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

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.