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 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 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

400 Bad Request

– 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 into extended philosophical discussion, at a high level of abstraction. But is it not reasonable to suggest that, for serious and responsible criticism, an awareness of these questions must be integral to the context of discourse? So far as art is taken seriously, it finds a place in the wider context of our lives and thoughts, and, in particular, our thoughts about what we value and what concerns us (sometimes by showing us, or even by being, what we value). The role of criticism is, in part, to place art in this wider context, in a cultural space which is constituted, furnished and maintained through discussion (of its nature never closed), a space of shared perceptions, in which we hope to realize in imagination that which we seek to comprehend intellectually. If criticism involves “the common pursuit of true judgement”, then it aims at a widely shared understanding of where and in what we should come together in the ‘truth’ of feeling and imagination. Even the “challenging”, to mention what is usually a weasel usage rightly much mocked in The Jackdaw, can ultimately be valued only if it challenges us to extend the scope of shared sensibility.

Any serious discussion of Myra’s merits as a work of art, then, would need to consider whether its aesthetic character bears the grave moral weight of its allusions, or in any way illuminates the deeply disturbing matters which it evokes. This would not be to ask what message the painting might convey. The crass philistine notion that the significance of art inheres in its ‘message’ is one that has now invaded art education, where it would once have been treated with the scorn that it deserves. We do not value Dickens, to take an obvious example, because he told us about social evils and the depravity which they engendered, matters of which we or his contemporaries might otherwise have been ignorant. Nor would we have looked to him for solutions; and had he suggested any they would have had no more authority than anyone else’s. What an artist of Dickens’s stature achieves is the means by which what we might or might not otherwise merely know about is made available to the imagination as well as to the intellect, and so unites thought and feeling. Could anything similar be claimed for Myra?

The photograph on which the painting is based is merely a typical example of its kind, in not flattering an apparently quite plain and even disagreeable-looking young woman, staring unsmilingly directly at the camera. Its strangeness mostly derives from the wooden and unnatural effect, which, as a glance at a few passports will confirm, tends to characterize such photographs. Such epithets as “the face of evil” are not a response to any properties intrinsic to the image, or to the face revealed in it, considered in detachment from the highly specific context of its notoriety; and its blood-curdling power of evocation is entirely a matter of association, relentlessly reinforced over a period of many years. This power of evocation was, of course, the sole reason for using that particular photograph. And apart from the overwhelming size of the painting, its only significant difference from the press reproductions of the police mug-shot was that, on closer inspection, the granular texture of the image, imitating the coarse effect of the half-tone screen used for newspaper printing, was seen to be composed of a child’s hand prints.

Appropriately enough, for an exhibition informed by the ethos and imperatives of the advertising industry, the scale of the image and the familiar device whereby its texture resolves at close quarters into further imagery—indeed, everything about it—suggest that it would have been quite a good idea for a billboard poster. One could imagine it as an advertisement for a horror movie—the face of the villainess on the hoarding commanding, by sheer size, transient attention from across the street, or revealed at close quarters to be dabbed all over by the desperately scrabbling hands of her helpless child victim. But what was this advertisement an advertisement of? Of Hindley’s crimes? Did they need to be advertised? The very suggestion is preposterous.  Indeed, it could be said that, by this time, their advertisement was actually impossible, in the sense that a fully saturated cloth cannot be wetted. Such was their notoriety that, far from the painting’s advertising Hindley and her crimes, it was she and her crimes which were advertising the painting.

With this last point in mind, let us return to the outcry against its exhibition. One of the protesters was reported to have said that she objected strongly to the transformation of the murderer of her child into  “an icon to titillate the public for a moment or two, before it moved on to its next, equally momentary, preoccupation or amusement.” (1) And a spokesman for the children’s charity, Kidscape, said “How sad that an artist has to resort to sick exploitation of dead children to get noticed” (2). These unpretentious statements expressed feelings with which any decent person might at least sympathize. But they were made from positions entirely external to the art world and its preoccupations; and it is not difficult to imagine the sniggering disdain with which their apparent lack of sophistication might have been greeted in some quarters. But there is a paradox here. For while these superficially simple-minded comments did not state, they nevertheless implied, a shrewd and sophisticated understanding – showing itself, admittedly, only in a very inchoate form – of what was at stake culturally; an understanding far shrewder, and at a higher level of genuine sophistication than was reached by the self-satisfied panjandrums of the contemporary art establishment, for whom shrewdness means cynicism and sophistication frivolity. It takes only a little reflection and imagination to find in these condemnations the seed of a critical observation far more penetrating than most of the perfunctory remarks of professional critics. These ladies sensed that the decision to exhibit Myra prominently was made in the pursuit of publicity for the sake of publicity, and, in their heart-felt unselfconscious way, made observations which require very little elaboration to arrive at precisely the point reached in the previous paragraph: This is painting as billboard advertisement; but, through exploitation of the notoriety of Hindley’s vile crimes, what is advertised is the advertisement itself.

If this account is at all right, then we have an emphatically negative answer to the critical question raised above, as to whether this painting engages in any serious way with the grave and disturbing matters to which it alludes: For it is not even concerned with those matters, except to exploit them, since their role in relation to the painting and its projected reception is merely instrumental. In fact, some of the favourable commentary implicitly conceded this point.

I have suggested that some of the supposedly naïve observations from outside the contemporary art establishment, observations not ostensibly aimed at aesthetic judgement at all, got closer to aesthetic understanding than did the words of many professional critics. What did the latter have to say? Let us take as an example the judgement of Richard Cork – critic at various times for several highly respectable national newspapers and journals; who has been editor of Studio International; a Turner Prize judge; Chair of the Visual Arts Panel at the Arts Council; a member of various other high-level committees and panels disbursing taxpayers’ money, supposedly in support of the visual arts; Henry Moore Senior Fellow at the Courtauld Institute; and even – God help us – Slade Professor of Fine Art in the University of Cambridge. In a review of Sensation, the following was all he had to say by way of direct critical commentary on the painting:

“Far from cynically exploiting her notoriety, Harvey’s grave and monumental canvas succeeds in conveying the enormity of the crime she committed. Seen from afar, through several doorways, Hindley’s face looms at us like an apparition. By the time we get close enough to realise that it is spattered with children’s handprints, the sense of menace becomes overwhelming.” (3)

Well, perhaps – for reasons already discussed here – it did have some “sense of menace”. But why, in the absence of some wider context of elucidation in which it found its significance, that claim would count as attributing artistic merit – still less as establishing the status of the painting as an important work of art – this is unexplained.  And how could he say that it “succeeds in conveying the enormity of the crime she committed” – rather than merely reminding us of it – when that enormity was already an established and prominent feature of public consciousness (the “sense of menace” deriving adventitiously from that very condition); and when the painting itself contains no information whatsoever about the crime? Is this not preposterous nonsense?

If this critic’s intellectual distinction reaches the exalted level at which we could legitimately expect to find the thinking of a recipient of the honours he has gathered, and of an occupant of his numerous positions of power and influence, could he not have said something a little more convincing and a little more developed than this? If he could not have risen above mere assertion, could he not at least have risen above assertion of the patently absurd? Did he feel no obligation to support his favourable judgement with some more extended account, which, by educating our perception of the work, would vindicate the hysterical hyperbole of his praise, justify its exhibition, and excuse the vulgar puerility of the incontinent abuse with which he denounced those who wanted it excluded?

At the beginning of the article, he had greeted the whole exhibition with glee: “The rebels have stormed the bastions of conservatism, and howls from outraged academicians are still bouncing around the walls of Burlington House.” Its clownish tone reminiscent of a children’s comic, this grotesque rhetoric was either brazenly disingenuous or spectacularly stupid, in so far as it suggested that “the rebels” constituted an arbitrarily excluded group of the talented, bravely triumphing over an unjust and intransigently reactionary establishment. The truth, of course, as the slightest acquaintance with the facts would reveal, is that these people basked in the favour of the contemporary art establishment; and one might reasonably ask how much audacity and military valour were required to storm the bastions of a fortress which was under the command of the invaders’ pugnacious chief ally— namely, the all-powerful exhibitions secretary, Norman Rosenthal. This is, again, preposterous nonsense.

This is what he wrote about the issue of whether Myra should have been shown: “By making an hysterical attempt to ban Marcus Harvey’s painting of Myra Hindley, the crustiest academicians have revealed just how ugly their censorious hatred can be. If they do fulfil the threat to resign in protest, their departure will be the Academy’s gain. … So I am delighted that the exhibition will open on Thursday, with the Hindley painting defiantly in place. The show’s arrival is a welcome sign that the Academy has belatedly decided to atone for its disgraceful, antiquated intolerance in the past.” (4)

In the article from which I am quoting, which itself merits the epithet “hysterical”, this triumphalist gibe is all he said about the issue, which is therefore treated as if it were a disagreement entirely confined within the preoccupations of the art world, themselves construed, and almost celebrated, as narcissistic. Again, this is either disingenuous or extraordinarily stupid, since it would be hard to imagine any conflict more calculated to burst out of the art-world’s domain of self-regard, and engage members of the public at large. Those engaged included the protesting mothers of murdered children, and one wonders what they would have made, had it been brought to their attention, not only of Cork’s astoundingly narrow view of the nature of the disagreement, but also of his apparent blank unawareness of the connotations which, in this context of use, would naturally attach themselves to his words. Is there nothing more obvious that springs to mind here that might cause one to think of ugliness and of hatred? Whether they were right or not, is it not in the least possible that the “crustiest academicians” might have been motivated, not by “censorious hatred”, but by its opposite – by compassion and respect for the feelings of the bereaved? (That their artistic judgement might have been sound is, of course, unthinkable.) Did it not occur to Cork that, only through the inadequacy of gross understatement, does “intolerance” fall short of being an appropriate word to describe the attitude of those so comfortable in the prison of their own narcissistic preoccupations and prejudices that they implicitly dismiss without a second thought – dismiss as less important than the freedom to “ignite controversy” (5) – the feelings of a parent whose child has been tortured to death?

The perverse narrowness of Cork’s view, which we may take as representative of other enthusiasts for the exhibition, seems pathological. How can anyone be so deficient in the capacity for ordinary human sympathy as not even to consider whether, if the bereaved felt as they did, then this might – just might – in itself be sufficient reason for the painting not to be shown? To entertain this thought is not to favour censorship: it is simply to ask whether the prominent exhibition of this painting could, in the circumstances, be reconciled with common decency, and to question the integrity of the motivation for showing it.

We might notice a contrast between the attitude of the powerful to appeals from the parents of murdered children, and the attitude taken to the hysteria prompted by the death of the Princess of Wales, less than three weeks earlier. Many concessions to what we can only call the mob were made by the establishment – or, more accurately perhaps, by a declining establishment pushed aside by the new anti-traditionalist establishment of shameless ignorance, semi-literacy, contempt for truth, and minimal attention spans. The new establishment exploited the occasion of these concessions for its own advancement, by imposing, for example, with no precedent in customary protocol, the new ham actor Prime Minister as a reader at the princess’s funeral service in Westminster Abbey, and by inserting into the solemn rites a performance by that preposterous figure, Elton John, of a pop song, distinguished by its mawkishness and by the fatuousness of its lyrics. An atmosphere was created in which it seemed almost obligatory, if not to participate in, then at least to respect this orgy of hysteria – although subsequent surveys established that it was, in fact, neither shared in nor respected by most of the population. In this almost totalitarian climate, authority itself was intoxicated by the all-pervasive fumes of hysteria: Unsurprisingly, if in the circumstances incautiously, a few people tried to take mementos from the gigantic heap of ‘tributes’ (so vast as to have become a health and safety hazard), reasoning, no doubt, that one or two teddy bears out of thousands would not be missed, and were, in any case, destined for disposal as refuse, like the contents of skips. But two Slovakian lady tourists were sentenced to twenty-eight days in prison for removing a teddy bear, an offence which, if occurring as ordinary shoplifting – where, at least, a victim of crime could be identified – would scarcely merit a caution, and then only if the police could be bothered to attend. On the other hand, a man who punched someone for the impiety of removing a teddy bear was acquitted of assault. Thus was the impartiality and proportionality of British justice vindicated.

What, one might ask, would the attitude of a court have been if a sympathizer with the protests of bereaved mothers had punched Normal Rosenthal for what they perceived as an insult to their feelings and the memory of their children? Would a magistrate have acquitted such a sympathizer on the grounds that it was the court’s function to express public outrage, which was, apparently, the view taken in at least one courtroom during the Diana delirium? The question, as they say, answers itself. But then these were uninfluential, unglamorous, working-class people, from such tedious provincial places as Manchester. What importance did they have compared with the cosmopolitan luminary, Norman Rosenthal? To the mass media, their importance had been exhausted many years earlier, when they played a supporting role in relation to the original horror story. If the renewal of their importance was to be permitted, it could only be as a useful element in the concoction of the latest media frenzy, in which they did, indeed, helplessly play their ordained role of enhancing the exhibition’s publicity. (6)

Apart from the huge disparity in numbers, there are two obvious differences between the grieving parents and the ‘grieving’ mob. One difference is that, while in one case the object of grief was a real person known and loved by the grievers, in the other case it was an image endlessly renewed and elaborated by the popular media in a phantasmagoria taken for, and displacing, reality – an image remotely associated with a real woman who happened to die, but who was completely unknown to the mourners. The second difference is that whereas this image had all the glamour that can be sustained only by colossally expensive artifice, the murdered children were just that:  unglamorous children mourned by unglamorous, unimportant people.

We see here an aspect of the odious hypocrisy festering at the centre of our debased culture: We supposedly live in a democratic and even egalitarian age; and this might be thought to find confirmation in the flattery of the least educated and the indulgence of the lowest taste, implicit in the prevalence of coarse material and demotic usages swamping the media, and in the triumphalist assertion of populist sentiment following the princess’s death. But the construction by the media, with her co-operation, of the artifice of her fictional image came about only because she occupied an adventitiously acquired position of hereditary wealth and privilege – the negation of egalitarianism. What, on the other hand, of those examples of ordinary people, entirely untouched by hereditary privilege, the unglamorous parents of the murdered children? Would egalitarianism not wish to promote their right to a hearing, and to a level of public respect and consideration commensurate with the magnitude of their suffering, rather than with the lowliness of their unprivileged circumstances? What was the volume of the popular outcry supporting them, and how much hysterical amplification was applied to it by the media, when their supporters demanded respectful deference to their feelings, as the mob demanded deference to their factitious grief for the loss of someone they had never known?

It would not, in fact, be true to say that no such popular feeling was expressed, or even that it was underreported. But what excited the media was the controversy, or ‘controversy’, and it was, of course, ‘controversy’ that the exhibition’s promoters sought. And in this way, the protesters unwittingly served the purposes of those against whom they were protesting. It was not so much that the protests were ignored, as that the reports of protest were absorbed into the media delirium— appropriated by the publicity machine, and rendered into material for the exercise of such infantile posturing as Cork’s.

In a book published in the year after these events, Roger Scruton writes: “You will not perceive modern high culture correctly, it seems to me, if you do not see that much of it – perhaps the major part of it – is a pretence.” (7) With the death of Princess Diana, we saw how a pretence fostered by the mass media at the level of popular culture had displaced reality from many people’s minds, and appropriated their emotional lives. With Sensation we are considering something which was certainly presented, both physically and institutionally, at a location in the domain of high culture, and with the ceremony of the corresponding rituals, employing such items of cultural paraphernalia as an illustrated catalogue, dignified by the inclusion of footnoted essays.

Is this mode of presentation not a pretence in itself? What – other than presentation – distinguishes such an exhibition, and in particular an item such as Myra, as a manifestation of high culture, rather than of the populist culture exemplified by the torrent of images and quasi-fiction about the princess flooding the market? If we do not accept, as we surely should not, that mere presentation as such is enough to determine the issue, then the answer can only come in the exercise of criticism. By this I do not mean anything so crude as the construction of a ranking order, in which anything placed above a certain level would qualify as  ‘high art’. It is rather that assignment to the sphere of high art presupposes the possibility of a certain kind of serious consideration: it suggests that, being worth seeing, hearing or reading more than once, the work could become the subject of discussion and judgement, which would seek to illuminate its character, and, as I put it earlier, to relate it to the wider context of our lives, thoughts and judgements. In the case of Myra, there can be, surely, no doubt about what aspects of our lives, thoughts and judgements constitute the relevant wider context. Where did we find, among professional critics, a discussion of Myra which made a serious attempt to meet this requirement? In the example I have given, there is what might be considered a gesture towards these matters, but nothing whatsoever intelligent or illuminating is said.

Cork is not unique in his apparent assumption that if an exhibited item is ‘about’ or in some way associated, or even associable, with some important, interesting or disturbing matter, then, ipso facto, that item is replete with significance about the important, the interesting or the disturbing. At almost any exhibition at Tate Modern, for example, wall texts and publicity material are formulated on this principle, evidently by brainwashed zombies. As I write, a wall text in the museum, repeated on the web site (beginning with a moderately strong candidate for inclusion in The Jackdaw’s artbollocks column), informs us that “Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds challenges our first impressions: what you see is not what you see, and what you see is not what it means.” Then, a few sentences later, “The precious nature of the material, the effort of production and the narrative and personal content make this work a powerful commentary on the human condition.” Why does it? How does it? What comments does the commentary include? And in what sense can this “narrative and personal content” be considered content? Content is what is contained in something, and, in a work of art, disclosed. This ‘content’ is merely the information supplied by curators about the circumstances surrounding, and the activities leading up to, its production, together with some musings prompted by association. One might as well say that the content of a shopping bag includes details of the route to and from the supermarket, and an account of the thoughts going through one’s mind as one made the journeys. Because this  ‘work’ is supposed somehow to allude to conditions under the vile despotism of China, a tacit moral blackmail tries to bully us into according it our respectful sympathy, although no one could possibly guess at this alleged allusion without information which is entirely absent from the structureless expanse which confronts us, and remains external to it when imparted.

By what criterion is it determined that the associations which we are instructed to contemplate constitute the content of this ‘work’, rather than any that might occur to us spontaneously? I, for example, find myself brooding on the egregious vanity and arbitrary power of imposters who fraudulently assume the authority of alleged expertise to spend large sums of taxpayers’ money on such boring projects as this. Is that part of its meaning? And if the “work seems to pose numerous questions”, by what means are they posed? What is the exact status of the three quoted samples of this numerousness, such as “What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society?”? (I shall not attempt the thankless task of considering whether this is a question at all, rather than a sequence of words in the grammatical form of a question. The curators were, presumably, favoured with the editorial advice of E. J. Thribb, 171/2.) Are the sample questions more legitimate than the following, which (but only with the benefit of the supplementary information) present themselves most spontaneously to me? How, for example, does it come about that a dissident, who has, apparently, suffered serious persecution, including life-threatening police brutality in China, is able to secure the services of a large proportion of the inhabitants of a Chinese city, over a period of two years, to manufacture 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflowers? What did it all cost, and from whom, other than the sponsor, Unilever, did the money come? And – an unignorable question for me, given that, according to the Tate, part of the ‘content’ is “personal associations with Mao Zedong’s brutal Cultural Revolution (1966-76)” – are any of those promoting this stunt exactly the kind of people – or even some of the actual people – who once looked favourably on Maoism, made absurd excuses for or obstinately denied its unspeakable savagery, and are, perhaps, still committed to the principles of Mao’s ideological cousin in Europe, Gramsci, especially – in view of their privileged positions in the institutional command structures of state art – to the latter’s strategy of a “long march through the institutions”?

One used occasionally to come across undergraduates who seemed to believe that intellectual labour, as in writing an essay, consists merely in mentioning topics subsidiary to the topic of the set question, or matters in some way associable with it, with no attempt to provide an argument which would evaluate their relevance and importance and bring them into some kind of coherent relationship – or, indeed, actually to say 400 Bad Request anything. Such students appear to be those who have subsequently prospered in careers as curators, and sometimes as art journalists (one can hardly say “critics”); and we might describe their standard procedure as the attribution of meaning by arbitrary or near-arbitrary association, by whim or according to the imperatives of political correctness. Here,  “attribution of meaning” connotes not an attempt to disclose or elucidate meaning, but the making of vacuous or arbitrary claims, or pseudo claims, couched in the preposterous vocabulary of artbollocks, and feebly indicating a general area in which meaning is allegedly to be found – an area which may be as illimitably general and as portentously vague as “commentary on the human condition”.

A good, if primitive, example of this empty blather was reported in the best article by far on Sensation that I have come across. Unsurprisingly, this was written, not by a professional critic or a curator, but by the ex-prison doctor and social commentator, Theodore Dalrymple, who interviewed Norman Rosenthal before writing his piece: “[Rosenthal] has the charismatic capacity to antagonize at 100 yards; and when he speaks – hundreds of words to the minute – one feels one is listening to Mephistopheles. “All art is moral,” he said. “Anything that is immoral is not art.”

There is no such thing, wrote Oscar Wilde, as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. Presumably, then, Mein Kampf would have been all right had it been better written.  “The picture raises interesting questions,” continued Rosenthal.  “What interesting questions does it raise?” I asked. “Because it must be possible to formulate them in words.” “It raises a question, for instance, about the exploitation of children in our society,” said Rosenthal. “Some might say that the use of a child’s palm to produce a picture of a child murderer, when the child could not possibly appreciate the significance of the use to which its palm was being put, was itself a form of exploitation,” I replied. “If so, it is very minor by comparison with what goes on in the rest of society.” (8)

Dalrymple’s response here is rhetorically effective: if Rosenthal could defend the work on such preposterously vague and unargued grounds, then Dalrymple could certainly condemn it on grounds much less vague, and with at least the sketch of an argument. But for present purposes, it is more significant that Rosenthal has employed a routine artbollocks tactic of brazen evasiveness: If Myra raises a question “about the exploitation of children in our society”, then what question does it raise? And why are we not told? Why, in the contemporary-art curators’ universe of what we must, I suppose, call “discourse”, are so many questions supposedly ‘raised’ that are never formulated, let alone answered? And how, in any case, could it be plausibly claimed that this work is even about the exploitation of children? It is true that the mind might pass, through a chain of associations, from the thought of children’s suffering to the thought of their being exploited. But such a chain could be initiated as easily by the mere words “suffering children”, or just the word “children”, or, indeed, by anything at all, since a chain of associations can, without straining any particular link, connect anything with anything. If we try to say what it is about this particular painting which has exploitation of children as its content, we are baffled. Certainly it might be allowed, not unreasonably, that it alludes to their murder and suffering. And we could, I suppose, say that the murderers ‘exploited’ those children to satisfy their evil desires – although this would be an extremely odd and grotesquely bathetic characterization of those monstrous events. But it would be absurd to take “exploitation of children in our society” as referring to such extremities of abuse as their torture and murder: it must be understood to allude to some pervasive social pathology, or to structural faults in society, conducive to children’s being harmed for the gratification of adults.

Now I should be the last to deny that we live in a debased culture which is extremely detrimental to the upbringing of children, and the root of much unhappiness among the young; although I doubt that Rosenthal’s views as to the most relevant factors, assuming that he has any, would coincide with mine, in which those factors include, for example, the ubiquity and ready availability to the young of degrading and corrupting material – such as pornography of the type which is presented (with no obvious implication of moral disapprobation) by the author of Myra in his other exhibits in Sensation. The position of children “in our society” is, indeed, a deeply disturbing matter, and it is partly because this is so that one objects to Rosenthal’s using it in this way – ‘exploiting’ it, as one might say, to give vacuousness a bogus aura of gravity.

Rosenthal, however, does remind us of La Rochefoucauld’s famous definition of hypocrisy: “the homage that vice pays to virtue”, which could here be further specified as “the homage that intemperance, egomania and frivolity pay to proportionality, compassion and responsibility”. Do we detect, beneath this fountain of bluster, the pressure of a slight sense of uneasiness, adding its force to the flow of incoherent dogmatism, and tingeing it with a defensive sanctimoniousness? To assert as much might be to give Rosenthal more than his due, which, for a man who already has far more than his due, one would wish to avoid. But however that may be, we should notice that, far from rejecting the legitimacy of raising moral questions about the painting, Rosenthal actually asserts, in effect, albeit with characteristic intellectual crudeness, that aesthetic and moral questions are not separable.

Although we should not accept the reduction of this thought to Rosenthal’s simplistic formulation, he does remind us inadvertently that – however determinedly unfettered megalomania dismisses any but its own views, and, by the brute force of money and institutional power, imposes its own preferences – in the end and of necessity, art must be sustained by a community in which its meanings are shared and its values endorsed. The meaning of idle references to “raising interesting questions” about matters of moral concern, or to “powerful commentary on the human condition”, is not to be found in them, for they contain no meaning at all. But their meaning to or for us lies in what they betray – that even Rosenthal and the apparatchiks at Tate Modern cannot avoid giving minimal, and perhaps unconscious, recognition to the a priori truth, that art necessarily seeks intersubjectivity, and cannot be detached from the cultural conditions of shared values in which, and only in which, it can occur, and which it reciprocally sustains.

This being so, a work of art as such presents itself as an object of potentially consensual judgement – even if consensus may take some time to reach and is not monolithic (although this is a point which has, for many years, been absurdly exaggerated). But judgement is not the same as instant and uninformed reaction, and requires an ongoing process, involving revision and renewal in response to the needs of changing perspectives. It involves discussion, description and re-description, and comparison of one person’s responses with another’s; it involves the readiness to look at things more than once and to consider whether the experience is rewarding; it involves seeking formulations of one’s views to make them available to others and thereby topics of discussion rather than occasions of mutual incomprehension. At different levels of sophistication, this activity occurs spontaneously, casually and even tacitly among intelligent people, and constitutes the process whereby art is integrated into, and finds its value in, the wider life of the community. What we call “criticism”, those more formalized activities issuing in journalism, books, lectures or essays, arises, or should arise, from this spontaneous process of collaboration in refining and making sense of our responses to art, and is continuous with it.

If, then, something is placed in the domain of high art, it is necessarily presented as the proper object of aesthetic judgement, and that entails criticism. Nothing could be clearer, as I said above, than that Myra and the other contents of Sensation were so presented. There was a certain amount of assertion and counter-assertion; but where was the criticism – the criticism which, by its very existence, might – if serious – at least have vindicated the presentation of these items in the domain of judgement, even if it did not locate Myra on the exalted level at which Rosenthal would place it? Where, in particular, was the criticism that, taking seriously the earnest view of Myra in which moral significance was intrinsic to the painting’s aesthetic character and artistic virtue, attempted to elucidate what this

might actually mean, and, through attention to the work itself, show how this should inform our perception of it?

Now criticism needs to find a purchase on something which can sustain its attentions. And if there was no such criticism of Myra, perhaps this was because the painting would not sustain it – that there was simply not enough to be said. Of course, if this were so, then, one might argue, it was the critic’s duty to say something to that effect – and, no doubt, in some instances that duty was discharged, though probably not in quite such explicit terms. It could also be argued that it is part of the critic’s role where necessary, to elucidate, possibly employing wider cultural and even quasi-sociological arguments, why a particular item will not sustain serious critical consideration. But this, a kind of second order activity, is difficult, unrewarding and tiresome, and especially uncongenial if needing to be undertaken frequently. A bit like trying to prove a negative, it is entirely different from expressing reservations about, or finding faults in, something which is, nevertheless, a legitimate object of serious discussion.

It could be wearisome and even daunting to undertake this relentlessly negative task for most of what is promoted under the patronage of state-art apparatchiks and their commercial confederates, whose power is monopolistic, unaccountable and so extensive as to engender hesitancy about crossing them – especially as there has been at least one attempt by the powerful to silence hostile commentary. Moreover, so far as it concerns itself with state art, criticism will tend to become enfeebled and fall sick through lack of healthy exercise; and only the most resolutely independent mind will resist the nagging thought that one cannot dismiss almost everything promoted with so much institutional power and unanimity, backed by so much money, and endorsed with such a unified show of certificated expertise. This thought may create a pressure to make discriminations, although the critic may actually be at a loss to make any, or even to know on what basis to do so; for, as Dr Johnson said, “There is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.” Whether or not such pressure is felt, and at whatever level of consciousness it is effective, it remains the case that, where motions of discriminating are gone through, their paths often seem arbitrary, random or, indeed, invisible, although followed with a show of factitious conviction – whether in the reasonably mannered but limply unreasoned prose of a Richard Dorment, or with the clownishly splenetic vulgarity of a Waldemar Januszczak.

The corruption of the contemporary art establishment is, in large part, an intellectual corruption, albeit one which is both exploited and promoted by the grosser and more obvious corruptions of power and greed. And it has putrefied most art institutions caught up in the lethal embrace, financial and regulative, of the state; so that it is now, for example, impossible – literally impossible – for a young person entering higher education from school to find a reputable place at which to obtain a worthwhile education in the practice of the visual arts. I emphasize intellectual corruption, because state art is sustained by a structure of unprecedented nonsense. This structure would collapse if the bonds of demented fantasy holding it together – the absurdly fallacious argumentation, the preposterous non sequiturs, the insanely arbitrary and ungrounded claims – were removed or destroyed, as they would be if subjected to effective public scrutiny in an atmosphere where intelligence and rationality prevailed.

It is clear that such scrutiny, which should be part of the wider task of criticism, is not being effectively undertaken; either because it is hardly being undertaken at all, or because it is marginalized by institutional or financial power. The promotion and reception of Sensation constitute an especially convincing demonstration of this critical failure. It was all the more striking because the content of the exhibition, and the extravagantly expressed if vacuous claims about moral significance to be found in that content, brought it, in an unusually insistent way, into the wider domain of public concern, where, if the necessary conditions had prevailed, intelligent criticism could have been effective. But if we consider the prevailing conditions, we are immediately reminded of those other events of 1997, whose proximity seems, in retrospect, so appropriate and significant. What was the condition of public discourse that such creatures as Blair and his coterie of mediocrities and buffoons could so easily avoid the light of effective criticism and the widely visible exposure of their easily disclosed intellectual fraudulence? How could their pretensions have been taken so seriously, sometimes by supposedly educated people writing in respectable journals? (Perhaps through conditions similar to those in which the present gang have acceded to office.) What does it tell us about the power and disposition of the media to promote fantasy that so many people – not all of whom could have been sectionable – ‘grieving’ for the princess, were so entirely removed from reality as to suppose themselves to have suffered a personal loss – a delusion compounded by public endorsement, the  ‘leaders of opinion’ being largely impotent, unwilling or frightened to exercise any moderating critical influence?

This absence of a healthy culture of criticism in the arts is inseparable from the absence of a healthy culture of moral, social and political criticism, and from the degraded state of education. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that these are aspects of a single, if complex and multi-rooted, phenomenon. Moreover, the feeble inefficacy of criticism leaves the corruption of the arts unchecked, thereby depleting the cultural resources through which society can examine and evaluate itself. The events of 1997 illustrate this situation not only through their striking if accidental appearance of concatenation, but also because the public discourse surrounding Sensation vividly exemplified the continuity of aesthetic with moral judgement and criticism; and, in so doing, demonstrated, by the very crudeness and trivialization with which that continuity was misunderstood, the degraded and enfeebled condition of both.

Like so many of the vapid generalizations that now pass for cultural commentary, it is far from obvious what is meant by the often-repeated claim that we live in a ‘post-modern’ culture; but if we understand “post-modernism” to denote the atmosphere of institutionalized and, indeed, almost compulsory frivolity in which we now live, we might allow it some truth. We could regard the events of 1997 as epitomizing that climate. They marked, however, not the beginning of the reign of enforced infantilism, but, at the political level, the beginning of an outstandingly shameless and catastrophic episode within it. And it is very far from clear that we can regard that episode as ended, rather than merely entering a new phase, in which there will be no moderation of the malign influence of government and state-funded agencies on our culture, and in which the half-witted and mendacious platitudes of officialdom will change, if at all, only in exhibiting a crassness slightly less brazen, and being uttered in slightly less oafish tones.

Nevertheless, it may not be entirely absurd to regard 2010 as a significant year—if only in a desperate attempt to attain the virtuous condition of hope. And it so happens that, early in 2010, an exhibition was held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery which had a different kind of significance, in offering a particularlPaul Nash, y strong and poignant reminder of the strengths of our own visual tradition, now the victim, not merely of official neglect but of official malevolence: This was Paul Nash: The Elements.

Nash reached early adulthood a few years before the beginning of the First World War, and died in 1946, shortly after the end of the second. His adult life and work, therefore, were dominated by what may well come to be known as the “thirty-years war”. In the years immediately preceding that prolonged and ramifying calamity – in what we are now inclined to see as the last days of England’s serene self-assurance (or complacency) – he made drawings and watercolours that place him firmly in the romantic English tradition of landscape painting. In the best of this work, certain places seem invested with numinous personality, as if the landscape, shaped by centuries of settlement and labour, was saturated and animated by the English people’s sense of belonging. It is in this communication of the enchantment of place that he is so close to Samuel Palmer. In the exhibition, this aspect of his early work is represented by a number of images, including The Orchard, a preparatory work, and The Wanderer, both watercolours. In the latter, a single figure is about to disappear among trees in the middle distance. The landscape has a mysterious quality, which is not easy to describe, and which might have led James King, quoted in the catalogue, to say “there is an air of menace here” (9). One wonders whether such remarks are conditioned by our knowledge of what awaited Nash and his contemporaries only a few years later, the “air of menace” being seen as a premonition of the disaster to come. But it seems to me that what we respond to in this image is an undertone of apprehensiveness, even anxiety, towards the unknown, in an exploration impelled by an indeterminate yearning, such that the lone wanderer is drawn on by his desire to enter more deeply into the domain of enchantment, where he is, as it were, in communion with the land itself, as if with those he loves.

This sense of the meaningfulness of place is a constant feature of Nash’s work; and even when empty of human figures, as they often are, the landscapes are filled with the resonance of human personality, sometimes concentrated in the character of trees. In 1912, he wrote to a friend: “I have tried … to paint trees as tho they were human beings … because I sincerely love and worship trees and know they are people and wonderfully beautiful people … ” (10). It therefore seems natural that when, with his world shattered, he came to express his anger and anguish about the slaughter and devastation of the war, he painted landscapes empty, or almost empty, of human figures. His most powerful first-world war painting was in this exhibition. Bitterly entitled We Are Making a New World, it is a landscape entirely empty of explicitly human figures; and the vast expanse of earth pounded into a brown mash, a waste land of churned-up mud, could be seen, as in a nightmare, as the site of a sinister parody, a hellish graveyard, in which nature herself is among the dead. The broken remnants of trees seem to stand over anonymous and casually undifferentiated graves, like a company of defeated guardians, and anguishedly evoke, as if in bitter mockery, the crosses over decorously ordered graves, in the seemly burial grounds of a peaceful homeland.

If we are moved by the pre-war images, it is because they invoke a capacity to find enchantment in the vision of landscape, which we share with Nash, and therefore with each other. Places are depicted as if the rhythms of their physiognomy moved in harmony with the flow of feeling arising from the sense of belonging in them. This response to nature and to place is in itself an intersubjective experience, and therefore an affirmation of community; and for him, we may surmise, this experience was an intimation of, and, perhaps, in the last analysis inseparable from, being at peace with our fellows. Nothing, therefore, could embody his anguish at the violence and destruction of the war, as a gross violation of human life, more than the devastation of the landscape, not merely because it was violently voided of human life, but because the assault on the landscape was also an assault on human life itself, and on the conditions in which peaceful life establishes itself.

We can, then, see this painting as recording a blasphemy against that very vision which the pre-war images so rapturously celebrate, as if, despoiled and derelict, the numinous dwelling-place has been voided and God expelled by the violent usurpation of the devil. If the redness of the clouds, in the unnaturally coloured sky, signifies the redness of blood, then we might well understand it to echo the despairing cry of Marlowe’s Faust, “See where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament”, and wonder if an entire civilization has sold its soul to the devil. (11)

At the end of the exhibition, we come to a room of landscapes including the Second-World-War painting, Totes Meer (dead sea). This is a painting of a huge dump of wrecked German aircraft, and is based on drawings and photographs which Nash made at the site in Cowley. The scene is depicted as at dusk, lit by the light of a waning moon. Even without the title, this image would insistently suggest a turbulent sea, and at very first glance, there would probably, for most people, be a moment when the sea was taken to be the literal subject-matter, although it is quickly obvious that the literal content of the painting is the vast spread of wreckage itself. We know that this effect is based on Nash’s visual experience at the site: “The thing looked to me suddenly like a great inundating sea.”(12) The painting is organized so that the fragments of machines fall into patterns gathering themselves into rhythms which enact and elaborate the visual metaphor of a disturbed sea: the shapes of broken wings sweep up with the impetus of advancing waves, picking up each other’s movement in a relay of visual rhymes which runs through the image. The jagged edges of smashed aircraft parts echo the foaming leading edges of breaking waves. The border of sandy ground stretching into the distance at the right suggests a beach onto which the waves are breaking. But the image remains a depiction of the dump, and there is no ambiguity as to its literal content.

To compare this painting with Myra might seem odd and even perverse. But these works have two features in common, which support comparison (and contrast) relevant to the themes of this essay. First, they both deal with, or at least allude to, very serious matters with obvious moral dimensions. (As a way of distinguishing them from other kinds of art, this is a very rough-and-ready characterization, and I would emphasize the word “obvious”. For it would be quite wrong to say that a Chardin still-life, for example, properly understood, is without potential significance for the moral dimension of life – properly understood.) Secondly, they each employ a device whereby images of different things, logically incompatible if taken literally, come together in one configuration: child’s handprints and murderess’s face; sea and dump of wrecked aircraft. As described earlier, in Myra the granules of the image’s texture, with its distantly-viewed effect of a coarse half-tone screen, are revealed on close inspection to be the handprints of a child. There are thousands of these little handprints, which, if not perfectly identical, fail to exhibit any meaningful variation, and do not, therefore, emerge from their status as mere texture to disclose any further significance – anymore than the dots of the newspaper picture reveal, on closer inspection, more information about anything but the reproduction process. Once the easily grasped point is grasped, there is nothing more to attend to in the painting, since all we have is more handprints, inertly and mechanically repeated across the image, like thousands of instruments playing one note in unison. Far from being drawn in, viewers have nothing to do but move on, unless they are interested in details of technique or qualities of paint, in a way which is quite unconnected with the painting’s alleged significance. The painting simply throws one very simple thought, bombastically amplified, at rather than to the viewer, and, like a brash advertisement, repels reflection rather than inviting us into an ordered space in which reflection may occur.

Now it might be asserted that, the subject-matter being what it is, the painting ought to be repellent, and should not be inviting. Would such an assertion be widely accepted today, or even be regarded as self-evidently just? If so, this would be another symptom of the degraded state of our culture, which will collapse if it has entirely lost the understanding of itself as the inheritor (however unworthy) of a great tradition. A moment’s reflection should be enough to remind us that that tradition furnishes many examples – canonical examples – of works which powerfully illuminate themes of suffering and evil. And not only do they do so without repelling the attention of the audience, but their capacity to invite and sustain absorbed attention is a necessary condition of their power. There is, perhaps, no more powerful depiction of suffering than the crucifixion panel of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. But we are not repelled from looking at it, any more than we refuse to attend performances of Othello because we cannot bear to confront the personification of evil in Iago. On the contrary, it is because evil is presented in the virtual domain of art, and removed, not from the scope of the imagination, but from the immediate urgencies of our own practical lives, that we are enabled to confront it, and reflect on it. (To the minimal extent that Richard Cork says anything coherent at all, in the review quoted earlier, it is vitiated by neglect of this fundamental and, one should have thought, uncontroversial point.) By evoking our response to its visual rhythms and powerful drawing, Grünewald’s painting invites our attention and holds it, as we acquire a more intimate acquaintance with the compellingly realised forms of Christ’s tortured body. It is not the painting that is horrific, but what it contains. The suffering of Christ and the horror of the crucifixion are held before the mind, precisely because the painting draws us into contemplating its content and meaning, and retains our attention. In this way it fulfilled its original devotional function of assisting the faithful to confront the reality of evil, and to meditate on the sinfulness of human nature in bringing it about.

Totes Meer has the conviction that comes from its origin in direct 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 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, 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 tried to show how that judgement is fundamentally the same judgement 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 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 wrong to value, or at least to overvalue, others, is simply incomprehensible, 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