The Decade That Art Forgot ; in One of the Most Defining Essays from His New Book, Naked Emperors, a Revealing Collection of Evening Standard Exhibition Reviews, Brian Sewell Explains Why He Took against the Conceptual Artists and Curators of the Mid-Sixties and Seventies

Article excerpt

IT ALL seems so long ago and hardly worth remembering except that, at the time, in the haze of cannabis smoke it seemed so hopeful, innocent and flowerpowerful, a time to reject the materialism of the past and escape into Kate Greenaway land. The first of those 10 years was marked by (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction sung by the Rolling Stones, and by the first shaven-headed children of the Hare Krishna movement; the last saw in sombre gloom the execution of Malcolm X and the election of Margaret Thatcher as the preposterous leader of the Conservative Party. In the years between, the Notting Hill Festival came into being, freedom was crushed by Russian tanks in Czechoslovakia, a human egg was fertilised in a test tube, a heart transplanted in South Africa, Greenpeace founded, Britain joined the Common Market and Bloody Sunday brought to a head the murderous divisions that had troubled Ireland since the founding of Sinn Fein in 1905. The years in question are those from 1965, in the middle of the Swinging Sixties, to 1975, when Britain was struggling to recover from the devastating effects of the oil crisis and an inflation rate of 28 per cent; they have now been identified by the panjandrums of the Whitechapel Gallery as a significant era in the history of English art.

In that few artists of the day knew in which direction art should develop, it was a decade of uncertainties, but of two things they were sure -- that the ancestral conventions of painting and sculpture need no longer be observed (indeed, could cheerfully be abandoned), and that all an artist need do was to proclaim himself an artist, for what then followed was that anything he made or did, by whatever means or none, must necessarily be art -- a simple logic widely accepted and merrily agreed by the empty-headed critics of the day. Art could be anything, anywhere, or nothing; an idea, quite invisible, or a happening that could not happen, with no material evidence of either, could be just as much a work of art as Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, provided that its perpetrator had made the essential declaration "I AM AN ARTIST".

Enthusiastic enquirer that I then was, I well remember intruding on the business of a Bloomsbury solicitor to inspect lengths (uneven) of coarse and hairy parcel string suspended from drawing pins in the ceiling (the work of an artist in residence there), contemplating in an otherwise empty room of the Hayward Gallery an empty matchbox, open to reveal its emptiness, setting off for Germany to fight my way into, across and out of a vast room filled from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with shredded paper, and for New York to see an exhibition of canvases blankly white but for the stencilled inscriptions THIS IS A STILL LIFE, a portrait, a landscape and so on. I smoked my fair share of cannabis, ate it in salads and homebaked cakes, and spent unending evenings in the company of art students in the wilder shores of London drifting into the intellectually incapacitated daze induced by bhang, dagga, grass, ganja, rama, shit and all the other names by which it went and of which they pretended the kind of connoisseurship now expended on mediocre wines in Islington. Swallowing LSD on sugar cubes, I surrendered to fantasies that made the paintings of Salvador Dali in his prime seem the poor, pale, pedestrian inventions of a plodding mind. In New York I joined the languid throng that lay at Warhol's feet.

This I confess only because it was, I am certain, a necessary concomitant without which the absurd and intellectually trivial art of this period could neither have come into existence nor been accepted by critics and curators who should have known better. To some extent artists were deliberately testing the critical response, seeing how far they could go before critical rebellion came into play, but rebellion there never was and artists were encouraged in self-belief and became aggressive; dissidents among them were regarded as traitors, shouted down and violently excluded from this company of angels. …