Brian Sewell was quite a character but he might not have become quite such a character if he had talked like Ray Winstone - or some of my neighbours. The tortured, posh voice carries a political weight usually denied to more honest tongues like ‘folk fae Fife’. Sewell’s caricature of Edwardian drawing-room English was a carefully-crafted weapon: expertly wielded; sharp on every side.
However clever and witty he seems fated to be remembered as a bit of a dinosaur. Ironically, some of his prime targets exploited his savage wit – like the Brit-art crowd. Without Sewell’s dismissal of their artlessness Hirst and Emin et al might have had more of a struggle to build their reputations.
As a critic, Sewell might even have been a ‘national treasure’ but he was not a great fan of that other treasure, David Hockney. Unlike the Spectator art critic, Andrew Lambirth, who jealously guarded Hockney’s work and wrote:
“a great many people visited (Hockney’s 2012 Royal Academy exhibition) and came out smiling and uplifted. They tended to be individuals who don’t usually go to exhibitions or look at real painting (sic), and it may thus be said that they had very little idea of what they were actually looking at, or indeed should be looking for in an exhibition of painting”.
I have been visiting all sorts of exhibitions since my youth and Lambirth set me wondering if I too might be someone who had ‘little idea’ of what I was looking at – or should be ‘looking for’ - in a show of paintings. It had never occurred to me that I might need a qualification to visit an exhibition. Who would decide if I was adequately prepared to be allowed entry? Perhaps dumb viewers like me should pay less for entry since we shall gain so much less from the experience. Hey ho!
There may well be only two kinds of people who try to appreciate art – the critic and everyone else. The critic may make interesting, amusing or informative observations. The critic may even stimulate others to think – hopefully for her or himself - although I think that letting us know what he (usually) thinks remains the main objective. So, criticism, as a profession of sorts, is not entirely without honour. But, is criticism any more than opinion – however, well articulated?
But is the critic’s performance –by turns, witty, savage or patronising – not just another arm of the entertainment industry?
Like musicians, actors or acrobats, the critic seeks to goad us; tickle us; unsettle us – playing with our emotions as well as our thinking. If we enjoy this performance we applaud and leave satisfied. If we don’t – we don’t return.
A less accepting conclusion – expressed by many playwrights, novelists and artists - is that critics, whether generous or contemptuous, are scavengers. Without the art the critic need not – indeed cannot - exist.
As Brendan Behan noted:
“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves”.
Today, I can upload my opinions on the latest books, restaurants or fashions to a huge assortment of digital media. Today, I could become a critic. All I need is someone to take my opinion seriously. I need someone to imagine that I possess that remarkable quality called ‘discernment’!
More importantly, I need someone who has never heard of Brendan Behan and his savagely accurate wit.