Brian Sewell, the notorious British art critic, was a showman. He knew exactly how to play the part of critic. Stimulating, extreme in opinion, and extremely amusing. Sewell revelled in his own eccentricity, sharing his often outrageous opinions in the belief that others wished to do so but were lacking in honesty. He also believed that ‘the people’ knew nothing about art; and that it was his place to guide them, no matter how lacking in subtlety that guidance was, stating that: “The public doesn’t know good from bad. For this city [Bristol] to be guided by the opinion of people who don’t know anything about art is lunacy. It doesn’t matter if they [the public] like it.”
For myself, Sewell came to prominence in the 1990’s when I was a young naive art student utterly beguiled by the burgeoning YBA movement of the period, and believing staunchly in ‘cool Britannia’; I was affronted by Sewell’s vicious attacks upon one Damien Hirst – a hero – as far as I was concerned. Oh, how times have changed.
Sewell more recently said of the artist’s painterly ability: “Were Hirst’s canvases the work of a late teenager, we might take the random lines around the skulls as a clever allusion to the measuring-points of a sculptor of Canova’s generation, or as an illusion of cracked glass, and forgive the ugly clumsiness of inexperienced execution; but Hirst is nearing his half-century and should have a far higher level of skill than this rough daubing, with which he degrades his master, Bacon.”
I confess to coming around to Sewell’s way of thinking on the subject. Very true, very honest – and very funny. His acerbic wit and panache made him an art world character in his own right; he was not only an critic of art, but became a part of British art history, alongside names like Francis Bacon – Sewell was in fact a great entertainer, he could always make one Laugh.
On Tracey Emin Sewell exclaimed: “The sane man must ask whether he should give any of this pretentious stuff the time of day in aesthetic terms when it seems that this self-regarding exhibitionist is ignorant, inarticulate, talentless, loutish and now very rich.”
But as much as Sewell appeared to want the death of contemporary art, his words did little to stop the steamroller – but it never rolled over him: as artists loved him, as in reality contemporary art’s staunchest critic inadvertently acted as the other half of a perfect double act – and how could you not love the waspish vitriol that accompanied this particular relationship?
So with that I think it only fitting to give Mr. Sewell the final word, and on the subject of those he has left behind to continue his good work: “Art criticism everywhere is now at a low ebb, intellectually corrupt, swamped in meaningless jargon, distorted by political correctitudes, anxiously addressed only to other critics and their ilk.”
Thank you Brian.
Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2015.