A Voice In The Wilderness

It is with some trepidation that I dial the phone number of Brian Sewell, Britain’s most outspoken and controversial art critic. This is a man that has called the Tate Modern “the ugliest museum in Christendom”, Barbara Hepworth “a one-trick pony” and Rachael Whitbread’s work “a pile of rubbish”. He is not one
to mince his words.

We don’t get off to a brilliant start. I tell him that I’m studying Art History at Oxford. “Is that wise?” is the smooth, considered and oh so ironic response that comes from the other end of the phone line. He later elaborates. “I am sick and tired of students who send me their so-called theses to read, because they think I might enjoy them. I don’t”.

But Sewell is not really a philistine. He is fascinated by art. He was encouraged to take an interest from an early age by his mother. She was a painter and took him on trips to the National Gallery. She used to challenge him to run round and find certain types of paintings, such as Spanish or Italian ones. Later, he decided to go to the Courtauld Institute to study Art History. After graduating, he became a specialist in Old Master paintings and drawings at Christie’s auction house. Touchingly, he found that he couldn’t bear to sell the paintings to undeserving clients and so he left the job and tried his hand at writing. Ever since getting his job in 1984 as art critic for the Evening Standard he has never looked back.

His art criticism has many attractions. Firstly, it is always full of evocative description. Rather like Diderot, he brings the works that he describes to life. Take his description of Potiphar’s wife in Orazio Gentileschi’s Joseph in Buckingham Palace: “Gentileschi’s narrative is revealed inch by inch, the sense of buttocks under the blue cloth, a naked back, another naked knee, all continuing the diagonal thrust that began with the toes in the corner, and then a naked shoulder and under an outstretched arm the sight of big high breasts and one proud nipple.”
The same sensuous language is applied in the food criticism that he does occasionally. An oyster dish becomes a platform for drama: “Ruined in a mess of passion fruit and lavender, quail jelly with a parfait of foie gras, and then a bed of moss under another rising Macbeth mist as the setting for a shred of truffle on half a skinny soldier of toast.”
Then there’s the force of personality behind the work. Sewell absolutely loves to be witty. Recently the Standard got him to go and review Heston Blumenthal’s fashionable Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire. He delighted in labelling the vanilla mayonnaise and green tea mousse a Baroque attempt at the “five senses of the Renaissance”, and also in calling the restaurant’s wildly pretentious owner an insane ‘Mr Fiddle-Faddle’. He also comes up with excellent one-liners. He tells me how he doesn’t go round the art colleges anymore because the chance of discovering someone good is too remote: “There’s no point in inflicting punishment on oneself. And I’m not a masochist”.
Sewell also has a rather naughty sense of humour. Take the focus of his recent television program on channel Five. In it he examines ‘the dark underbelly’ of the supposedly educational tours taken by the English aristocracy in the 18th century. He sheds new light, for example, on James Boswell, a nobleman who made voluminous notes on the tour. He tells the story of how Boswell “suffered spontaneous ejaculation in his trousers, after playing kneesy with a young woman at the opera.” The paintings of the martyrdom of John that feature the saint
with an erection were also a subject on which he wanted to touch. Five didn’t allow it. Such a shame, he explained, “you have only to say the word “wank” on TV and an audience of 300 will roll with laughter”. The references to wanking and ejaculation sound particularly funny when coming from someone so posh. He typically wears an unbuttoned shirt and a smart navy suit jacket with a handkerchief visible in his breast pocket for his television appearances. His silvery grey hair is always carefully combed to one side andhis bi-focals sit half-way down the nose. He looks like a slightly tatty aristocrat. The voice also adds to the image. A normal “so there” is a drawn out “seeuw theeeur”. According to Paul Merton, Sewell is so posh that he makes even the Queen look rough.

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His fruity, high-brow tones are so renowned that they have become popular to impersonate. He is imitated by Jon Culshaw on the Dead Ringers comedy show. A track on the 1991 comedy CD Tested on Humans for Irritancy has satirical journalist Victor Lewis-Smith telephoning Sewell and, in Sewell’s voice, asking the critic to appear on a spoof arts program. Naturally, he was not amused by this. And most people seem even to find his anti-populist sentiments quite entertaining. He once offended some people in Gateshead by claiming that an
exhibition was too important to be held only at the Baltic and should be shown to “more sophisticated” audiences in London.

It is not just the wit and prose style, then, that gives Sewell the edge, but also this rather delightful sense of snobbish superiority. This is a man that says: I know what I’m talking about and don’t you dare disagree.
This is no more obvious than when he airs his opinions on contemporary art. Sewell thinks that most of it is rubbish. “The so called ‘great artists’ of today”, he explains with conviction, “only have one great idea, with luck two, but certainly not more. Their ideas can be understood in a split second. In the blink of an eye you know everything about the bloody thing”. We move down a list of ‘bad artists’. First is Anthony Gormley, Turner prize winner, maker of the Angel of the North and currently exhibiting at the Hayward Gallery, with his “Blind Light” exhibition. The verdict: “He just rehashes the same old thing. Gormley does what Gormley does… ”. Then there’s Anya Gallaccio, a Turner nominee who makes works out of organic materials: “A lunatic, who’s just
interested in rotting vegetables”. And of course Damien Hirst, best known for The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the shark in formaldehyde: “A showman with admittedly some kind of wayward intelligence but no knowledge.”

Shocking as these accusations are, they don’t actually mean very much. So I ask him to elaborate. He reiterates that the problem is mainly one of intelligence. According to Sewell, most contemporary artists “don’t realise how dim-witted and shallow they actually are”. And apparently their teachers also suffer from the same problem. A case of the blind leading the blind: “One idiot concept, followed by another idiot concept. Monkey see, monkey do”.
I ask him whether he thinks that, despite this, contemporary art can engage with its public. I’m thinking of Langlands and Bell’s The House of Osama Bin Laden, which tries to tap into contemporary political opinion. No, he tells me, “It has no dialogue with the world around it”. But doesn’t the popularity of contemporary art bear testimony to a dialogue between art and audience? Millions tune in it see the results of the Turner every year and Tracy Emin’s My Bed has become a household name, I point out. But I’ve pushed him too far. “It might be
popular, but so are fish and chips. Would you recommend that everyone should go and look at that?”

The impression that I get with Sewell is that he is a man of the old school; an Ernst Gombrich if you like, who values the art historical trajectory. This is why he likes the Chapman brothers, whom he credits with “real vigour and intelligence”. They reference Goya all the time in their work and other artists, like Hieronymus Bosch, William Blake and Nicolas Poussin. Sewell also likes them because he thinks that they technically are very strong. “They try their hand at a lot of things. They try etching, and produce some very good etchings”.

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Technical ability is something he values highly. He recalls, with particular disgust, a situation he encountered at one of the top art colleges a few years ago where he came across a student who wanted to achieve the same kind of effect as Leonardo. The student asked around the teachers and apparently no one could help. “They didn’t even have the slightest inkling. When you have got to this stage”, he says with desperation, “you have got no hope”.

Sewell’s argument against contemporary art extends right into the art world. He’s really thought the whole ‘problem’ through. Firstly, he blames the art colleges. Not only are their teachers unable to teach, (according to Sewell the Head of the Royal Academy could not paint a Christmas card), but they take on too many students, many of whom “they know in their bones are no good”.
Secondly, he blames the art market. He thinks that the creativity of successful contemporary artists is stifled by the amount of money floating around, and so is the critical ability of the dealers who are afraid to rock the market for fear of loosing out. Thirdly, he blames the fact that the contemporary art world is run by a very small clique of people. He cites the case of his predecessor, Richard Cork. He has served as Chair of the Visual Arts Panel at the Arts Council of England, sat on committees such as those in the Hayward Gallery and the British Council, and been on the panel of judges for the Turner Prize. Consequentially the taste of Cork and a few others rule: ‘Nowadays, if you want a piece of public sculpture anywhere in the provinces it has to be a
Gormley or Kapoor. No one else gets a look in”.

Sewell tells me proudly that he sits firmly outside the art establishment. Lots of critics, he points out, judge the prizes, teach the artists and have a say in the allocation of public funding. He, however, “is not a joiner”. But does this really add legitimacy to his criticism? It seems that regardless of the number of committees that men like Richard Cork might serve on, Sewell’s problem with them is that he simply doesn’t like their taste. He has no problem with Poussin and the seventeenth-century French classicists, even though their work came out
of small courtly patronage networks.

Sewell, of course, is never going to change is mind. In terms of his own popularity, there is really no reason why he should. There are a huge number of people who agree that contemporary art is rubbish, and many more who are at the very least rather puzzled by it. His arguments are always quoted in the Turner debate. This year he added a twist to his stance by choosing to ignore it completely; even this was noted.

What is rather admirable though about the latter decision is that it shows how much Sewell cares. He is simply so annoyed by the Turner that he does not want to profit from the annual hype by making angry comments. He is a man of much conviction.

He’s also praying that one day they’ll have an effect. Strikingly, he touches on this when he’s describing the prospects for Damien Hirst’s career. “Someone will say in 20 or 30 years time that Hirst is a load of rubbish. The prices will begin to drop and no one will want one”. Will he be the one to bring everything crashing down? Unfortunately not, the clock is ticking. “I shall be dead”, he says matter-of-factly “but somebody like me will begin to convince the art market that these supposedly great figures are no good”.