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Saturday, 6 December 2014

Hatchet job posing as Review

Artists, perhaps particularly those who make a bob or two out of their efforts, must expect - and will certainly get - criticism.  Sometimes that criticism will be fairly extreme - the so-called Young British Artists have discovered that; in general, I don't value their work any more than I'm impressed by the majority of the "Stuckists" who purport to oppose them.  I  also don't feel any compulsion at all to vilify them - whether I like or value  their work is quite irrelevant to its quality and ultimate aesthetic value.

Criticism from the public is one  thing; of course people aren't going to like or understand certain things, but whether that's their fault, or the fault of the artists who haven't got their point across, or actually nobody's real fault at all, is usually a wide-open question.

The professional art critic may take a more robust view - John Ruskin certainly did, accusing Whistler of being a 'Cockney coxcomb" who threw a pot of paint in the public's face (Whistler was a great draughtsman, and an awful snob).  Robust it may be, but we're entitled to expect that it won't be hysterical and personally offensive.

But then we have the Guardian's Jonathan Jones - I'm aware that he's a passionate man, with very strong views about painting (and much else).  He is a former admirer of Damien Hirst - or at least of Hirst's early work - who rarely has a good word for him these days.  He is generally supportive of Tracey Emin, she and Hirst being the enfants terribles of modern art, and the collective epitome of all that many people hate about it.

I don't have a view about any of that - I really intensely dislike Hirst's sculptural work, and am indifferent to his paintings.  I simply don't understand what Tracey Emin does, so don't express an opinion on her work if I can avoid it.  I do not seek to demonize them, however, and I think they're trotted out far too often by those who ALWAYS come up with the tired old "Emperor's new clothes" cliché, when all they really mean is "I don't get it so it must be crap".

Generally speaking, the passage of time will sort out whether anyone's any good or not, and I'm happy to leave it to do so.

But what to make of a critic who calls an artist's work "loathsome"?  Who tells us it isn't even sincere; who refers to her "daft daubs"?  Because this is what Jonathan Jones had to say about Maggi Hambling's latest exhibition - all that, and worse.  Is t his actually criticism at all?  Is it a review?  I think not - I think it's vulgar, splenetic, personal abuse; just about the most disgraceful thing I've seen a critic write.  The Guardian referred to it as "biting criticism", but of course it isn't: it isn't criticism at all; critics examine work and analyse it. offer a view of it, dissect it if they feel it requires it.  What they don't do is use emotionally-laden language approaching hate-speech - language that reminded me of Dr Joseph Goebbels' comments on the Entartete Kunst (decadent art) exhibition which the Nazis staged to demonstrate how modern art was all anti-social, rubbish, Jewish-dominated subversion.

That exhibition backfired on Goebbels - it attracted huge, and generally appreciative, crowds; whereas his approved art exhibition flopped.  I hope Jonathan's words backfire on him - his standing is not, frankly, high with those who know anything or write about art: after this vicious tirade it's likely to plummet, and it deserves to.   Go to the Guardian's website and read it, if you can stomach it.

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