Brian Sewell – The Art of Pissing People Off and Not Giving a Damn

Words like controversial and outspoken are the first words you meet in conjunction with Brian Sewell, dig a little deeper and you come across other words, words like scurrilous, bitchy, contemptuous, acerbic, disdainful, and just plain rude.

For those that don’t know he was also perhaps Britain’s most popular art critic, and now, recently, dead.

 

I disliked Sewell’s writing for a number of reasons that could vaguely be summed as that he represented everything I dislike about art critics, he was patriarchal, reactionary, dictatorial and sometimes willfully offensive. His views on women were disgraceful, [feminists plug your ears]

 

“There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50% or more of classes at art school. Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it’s something to do with bearing children.”[1]

 

And he once claimed that “Banksy should be have been put down at birth”, which is for me a bit strong for a producer of socially conscious stencils/graffiti, and that Tracey Emin was a ‘self-regarding exhibitionist’ who was ‘ignorant, inarticulate, talentless, loutish, and now very rich’ (yes Brian, but what about the work?), and throughout his career he was famed for throwing similar comment in the direction of those of whom he didn’t approve, at one point prompting 35 artists and art people, including Eduardo Paolozzi and Rachel Whiteread, to write an open letter to his employer accusing him of a “dire mix of sexual and class hypocrisy, intellectual posturing and artistic prejudice” and demanding his resignation.

 

It didn’t come about for the reason that he was incredibly popular and widely read, a fact that attests to the lasting appeal of well directed bile, and perhaps also the British public’s innate respect for an accent so aristocratic, replete with obscure and archaic words and constructions, that it is almost incomprehensible (he was a man who referred to a hotel as “an ‘otel” – he was too well spoken to aspirate). Sewell once described himself as sounding like an ‘Edwardian lesbian’, and while this might be beyond anyone’s ability to testify, it does demonstrate a sense of humour.

 

The path that lead Sewell to art critic is complicated.

 

A boy from an uncertain background [read hints of prostitution] with a father who married down and then committed suicide seven months before he was born, a fact Brian didn’t know until his mother admitted it on her death bed. His father was a loose one who gassed himself at thirty six, he made a living as a critic.[2] “[Brian] didn’t attend school until the age of eleven. It didn’t occur to anyone, he says, to send him.”[3]Then he went straight into the English public school system. He, unsurprisingly, hated it, but still got offered a spot at Oxford, which he turned down to study at the Courthauld under one Anthony Blunt. Afterwards he tried his hand as a painter and failed, cliché fulfilled, there’s something a little horrifying about watching his telling of how he once sold a painting in a gallery, and once won a prize for another (and not a school prize mind).[4] He then spent ten years valuing art for Christies before being rather a failure as a dealer. It was to his good fortune that his former tutor and good friend Anthony Blunt turned out to be a member of the Cambridge five, a group of Soviet spies. Blunt had turned for MI5 and as a result had never been prosecuted but when the news was later dropped by the ever popular Margret Thatcher he was hunted by the press. Brian hid him. And by all, unverified accounts, somewhat stole the limelight. Enough that Tina Brown, the reviver of Tatler, hired him as her art critic. The history continues to the Evening Standard and awards to television and more awards, and then less success. He was haughty, scathing and opinionated, offending sentiments and ravishing Michelangelo. His particular bête noire was conceptual art. He once claimed anyone who hung a Hirst in their house no doubt owned a pink Rolls-Royce, this coming from a man who owned a gold Mercedes.[5]

 

Like most people with a thousand sharp points Sewell’s redeeming feature was that, as mentioned, he was funny, example – when Tony Blair asked the people to trust the government over the Iraq war Sewell’s response was “Trust them? I would sooner trust ferrets to feed a pet rabbit lettuce.”[6]

 

He was articulate, engaging, charming, knowledgeable, and indomitable. He had the courage to be that negative voice, to speak out against the prevailing opinion and not give a damn if he upset people. And the public loved it, the public wanted someone to say those things about those people, a popstar artist best known for making loads of money doing something no one understands, people wanted that and he delivered it with utter belief and authority. He also spoke beautifully about the classics and ultimately he was passionate about his subject and unafraid to show it.

 

We do agree that the Chapman brothers are good, but other than that I disagree with him on almost everything, however, the quotidian truth is that, as offensive he as might have been, society needs distinctive voices who do what his voice did, crystalised opinion, forced people to stand one way or another and define their beliefs, and actually read about art, as such he will be sorely missed. In the end the world needs some spite, sample quote, in Venice, travelling to a masked ball,

 

“Here I am, filled with bitter resentment, on my way to the bloody ball” [7]

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/sep/19/brian-sewell-cutting-critiques-six-of-the-best-quotes [accessed 21/09/15]

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/brian-sewell-critic-both-loved-and-cursed-for-his-insistence-that-most–though-not-all–modern-art-is-rubbish-10510023.html [accessed 21/09/15]

[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/arch-enemy-of-the-critics-stings-back-the-art-world-is-calling-for-brian-sewells-head-he-is-unfazed-1398973.html [accessed 21/09/15]

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EFJ_rpSAa4 [accessed 21/09/15]

[5] I honestly can’t find the reference for this information but I definitely stole it from somewhere.

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/sep/19/brian-sewell [accessed 21/09/15]

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oDVmCjUvHE [accessed 21/09/15]