PRINT January 2001


The Grove Book of Art Writing

THE REDCOATS ARE COMING! The redcoats are coming! For several seasons now, the alarm has sounded in New York City and parts west of the Hudson as galleries and museums have fielded the up-and-coming Brit Pack artists in various solo and group extravaganzas, each one intended to retake America by storm. None has, of course, especially not the overproduced, too-eager-to-please- by-offending efforts of Messrs. Chapman (Dinos and Jake) and Hirst (Damien), but you can’t fault them for trying. It’s just that after the ’80s boom and the ’90s wobbles, we’re not in the mood to be overwhelmed and, in our present state of imperial gridlock, not yet in a position to be conquered.

Then there is the issue of cultural difference, which, between two English-speaking nations in a supposedly “global” era, many presume has been reduced to zero but which, when it comes to art, remains as big as it was way back when George Bernard Shaw described the United States and Great Britain as two countries separated by a common language. For example, only in a post-Victorian society still riven by class distinctions, and still chuckling at “No Sex Please, We’re British,” could Tracey Emin become a household name. What distinguishes the millennium-spanning rise of the YBAs from previous disruptions of aesthetic decorum across the water, including the onslaught of the Op and Pop art brigades in the Swinging Sixties, is the degree to which the Establishment has seen it in their own best interests to embrace the upstarts and the degree to which the upstarts have accommodated the old guard’s fumbling affections. Thus veterans of the conservative School of London (Lucian Freud et al.) mingle with the hot young things of 1997 in the pages of Matthew Callings’s art-world tourist guides, and this year’s Turner Prize candidate Glenn Brown Davs his PoMo respects to Frank Auerbach in photo-surrealist renditions of his senior’s emotionally fraught and manually labored portrait heads. And all the while Britain’s favorite phony patrician, Brian Sewell, tut-tuts about the decline of civilization in the pages of the tabloids, sealing the codependency between go-go scenemakers and tea-cozy reactionaries.

Among the more peculiar attempts at finessing these aesthetic and generational tensions—or is it simply a hostile co-optation of the new by the neo-con?—is the just-published Grove Book of Art Writing, which is nothing but an “American” edition of the Penguin Book of Art Writing (London, 1998), though Grove couldn’t be bothered to Americanize the spellings. Edited by two critics associated with Modern Painters—the once proudly backward-looking, London-based magazine launched under John Ruskin’s flag that now flies David Bowie’s Jolly Roger from its editorial masthead—this anthology does more or less what its subtitle promises by way of connecting the dots between Pliny the Elder and Damien Hirst, which merely raises the question, Who but a couple of London critics with a yearning for the good old days and a tactical recognition of the power centers of the moment would have thought it necessary or desirable to do so? More than the cheeky pairing of the beginning and ending points of their trajectory, it is the stops they make (and those they skip) along the way that tell the tale. And so, under thematic headings that betray the book’s back-to-the-garret/stroll-through-the-Salon bias—“Artists and Models,” “The Probity of Art: Drawing,” and “La Vie de Boheme”—the lay reader is offered an earnestly evasive tour of memorable, or at any rate retrievable, “art words” through the ages that lurches from Albrecht Dürer to Michael Craig-Martin, Giorgio Vasari to Bruce Chatwin, Eugene Delacroix to Brian Eno, by way of Robert Louis Stevenson, Charlotte Brontë, John Berger, and artist’s model extraordinaire Leigh Bowery. Oh yes, and don’t miss the ever imperious Margaret Thatcher lecturing Francis Bacon’s biographer Daniel Farson on the duty owed culture during a tour of the Tate Gallery: “’I asked them to show me modern art,’ [Thatcher said], ’and I couldn’t see anything in it at all. The next time I began to understand.’ Suddenly [Thatcher] jabbed a finger into my chest: ’See, see, see,’ she told me, ’learn, learn, learn.’ ” Perhaps the Iron Lady could be enlisted in defense of the NEA when “Dubya” assumes office.

In this case and others, the eccentricity of Gayford and Wright’s editorial choices has an incidental charm, while the insistent Anglocentricity of their overall selection must simply be accepted as a sign of the times in a previously art-starved country currently feeling its oats. Thus, while American modernists generally get short shrift—Harold Rosenberg merits only an epigraph and a mention; Clement Greenberg several mentions and five pages of text—and writers like John Updike and Calvin Tomkins make what can only be called cameo appearances, David Sylvester, the grand old man of English criticism and the authority figure around whom pivots this strange dance of old-school studio artists and new-media practitioners, weighs in with nine entries. But beyond such forgivable if obvious chauvinism, there is a deeply disingenuous aspect to the anthology’s token inclusions and glaring omissions. Yes, Kazimir Malevich, George Grosz, Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein, Robert Smithson, Andy Warhol, and the Guerrilla Girls get walk-ons, but where—just to speak of the English avant-garde—are Lawrence Alloway, Richard Hamilton (cited but not given space of his own), Art & Language, Bridget Riley, Victor Burgin, or expatriate John Coplans, for example? The anti-avantgarde, antitheoretical prejudices of the editors are further evident in the fact that, with the exception of Rosalind Krauss, none of the critics associated with October magazine is given space, and neither are the writers who publish in Third Text and other contestatory venues acknowledged in any other way. Nor, for that matter, have the editors bothered with contemporary criticism written in languages other than English: Frenchmen Michel Tapié, Pierre Restany, Georges Didi-Huberman; Germans Laszlo Glozer, Stefan Germer, Johannes Gachnang; and Italians Germano Celant and Achille Bonito Oliva are just a handful of those missing in action. Finally, while Gayford and Wright lean toward writerly writing, Peter Schjeldahl, Dave Hickey, Fairfield Porter, John Ashbery, and Frank O’Hara are wholly absent, which, for a book that seeks to win over lay readers with elegant but snappy prose, is perversely insular.

Brilliant? Hardly. Tory to the core, this compilation offers the reader not the best that has been written on art—though many first-rate commentators have been pressed into service—but merely what suits the self-protective taste of its compilers. The result is the sort of volume one might be grateful to come across on the shelves of a bed-and-breakfast by the sea where the only artworks in view are faded reproductions. In a big city surrounded by the rapidly mutating real thing, it is a cumbersome reminder of the cautious Englishness of English taste.

Robert Storr is a painter, critic, and senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.