Howard Jacobson: Always room for a little vulgarity

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Attend the words of the art establishment. "What makes Lowry so popular is the same thing which stops him being the subject of serious critical attention." Chris Stephens speaking, on ITV's documentary Looking for Lowry, shown last week, Chris Stephens being curator of modern British art at Tate Britain. A nasty job, making sure that no popular artist is exhibited, but someone has to do it.

In fairness to Mr Stephens, he wasn't quite saying that it is popularity itself that delivers the knockout blow as far as serious critical attention is concerned. What makes Lowry "the victim of his own fan base", he went on, is "a sort of sentimentality". From which we must assume a) that Mr Stephens hasn't finally decided what sort of sentimentality it is, and b) that when an artist comes along whose popularity is not attributable to sentimentality, serious critical attention will not be withheld. Nonetheless, another sort of sentimentality clung to Mr Stephens: the sentimentality of those trapped in orthodoxy. He looked sheepish but knew no way out. Popularity is a problem in an art world whose ultimate justification, since modernism, has been its inaccessibility to the aesthetically untrained. What is art? Art, my friend, is whatever you don't understand. Ergo, no serious critical attention for Lowry, and where there is no serious (for which read "academic") critical attention there can be no show. It only needed Chris Stephens to offer to snap that chain of academic self-interest – from learned articles, through screeds of solemn obfuscation, to a scholarly curated retrospective – for Lowry's 27 or so works held in storage by the Tate to be hauled out and displayed. But he couldn't summon the courage to do it. And so the Lowrys stay where they are.

A painting in storage is a painting that can only with difficulty be seen. That the same holds true of paintings in private collections doesn't excuse the Tate. What the Tate owns, we own. And too many good paintings languish there – Stanley Spencer's Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and His Second Wife, for example, one of the greatest English paintings of the 20th century – for no other reason than that it doesn't answer to some canon of flinching fastidiousness at present current among the Tate's fraught-nerved curators.

"Balls!" shouted the unfraught Jeffrey Archer, who owns a few Lowrys, only one of which – at least of those he showed us – could be called sentimental. Intellectually, the programme had one coming and going. There, on Jeffrey Archer's wall, was the refutation of Chris Stephens's argument – strange, geometric paintings in which the figures appear on the canvases only to vanish from them, and no lovable swaying Chaplinesque character to be seen – but there, too, was Jeffrey Archer sticking up, under the pretext of sticking up for Lowry, for himself. Am I not popular? Do I too not suffer from a lack of serious critical attention? Do I care?

When you see Jeffrey Archer arguing for the popular, you start to see Chris Stephens's point. Like many widely read writers who complain of not being taken seriously by the literary establishment – though there is no literary establishment comparable to the art establishment, for literature has no curators standing guard over galleries that determine taste – Jeffrey Archer veers between pique and defiance: now wanting recognition from the critics, now blowing raspberries in their faces. Myself, I don't quite get why the court of popular approbation is not sufficient for those who seek it. That serious attention you crave, Jeffrey, is for writing of another sort, and it wouldn't keep you in shepherd's pie if you received it.

As for Lowry's popularity, it is not in itself a reason he should be held in high critical esteem. The fact that he is much loved is no more an argument for showing him than it is for not showing him. Popularity is a mark neither of quality nor disquality. It is extrinsic to the work. Though there must, of course, be something in the work that accounts for it. It is not difficult to see why Dickens was popular. He wasn't a great novelist because he was popular, but it is part of his greatness that he reached strenuous and non-strenuous readers alike. Yes, he was sentimental sometimes, and sentimentality in part explains the non-strenuous following he had. But it doesn't disqualify him from greatness. Far from it. A degree of vulgarity or melodrama is necessary in art. Between ourselves, I'd argue for a measure of grossness too. Doesn't have to be sexual, but if it is, so much the better. Such a leavening connects the high to the low and saves the artist from the unpardonable sin of over-refinement. Though where there is only vulgarity or melodrama (as in ... but never mind as in whom) there is no saving the artist from anything, let the whole world love every word or brushstroke.

Indubitably there is sentimentality in Lowry too, and it is not on the grounds of that sentimentality that one should champion him. Ian McKellen, who presented the documentary, spoke wonderfully about Lowry's theatricality, but was less convincing on his stick figures being "real", recognisable representations of us. Lowry was not a painter of human psychology; he was a painter of his own. And it's as a painter of subtly disguised introspection, not to say anguished isolation, that he is at his best. It wasn't that he feared life; he felt outside it.

I don't exclude the famous mill and market scenes from this description. Some of his crowded canvases are deranged with purposeless activity. The people are not painted lovingly but with an agitation that resembles rage. If people love him for his warm humanity they are loving what's not there. A good exhibition at the Tate could put that misconception right. I don't mind a little high-mindedness. By all means let the Tate teach us how to see. Show us what we're missing. Show us some of those hellish dead land paintings, visions of a ruined, sterile nature, where nothing breeds or moves. Show us the empty seascapes, near blank canvases of the deepest sorrow. Show us the lovely, creamy landscapes, wandering away like wasted wishes into the never-never. And then yes, show us those usually hidden paintings of sexual hurt and cruelty. If you think Lowry is too popular to be hung, hang him so we can see what his subject really was, what desolation he painted, and with what sadism. And then if people still love him, or love him more, you will have done your job, because affection for art is no sin – it's what the Taste exists to foster, not deride.

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