Generous to bricks but parsimonious with the brickbats

Everything Seemed Possible - New Spirit, New Sculpture, New Money - Breaking down the Barriers - Annus Mirabilis?

November 21, 2003

Richard Cork is a pillar of the English art establishment. Apart from his journalism, he was for some years the chairman of the visual arts panel of the Arts Council, is a syndic of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and a member of the advisory council for the Paul Mellon Centre. And he is not just a journalist. He has a Cambridge PhD, was Slade professor of fine art there from 1989 to 1990 and held a Henry Moore senior fellowship at the Courtauld Institute. He has published several books, of which three are both valuable and distinguished: his monograph on David Bomberg, his study A Bitter Truth: Avant Garde Art and the Great War and what is surely the definitive two-volume history of Vorticism. In addition, he has been, over a period of more than 30 years, art critic successively of the Evening Standard, The Listener, The Times and now, occasionally, the New Statesman .

I make no apology for devoting so much space to who Cork is in establishing the remarkable nature of the four volumes under review. Art criticism is an established journalistic function, probably more useful than literary criticism because anyone with access to a library or a bookshop can get hold of a book. It is not so easy to "get hold of" an art exhibition without making a long and usually expensive journey, unless you happen to live near the gallery, which 90 per cent of the time is in London, where the art is on show. Art criticism is certainly more useful than 95 per cent of music criticism, unless it is of records that can be borrowed or bought, or of an opera with a run of several performances or, if the music critic is both brilliant and brave, it brings to life the spirit of a new composition. But, for that 95 per cent of the time, music criticism consists of brief reviews of single concerts that are, by their very nature, ephemeral and evanescent. Unless readers of the review were also in the concert hall that evening, they have no means of testing their views against those of the critic; and, to be brutal, of what use is it to know how Barenboim conducted a Beethoven concert at the Festival Hall or how the 200th performance of Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto sounded at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester? I know whereof I speak since I am a passionate music lover and practise as an opera critic as well as being a writer on art.

At least with the art critic, even if you cannot visit the exhibition, there is a possibility of seeing reproductions of the paintings and sculptures, of studying a catalogue, of glimpsing - if the exhibition is important enough - parts of it on television or, if it consists of the work of a well-known artist, looking up the works in art books, in what Andre Malraux so brilliantly named "the museum without walls".

Having said that, one must also point out that there is something daunting about these four volumes. The publication of one's occasional pieces in volume form is an honourable tradition, and many famous books have not been works of synthesis but collections of essays resuscitated from yellowing newspapers and fading glossy journals. This has gone on for years and many, if not most, of the more celebrated books by the most influential art critics of the past half-century have been no more nor less than compilations, no matter how provocative, seductive or resonant their titles. Both Herbert Read and Harold Rosenberg, men with fine minds and finer literary styles, did it all the time - Read with To Hell with Culture, Art and Alienation , and so on; Rosenberg with The Tradition of the New, Art on the Edge , and so on. Read did, of course, produce many art books that were true works of synthesis but Rosenberg, my favourite critic of the past century, produced only one straight narrative work, his all-too-brief monograph on Arshile Gorky.

Now here is Cork unleashing only 12 pages fewer than 2,000 in total, simultaneously and all published, handsomely printed and reasonably priced, by the most scholarly art book publishing house in the Anglophone world, Yale University Press. Having been an art book publisher for some 40 years, I can find no compelling reason for this formidable blast with all barrels. Read, Rosenberg et al doled their collected bits and pieces out in much shorter volumes, at intervals of a few years. One does not wish to accuse Cork of hubris or Yale of folly since one is a serious scholar and the other a publisher that, via its Mellon-subsidised books, has done more for English art history than any other comparable house. But this is a somewhat indigestible feast.

For all that, Cork is a thoughtful critic, always open to new ideas, even if I cannot agree with him on the virtues of so much of the contemporary art he enthuses over. He is an elegant stylist and he has one of the most valuable qualities of the newspaper art critic, that of being able to describe a work of art that is not illustrated in his article, which one can nevertheless visualise with absolute clarity by reading him.

One must, therefore, as with other vast indigestible feasts, pick morsels here and there, bearing in mind that, if one has read many of these pieces when they first appeared, the majority of the dishes are being served cold.

In the last volume a sympathetic, perceptive assessment of the London National Gallery's marvellous examination of the iconography of Jesus Christ, Seeing Salvation , is followed by a joint review of two New York exhibitions, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the other at the Guggenheim Museum. The account of the 15th-century German sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider is a model review on the reasonable assumption that the vast majority of his Times readers will not have heard of him or at least would be unable clearly to visualise his work. The second part deals with the contemporary Korean-born, American-based sculptor Nam June Paik, one of the fathers of video and installation art, who takes up nearly half the space and to whom Cork responds with an enthusiasm at least as great as that for Riemenschneider, whose work and reputation have survived for half a millennium; one wonders whether Paik's will last for even half a century.

De gustibus , and perhaps one should blame the Times editorial policy that failed to give Cork the space for two separate articles in successive issues. But one might as well use the same contrast and compare policy to couple Bernini and Anthony Gormley - and I do very much like The Angel of the North - or Verrochio and Richard Long.

I admire Cork's receptivity to so much contemporary art that leaves me cold and, since he enjoys many of the same things in traditional painting and sculpture that I do, perhaps my dislike of so much of the over-hyped BritArt of today is my fault?

And yet, and yet. I think of a close family friend with an A level in art - with a mark of 100 per cent - who went off to a distinguished university to do a combined art and art history degree only to discover that the art teaching did not cover painting and drawing but consisted solely of a course on conceptual art. I don't know which I found the more shocking; that they refused to teach her how to improve her painting and drawing, or that they thought conceptualism could be taught at all.

In the eloquent introductory essay for the first volume, Cork praises Carl André, he of the infamous Equivalent VIII - the 120 bricks arranged in neat little rows, bought by the Tate Gallery. For me the bricks are, so far as art is concerned, devoid of both merit and interest. They are interesting from a philosophical point of view and it is in those terms that one can have a stimulating debate. But one of the aspects of why their purchase by a publicly funded gallery is so undesirable is precisely the existence of the venomous front-page attack on the acquisition in the Daily Mirror ; an attack that Cork excoriates. The real problem with that in all senses witless purchase is that it provokes the anti-art bloodlust of the Philistines so that, remorselessly extending guilt by association, all modern and contemporary art thus stands condemned.

What concerns me about this prodigious republication of daily reviewing by Cork is that he appears to dislike so little that is put before him. Perhaps, like some other critics, he laudably chooses not to review what he feels to be contemptible or derisory. But if one considers the work of some of the best reviewers of other arts, such as Philip French on cinema, John Peter on theatre, Hugh Canning on music and John Sutherland on books, all are magisterial and erudite and all can be ruthless in their dismissal of the meretricious, the pretentious, the overblown and the vacuous - words that must surely apply to at least a few of the contemporary shows on which Cork has lavished so much space, attention and praise.

Most of us know the story of the group of art students who got a grant to go abroad (the Costa Brava, if I remember correctly?) and then spent the money on partying at home instead of splurging on airfares and paella. They claimed that this minor act of fraud on the public purse was itself a work of art. Art, no. But Dada almost certainly yes, and I bet that in 25 years half of them will be politicians and half will be rectors and principals of art schools.

Cork quotes the "typical laconic wit" of Keith Arnatt, who in 1970 produced a text work called Is it Possible for me to do Nothing as my Contribution to this Exhibition?. Clearly, laconic wit has not improved since I was at school. That's worth a ten-second giggle in the fourth form followed by a threat of detention if anyone laughs again. Art critics must not be po-faced but they do not have to lap up everything that is intended to be épatant as innovation and progress in the arts. Nor should almost everything that is not épatant be perceived as dull and unworthy of attention. What Rosenberg so shrewdly called "the tradition of the new" must preserve a sense of judgement, of balance. Still, while Cork may not be Ruskin, he always makes you see and usually makes you think.

Tom Rosenthal, formerly chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, is the author of Paula Rego: The Complete Graphic Works .

Everything Seemed Possible: Art in the 1970s

Author - Richard Cork
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 484
Price - £12.95
ISBN - 0 300 09508 2

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