Where are the critics who can save British art from itself?by Graham Bendel / December 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
The American writer HL Mencken famously noted that the proper relationship of journalist and politician should be that of dog and lamp-post. The same should be said of critic and artist, except that in 21st century art there seem to be too many dry lamp-posts. Criticism, practised by a new breed of pundit, has become house trained.
The omens are dark. On 3rd November, with the death of Ernst Gombrich, the epoch-sweeping grandeur of The Story of Art was consigned to the 20th century. Before Gombrich went David Sylvester, one of the most respected art critics in the English language, who died in June. What has flourished in their wake, curator and writer Matthew Higgs has said, is in an arena devoid of proper dissent. It is not just the perversity of Brian Sewell-last of the big chiefs-that has marginalised the idea of high criticism. The bellowing, portentous tone of the critic has been piped down by a need to be included in an establishment that takes its art extra-lite. The impartial dissenter gets left out in the cold-something Sarah Kent might have considered before writing catalogues for art’s paymaster general, Charles Saatchi. Sewell, to his credit, is unapologetically uninterested in the modern art scene.
Critics can join in as never before. There is talk of “super curators,” who are also writers and critics, and share the stage with the Emins and Hirsts-so long as they keep authenticating their art as art. Of course, there are plenty of decent journalists who do not appear to have any vested interests, and do speak out: Waldemar Januszczak, David Lee, Adrian Searle. But no giants, no ogres who can make or break an artist’s reputation with an article or a book. Indeed, there’s the rub. There are no artists with a reputation robust enough to be worth breaking. When Robert Hughes, the Time critic and one of the few writers with the power to keep the art world hanging on his every word, starts publishing books about fishing, you have to wonder i…