BOOK REVIEW / Through an English eye: 'Peter Fuller's Modern Painters' - ed John McDonald: Methuen, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
AT A RECENT symposium on the current state of British art, a prominent art critic declared: 'Art is dead', and with this summary dismissal revealed the greater truth that, while art might be unwell, art criticism in this country, if not dead, is affected by a terminal malaise.

It was not always thus. Britian has produced some of the modern era's most distinguished commentators on art, from Walter Pater and John Ruskin, through Roger Fry and Clive Bell, to Herbert Read and Kenneth Clarke. This volume of occasional writings confirms that to this list should be added the name of Peter Fuller, whose untimely death in 1990 immeasureably impoverished British art criticism.

Often characterised by his critical adversaries as a fogeyish reactionary - a caricature which his bespectacled, be-tweeded appearance seemed to justify - Fuller was, as these writings reveal, not so easily pigeon-holed. He had arrived at his unique stance through a complex ideological odyssey which had taken him from the Baptist Christianity of his youth via the Marxist polemics of John Berger and individual psychoanalysis to the 'theoria' of John Ruskin, his ultimate mentor, in which sensual aesthetics were superseded by a deeper moral response.

Although certainly capable of playing to the gallery as the scourge of Gilbert and George or Andy Warhol, whom he here delights in decrying for 'vacuity and vulgarity', Fuller was also able to surprise, as in his championing of Anthony Caro's late sculpture and the symbol-filled canvases of Alan Davie. Not surprisingly, a man of such complexities was beset by paradox. At the time of his death, Fuller, a professed empiricist, had constructed for himself a purposeful critical dialectic, central to which was a natural spirituality. However, this Ruskinian-inspired philosophy was also his Achilles heel. In seeking to substitute art itself for religion, Fuller was, in effect, neglecting the essentially spiritual element behind all creative inspiration. It is interesting to conjecture where, had he lived, the discovery of this irony might have led. Certainly, his essentially transcendental position seems to place him, in all but name, close to a specifically Christian ethic.

Of course there is much in this well-edited collection with which one might disagree. Agitation was fundamental to Fuller's purpose, but to dismiss, for instance, the intrinsically metaphysical work of Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin as 'mind-numbing vacuity', seems, at the least, short-sighted. But it is a virtue of John Macdonald's selection that he deliberately allows us to see the critic's shortcomings and, by the breadth of his choice, to look beyond Fuller's conventional typecasting. Seen in context, Fuller's much derided little-Englishness appears as a courageous challenging of many of the received orthodoxies of modern art history. In this readiness to challenge, rather than merely dismiss, Fuller was always essentially positive, and it is to be hoped that these posthumous essays will sound a note of educated optimism with which to rescue art criticism from today's climate of nihilism.