Thursday, June 26, 2008

59. Portrait of the Critic

March 1998: A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that Sinister Dexter was being forced into double-duty to accomodate a tough schedule with not enough series in the drawer and some weeks to go before some new material was ready to go. Prog 1086 saw this reach a real extreme, with over half the comic given over to the Gunsharks for a three-part story called "Lyrical Bollards" by Dan Abnett and Simon Davis. Other stories this week include Durham Red by Abnett and Mark Harrison, and Judge Dredd by John Wagner, Cliff Robinson and Alan Craddock, with a cover painted by Jason Brashill.

In a very odd coincidence, I'm writing this shortly after Simon Davis was awarded the runner-up prize in a competition by the National Portrait Gallery for his piece Portrait of Amanda Smith at Vincent Avenue. But it isn't the acclaim and congratulations that Davis is due that makes this blog particularly well-timed, though he is surely due both. It's because "Lyrical Bollards," with its delightful snaps at the critical establishment of the highbrow art world, perfectly anticipated a rather strident piece by the writer Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard on the 13th.

For many years, I've considered what the purpose of criticism is, and how best to draw the line of appropriate commentary. I think that generally, these days, I really only want to talk about things that I enjoyed because I wish to recommend them to my friends, which does not make me an honest critic in the academic sense, but then again, nobody is employing me in such a way either. When I was being paid by a newspaper to review records, I was still ensuring the things I enjoyed made it into the paper, but also the things I really didn't like, because those were the most fun to write. I often get the feeling that readers' eyes pass right over words and phrases that indicate pleasure, in favor of ones that deconstruct. Face it, more people probably took the time to read that demolishing I gave Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga a few weeks ago than any given collection of old newspaper strips I've championed lately.

Sewell's essay (available, at the time of writing, here) is useful in explaining the backstory behind the NPG's annual competition, and I suppose he's due a little thanks for the brief history lesson. Sewell and the Standard chose paintings by Davis, Tim Okamura, Tom Phillips and Nigel Wood to illustrate the piece, and they're all wonderful pieces, full of energy, expression and talent.

Not to hear Sewell tell it, however. Here are some sample words from his essay about the quality of this year's entrants: "entirely devoid of quality," "beastly thing," "slipshod," "impoverished," "ghastly formless face," "vile," "vulgar," "crassly amateur" and "crude to the point of incompetent caricature." For the most part, Davis escapes the inferno of ugliness, but while I appreciate a well-written tirade against bad art more, perhaps, than most people, and was incredibly pleased with bon mots such as "Robert O'Brien's portrait of his grandmother has something painterly about it," I was sad to see such devastatingly well-worded criticism being applied to something so ill-deserving.

Admittedly, I only saw the pieces used to illustrate the article and not the full exhibition, but even with Tom Phillips' piece, which attracted the bulk of the vitriol, I think Sewell's completely mistaken anyway. Fine art isn't like films or albums or even comics, where there should be several levels of editorial input between artist and audience. (You might argue that in some cases, be they recent Star Wars movies or Grant Morrison comics, the finished product might have been a good deal better had an editor been assigned to tell the artist how pureile or incoherent their work has become, but I digress.) Frankly, what I see, and what the National Portrait Gallery seems to have assembled, are a number of genuinely wonderful pieces which really reflect the artists' viewpoints and emotions - perhaps with a stronger influence from photography than Sewell would prefer, true - painted by artists much more talented than me. Wood's self-portrait is especially vivid and moving, two adjectives you can't generally apply to Star Wars films, Final Crisis comics or, say, Hilary Duff records, and this is especially striking as, if I understand correctly, it was prepared in a variety of techniques over a sixteen-year period.

It's certainly true that, to paraphrase a passage in a collection of Roger Ebert essays, there's nothing quite as fun as reading a really good critic tee off on a really bad movie, but Sewell's elegant dissembling of these artists was every bit as ill-advised as Ebert's tirade against David Lynch's Blue Velvet in that book. That's not to imply I'm getting defensive over art that I enjoy being savaged by some meanie of a critic, as some of the very best critical essays I've read, most memorably Jon Wilde's intensely negative review of Secrets of the Beehive, one of my favorite David Sylvian albums, force fans to reconsider the art from a different perspective. Unfortunately, Sewell's point, presumably that the National Portrait Gallery should exercise tougher guidelines in selecting pieces worthy of their shortlist, is lost within the ball he's having kicking those painters around.

I mean, "vulgar"? Really? I've seen Johnny Ryan comics and I've seen Tom Phillips' painting, and the one that's vulgar ain't the one hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.

Anyway, that worked for a change of pace mental health break, I think, but I'm afraid that, with this installment, we'll have to begin an abbreviated schedule for a few weeks. I'm rereading along with my children, and they'll be visiting relations in Tennessee next week, returning the next, then spending two weeks in Kentucky with their mother, and then spending a week at summer camp in Alabama. So we'll be back on the tenth in time for Dredd to match wits with the serial killer the Angel of Death, and then take a short summer vacation. Until next time, then!

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