Criticism and the collapse of culture

Dr Eric Coombes looks back over the period since 1997 and identifies the collapse in standards of art criticism which has allowed conceptual art to prosper uncritically

After the recent change of government, this might be a suitable moment to look back to the year in which the recently ejected gang of liars, buffoons and crooks first came to office. And, as our misgivings about their substitutes find ready confirmation, we may well suppose that 1997, with its coincidence of conspicuously symptomatic events, may come to be seen as the year in which our cultural disintegration finally manifested itself as irrevocable.

For this was also the year in which there occurred the most extraordinary eruption of mass hysteria that any of us had ever witnessed: hysteria in response to the sudden death of a foolish, ill-advised and unfortunate young woman – distinguished by no outstanding virtues and with no claim to general admiration or affection not rooted in fantasy. This fantasy appears to have obsessed the many enfeebled dupes of the mass media, by which it was concocted and sustained with

ruthlessly exercised power, and filled the confined space of their imaginative lives with the cheaply manufactured – and therefore profitable – junk of sentimentality and factitious passion.

Later in the same year, an exhibition at the Royal Academy quickly fulfilled the intentions of its publicity-orientated organizers by reaching a level of notoriety which was, perhaps, unprecedented in recent years, for something promoted under the label of the visual arts. This notoriety derived from the apprehension that so much of the exhibition seemed intended to shock, disgust or offend. Consisting of items from the collection (or stockrooms) of Charles Saatchi, it was suffused by the ethos of the advertising industry in which Saatchi made

his enormous fortune, an ethos which also appears to govern his activities as a collector and dealer – the imperatives of advertising and art being, for him, indistinguishable.

The joyous acclamation, as he pranced into office, of a risibly obvious charlatan; the earth-moving torrent of emotional incontinence – which he exploited – flowing from people who never knew the object, or putative object, of their grief, and whose only loss was delusional or phantasmagorical; and, under a transparent pretence of high-principled


seriousness, the filling of the best and most prestigious exhibition space in the metropolis, at the centre of the cultural establishment, with the disgusting and offensive: in their different but connected ways, these three occurrences flaunted the triumph of fantasy over reality, and the infantile over the mature.

In the exhibition, named Sensation in gloating anticipation of its reception, there was certainly plenty to disgust or offend, as well as the usual large helpings of slightly nauseous tedium, and a certain amount of pitiful incompetence masquerading as sophistication. As was intended, much of this provoked outrage and //--> controversy—if “controversy” is a term that can properly be applied in the absence of anything amounting to reasoned argument. Obscene items by the Chapman brothers, for instance, attracted, understandably enough, a good deal of opprobrium, as did the moronically blasphemous (and formally feeble) contributions google_ad_height = 90; of Chris Ofili. But the main focus of outrage was, of course, an image, more than twelve feet high, reproducing on this enormous scale the police mug-shot of the infamous murderess of children, Myra Hindley, a photograph ubiquitously familiar to the British public through featuring, almost invariably, alongside recurrent press reports and commentary about Hindley herself, and about the stupendously evil actions in which she engaged.

The story of those actions is harrowing; but, since they are familiar, despite occurring more than forty years ago, we need not repeat the appalling details here, but merely remind ourselves, in general terms, of what happened. Hindley and her male accomplice abducted and tortured to death five children, having sexually abused at least four of them. In at least one case, they made a recording, presumably for their later delectation, of the ten-year old victim’s screams and pleading google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; as she died. Her mother later undertook the duty of listening to this recording in order to help the police by identifying the voice as that of her little girl.

For almost all the British, that photograph instantly evokes thoughts of the murderess and the depravity of her barely imaginable crimes. It is clear, therefore, that the exhibit alluded to matters of great public concern and intense moral anxiety. The outraged felt that, given its scale and prominence, the presence of something so disquieting was such an affront to the bereaved’s feelings of distress that its inclusion should not have been contemplated, let alone implemented. Disagreements about the rights or wrongs of showing Myra were – however squeamishly the metropolitan chattering classes might cringe


with embarrassment or disdain from explicit invocations of morality – disagreements about a moral issue.

Can this moral issue be separated from any serious attempt to assess the exhibit as a work of art? If this was just a cheap publicity stunt, cynically exploiting a merely sensationalist item of negligible artistic merit, then surely the painting’s prominent display was indefensible. If not, if it is a serious work of art – the very least required to justify its showing – then must it not engage in some morally responsible way with the deeply disturbing matters which it evokes? Any such engagement could hardly be understood as separate from or additional to its aesthetic character; and to consider this question is to confront a fundamental issue of aesthetic understanding: Are aesthetic and moral intuitions and judgements entirely distinct, or do they interpenetrate or illuminate each other? Do they, in the last analysis, come together in our efforts to sustain and vindicate a unified cultural domain of that which we ultimately value? Is this why we find it natural to speak in terms of moral beauty, or moral ugliness, and why the concept of grace, for example, can be exercised with equal appropriateness in our thoughts about the aesthetic and the moral? Is there anything to be said for Keats’s famous words: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, or is it now impossible to hear them without jeering?

One should not, of course, require the criticism of art to turn itself

visual experience, and what is impressive is the way in which the metaphor of wreckage as sea permeates the whole image, without being forced on it – without losing that conviction – and without the particularities of the literal scene being lost. The metaphor, therefore, is far more than an inert equation, or a visual comparison pasted on to the image, as the handprints in Myra are merely pasted into the microstructure of the painting. The detail is fully realised as that of wrecked machinery, with vigorous and decisive drawing, and the image becomes an object of visual absorption, precisely because of this rootedness in the fascinated observation of its literal subject-matter. Although composed of many superficially similar elements, there is no application of a repeated formula. For the viewer, as for Nash, the thought of the metaphorical meaning always informs our perception, and guides our visual exploration, as our gaze moves over the wreckage as depicted. The google_ad_width = 970; metaphor is thereby held before the mind, and, as it were, sustained as a focus of meditation.

The broken aircraft have, of course, been literally smashed in consequence of the violent and lethal conflict in the skies above England. But in the painting, disintegration seems to continue, in a process which is imaginatively assimilated to the ceaseless motion and endlessly destructive power of the sea, as if the literally static remnants of machinery are moving over and against each other like the pounding and crashing of the waves. This is

an image of entropy (to use a term which Nash would, presumably, not have used), in which the products of human ingenuity and skill, devoted to an aggressive and destructive purpose, are themselves destroyed, returned to the unstructured condition of the materials from which they were fashioned, and inexorably reabsorbed into the vast undifferentiated ocean of heedless nature, from which they were briefly lifted. The thought insistently suggests itself that this can be understood as an image of the self-destruction of European civilization, which succumbs, like all the works of man, to the inevitability of disintegration. What of the white owl, flying low on the right-hand side of the painting? Nash himself made a slightly ambiguous comment about this, saying that “she isn’t there, of course, as a symbol quite so much as the form and colour essential just there to link up with //--> the cloud fringe overhead.” [my italics for “quite so much”] (13). This comment suggests, not denial of the owl’s symbolic importance, but reluctance to open a path to simplistic or one-dimensional interpretation, by allowing it to be over-emphasized. I have no //--> reason, grounded in documentary evidence, to believe that Nash had Hegel in mind, although that is not impossible for a well-read man of his generation; but I find it hard to resist the thought that the owl could be the Owl of Minerva (goddess of wisdom), who, in Hegel’s famous words, “takes wing only at the onset of dusk”, when “philosophy paints its grey in grey” and “a form of life has grown old”.

I could imagine its being asked whether what I have written here is any better grounded or any less pretentious than the Tate curator’s words about Sunflower Seeds: “a powerful commentary on the human condition”. Well, it is not for me to say whether there is any critical aptness in my thoughts about Nash’s painting, but I would claim that they relate clearly and mostly directly to the painting itself, and only presuppose knowledge which is the common possession of those to whom they might be addressed in a shared culture. It is true that my concluding remarks about Totes Meer are, in a sense, speculative. But I am not claiming that they give ‘the’ meaning of Totes Meer. These reflections belong to the nimbus of associated thoughts which gather around the image, as such thoughts gather around other images and other works of art, which gain our serious attention. Were they apt, they would help to shape a frame of reference in which it was appropriate to contemplate the work, and might thereby reflexively inform one’s experience of the painting itself. Such musings are part of the process through which a work of art relates itself to our wider interests and concerns, and, to repeat words from earlier in this essay, “finds a place in the wider context of our lives and thoughts”. However inept they may be, my reflections are prompted by the manifest content of the painting. They are not vacuous references to “commentary” that is never expounded,

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or “questions” that are never formulated; and they are not just loosely tied to the painting with the threads – flimsy, tangled and indefinitely extendable – of contrived associations. The ‘thoughts’ provided in wall texts or on the website for Sunflower Seeds are not the fruit of
critical reflection on the ‘work’ itself: they are arbitrarily projected on to it, by curatorial diktat. Far from being prompted by manifest content, they are a substitute for it. They do not gather around the ‘work’: they are merely tethered to it, since it entirely lacks the power of manifest content to prompt, attract or hold them.

Wall texts of this kind are a kind of criticism, however misplaced – in more than one sense – they often are. And worthwhile criticism always returns our attention to the work under discussion, even though returning attention may seek in the work the resonance of thoughts drawn from a wider field of allusion than was initially supposed relevant. The presentation of Sunflower Seeds is a clear and topical example of how curatorial practice standardly involves precisely the opposite: it directs our attention away from the ‘work’. I suppose that it would be whimsical to wonder if this might be an unconscious response to the fact that there is nothing in the ‘work’ to contemplate. However that may be, much of the feebleness of what often now passes for criticism lies in this failure, or refusal, to attend and help others to attend to the work of art itself; and in the failure to promote, not inconsequential blather, but the discourse of those committed to “the

common pursuit of true judgement” – perhaps because judgement itself falls under the prohibition of that
vengeful tyrant and potent agent of cultural destruction, political correctness.

In this essay, I have examined two paintings which allude to very serious matters of ubiquitously shared moral concern – serious and moral in senses requiring no sophistication to discern, and for that reason accessible to the non-specialist public as manifesting the ultimate inseparability of the aesthetic and the moral. And, in arguing for my highly unfavourable aesthetic judgement of Myra, I have /* 9-970x90 */ tried to show how that judgement is fundamentally the same judgement /* xin-1 */ that rejects any claims it may have to moral seriousness. My highly favourable judgement of Totes Meer is defended by an exactly converse argument: the aesthetic distinction of this painting shows itself in how it holds our attention as a focus of moral reflection. And I would suggest that to compare these two works is to gain some understanding of the cultural decline we have suffered during the half-century which separates their production.

But it is not just a matter of the paintings themselves—as if we could consider them in isolation. Of equal significance at the present time is the cultural environment in which Sensation was presented. In this environment the promoters were not inhibited from allowing the prominence given to Myra to function

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as a publicity stunt, and felt free to ignore the protests of those who found it distressing. Nor were they concerned that the exhibition might be a critical disaster. Is there any longer any such possibility in the visual arts? Is the condition of the arts, as embraced and circumscribed by the modern-art establishment, not approximating now to that of celebrity culture, in so far as the very idea of judgement, with its implication that it is right to value some things and

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wrong to value, or at least to overvalue, others, is simply incomprehensible, google_ad_slot = "8637400688"; or politically incorrect? It is for this reason that celebrity culture is the epitome of the unchallenged and institutionalized frivolity, which pervades all the organs of society – embracing politics, social policy, the arts and, especially, education. Where the concepts of value and of rational discrimination are inapplicable, criticism clearly has no place. But has the corruption of criticism not itself been a factor in allowing the visual arts (as officially recognized) to approach in this respect the condition of celebrity culture, just as a parallel corruption of discourse on social matters is helping to destroy the moral health of society – a process of which the dominance of celebrity culture is itself both a symptom and a cause? That these parallel corruptions are, at root, a single corruption becomes a little clearer, when we consider such an example as Myra, along with the circumstances of its promotion and its reception. And this thought returns us finally to those spectacular manifestations of grotesque sentimentality, delusion, hysteria and infantilism, almost concurrent with Myra’s exhibition in 1997 at Burlington House—manifestations which could have occurred only in a culture from which intelligent critical reflection was absent, or in which


it was impotent.


1. Conversation reported in “Trash, Violence, and Versace: But Is It Art?”, by Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal, Winter 1998.

2. Reported in The Independent, August 31st, 1907

3. “The Establishment Clubbed”, The Times, September 16th, 1997.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. For the facts related here concerning the princess’s death and its public aftermath, I have largely relied on the information included in The Late Wicked Princess: Reflections on a State Funeral, an appendix to Ian Robinson’s Untied Kingdom (The Brynmill Press Ltd, 2008). This is the fourth and concluding volume to his series, Coming to Judgement. The arguments of this essay are heavily indebted to his work, which has greatly assisted me in getting my own thoughts into sharper focus. The suggestion that 1997 will come to be seen as a defining moment is his.

7. Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (Duckworth 1998), p. 88. This may be the place to record my intellectual debt to Scruton, which is far from being exhausted by the contents of this book. In more recent publications, he has offered a philosophically sophisticated defence and refinement of intuitions about the nature and value of art, which I take to be consistent with the arguments of this essay.

8. Theodore Dalrymple, “Trash, Violence, and Versace: But Is It Art?”, City Journal, Winter 1998

9. David Fraser Jenkins, Paul Nash: The Elements (Scala Publishers Ltd 2010), p.76.

10. Ibid. p. 109.

11. These familiar words from Doctor Faustus are invoked by Anthony Bertram, quoted in the catalogue. Ibid. p. 58.

12. Ibid. p. 160.

13. Ibid. p. 60.


The Jackdaw Mar-Apr 2011