Okay, the Olympics have finished, but imagine for a moment they have not and you are in the arena, watching the final of the heavyweight championship of culture – an almighty scrap involving two of the world’s most notable art forms. In the red corner, we have painting – glamorous, agile, flashy, famous and covered with bling. In the blue corner, there is sculpture – big, honest, tough, muscular and experienced. Who would you pick to win? Who, in the end, deserves to be recognised as the more important art form?
Painting would probably take the first round with its showy sidesteps and smooth moves. Backed by Roman Abramovich (who recently began investing heavily in the kid, alongside a consortium of Chinese, Indian and now Brazilian backers), this new boy on the culture block (oil paints were invented only 600 years ago) would skip hither and thither, jabbing skimmy punches into sculpture’s worn and wrinkled face.
Sculpture, meanwhile, would plod on relentlessly, as it has done since the beginning of time, caring little about the odd slap because it has been through a lot worse so often before. After all, there has never been a period in human history when sculpture was not there. Indeed, there isn’t an inhabited place on earth that does not have a sculptural tradition of some sort to celebrate.
As painting’s flashy slaps rain in on it, sculpture ignores them. It is used to being pulled off pediments and having chunks broken off it. Why, it can even get by without any arms. By the end of round two, the referee is forced to step in and stop the fight because painting has slumped to the canvas in a messy, abstract-expressionist heap, utterly exhausted and unable to continue. It was no contest. Sculpture wiped the floor with the young pretender.
Another good programme to watch on television if you need to be reminded of the importance of sculpture is the news. When Trevor McDonald emphasises sculpture’s criticality on News at Ten – as he often does – you are more likely to listen than if you hear me banging on about it in my new series. I am obviously partisan, and you, perhaps, don’t do the arts. Sir Trevor, on the other hand, is the voice of the truth, right? Yet see how many newsy occasions there have recently been when he has had to deal with sculpture’s international significance. For instance, the Taliban’s barbarous decision to blow up the world’s largest statue, the Buddha of Bamiyan, is a television spectacle I will never forget. The Islamist loonies even had the nerve to ensure a cameraman was on hand to record them doing it.
Wind forward a few years to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and those extraordinary images of Saddam’s statue being hauled from its plinth and dragged across Baghdad by screaming Iraqis will surely press into your thoughts. I still remember the scary hatred in the eyes of these contemporary Roundheads as they danced and trampled on Saddam’s badly sculpted face. When the Berlin Wall came down, Sir Trevor was on hand again to describe the anger being vented on statues of Lenin all the way across the former communist world. There are even those – and I would count myself among them – who remember 9/11 as a sculptural event, in which two sleek totems of architectural minimalism were reduced to rubble by the ultimate act of fiery, philistine iconoclasm. The fact is, no other art form has been as intimately involved in the international unravelling of humanity. The news reminds us constantly of the unique relationship that sculpture has to our history.