Feeling Sorry for Art Critics

I have begun to feel a bit sorry for art critics appearing today in print and on TV. These are people who in the main, have studied art history in depth and visited the great museum of Europe and have to comment on what is called cutting-edge art, efforts at the attenuated end of a historical process which often require more imaginative resources to make them worth considering than the works contain themselves. When these poor art journalists get the chance to expound on past masters, they can be knowledgeable and perceptive but most of the time it’s either traditional-style mediocrity or the new stuff, that at one bound immunises itself against criticism by dealing in ready-mades and conceptualism.

What strategies do the writers employ? Consider these three quotations taken from reviews by The Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak. :

‘Warhol’s most important achievement … is … he taught modern America how to feel comfortable with its with its dumbness … Warhol believed in shallowness. Warhol made it okay to love shopping, to drink coke, to adore Disney, to worship Marilyn and Elvis.’

‘A cheeky chappie has gone on show at the Tate Modern … He has a square head, an impressive length of dowelling for a nose and he’s roughly the size of the White Cliffs of Dover … This is Blockhead the latest in an intriguing line of contemporary whoppers commissioned for us by Tate Modern … The great shift in gallery purpose that has taken place in our lifetime has been the shift from education to entertainment. People used to go to museum to learn and to be enlightened. Now they go for fun. Museums … achieve … for art lovers what Butlins did for holidays.’

‘With such an artist on site (Bill Viola) the gallery (the National, London) could hope to feel younger, brighter. People inject botox into their wrinkles for similar reasons. These days contemporary art is better for business than old masters. It attracts bigger and younger crowds. It offers more spectacle, demands less education and has grown ever so adept at supplying the circus quotient of the bread and circus equation.’

There is consistency here. I’m not sure that we look at old masters for education or enlightenment but it is certainly for something different than we get from bouncy castles.

Matthew Collings another art journalist in the news and on the box, takes a slightly different line. The Chapman brothers are good, he has said, but they are not comparable with the great artists of the past. We just have to accept what art has become. In a recent television programme, he gave as his final example of beauty, the relationship between the vast white spaces of Munich’s Pinakothek Der Moderne and the works therein. Collings no longer expects anything from the artwork itself. He finds interest only in a sort of minimal interior decoration on a monumental.

While Januszczak tries to whip up enthusiasm for dumbing down as a democratising process and Matthew Collings regretfully accepts it as unavoidable, The Scotsman’s chief art critic, Duncan Macmillan is less yielding. There is more than a whiff of had-enoughness about his recent reviews. I had tended to argue for a time that the conceptualists were able to hold sway in the absence of anything substantial of another kind. Now I am not so sure. Macmillan is a historian who has produced the most complete history of Scottish art to date. He gave the memorial lecture for the Scottish painter Stephen Campbell who sadly died at the height of his powers. Could it be that the advent of an artist like this, so original and inventive yet preserving a connection with the great European tradition, allows a path for contemporary art beyond Januszczak’s ingeniously championed banality and Collings defeatism?

British Painters and Post-Impressionism

Out of respect for the beams that hold up my flat, I don’t often buy hardback books. Only occasionally something comes along which I must have hot off the press. I can’t honestly say that David Boyd Haycock’s book, A Crisis of Brilliance, about six painters who attended the Slade School of Art before the First World War, is in that category – it is not a brilliant book – but I was very glad to receive it as a Christmas present. It cleared up lots of loose ends for me, the relationships of these painters with the Bloomsbury group and the role that Edward Marsh, Churchill’s private secretary played as a patron to them. Then there are the details of their tortured lives: Dora Carrington shot herself; Mark Gertler stuck his head in a gas oven; John Currie murdered his empty-headed mistress and then turned the gun on himself.

Aside from personal agonies two events shaped their lives. In 1910 and 1912 Roger Fry mounted his exhibitions of Post-Impressionist art. Their Slade drawing teacher, Henry Tonks, advised a boycott but like any students worth their salt they paid no heed. The second notable influence on their careers was the Great War.

It is interesting to compare this group with a roughly contemporary Scottish group. The Slade painters were born anything from ten to twenty years later than the Scottish Colourists but things didn’t move so fast in those days and both lots of artists had to position themselves with regard to the innovations of painters across the Channel.

If you subscribe to a Manichean duality about the history of the arts, always judging in terms of the progressive and the conservative, the significant and the non-significant, in other words always seeing an obligatory trajectory, the Scottish painters win hands down. They were much more like the French big beasts. One of them, J.D. Fergusson, even exhibited in Paris with the Fauves. But there can be a danger in following what appears to be the progressive lead : the prompted works may only give a local variant of what is done much better by the original producers.

The Slade artists were much more circumspect. All were a bit influenced at first by the new art of France but when Stanley Spencer was asked about Picasso, he replied that ‘he hadn’t got past Piero della Francesca.’ Yet he never did anything that didn’t look as if it belonged to the twentieth century. Paul Nash took what he wanted from the European modernists but never lost in his best work his essential Englishness.

Nash and Spencer who are the only artists of the Slade group to be in the first rank of British painters, saw action in the Great War and became involved with the Official War Artists scheme. Both lived to be War Artists also during the Second Word War. Arguably Nash’s best works are from the two conflicts while Spencer’s 1941 series Shipbuilders on the Clyde is the culminating triumph of his career.

In some ways Richard Nevinson who was also a soldier and War Artist, was more like the Scottish painters, clinging more adhesively to continental influences. Today, his cubist efforts seem on the crude side and don’t challenge his French and Italian models. However, I rather like a painting of his entitled The Road from Arras to Bapaume, reproduced on a CD I have of the music of the Scottish composer Cecil Coles, who was killed in the Great War. It is almost a brown monochrome work and has something of the character of those empty seascapes by L.S. Lowry. In a work like this Nevinson too, preserves what Pevsner called ‘the Englishness of English art.'

The New Year

The first papers of the year are full of summings-up and lists of forthcoming events. Looking at bestselling authors of the decade, I note that apart from the classics like Shakespeare and Dickens, I have only read one of the hundred cited. There is no getting away from elitism if you have a serious interest in the arts. Heading the list is the author J.K. Rowling. If my grandson were the right age, I might well have read to him some of her works. I did read The Lord of the Rings to my son when he was very small but I could never understand why adults were reading it for themselves alone. Grown-ups, who read children’s books, like those who go into middle age and beyond listening to nothing but pop music seem to me very sad people.

There are some interesting things promised for 2010 however. The Tate Modern is to have a major exhibition of the work of Arshile Gorky. In my final two years at art college when I became interested in abstract art, Jackson Pollock and Gorky represented to me the peak of achievement in the field. The other Americans, Kline, Hofmann, Sam Francis et al seemed no better than the French Tachistes who were the final fling of the dying School of Paris. I always failed to see what the fuss was about Mark Rothko, though I am prepared to admit that I completely lack the beatific gene, which is why I have never been tempted to smoke cannabis. But then I have never smoked nicotine either. An old school chum of my wife is married to an American lawyer involved with the estate of another American abstract expressionist, Clyfford Still. I believe he is now to have a museum built to house exclusively his works. I cannot think of anything that would be duller.

On the home front it has been pointed out to me that 2010 is the hundredth anniversary of the death of the Scottish Impressionist William Mactaggart. When many years ago there was a major Festival Exhibition of his works in the RSA Galleries, the art historian Martin Kemp, late of St. Andrews and Oxford universities, expressed the hope that the exhibition would firmly establish the reputation of the painter. (At the same time he said he was less sure of the Scottish Colourists, which coincides with my view.) Alas, it was not to be. Some amateur critics on radio and elsewhere found some narrative traces in some of his pieces and duly condemned him. Kirkcaldy Art Gallery and Museums, which has a large holding of his works, is to do something and the National Gallery of Scotland is, at least, to have a new hanging of his works. What I would like to see, is one of his really good works hung among the gallery’s French Impressionist paintings. I’m not sure the gallery actually has anything that quite fits the bill. Perhaps the town could lend its excellent work, Jophie’s Neuk, which they don’t often show.