Brian Sewell and Matthew Collins debate the merits of modern British artby Brian Sewell / April 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
22nd February 2002
May I start by saying what a valuable cultural figure I think you are?
We have been asked to consider a question which I think is probably the wrong one: “does contemporary British art have anything to say which is not just about itself.”
We have also been asked to address issues of conceptual art; the way people criticise or celebrate art forms without being familiar with their provenance; the forces of commerce, celebrity and patronage; and the difficulties of art criticism.
The fact is that modernism and post-modernism are self-referential. There is no point crying about it; this is the art that society produces.
In the case of art criticism and the problem of judging whether a thing is good or not, I believe that, because art is a structure and a system, the more you look at it, the more you see something in it. You find things in the system that have a value. This requires a leap of faith. But if you’re hostile to the idea of it, then you are not going to get anything out of it.
As to conceptual art, it only lasted a few years, from the mid-1960s into the early 1970s, and was largely about criticising the premises of modernism. It elevated figures like Marcel Duchamp, who was already dead by 1968, but whom it valued for being intellectual rather than visual. Conceptual art is really a 1960s thing, it’s connected to anti-war movements, civil liberties, being against the establishment and so on. Within a few years, it became a stale academic type of art and faded away. But then conceptual art in the Ivan Massow sense-where you just say any nonsense that comes into your head in order to get attention-returned as the catch-all title for the art we now have in the spotlight.
This new type of art is multi-form, and has a broader range of subject matter than the old 1960s type. But although it has a dubious kind of “popularity” about it (whereas the original didn’t have any popularity at all) it is still part of the modernism/post-modernism system, in that it is self-referential. What mostly separates it from modernism is its adherents’ lack of belief in anything at all.
This new art’s “ideas” aren’t really ideas at all. It is popular because it’s scandalous, and scandal is something our age finds fascinating, though in a distanced, emotionally vacant way.
All this relates to the issue of what people find to celebrate or hate in current art. There is nothing in art that says it should be popular, or that it gets better when it is popular. And its meanings don’t change because it’s popular, they just get discussed in more distorted and ultimately meaningless ways. People have to try to think for themselves, which requires an effort. Personally, I think Tracey Emin’s blankets are good. They have a kind of pleasing, lopsided composition. I never think much about what the words on the blankets say. I find the sentiments slightly boring, because too familiar and banal.
Regarding patronage, commerce and celebrity, the first two are not of much interest, since nothing changes there. The last is important because it’s a peculiar horror of modern life. And, again, Emin comes into it, since, regrettably, she has become the most popular sign of the decline of something that might originally have been creative (that is, the whole young British artist phenomenon) into something that is too easy. The point of art is that it should make demands on you.
PS I read your review of the Royal Academy’s “Paris” show the other day and found it both hilarious and accurate. It’s a hideous, deflating exhibition, and you have to marvel at the curatorial skills that could make some of the greatest artists the world has ever known seem depressing.
24th February 2002
Flattery may have got you where you now are in terms of television, publication and celebrity, but with me the parsnips remain unbuttered.
Your letter is unworthy of you, tedious, vapid, flatulent and contains no substance into which the terrier may sink his teeth. You make a play with knowledge (does the term modernism, and its multiple derivatives, have any meaning now?) to reassure those of the Serota tendency that you know their jabberwocky and are, perhaps, on their side-I say perhaps because you have learned your television lesson well and, like most presenters, know never to commit yourself, always to sit on the fence while making a show of enthusiasm.
You were brought into this world by Peter Fuller, editor of Modern Painters, to be his court fool, his jester, and a merry joker you have proved to be. The trouble is, that neither the readers of that now benighted journal, nor you, realised that your only purpose on its pages was as a foil, a leavening, for Fuller’s peculiar polemics. Television, a medium that when it concerns itself with visual art is run entirely by ignoramuses, then took you up and made you what you are.
In your way you perfectly represent the current state of art criticism. Twenty years ago I thought that the collective noun for art critics should be a creep or crawl, so evidently did they sing for their canapés and Chablis, so necessary to their incomes were the payments for their laudatory essays in dealers’ catalogues. Twenty years ago, much in cash and kind was earned by compliant critics prepared to lick arse, but things have changed; the cash and carry aspect of the business has run down, the volume is much reduced and the quid pro quo much cheaper for the patron. The demand is less for services than for absolute loyalty to the tiny clique that now runs the visual arts in Britain. This means that those who are critical of Serota, for example, are excluded from the radio programmes of the BBC and all television channels. You do not belong to the generation of critics who benefited in kind, but you are very much the obedient contemporary critic, watching your back and never blotting your copybook.
I raise these points in response to your claim that art is a structure and system into which the more one looks, the more one sees. That art itself is either a structure or a system in any deliberate or even art historical sense, is to me an incomprehensible notion; perhaps you mistake art for the systems in which it is confined by ex-polytechnic theorists, none of whom has an aesthetic bone in his body. This is like confusing Wren’s ingenious scaffolding for St Paul’s with the cathedral itself. As for your assertion that the more one looks, the more one sees-as in Rothko’s shallow canvases, no doubt-the only possible response to that is that you have swallowed Roger Fry’s pathetic instruction (in his 1934 lecture on American art) that we must look at all art in “a state of passive receptiveness… ready to vibrate in harmony with it.” Neither vibration nor harmony comes easily to Jack Russell terriers, but the Richard Corks of this world are adept at it.
And there’s the rub. Vibrating critics are incapable of criticism. They unquestioningly accept as art all that is given them by the Arts Council, Serota, a tiny bunch of canny dealers, and now the Royal Academy. Most of them, having no grounding in art history, know nothing of what they see in historical exhibitions-witness the Royal Academy’s “Genius of Rome,” in which half the paintings catalogued as by Caravaggio were copies, replicas, ruins or nothing to do with him, yet all got equally extravagant billing. How many of our critics are able to argue with the National Gallery’s chronology of Cuyp’s paintings, and how many are qualified to comment on their over-scrubbed condition? How many, moving nearer to your chosen period, could make informed judgements of two current exhibitions in which it is rooted, the “Fifties” show at the Barbican or the “Paris” show at the Academy? Most comment on those from younger critics revealed abysmal ignorance.
Critics are lazy. I read with dismaying frequency their rehashes of press releases. They are no better than the jurors in Alice in Wonderland, treating every word as if it were dictation. “Your duty,” Marina Vaizey lectured me for my failure to review an utterly trivial exhibition, “is to signpost, not express your own opinion. Tell us it’s there, describe it. That’s all.”
But it is not all. When as a boy I questioned the literal truth of transubstantiation, my parish priest said, “Bring everything to the bar of your own judgement,” and I have done so ever since. It removed the cornerstone of my faith, but was better advice than any given me later-and it answers the point you make that art “requires a leap of faith.” It does not. Rembrandt’s self-portraits require no such leap, nor Velazquez’s roped and naked assistant posing as Christ in the National Gallery, nor Goya’s joyful cannibal, nor Picasso’s lugubrious Demoiselles; only such presentations as the Emin bed and Hirst shark require your leap-and with these you see the Serota dictatorship in action, the faithful welcomed and the sceptic scourged. Serota does not permit debate; his response to adverse comment is, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” If Serota had any confidence in the material he promotes, he would invite me and David Lee, the editor of Jackdaw, onto the jury of the Turner Prize, certain that he could convince us with intellectual and aesthetic argument.
You raise the spectre of popular opinion. Lord, save us from it. If the National Gallery were in the hands of popular opinion it would be filled with the works of LS Lowry and Beryl Cook. We need the Reithian view, always pitching above the heads of the ignorant so that we can draw them on (not below, so that they feel comfortable). I want those who know nothing about art to be fed with caviar and oysters, so to speak, to acquire taste, to feel the heart stop at a sight too beautiful to bear, to sense a thrill as powerfully as a kick in the stomach, to weep at a work of art as they might at a performance of Tristan und Isolde, to experience the catharsis of Stendhal syndrome. Hirst, at an exhibition in the ICA some years ago, hinted that he might one day produce art with such power, but he has fallen by the wayside; Emin, however, showed no promise and fell into the ditch. That we know anything of either is nothing to do with art, but is entirely due to the manipulations by which adventurers become and stay celebrities. You must beware of this yourself.
26th February 2002
You say all the anguished stuff in the first half of your letter is something to do with your shock at the notion, in my letter, that art might be “a structure or a system.” I meant modern and contemporary art. But, of course, any art is part of a system, otherwise what would your job on the Evening Standard be? Could anyone do it, even someone who thought Beryl Cook should be in the National Gallery? What system of ideas and meanings do you draw on to make an educated guess that some Caravaggios in the Royal Academy are “fakes or ruins,” if not that of the baroque?
I don’t think it is shocking to say that modern art is self-contained. You don’t either, since you criticise that art for not being self-evident, whereas you see pre-modern masterpieces as available to all. Apparently, though, they are not completely available, since you feel Reithian lectures are necessary to educate the ignorant.
Modernism is the term that describes the broad cultural movement out of which contemporary art has grown. “Conceptual art” is an art-critical term from late modernism, describing a type of art that values the mind over the eye, and is connected to an ideology of social revolution. It comes from the 1960s. It is misleading as a term for the generality of current art, not least because of its connection to an anti-establishment ethos (no art today is anti-establishment); but it is mainly inaccurate because the type of contemporary art it is supposed to describe-Turner Prize art, or what you call Serota tendency art-isn’t focused upon the mind or the intellect. It’s not primarily visual either but, contrary to your fumings, it’s not actually anti-aesthetic. It’s just that the aesthetic is usually daft, not serious.
Terminology matters, even if you choose to dispense with it. Much of the stuff in your art column is rather striking and weird, by the standards of everyday usage. Heaven forbid this should merely be to draw attention to yourself. I assume it’s there to say why art is important. In your letter you use words like “joyful” and “lugubrious” in connection with cannibals and cubism; and you relate Stendhal syndrome (a tendency to swoon from an excess of feeling in front of artworks) to early Damien Hirst. This is all unusual and jarring, as is your 18th-century pomp manner in general, but it is amusing, and you get your points across with it.
Many people mistakenly assume they know what Renaissance art is. They are familiar with it from Christmas cards, but they don’t know the symbolism (whether it’s flowers and skulls, or squares and circles in the composition) they don’t know the religious and mythological meanings, the patrons, or the historical background. It takes a bit of learning to know those things. Should they do more work? Yes. But they are lucky because they have got you, with all your connoisseurship, to do that for them.
Yet one thing about contemporary art is that it doesn’t need traditional connoisseurship. In fact, it leaves the connoisseur with hardly any power-role at all, because it doesn’t depend on a special knowledge of dates and attributions and so on, nor on knowledge of a period which is not our own. It only requires familiarity with a set of codes. These codes are to do with broad ideas of content and, for the past 15 years or so, they have increasingly over-lapped with pop culture. That is, the forms may be fragmented and unconventional (though they have gone on to become conventional), but the subjects are familiar to all.
You feel it’s you against the trendies, but I’m constantly told off for being rude about the trendies, too. I complain about their faith in zombie-like language. Knowing the codes of contemporary art doesn’t require any great cleverness, so it is annoying when a pseudo-clever language is used to discuss it. The purpose of this language is only to intimidate people. I also complain about their recent obsession with literalism and a low grade form of narrative-that is, the return of cloying Victorian illustrative morality painting, only in the form of installations with politically correct homilies instead of paintings with old-fashioned Christian ones. This is the case with Mona Hatoum’s room-size replica of a mouli legume in Tate Britain. It is supposed to symbolise profound alienation (because it’s so big), only with intimations of the domestic and the feminine (because it’s a vegi-mixer). And the same with Jeremy Deller’s more light-footed work: actors dressed up as bobbies beat up actors playing miners, and the result is supposed to express involvement with politics.
My points about the art world in my journalism are not as conveniently schmoozing as you imagine. You go on about a conspiracy keeping anyone critical of the director of the Tate off television. But I publicly criticise him and, as you have noticed, I’m on television. Tate Modern is a silly, woolly, empty-headed place. I like art to be serious and playful but Tate Modern is solemn and trivial.
When I like some contemporary art it is because it has successes which are not usually discussed. Behind the pretentiousness of Rachel Whiteread’s plaster-cast objects, there is sometimes genuine elegance and loveliness. And it’s similar for, say, the different types of black-culture stereotypes in Chris Ofili’s paintings-they are funny rather than profound, but his handling of something decorative and ordered actually is profound. Occasionally I like this art when it fulfils its own clichés and does it with a bit of flair, as with Martin Creed’s lights at last year’s Turner Prize, which I thought was the right choice to win. Creed’s piece summed-up and parodied the general public’s fury at modern art.
Modern art is not a “system” in the sense of an organisation being run by somebody powerful. It’s a system because there are frameworks and rules, which make it possible to judge one thing against another. You already know this, in terms of earlier art. You know Goya can be better appreciated the more you know what you’re looking at. Understanding more about him and the period he worked in, understanding why there’s a cannibal in a Goya painting, makes it more meaningful and marvellous than otherwise. It might even bring on a bit of the vibrating harmony you hate reading about in Roger Fry (you hate it because it’s about seeing the same virtues in modernist abstract art as in pre-modern art).
To recognise a system is not to praise everything in the system. One needs to know what the grain is to be against it, or one’s opinion isn’t of much value. I have always assumed it’s an amusing and effective pose on your part when you appear not to be bothered with the intricacies of contemporary-art gabbling, or with the trinkets that are produced for the gabblers to gabble about. Again: I think you’re good. Don’t whip me just because you want to be whipped back. Stop being a sado-masochistic nutcase and accept a compliment when it’s paid to you.
If I wanted to find a weakness in my own argument, I might say “this is the art that society produces” is complacent. Perhaps one ought to change society. In fact, my support for serious, non-ironic abstract painting by artists who are outside of the trendy spotlight (I have recently organised an exhibition showcasing this work) is an attempt to put a spanner in the works.
I know you are an anti-abstractionist. You don’t know what to do with it. You can’t take the meaninglessness. I’m not particularly mesmerised by Mark Rothko, one of America’s most revered abstract painters, and I don’t disagree that what is usually said about him is sentimental and unthinking. But your idea that he is always shallow is not a serious observation, but just a reflex twitch. You imply that Fry wrote something (which you find absurd) in 1934 about Rothko’s abstracts. Yet at that time, Rothko hadn’t really become Rothko. He was still painting nudes and bathing scenes, was very little known even in New York, and was still using his real name, Marcus Rothkowitz.
Much of your letter is feverish. However, you appear to want to say something about aesthetics, not all of which I disagree with. My real disagreement is that the things you yourself appreciate as aesthetic were not always transparently, gorgeously so. History made them so. One finds something aesthetic because one has worked to understand it. That is, it is part of a system that can be learned.
Looking forward to your next go
1st March 2002
Come off it, dear boy
Surely you should not so late in the day attempt to explain modernism and its derivatives to anyone, least of all to me. It has for far too long been meaningless and is now merely confusing. I know that Roger Fry was as ignorant of Rothko as of so many things; it was merely that, in the context of American art, he commended the business of vibrating in harmony, and I see that now, not without mischief, as the necessary exercise for all who seek enchantment in the grim Rothko room of Bankside. You should read more Fry (a penance, I know), because his Bloomsbury dominance explains so much wretched British criticism now, evident in the vibrations of Richard Cork, Charles Darwent and, occasionally, Richard Dorment.
The trouble with most art since the second world war is that it has been, when claiming to be modern, merely repetitive. The dynamic has gone out of it, as with Christ when his robe was touched too often and deliberately. Duchamp, the joker, the intelligent iconoclast, was dynamic. Kienholz, who has reasonable claim to have invented both the installation and the modern written concept (though that goes back to the neo-Platonists of Quattrocento Florence), was, and indeed still is, dynamic. Beuys, perhaps the most sincere of late 20th century artists, was unfailingly dynamic. But the rest was all the flaccid, gutless, crassly derivative rubbish of the Serota tendency. Compare the 20th with the 15th century-the latter a hundred years of astonishing advance from late international Gothic to young Michelangelo, the former a descent from cubism, futurism, expressionism, some lively forms of post-impressionism and the wild imaginings of surrealism, into a morass of stale third-hand ideas and tenth-rate presentation by idiots who knew nothing of their recent forebears, and could not spell “aesthetic” let alone comprehend the meaning of the word. We are told that they break the barriers of art, that they bring sculpture down from the podium and painting from the wall, that they are artists because they think of things and are lauded by Serota for being cutting-edge when, in truth, they are the vandals of our age.
Serota is a circus barker for the freakish and grotesque, the fraudulent and phony, and above all the boring and pretentious. If there is a system, Martin Creed’s Turner Prize exposed it. Creed got it for being in Serota’s regular employment at the Tate, not for the second-hand idea of switching off the lights. It is the determination of Serota, Saatchi and the Arts and British Councils, much assisted by lottery funding, to promote one narrow aspect of visual art at the expense of all others that constitutes the system. The Royal Academy is doing its best to join the bandwagon, so too are the British Museum, the V&A and even the National Gallery with its fatuous patronage of the lunatic and incompetent Kitaj and other nincompoops. The system even extends to handing the curatorship of exhibitions to artists in this sacred circle-Klee diminished in the hands of Bridget Riley, for example. It was a system identified in its infancy by Bryan Robertson in 1965: “The System,” he wrote, treating it as a proper noun, “stands for promotion, for publicity, for continual change, for a stepped-up rhythm of production and for a show-business attitude to what used to be a solitary and unpublicised activity.” This is still the case, but with the apparatus of television and such presenters as yourself and Melvyn Bragg to lend the system weight. The loss of face and financial investment that must follow telling the truth are too terrifying to contemplate. In pop music, fame and fashion are allowed to come and go, but visual art is a tangible commodity with second-hand value, and a rumpled bed cannot, at £150,000, be as readily discarded as Will Young, Pop Idol of the moment, will be once his moment has passed.
You say that connoisseurship is irrelevant, and that I should not expect to use it when I review exhibitions. This would reduce me to the level of Richard Cork, a glove-puppet of Serota’s establishment. I cannot regard art as a mere phenomenon to be reported with the dispassion of a scientist, which is, in some sense, how I see your work on television-entirely without judgement of quality.
In ignorance of Saint Makarios, who forbade all forms of flattery, you pay me compliments but you do not understand me. You say that I am anti-abstractionist: I am not; I own abstract paintings and sculpture and seek the abstract in representational paintings. You say that I do not know what to do with abstract art: but I do, and I give way to no one in enthusiasm for Mondrian’s Boogie-Woogie paintings. You say that I “can’t take the meaninglessness:” not so-it is the pointlessness, the wearying lack of wit and quality that I cannot take; but give me a great Kupka and I’ll talk you through its meaninglessness with more enthusiasm than I could ever muster for Van Dyck. Does this really suggest a deliberate structure or system in my criticism? I vow that I go to every exhibition without a prejudice and am, in the light of revelation, prepared to change whatever view I hold-as I have with Beuys, Duchamp and Ellsworth Kelly.
I am amused to discover that we are both enshrined in academic history-“Compare the cultural strategies of Brian Sewell and Matthew Collings” was a recent MA question at the Courtauld Institute. A structure, a system, and now a cultural strategy-whatever next?
My parish priest used to sign his letters, “Yours, in friendship”-I am inclined to do the same.
4th March 2002
You claim that I don’t make value judgements. I do. I just don’t say it in the way you want to hear it.
With art, one tends to find what one is looking for. If you’re looking for something that isn’t on offer-like ex-ICA chairman Ivan Massow complaining he can’t find craft skills in conceptual art-then very likely you will feel that there’s nothing there. Which is to return to the original point-stories that art might have to tell which are beyond art itself. I have just seen an exhibition by Colin Lowe and Roddy Thomson which was very eloquent about modern life and as dynamic as anything by Joseph Beuys. It included a work about Lowe’s father. From the grainy enlarged photo of him used for the work, he seems to be a hospitalised basket case, an alcoholic. Dressed in pyjamas, with a towel round his head, he has a Bin Laden look. There was beer-and-winemaking equipment at the back of the installation, with tubes of red wine connecting, hospital drip-like, to the dad’s body. What were the associations? A taboo about alcohol, an ill patriarch and another, more threatening patriarch. It was a story about sickness; quirky, witty and concise.
In a previous age you might have found these qualities in a play. It might have been done as a narrative. But it wasn’t, because the storytellers are artists. The themes were spelled out in a visual way: the aesthetic came from it being right.
I agree that, compared to the Renaissance, this is a depraved and idiotic cultural period we’re living in. But I still want to look for what is serious in my own time.
5th March 2002
Like you, I long to be thrilled, moved and sated by a contemporary work of art; unlike you and, at twice your age, with a far longer view, I am filled with pessimism unrelieved. Apart from your final, optimistic note, your concluding letter makes little sense.
Art must be more than happy or unhappy accident, must not depend wholly on the whimsies of a “curator of interpretation” (the title given to the puppet at the Tate). You must not drag Ivan Massow into this argument, a poor deluded boy who knows nothing about art and even less about the art world. His only value here is the impatient honesty of his gut reaction-an honesty unknown in the work of critics who dance on the pin-head of contemporary art and have neither scholarship nor historical perspective.
In your second paragraph, you describe a commonplace of photography and video rather than an ancestral art form, and we have seen it a thousand times before-at £20,000 if it is by Bill Viola, £20 if by a student in any of our state academies, with not much to choose between the two in quality. Photography and video (ideal stuff for the provision of pretentious longueurs on BBC4 and Artsworld) belong on television, or with advertisements in the cinema, not in art galleries. You, I fear, have surrendered to the propagandists and now faithfully believe the One Commandment of Contemporary Art: “If a man declares himself to be an artist, then whatever he produces is necessarily art.” I have no doubt that this is engraved over the door of your privy.
Affectionately (in my way)