BY Adrian Searle in Frieze | 06 JAN 95
Featured in
Issue 20

King of Cacafuego

Taking Brian Sewell for a spin

BY Adrian Searle in Frieze | 06 JAN 95

He's a dog-lover, a stock-car racing aficionado, a sound-bite specialist, an ice-cream salesman and a habitual denizen of late night chat shows. As the regular reviewer for London's Evening Standard, he is the best known art critic in the Home Counties: he's Brian Sewell, a man whom the public seem to love, and whom just about everyone involved in the field of contemporary art loves to hate. Twice voted 'critic of the year', Sewell is art criticism's voice of reason in a world gone mad.

Brian Sewell has just written a book. Or rather, not written a book: his critical writings have recently been collected. To have one's essays amassed and served up in a weighty package - one's deft thumbnail vignettes and the worried-over, reference-packed think-pieces, the monographic ruminations and the lethal evaluations - is the dream of most critics. To be collected is to enter a small but significant canon: think of John Ruskin, John Berger, Herbert Read. Think of Peter Schjeldahl, Frank O'Hara, Max Kozloff. Think of Greenberg, Rosenberg, Gablik and Lippard. Think, if you like, of Peter Fuller (remaindered), and of Stuart Morgan, whose collected writings are soon to appear. I look forward to Morgan's collection, but I've spent much of the last week wondering how to write about Sewell's book without actually having to read it. Its title, The Reviews That Caused The Rumpus, is jaunty enough, but it's hardly The Hydrogen Jukebox.

Critical collections are better dipped into than read at a stretch, and working my way through Sewell's corpus has been a particularly dispiriting experience. There his little publication squats, next to the loo - this being the only place I dare read it without being spotted. The book's author squats, too, on the cover: naked and astonished, his huddled form cleverly montaged over the draped pudenda (a very Sewellian word, that), of the unconscious woman in Fuseli's painting Nightmare. Sewell doesn't look entirely happy to find himself in such close proximity to the female sex - poor dear Brian.

I failed to go the distance. Sewell the art critic makes Hilton Kramer sound like Hal Foster; turns the late Peter Fuller into Rosalind Krauss; makes even the likes of Giles 'modern-art-is-rubbish' Auty (The Spectator) and William 'what-is-the-point-of-me?' Feaver (The Obser-ver), appear sensible.

Although he abhors what he regards as art critical jargon, Sewell's favourite words are 'panjandrum', 'apnoea', 'cacafuego', 'eximious' and 'ekphrasis'. He comes on as the old-fashioned connoisseur, but uses his Courtauld Institute training and his small battery of rare words to lard up his philistine opinions. He's not quite Colonel Blimp - being a fan of Beuys, Tapiès, Velázquez and dear, dear Johnny Minton. And he likes Carl Andre's bricks at the Tate, Jasper Johns' drawings, and Kathe Kollwitz - but he foams over feminism, the Arts Council, the South Bank Centre, art schools, art magazines, political correctness, positive discrimination, the Turner Prize, other art critics and almost all contemporary artists. He delights in the odious, and the reader soon discovers amidst Sewell's fulminations, a puerile fascination with sex. In this matter, he is both crude and coy. Misogynous and homophobic, he talks of 'purblind lesbians', 'boiler-suited feminists', 'blind women critics', 'Irish labourers idly engaged in sodomy in back street Kilburn lodgings' and - of Leigh Bowery - 'a candidate for multiple infibulation in unseemly places'. At the same time, in his criticism, he is always on the lookout for sagged breasts, perinea, boys' bums and 'orchids in the rainforest'.

Sewell's private hang-ups and his public persona are all of a piece. The trouble is that he has such a huge audience for his rantings. His weird accent, his obtuse vocabulary and art historical name-dropping lend him an air of patrician authority, and he is forever being dragged out of whatever closet he inhabits, to pontificate on artistic matters. Crummy local radio stations and down-market TV chat shows provide his soapbox, and the Evening Standard gives him a captive audience of exhausted commuters who use his column as a temporary escape from those interminable delays during the rush-hour. Sewell is media-friendly alright, but unfriendly to just about everything else - although I understand he's awfully kind to animals.

Brian Sewell makes me paranoid. There's a bit of me that wonders if whatever drives him is also what drives the rest of us hacks on the art-chat circuit. But the art world luminaries who wrote to the Evening Standard demanding Sewell's resignation also bother me. They exemplify the notion that critics should be responsible, that they exist primarily to promote, advertise and generally jolly-up the public's perception of contemporary art. But criticism isn't PR, and approaching artworks from peculiar, individual angles is what critics are there for. Much of what is shown is worth deriding because it is banal, boring and incoherent. Then again, most art criticism isn't much cop either. The world of criticism is filled with clerics and zealots, ten-percenters and mark-up men. Much as I despise Sewell's critical stance, at least it isn't mealy-mouthed, or policed by the kind of dreary rectitude which makes much art writing and art talk so dull.

Sewell talks of criticism as being close to prostitution. Artists who think that critics should be their apologists have got it wrong too - what we need is more dissent, more argument and more voices. The trouble with Brian is that he only dissents, has but one argument, and only one voice. I get the feeling that these are all affectations. Criticism ought to be creative and speculative (if not, why bother to write at all), but Sewell's single creation turns out to be nothing more than an anachronistic defence against a world he does not understand. Of course, in the arena of popular journalism, these affectations provide lively copy, meaty sound-bites and bags of controversy. In the end, blame the editors, and remember the old Fleet Street dictum: never let your ignorance get in the way of your journalism. Fair enough Bri?