Where are the critics who can save British art from itself?by Graham Bendel / December 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
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 if there is anything left to write about.
Currently, Matthew Collings is the man of the moment (the “moment” being the locus that Britart wants to inhabit). Rock-star like in his love of the camera-as narcissistic as the best of the yBA’s-Collings takes his place with Sarah Kent and Brian Sewell in the triptych of A-list critics. He describes himself as a “pure insider.”
His style is informal, conversational (complete with non-sequiturs, grammatical errors and indecision). Collings is endearing, fun, easy to read and listen to. Courtesy of This Is Modern Art and Hello Culture, he has become a regular fixture on television. In his own words, he is a “media whore,” a communicator as adept at publicity as many of his subjects. But he has his detractors. Many think that his approach is lightweight, made to match the skinny content of his subject.
Perhaps art has become so insubstantial that it is more satisfying to aim dissent at the critic. There is more to get your teeth into-more craft. Sylvester’s writing, in its time, was considered sensuous, having an “almost physical dimension,” as if it were art. In 1993, he won a Golden Lion Award, the first time a critic received the award.
Combining brevity and readability, Collings is not so far from a writer like Sylvester. He has inherited an acute distaste for bullshit and he knows his stuff. Sylvester recognised the appeal. “One of Collings’s great strengths,” Sylvester said, “is his insistence that in art things are not either/or but both/and. He is constantly aware that something can be basically flawed… even a little bit phoney, but still have artistic power.”
But who else is there? Rosie Millard, the BBC arts correspondent, has got tongues wagging. She too loves the camera and her new book, The Tastemakers, is certainly extensive. But as a guided tour around the modern art scene, its guide asks too many questions of others, delegating the business of analysis and comment to the artists themselves.
There is another voice emerging, one that speaks with authority and censure. Julian Stallabrass is the author of High Art Lite-a left wing critique of the yBA’s that has been championed by figures as various as Will Self and Bryan Appleyard. Stallabrass is not aligned with any cliques within the art world, so provides an uncompromising dissection of the elitism and nihilistic posturing of Saatchi’s little helpers. From his background in the Courtauld Institute, Stallabrass certainly does a fine job of underscoring art’s current immodesty. Collings is less enthusiastic. “He doesn’t know much about art,” he says. Adrian Searle also has his reservations: “there is a deadness about his expositions that makes me wonder if he actually likes art.”
A critic who doesn’t like art-seems perfect for our trite age. Except, there is another contender, an outside runner. This man is quite unpretentious, and practises a rather severe, uncompromising brand of dissent. His name? Emmanuel Asare, the cleaner at the Eyestorm Gallery, who recently chucked Damien Hirst’s rubbish-based work of art in the bin.