A rogues' gallery of criminal artists

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IN OR NEAR the congenially senescent rural circles that I frequent, you may find a lot of highly responsible chaps, or who were so until put out to grass. Still, they are concerned for the public weal, for the safety of the realm, quick to detect restlessness among the natives, drumming in the bazaars.

I mean chaps like the pub major, of course, bishops old style, colonial and other policemen, retired prison governors, Home Office mandarins and so on - the unfashionable backbone of the nation. Sir Herbert Gussett is sometimes of our company. So is Henry Root. 'Disgusted' motors over from Tunbridge Wells whenever his lady wife is fit to drive, accompanied sometimes by 'Pro Bono Publico', if his arthritis permits.

Over our convivial councils hang, alas, many dark shadows, not least the menace of Modern Art, so-called. We are confronted now not only by a crime wave, rural as well as inner city, but by an Art Wave, a veritable Art Explosion. We ponder: what on earth are we old fogies to do about it?

Sensitive kiddies and elderly folk are bewildered and terrified by Modern Art. Lady water-colourists dare not open their doors after dark lest a ferociously bearded 'artist' bursts in and pronounces himself henceforth 'in residence'. Grim rumours reach us of a notifiable artistic offence committed on average every four seconds in our land.

What, we wonder, are the critics doing? Surely there should be a sort of artistic police force, required to prevent public indecency and breaches of the peace. In former days they must have been a fine body of men. Ruskin, for instance, accused Whistler of flinging a pot of paint in the public face. Apart from the fearless Giles Auty, who would dare say that now? The redoubtable Peter Fuller, alas, is untimely dead.

There were once also respected lay critics who helped to enforce some sort of order. Khrushchev himself set an admirable example, pointing out fearlessly that this picture or that had been painted with a cow's tail. There existed, too, nearer home proper Aldermen like Peter Simple's Foodbotham of Bradford, who, in the intervals between running the tramways, pronounced that this picture was hung the wrong way up or that that one might have been painted by a child of four.

But most critics today seem to have lost all sense of order, discipline, duty and propriety. They wetly sympathise with the artistic underclass, enthusiastically welcoming 'protest' and 'cries for help', and blaming society for everything - 'We're all guilty]'

Some regard the training of art critics as all-important. They commend courses for art critics at Bramshill or Sandhurst, or the establishment of an artistic Hendon Police College to create a critical officer class and artistic leaders.

But recruitment is seen by others - I think rightly - as the crux of the matter. Many favour a Royal Corps of Art Critics, recruited exclusively from retired warrant officers and NCOs of the regular Army with unblemished records.

To a corps of critics thus constituted, far greater powers might of course be safely entrusted. Certainly they should have the power to arrest, though this might be sparingly used by friendly neighbourhood critics. The critic on the beat might work wonders: 'Now, now, now, what's going on here?' with a paternal tap on the bonce for juvenile offenders. These are all too frequent these days, thanks to spray guns and art education in schools and so on, which actually favours self-expression, even where there is nothing to express nor any means of expressing it.

Others of us are more up-to-date. They point out that modern art, like modern crime, is highly organised. You can't fight it with the methods of Dixon of Dock Green. Only helicopters, for instance, can give advanced warning of possible artistic outrages and facilitate timely preventive measures. There are times, too, when the mere presence of 30 or more art critics in a bus and in riot gear could overawe an artistic mob and even prevent bloodshed.

It would be idle to deny that there are fire-eaters among us. They guiltily commend General Dyer's conduct at Amritsar ('only language the wallahs understand') and note with approval how the Moscow police brusquely dispersed an outdoor exhibition of modern art ('say what you like about those Bolshies, but . . .').

Most of us are fortunately more humane. A benign retired canon suggests an artistic set-aside scheme, whereby artists would be lavishly subsidised by the state, not, as now, for producing works of art but for not producing them. The canon's point is that Modern Art, like other crimes, is better prevented than severely punished. He seeks to discover and remove the social causes of Modern Art, such as deprivation. At this point an irreverent reference to Francis Bacon's millions provoked ribaldry.

The canon also lays great stress on rehabilitation. Where custodial treatment unfortunately becomes necessary, it should be used to retain artists in useful trades - rolling barrels about, drying glasses, domestic service, curacy in deprived areas and so on.

Others scoff that prisons filled with delinquent artists would soon turn into universities of delinquent art. They point out that already those imprisoned for various misdemeanours are four times more likely to reoffend than those who are not. If true, this figure suggested to a cynic of our company that we are at least imprisoning some of the right chaps.

All agree that authorised critics should be uniformed. Proposals to arm them met with a mixed reception. Some pointed out that it would encourage artists to carry arms themselves, a practice at the moment rare. All agreed that side-arms should only be issued if a senior officer was satisfied that the work of art under consideration constituted a real and serious threat to the Queen's Peace - a sort of criminal libel, so to speak, as opposed to mere civil libel.

Mention of the Queen's name aroused our stalwart Henry Root. He reminded us that Her Majesty was always opening all sorts of things, many of them of dubious public utility or benefit. Was it not high time that she closed a few things? The Hayward and other galleries, for instance, the ICA, certain exhibitions at the Tate, various dealers, the Arts Council, anything called a workshop which isn't a workshop. Some of these might be reopened later under new management, with lady water-colourists, cathedral organists, romantic novelists and the like firmly in charge.

'A pint of 6X for you, Major? The Queen - God bless her. Our last hope.'

'God bless her,' echoed the Major. Like many majors, he is widely read. 'I think it was some French Johnny called Claude Bernard (no relation, I suppose),' he continued, 'who said a rather rum thing: 'Art is I, Science is We'. We must never forget that Modern Art is neither I nor We. It is Them.'

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