Sunday, 20 September 2015

Brian Sewell

Image result for brian sewell
I'm truly saddened by the death of Brian Sewell, saddened to a degree I've never before felt for some one I never met. He was a giant among critics. Brian—for he will always be Brian to me—was a really great writer with a unique prose style, and his acerbic criticism stood out from the consumer reports written by some of his peers. But the strength of his criticism came from his extraordinary knowledge of art. Sewell was famous for his put-downs, but his brilliance really came through in his enthusiasms. He had both a good eye and a deep knowledge of art history that he shared generously. 

I'm saddened a second time by the obituaries, because they emphasise too much his barbs and too little his enthusiasms. I'm struck by how everyone notes that Brian was often wrong. Of course he was sometimes wrong. But the judgment of 'wrong-ness' is sometimes made with a finality that implies that he was objectively WRONG. That contrasts with Brian's own criticism. For all its vitriol, his controversial judgments were thoughtfully presented. He was consciously goading the panjandrums of officialdom, which is quite different from demanding obeisance to conventional wisdom. Strong words are fitting when trying to overturn consensus; they are unnecessary and even censorious when demanding deference to convention. 

The goading worked, and the panjandrums hated him. It is simply astounding that people felt moved to sign letters in protest at an art critic, and that high officials sought to get him sacked because they disliked his criticism. It underlines the need to challenge the sensitive bullies with identikit taste.

Brian' rich vocabulary and sophisticated writing made demands of his readers, but rewarded us amply. He believed in his audience. His Christmas 'books of the year' showed the breadth of his reading, recommending recondite and expensive academic texts to the readers of what became a free local paper. And he even taught art history in prisons, which I think tells you more about the man than any number of encomia. Brian's autobiography will, I think, stand the test of time. It's not only a window on a fascinating life. It's also one of the best autobiographies I've ever read. I was put off by reports of its salaciousness, but when I finally summoned the will to read it I found the discussion of sex to be frank, yes, but also authentically integrated into the life. He is a rarity among writers for his ability to write about sex without awkwardness. 

I desperately hope that his criticism will last too, although it's not a model that can be followed. You see some people who try, but you can't emulate Brian's style or form without first mastering the content - having a solid grounding in art history and a great eye. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this, I agree entirely. The majority of the obituaries seem to misunderstand and underrate him. They seem to imply that his main difference from other critics were his sharp tongue and a willingness to criticise. But what he had was a great and deep love of art. He spent a long time actually looking at art. His writings on contemporary art were far superior to other critics, even though they thought him prehistoric in his views, because of this. Many of his rivals seem to believe that the history of art is 'progressive' and therefore what is popular now must somehow be good, or a natural development. But history shows us that not every generation produces great artists, and conventional wisdom often does not stand the test of time. We are lucky he was willing to look and decide for himself, and had the intellectual confidence to print these opinions against the will of the baying crowd.