Sir Antony Gormley has issued a withering condemnation of the UK government’s attitude towards art – warning that any interference into an artist’s freedom to make political statements would spell disaster.

The Angel of the North sculptor took aim at Arts Council England following suggestions in January that any “overtly political or activist” work could break funding agreements.

Asked what that guidance said about the cultural landscape of Britain, Gormley said it was “an absolute disaster”.

The arts funding body was forced into a climbdown in February, following uproar from high-profile figures including author Matt Haig and playwright Nikita Gill, confirming it would not refuse funding to organisations for working with artists “purely because they make work that is political”.

Gormley went on to hit out at “this terrible government” that has “consistently undermined [art] both in education and in the support of our institutions”.

Asked how he would help to re-brand the UK as a cultural superpower, Gormley said he would use “the intrinsic value of art… the fact that politicians come and go, but art is, in a way, the trace we leave of our hopes and our fears.”

Anthony Gormley hit out at the government’s attitude towards art

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The acclaimed artist appeared on this week’s episode of Leading: The Rest is Politics, a podcast hosted by former spin-doctor Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, who served as a Conservative MP until 2019.

London-born Gormley, known for using his own body to create metal castings – including his famous 20-metre tall Angel of the North sculpture in Gateshead – advocated in favour of art schools, describing the making of images as a “fundamental human need”.

“It has been part of our survival [since] palaeolithic times,” Gormley told his hosts. “It is also a basic human right.”

The 77-year-old continued by saying that art on the education curriculum was “absolutely necessary”, as he acknowledged his own “very privileged” background.

Gormley was raised in a wealthy Roman Catholic family in Hampstead Garden Suburb, in a home that employed a cook and a chauffeur.

People sledging in the snow at the foot of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North sculpture in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear (Owen Humphreys/PA)

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After attending boarding school at Ampleforth College, he studied archaeology, anthropology and the history of art at Trinity College, Cambridge, later attending Saint Martin’s School of Art and Goldsmiths in London, before completing a postgraduate course in sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art in the late Seventies.

“You give any child from the age of two onwards a sheet of paper and a way of making a mark, and they’ll go,” Gormley said. “And at a certain point, because of our culture, they become self-conscious about that need – even if it’s just a trace. There’s a sense in which, ‘I have affected some part of the world by that trace, by that making of a mark.’

“I think that is [an] absolute key in self-determination, in the building of a psyche, of a character, of a person, of a self. And without it, we are victims of a late-capitalist world, and we’re all kind of racing against [each] other as to what little hole in this cliff face we can occupy.”

Citing experts in AI technology such as Demis Hassabis and Sam Altman, Gormley warned that we would all become “redundant” should their predictions about the role artificial intelligence might play: “Well, we’d better all become artists,” he joked. “We’d better find a meaningful way of making sense.”

The full episode of Leading: The Rest is Politics with Antony Gormley is available now on all major streaming platforms.

Antony Gormley: ‘Art is, in a way, the trace we leave of our hopes and our fears’