our fantasy creed of ‘thumbs up’ optimism. Shrigley’s timing could not be better. It seems clear that the people have had enough of ‘prosperity for some’ alongside ‘austerity for the rest’. They are frankly no longer in the mood to be convinced, in this post-truth world, by grandiose symbolism. Or perhaps Shrigley is suggesting that exact opposite, drawing attention to the fact that people are far too easily convinced by vulgar, grandiose statements.
The question is whether the electorate have found the means to express their disquiet in the ballot box. A large portion of the electorate wants change and is prepared to vote for it without fully understanding the consequences. The Brexit vote was a negative vote. A rejection of the status quo. The people are no longer convinced that ‘business as usual’ is good for them.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump is President of the most powerful nation in the world. His divisive electoral campaign culminated in his inauguration speech, the most memorable part of which is “America First! America First!’ Shouty! Shouty! In this context Shrigley’s Thumbs Up has to be seen as a colossal joke on all of us. Our democratic process has led us to this point, on both sides of the Atlantic. The ultimate stripping back and dumbing down.
Looking up at the fourth plinth in the light of contemporary politics one is tempted to think, “sit on this, Michael Gove” or perhaps “mine’s bigger than yours, Vladimir Putin”. This is masculine humour. The irony, like the image, is phallic. It invokes the predatory masculinity of an obscenely inflated ego.
Trump’s ego is absurdly engorged by grotesque levels of material wealth. The veneration of money is personified by the predominantly white, male, multimillionaire appointees to his administration. Images of white supremacists, of the KKK in their white robes, contrast starkly with the blackness of the colossal thumb on Trafalgar Square.
“Not you, not you! Get out , get out!” Trump yells at journalists whose demeanour does not please him, whose questions he prefers not to answer. Never mind racism and misogyny, this man is, quite clearly, an out-and-out bully.
One hundred thousand people marched on Trafalgar Square last Saturday. The protest was a spontaneous mosaic of the chaotic, multidimensional lives of workers, friends, parents, teenagers, all bundled together in friendly, but determined collective outrage. Meanwhile the monolithic, singularity of the image of Thumbs Up loomed over the crowd from the fourth plinth. An ugly fist and an outsized thumb. David Shrigley, I salute you.