My Passport out of here

In his latest online comment column J.J. Charlesworth responds to the storm of complaints about the new UK passport design

By J.J. Charlesworth

Elisabeth Scott, UK passport page. Courtesy HM Passport Offce

The revelation that the new design for the UK’s passport is to feature seven men and – shock! - only two women has provoked storms of complaint over the glaring gender imbalance. The new passport design, unveiled by the UK Passport Agency earlier this week was meant to celebrate figures who exemplify British creativity through the centuries, but before too long, the story has turned into outrage from commentators who – since the successful campaign to have the portrait of a British woman on a UK banknote – are increasingly determined to call out any transgression of the idea that all official representations of national culture should seek to promote the representation of gender equality at every turn.

But who cares about gender ratios, eh? Because as far as the artworld was concerned, the big story was that the new passport will carry images of works by bluechip sculptors Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley, Gormley represented by his massive steel erection The Angel of the North, sited outside Gateshead; Kapoor for his, er, massive steel erection the ArcelorMittal Orbit, sited in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Mark Thomson, director general of HM Passport Office, was clearly a bit flustered by all the instant hating he had just provoked: “It was not something where we set out to have only two women.” Rather, Thomson opined, “In trying to celebrate UK creativity over the last 500 years we tried to get a range of locations and a range of things around the country to celebrate our triumphs and icons over the years,” adding, rather churlishly, “So there you are.”

Except that, in celebrating ‘triumphs and icons’, HM Passport Office only revealed how little they know or care about contemporary art – and how much contemporary art is now only treated for its ‘iconic’ status as brand-building for Britain. And a closer look at the selection suggests that rather than the ‘institutional sexism’ that critics accused HM Passport office of, what is really at work is a lazy tokenism, desperate to seem cool about ‘creative Britain’ but incapable of making value judgements about anything beyond the unassailable cultural stature of Shakespeare, relying instead on a dreary instinct for an individual’s official cultural status based on little more than their visibility and reputation.

the problem with issues of ‘balanced representation’ is that it always slips into tokenism

Gormley and Kapoor’s inclusion seem dependent on their ‘one of us’ establishment status. After all, while Eton-educated Gormley’s rusty Angel may have taken its place in British contemporary folklore, it’s easier to point to such hollow feelgood monumentalism than to make any other claim about great British artists in the two centuries since John Constable, the only other artist to be featured. Meanwhile, Anish Kapoor’s horrendous Orbit is little more than a fairground ride, but does a great job advertising Britain’s global trade partnerships. There is of course some dismal topical irony to the couplet – while Gormley’s Angel riffs on Britain’s former steelmaking and shipbuilding industrial heritage, and Kapoor’s Orbit was financed by Indian-owned steelmakers ArcelorMittal, there are thousands of steelworkers faced with redundancy as steelworks across Britain shut due the global slump in demand. So much for ‘creative’ Britain. Official influence as an artist, it seems, is more important than whether your work is really that great.

And what about those two women? Well, Elisabeth Scott, architect of the dull 1932 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, surely can’t be featured because of the quality of her work, but merely because she was the first woman architect to design a major public building. That her second cousin the architect Giles Gilbert Scott is also featured looks like a strange bit of nepotism, or, if you’re an outraged feminist, a bit of paternalistic hand-holding. The same odd hand-holding affects the inclusion of the brilliant and increasingly cult figure Ada Lovelace – the daughter of wild aristocrat and poet Lord Byron – who while arguably more significant for her thinking-through of computational algorithms, still has to appear alongside her mentor Charles Babbage, whose approach to computers never got beyond number crunching.

But there’s the thing; the problem with issues of ‘balanced representation’ is that it always slips into tokenism; Anish Kapoor not the greatest British artist in history? Well, he’s of Indian descent, so that makes him ‘representative’ of Britain’s modern ethnic and cultural diversity, doesn’t it? Forget that there are only two women in the passport and instead ask what really grounds any of their claims to greatness, male or female. Because if we were really talking quality, we’d be demanding the inclusion of Brit architect Zaha Hadid: regardless of her gender, her visionary work blows both Scotts away. And to get back to artists of the last and this century, how about Bridget Riley? A passport designed by Riley would be an object to treasure.

Still, to paraphrase the bombastic late film director and celebrity TV ad sexist Michael Winner, from one of his memorable car insurance catchphrases – calm down, dears, it’s only a passport. And the prospect of having travel visas stamped all over Gormley and Kapoor’s so-so edifices might encourage artworld people to do a bit more long-haul travelling. Me? I’m wondering if I can still claim my Belgian dual citizenship – Belgium may only have been around 186 years, but in that short time it’s managed to produce the Saxophone, Tintin and Jacques Brel.