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Art critics? Give me a gifted amateur any day

`The average product of the professional writer on art is, at best, dull; at worst, gibberish'
  • @PhilipHensher
MY EYE was caught by a letter the other day in that fine journal Modern Painters. I rather love their letters page. The magazine has a terrifically miscellaneous readership. You never know whether the next contribution will be from some lentil-eating abstract expressionist writing from Dorset to complain that the establishment has conspired to suppress his work for the past 40 years, or a serious point from some art-world grandee.

Anyway, the latest issue has a perfectly eye-boggling letter from the doyen of modernist art scholarship, David Sylvester. He was writing to complain about an article on Bridget Riley. The author of the article, that excellent man John Spurling, had quoted Sylvester as sounding rather sceptical about Riley. Mr Sylvester has written in to complain; he concedes that in the article, quoted from 1967, he was indeed not that keen on Ms Riley, or possibly pretending not to be. However, he is furious that Spurling did not acknowledge that, in the New Statesman in 1962, Sylvester had praised Riley strongly, and indeed, has done so since the 1967 article.

At this point, the magazine fell from my lifeless fingers. I bet Mr Spurling is feeling jolly foolish that it didn't occur to him to look at 40-year- old back copies of New Statesman before quoting a critic, just in case the critic had contradicted himself at any point. What purpose would be served by quoting everything anybody had ever said about Bridget Riley? I do not know, but at least we could all sleep soundly in our beds knowing that, thank God, Mr Sylvester had not been misrepresented. Even Mr Sylvester, who occupies a godlike status in the art world, even Mr Sylvester, who has written so interestingly and encouragingly about art during a long career, even he cannot reasonably complain of unfair treatment.

After all, he is only a critic.

The real point of his letter, however, comes at the end, when he delivers what he obviously considers to be a crushing blow. "Your list of contributors," he writes, "states that John Spurling is a playwright and novelist. Shouldn't part-time writers on art be as careful as professionals about doing their homework?"

This seems a little unfair. Not many people live up to Mr Sylvester's Olympian standards of criticism and bibliography, and I don't think specialists are necessarily all that reliable. Indeed, it might be thought that a life spent pursuing a narrow furrow may leave some embarrassing gaps in a fellow's education. There was an amusing occasion a few months ago when the music critic of The Sunday Times, who probably knows everything there is to know about pre-war sopranos, was repeating the familiar critical cliche that Michael Tippett's librettos, which he wrote himself, are mostly meaningless nonsense. Alas, the example he chose was not Tippett's but a line from an incredibly famous poem by WB Yeats which Tippett had set to music. An error which, surely, only a "professional" would make.

Nor has Mr Sylvester considered one, surely crucial, factor. Criticism is not pure insight; it has to be put into prose first. Personally, I find John Spurling's writing on art a distinct cut above the usual run of writings by "professionals" for one reason; it is very well written.

There is no doubt that Mr Sylvester is fortunate; he is not only knowledgeable, he also writes quite well. But I can assure him that very few of his professional colleagues manage to put their thoughts into prose. The average product of the professional writer on art is, at best, dull; at worst, gibberish. It really seems hard to condemn all "part-time" writers on art or, indeed, on anything else.

Professionals must consider whether the laborious effort of writing a novel or a play is not, in itself, a good preparation for the task of writing in an interesting and fresh manner on painting; whether, indeed, someone who has written a novel or envisaged a stage picture may not already have acquired "an eye". To be blunt, which would you rather read; someone who writes imaginatively, or the routine formulations of some public administrator, half-thinking about budgets and next summer's big show, and not at all about sentences and their meaning?

Thank heaven for amateurs, really. And if Mr Sylvester has his way, and discounts the value of criticism which emanates from "part-time writers on art", I wonder if he has considered the consequences? Away with Denis Diderot, away with John Ruskin, Marcel Proust and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt! No more Wittgenstein on colour, no more Adorno on music. Let's throw away Goethe's Farbenlehre because, after all, how could it be of any interest, being written by a mere "playwright and novelist"?

Let's insist on seeing everybody's union card, everybody's professional qualifications before we decide whether they should be allowed to say anything on any subject whatever! And instead - what a marvellous idea - let us turn to their "professional" contemporaries instead, and read them.

Less Diderot and more... more... er... there seems to be a problem. Only one. Somehow, all those professional commentators seem to have been completely forgotten.