Why do we have such bad public art?

What would it be like to be Alison Lapper? She's a 40-year-old British artist born without arms and with only a bit of thigh, kneeless, ending in twisted feet. Hollywood FX types always add bits on to make figures look strange and end up with Edward Scissorhands. But Ms. Lapper's bodily essence is one of subtraction. She lacks. One shoulder is round and has a vulval wrinkle; another is a sharp-edged stump. In all other ways, she is normal. She looks like a snapshot, cropped ineptly with a knife.

She was born in 1965, a time when hospitals weren't renowned for their humanity. Ms. Lapper's mother was sedated but vaguely remembered having given birth. A cleaner told her that a horrible creature had been born and they were waiting for it to die. Later, she realized that the cleaner was referring to her baby, Alison. Ms. Lapper's mother's feelings were summed up by a social worker: “A certain admiration mixed with pity and revulsion.”

Ms. Lapper was raised in an orphanage with similarly distorted children. The staff terrorized the children, throwing the limbless ones 20 feet across the room where they hit the concrete floor with a crack.

She was about to be adopted by a loving family when her mother, unfortunately, put a stop to it. She still grew up at the orphanage, and eventually married a man who seemed to be kind. No family member on either side spotted anything wrong with him. No one was keeping a weather eye out for young Alison, who could drive now, who could live alone, but whose emotional knowledge of the able-bodied was inadequate. On their wedding night, he shut the door of their room and turned to her with an odd expression on his face. “You're mine now and you'll do as I tell you.”

The greatest thing any woman should fear is a man who seeks to control. Imagine a man who feels the need to control even a limbless woman. Once, he started to pull her slowly off the kitchen table, mocking her as she approached the edge where she would fall and break her head open. Desperate, she bit his arm, drawing blood. She divorced him.

One day, Ms. Lapper, who had become an artist, got a call from a storied British artist named Marc Quinn, who wanted to do a body cast of her naked. But I'm pregnant, she told him. Even better, he said.

This month, after Mr. Quinn won the competition to fill the single empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, a huge white marble oversized cast of her body appeared there. It was a story that grabbed attention worldwide. Even the city that is always talking about its art was taken aback by the joy, the horror and the strangeness of the piece. Tourists used to polite glorifications of kings and generals see this as yet undreamt-of human form above the shrieking tangle that is Trafalgar Square and they are uplifted.

We are seeing a new form of beauty. After centuries of worshipping ancient statues with their arms and noses knocked off, here's the real thing, the kind of person only Diana, Princess of Wales, would have been happy to meet.

Ms. Lapper has a five-year-old son, Parys, who may be the best-looking boy in England. She worries that he will be mocked at school for his mother, whom other people may mock and find grotesque. “I know we'll get through it and come out smiling,” she told the Guardian magazine. “We always have.”

So London has its Alison, Gateshead has the nation's biggest art work, the huge metal screamer Angel of the North with its jumbo jet wings, and Newcastle has a blue public square created out of smashed sherry bottles (a homage to alcoholism, at least it's honest).

France has the Millau Viaduct, the world's most beautiful bridge. Berlin has a huge sculpture by Carl Frederik Reutersward of a gun with its barrel tied up in knots. It sits in front of the Chancellery. Relevant? The handgun that the British police recently used to shoot an innocent Brazilian man seven times in the head was a Glock 17, made in Hitler's homeland. Ironic?

So where's Canada's great public art? We have . . . The Big Nickel. We have various small sculptures of Terry Fox across the country, when we should have made him 20 metres high, like the Angel. Toronto has a pile of ice cubes emerging from the Royal Ontario Museum, attracting bird droppings and scorn. Meanwhile, the McLaughlin Planetarium, the only place that offers peace in this dollar-obsessed city, is about to be replaced with a 40-storey condo tower.

Nick van der Graf runs GeoSpace Planetarium, a non-profit group trying to save the planetarium and offer modern doubters a rare numinous moment. He would agree that what that classical, elegant museum deserves, to balance the hotel room ice bucket on its north, is something ravishing to its south that stuns us and lets us emerge as more thoughtful humans.

It could balance on or surround the planetarium, declaring what Canada stands for. Is it the hot core that kept Terry Fox running in his humiliation and pain? How does one sculpt the rage beneath General Roméo Dallaire's blue beret or the courage that sustained Jane Doe in her 19-year fight to force the Toronto police to care about rape?

This country stands for something, and it's more than condos for the rich so they can live downtown 20 years from now after we -- our suburbs turned to slums -- run out of the oil Brian Mulroney locked us into selling to the United States.

Margaret Atwood once wrote that Susannah Moodie planted the corpse of her drowned son in this country “like a flag.” Can't we at least have a public sculpture that shouts, even if, like the Statue of Liberty, its meaning melts in the terrifying decades to come?

Imagine being Alison Lapper. Imagine redesigning the human.

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