Curators Give Critics the Brush-Off; Now That Exhibitions Are All 'Blockbuster', 'The First Ever' or 'The Greatest', It Is the Responsibility of the Critic to Pinpoint Any Shortcomings. Alas, There Is No Evidence That Curators Ever Listen to Them

The Evening Standard (London, England), June 11, 2004 | Go to article overview

Curators Give Critics the Brush-Off; Now That Exhibitions Are All 'Blockbuster', 'The First Ever' or 'The Greatest', It Is the Responsibility of the Critic to Pinpoint Any Shortcomings. Alas, There Is No Evidence That Curators Ever Listen to Them


Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

TO my great surprise, earlier this year, I was elected an honorary member of AICA, the International Association of Art Critics - a body about which I have been, throughout my professional life, consistently dismissive.

I first encountered its members in January 1958 when working on a Winter Exhibition (as they were then called) at the Royal Academy, The Age of Louis XIV. A troupe of them arrived from Paris, caricatural figures with camelhair coats draped over their shoulders, perfume and body odour blending as on an unbathed tart. They twittered, raucous as magpies, complaining of the choice of works, the word affreux (frightful) echoing through the galleries, their enmity for the distinguished fellow Frenchman who was the exhibition's genius, blatant, their disdain for me, his dogsbody, palpable. They were strutting windbags, g ascons, fanfarons, their opinions worthless. Never have I wanted to be one of their number.

Of two English critics of the time, John Russell and Terence Mullaly, I have quite a different recollection. Both were men of serious scholarship, both knew something of my field, both raised interesting points about 17th century French painting that deserved to be incorporated in the catalogue if it ran to a second edition (it did not), and both I have respected ever since. I have respected others too, among them Theo Crombie, who for years wrote criticism for Apollo, the authoritative magazine, and knew as much of Spanish art as any professor of art history (which he could easily have been). But these were art critics of a generation when criticism was generally wellfoundedin knowledge and experience and when the respect of curators meant that there was openness between the two professions, friendship too.

The first meeting of AICA to which I was invited was scheduled as an exchange of views between art critics and curators. As my generation of curators has retired into obscurity and has not been replaced in my daily life by their successors, I leaped at the opportunity, only to learn a week before the event that Norman Rosenthal, great panjandrum of the Royal Academy, had immediately refused the invitation, that the curators of the Hayward Gallery were "too busy to attend", and that the curators of Tate Britain's Ina-Gadda-da-Vida had not responded to the invitation. In the end, not one official of any kind came from the Tates, the National Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery, and the critics were compelled instead to contemplate their navels.

THIS is no way to win friends; if not downright rudeness, it was a considerable and corporate affront. Responsible critics, members of a professional body, with not a camelhair coat in sight and not a whiff of body odour in the air, deserve better than this disregard. With the meeting, something of the old respect and openness might have taken root; without it and with questions unanswered, only resentment flourishes.

What sort of questions? No curator now openly admits to failure of any kind in the presentation of an exhibition. Let us consider hypothetically one devoted to the history of Cubism from which Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the greatest treasure of New York's Museum of Modern Art, is absent. It is a seminal work; without it, the exhibition is the Bible without the Book of Genesis. The critic who knows something of Cubism and the fundamental importance of this picture has the right to know the reason for its absence. Is it in so fragile condition that it is unfit to travel? Is it so highly valued that no insurer will accept the risk? Is it subject to a loan restriction - not outside America, say, or to be lent not more than once in a quinquennium? Is it that the authorities of MOMA have no faith in the temperature and humidity conditions of the borrowing museum? Is it that they have no respect for the scholarship of the exhibition's curators and believe them to be frivolous? …

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