The NS Interview: Antony Gormley, artist

“You should definitely cut defence before you cut art”

Were you always going to be an artist?
No. It wasn't one of these things where at the age of three I knew that I was going to be a painter. Far from it. It was a slow realisation that I couldn't be anything else.

Did your upbringing have an influence?
I was educated by monks [at Ampleforth College] - I thank them dearly for the education they gave me, but I am no longer a Catholic. But, having been one, I have, in the words of William Blake, to make my own system or I will be enslaved by another man's. I think that's what I am doing - trying to construct my own system. It's a dangerous thing for an artist.

Do you see your art as having a purpose?
I used to think that the great thing about sculpture was that, like Stonehenge, it was something that stood against time in an adamantine way, and was an absolute mass in space. Now I try to use the language of architecture to redescribe the body as a place.

Why are you so drawn to the human body?
It's funny, I'm not that interested in it as a body: I'm interested in it as the place where we all live. It's the collective, subjective condition of a human being.

You often use your own body in your work.
It saves a lot of hassle. Why make another body when you've got one already? It releases you from the stranglehold that art has had placed
on it, more or less from the Renaissance, which is the making of the perfect copy.

Are you a victim of critical snobbery?
It is impossible to escape. If your work doesn't speak to people, it's beyond comprehension and risible, but if people engage with it you become tarred with the brush of populism.

Is connecting people with art important to you?
It's wonderful to see art in a museum, but it is institutionalised. I don't like the idea of the artwork as something that requires special conditions. I would like it to be universal.

So, the idea is that art belongs to everyone?
Each one of us is a creative, responsive individual. You can't push people into the position of being dumb, of being consumers of spectacle. For me, it's very important that art becomes commonly owned again.

Would you say this is a good time for art?
Oh, very. British art has come of age. We had always been apologetic. We aren't any more. There is a sense that the visual arts in Britain are setting the agenda for people all over the world. It's never happened before.

Has the art world become overly commercial?
I think that you could say markets follow energy. If there wasn't the energy, there wouldn't be anything to sell. But I think you can always tell when artists are more interested in money than they are in discovering and using their voice for its own sake.

Should art mix with politics?
Art and politics are inextricably linked, and art has always been an arena in which human freedom has been tested and extended. That's what my Fourth Plinth project was all about - a test site for human identity and for the demonstration of our liberties.

What do you make of the coming cuts to arts funding?
Disastrous. You should definitely cut defence before you cut art. Art is the way that an individual and a nation express their vitality. Without it, we might as well not be alive.

Should the arts receive special protection?
The idea that somehow art should be cut in the same way as everything is just completely and utterly indefensible. It is as if somehow we are having to be buried as well as being told that we are poor and starving.

Can philanthropy fill the gap?
That's wishful thinking. The American model, where national institutions and their boards are in some way influenced by the largest funders, is open to extreme abuse. I would never discourage philanthropy, but there is a huge difference between patronage and state funding. The state has a duty to be a good patron.

What do you think of the coalition so far?
I'm waiting.

Do you vote?
I certainly vote. I continued to vote for Labour in the last election.

Is there a plan?
There was a plan to try to be a good artist. And that's still the project.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
I deeply regret the loss of my eldest brother. I don't ever want to forget him, but I regret that he died.

Are we all doomed?
It's up to us.

Defining Moments

1950 Born in London
1971 Completes degree in archaeology, anthropology and art history at Trinity College, Cambridge
1977-79 Attends Slade School of Fine Art
1994 Wins Turner Prize with his terracotta sculpture series Field
1998 Made Officer of Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to sculpture
2010 Signs an open letter to Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary, protesting at arts cuts

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, War on WikiLeaks