I have always been a great admirer of Brian Sewell.
In the early 90s I embarked on a series of interviews with distinguished men and women of letters, politicians, industrialists, people at the Bar, and members of the clergy.
However, my ambition was amply rewarded when in February 2000 Brian agreed to go through the ordeal of an interview at my office building in Beak Street, Soho for my book Dialogues. I found out later that his date of birth is July 1931, whereas mine is May of the same year. That seems to have been the reason, I reckon, we got on so well.
To celebrate his coming birthday, and the publication by Quartet Digital of a selection of his essays which won him the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2003 – marking the twentieth anniversary of the prize, and the one hundred and tenth of George Orwell’s birth – I reproduce for the benefit of my readers the interview I conducted with Brian, which is one of my favourites.
You are a distinguished art historian, but it is as an art critic that you have earned yourself a reputation – indeed you might easily be called the doyen of art criticism. Assuming that you didn’t set out to achieve this designation, is it nevertheless one from which you derive satisfaction?
Oh dear, I think I have to argue with several of those statements. I have absolutely no distinction as an art historian. I’ve never written the book I want to write, and I’ve never been involved in a major exhibition, at least not since I was a mere boy. When I first left the Courtauld I had a very promising career. I was regarded as quite a bright boy and it all looked as though it was set fair. Then I was offered a job at Christie’s and I spent the next ten years of my life there being diverted from serious scholarship. Working at Christie’s is a game of swift judgement and even swifter identification, or sometimes mis-identification. I became a critic by accident, and the fact that I did so seemed to me clear evidence of my river having run into sand, the end rather than the beginning. I had spent my whole life up to that point looking at pictures, going to exhibitions and experiencing the frisson of excitement as things changed in the contemporary art world. As a student of art history, I was very much aware of what David Hockney and his contemporaries tried to do, and I had considerable sympathy with them. But I now find myself very detached from those revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s, having grown old with them, as it were. I have come to realise how trivial and idiotic much of post-war art is; I am therefore disdainful and dismissive of it. And this has given me a certain notoriety; that’s all.
Critics are of course creatures much reviled – the artistic equivalent of traffic wardens, one might say. To what extent does this bother you?
The abuse doesn’t bother me because although it applies to an enormous number of critics working in this country, also in France, Germany and America, I don’t think it applies to me. There are very few people who are prepared to speak out and tell the truth as they see it. Most critics are ill-informed; they have no practice either as painters or as art historians, so they come to the business of looking at pictures almost like strangers. There are other critics who can only be described as Vicars of Bray, in that whatever is stuck under their noses they feel bound to praise it. Richard Cork [art critic on The Times] is a very good example; it really doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it has been vouched for, as long as it has a certificate of quality from the Tate Gallery or the Hayward or the Arts Council, he is prepared to say it is wonderful. There is yet another kind of critic who, thank God, is now in the decline – I’m thinking of people like Marina Vaizey. She believes in signposting; that it is her duty to say that something is there, and that that is enough. Well, it isn’t enough. A critic should have some kind of bite on the subject with which his readers are not expected to agree. What he should be doing is providing an intellectual peg on which readers can hang their own arguments and their own judgements.
Flaubert said: ‘A man is a critic when he cannot be an artist, in the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.’ Do you think there is an uncomfortable truth in that view?
No. I don’t think there is any truth in that at all. Edward Lucie-Smith, for example, did not become a critic because he couldn’t paint. Edward came to criticism from poetry, from being a writer, from an interest in acquiring things, which led him naturally to the intellectual pursuit of what lies behind the things we acquire; it has absolutely nothing to do with his inability to draw or paint. The curious thing is that when you do get critics who can to some extent paint, and they are rash enough to put themselves on view, they are appalling. One simply cannot understand why they have not exercised the first principle of the critic, which is to examine what he himself does, whether as a painter or as a writer.
Oscar Wilde had a different perspective from Flaubert, believing that it is precisely because a man cannot do a thing that he is the proper judge of it. Are you any more inclined to the Wildean view of things?
I’m not, but the last Conservative government was, and this New Labour regime quite certainly is. There is a belief amongst those who have the power to make important appointments that the amateur is best. This applies particularly in the area of visual arts. There is a very good example now in the invention of this New Labour organisation called MLAG. It has to do with museums, libraries, galleries and archives, and yet it is headed by somebody who cheerfully admits that he is not interested in any of those, and his right-hand man is that celebrated cook and entertainer Loyd Grossman, a man who looks through keyholes for a living. It is the devil of the art gallery and the museum in this country that their trustees are amateurs, and it is the devil of organisations like the Museums and Galleries Commission that their commissioners are people who know absolutely nothing about the history and purpose of galleries and museums. So don’t blame the critic; blame the government, because in one shape or form government is always the institution through which appointments are made. They seem to have a sense of mischief for putting the cat among the pigeons. But pigeons can get on with their business perfectly well without pussy upsetting it.
The few facts that I was able to glean about your early life suggest a not very auspicious start. Your father committed suicide before you were born and your mother by all accounts was stiflingly possessive. How does a child survive such a childhood?
That’s an exceedingly difficult question to answer. I think I survived my childhood because my mother treated me from my very earliest consciousness as an adult. The consequence was that when I eventually went to school, very soon after my eleventh birthday, my abilities were absurd for a child of my age. I had a considerable command of things like Greek mythology, Roman history, and opera and I read the novels that my mother read instead of baby books. This was rather unbalanced in one way, but it gave me a head start in terms of general culture. I was taken to the National Gallery every week as a child so small that I can remember looking at the undersides of frames as they projected from the wall. I don’t know what I would have done had my mother not brought me up in such a one-sided way, but her one side opened windows all the time. That is why I didn’t stifle.
You have said – touchingly – of your father’s suicide that he put the cat out before he gassed himself. How important was it for you to be made aware of that gentle and humane gesture before an act of such self-destructiveness?
In so far as I have any folk memory, as it were, of my father, it is the thing that means most to me. I share my father’s melancholy nature and there are moments when depression becomes unbearable, but what prevents me from committing suicide is that I have dogs. And I care more for them than I do for myself.
There was presumably a temptation to romanticise the father you had never known…did you find that you could turn him into almost anyone you wanted?
No. In the very early days his absence was really not important. My life was very full with the entertainments provided by my mother. And by the age of eleven I had acquired a stepfather who was interested in music and religion, and also in the observances of the Church of England, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church in which I had been christened. So there were plenty of things to excite and divert me from worrying or wondering about my own father.
For the first eleven years of your life you did not mix with other children…did you accept this as part of the natural order of things?
Yes. I had no idea of what I was missing, none whatsoever.
Do you subscribe to the Larkin view of things: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’?
If you had asked me that question thirty years ago I would have said, yes, I am well and truly fucked up. But now I look at the married couples who are my friends, I look at their children, and I realise that the happy marriage, the untroubled family, is a great rarity. It is the nature of parenthood to fuck up children, and that’s that. We shouldn’t expect anything more.
Did you consciously decide against having children of your own, and if so, was this related to your own experience as a child?
I went through a period in my early thirties when I thought that it would be wonderful if one could settle down and lead the absolutely conventional life, marriage and children, and so on. But I knew deep down that this was an impossibility – I had been solitary for so long. I also had to confront the irredeemable nature of my homosexuality, which at an early stage had come into extreme conflict with my religious life. This wasn’t exactly straightforward because I had been born a Roman Catholic, and though I had been diverted into the Church of England by my stepfather, I had always wanted to go back to being a Roman. But what disturbed me was the hostility of both branches of the Christian Church to what was my essential nature. It was something with which I was born, I am convinced of that; it could not be trained or educated out of me, yet it was a barrier that all my priests demanded I should deal with. It seemed to me that the only solution the church offers a homosexual is to be a eunuch, and that, I believe, is simply not possible. Like all men I am a sexual being; it need not be very fruitfully applied, but it cannot be denied.
You have described your mother’s possessiveness as ‘utterly destructive’. Is that something you have found hard to forgive?
Oh, I don’t think I have found anything really hard to forgive. She had a fairly tough time and she did the best she could. I sometimes joke and say I am the victim of a deprived childhood, and in many ways I am, but there were many compensations. When I started school at the age of eleven, we were required to give a little talk for five minutes to the class. The other boys talked about their pets and their school holidays, but I stood up and talked about Wagner. I rejoice that I had a mother who brought me up to be able to do that.
You were packed off to school at the insistence of your stepfather. Were you dragged screaming and kicking, so to speak, or was it in some ways a relief to get away?
I had no idea what school was, so I didn’t know what to expect. My mother didn’t want me to go to boarding school, so my stepfather lugged me round all the possibilities in London, the City of London School, St Paul’s, University College, but none of them would have me because I didn’t know anything that fitted the school curriculum. I couldn’t add two and two, and my English was completely instinctive, not soundly based on grammar. This was a huge problem, but eventually I was taken in at Haberdashers, and then only because they were desperate. Haberdashers was just about as low as you could go. It was exceedingly unpleasant and would have been a disaster had it not been for my innate ability to run, not only quickly but over very long distances. Cross-country running and rugby saved me, otherwise I would have been teased to death.
You say somewhere that your stepfather was treated extremely badly by your mother and also by you. Was this something you recognised only with hindsight, or were you aware of it at the time?
I recognised it when I did my national service in the army, an extraordinary experience for me. It was then for the first time I realised what a decent man my stepfather was.
Is there a feeling of self-reproach when you recall the way you treated your stepfather?
Not particularly [laughter]. My stepfather got his own back in the end because he left all his money – not that there was much of it – to his first wife and his daughter, not to my mother and me, though he had been with us much longer.
Do you believe in self-improvement, that people can recognise their faults and do something about them?
There are probably episodes in people’s lives that cause change of some kind. In my own case, it happened suddenly when I found I had a fairly useless heart. I had been wonderfully fit until I had a heart attack and its consequences have been disastrous. I have looked over the edge a couple of times, and the business of looking over the edge does make one feel slightly more generous perhaps.
You spent two years in the army…was that a tough time for you?
It was tough in all the conventional ways, but it wasn’t intellectually tough. It was just something one had to do. The real problem for me was whether or not I should take my violin with me. I was quite good in those days, and I didn’t want to stop being good, but somehow a kind of common sense intervened and told me, no, no, you do not go to Aldershot with a violin, you do not. Of course, it was the end of serious violin playing, but it did help remove any kind of lingering vanity that one might really be a brilliant violinist.
Is that a major regret?
No. Quite frankly I don’t think I would ever have been good enough, and even if I had been good enough I would have been far too emotional, because music gets to the heart of me, and I can’t really control my emotional reactions to it.
You turned down a place at Oxford in favour of the Courtauld Institute. Did you ever regret not going to Oxford? Do you think things might have turned out very differently if you had?
I don’t think Oxford would have been the place for me. I’m unclubbable, and Oxford is a very clubbable place – it is where people go to network as much as to learn. The Courtauld as it then was suited me very well. It’s a very large body of exceedingly good teachers and a very small student body. Some of us were fortunate to be taught one to one by people like Blunt, which was wonderful. No, I don’t regret it at all.
You have sometimes said that your time at the Courtauld taught you how to look properly at a picture. Do you think this is something which has to be learned, that one cannot know instinctively how to look properly?
One can look at pictures in so many different ways. You can look at a picture like a clerk: how big is it, what is it made of, what is the medium, to whom did it belong, where has it been, who has written about it? And you accumulate all that information and you never ask yourself whether it is good or great or whether it excites you; it is simply documented. There are an awful lot of art historians like that who are incapable of responding to a picture as they would to a piece of music – they have absolutely no idea. And then there are other people who just look at a picture and say, isn’t it wonderful? They are sent witless in front of abstracts by Mark Rothko, trying to induce some trance-like state as a result of sitting in front of a sea of colour. That’s also pretty uninformed. One definitely needs a bit more than that. For myself, I need to respond not only to the dry documentation of a picture (which nevertheless can sometimes illuminate); I want to respond to the working of the painter’s hand and brush, I want to see the lifting-off point, that little tail of paint when you take a brush away, I want to see when something is in pastel, when something is in glaze, I want to involve myself in the act of painting in exactly the same way as when playing a musical instrument one is somehow involved in the mind of the composer. There’s a wonderful little picture by Mantegna which is always called The Entombment of Christ, but I think it’s the Resurrection and I think it’s the Resurrection because the usual paraphernalia of the entombment are not there. Christ is being propped up on the narrow end of a sarcophagus by two angels, both of whom have one leg in the sarcophagus, and they seem to me to be heaving him out of it rather than laying him in it. His lower limbs are over the edge to the fore of the picture and the face is full of pain; it’s the most agonised face you could hope to find in the whole history of art. The body is pallid and the face is ruddy, and you sense that after being three days dead the blood is flowing again – think of the excruciating pain that you experience when you’ve been sleeping on your arm and the blood begins to flood into it again. This is what Christ is experiencing over his whole body. If you can look at a picture like this and see those things, then I think you are seeing everything that you can. To take a different example, if you look at The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca, you see a wonderful triumphant Christ. There’s no Mantegnesque examination of the how, but there is everything in the why and the consequence of it in that really magnificent body triumphant as it comes out of the sarcophagus; there is no pain, just victory. It’s another way of looking at it, another way of informing us.
How does this fit with your view that good art should be accessible to all and that there is something in a Donatello or a Michelangelo that can be understood by every man?
I cannot imagine that even the humblest Florentine peasant on seeing Donatello’s Habakkuk would not immediately recognise it for what it was. Similarly, a French peasant coming into contact with Rodin’s Burghers of Calais would immediately understand, perhaps not the historical story, but from the expressions, from the body language of those figures, he would know exactly what was happening, who was being compliant, who was being heroic – all the information is there. But you look at contemporary art now, what is to be divined from ninety-nine per cent of it? Absolutely nothing. And when lecturers in galleries like the Tate are asked, ‘What does this picture mean?’, the answer is invariably, ‘Oh, it means what you want it to mean.’ This just isn’t good enough.
One of your principal complaints about modern art is that there is no place for beauty, and that beauty has become almost an irrelevance. Can we talk a little about your concept of beauty…can beauty still be found in the depiction of something ugly, for example?
It depends on the ugliness. In the Metropolitan there’s a piece of sculpture by Kiki Smith of a woman emptying her bowels. I don’t see anything beautiful in that, just as I don’t see anything beautiful in the very late Picasso of a woman emptying her bladder. But these are graceless works, disturbing only in the sense that they are distasteful. There are, however, ugly subjects that are perfectly acceptable. Goya’s Cannibals, for example, where a human leg is waved about, is a painting so exquisite that it lifts the subject and takes the horror out of it. Again, you have Gericault painting heads that have been sliced off by the guillotine; they aren’t very beautiful, but they are beautifully recorded, the beauty being in the facture of the paint. I could live with those; I might not put them in my dining-room, but I could certainly live with them.
Do you find the works of Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon beautiful?
I have problems with both. I think that Bacon was a mannerist in the sense that his way of doing things was more important than the subject itself. The easiest evidence of that is when he used to load his brush with white paint and flick it at a picture which was nearing completion. This stream of white paint tells us absolutely nothing. However, there are aspects of his work which are very beautiful in terms of subtlety of handling and modelling, for example. With Lucian Freud, I think that in some ways he is such a bad painter, such a lazy painter, someone who cannot be consistent and who gets bored with what he is doing. He is also obsessive, and there is a tremendous irregularity between the various parts of his pictures.
You deplore the breed of artist who urinates in the snow and makes bronze casts of the result, and there are many people who agree with you. Do you believe that there are objective standards by which we can judge what we might call real works of art as opposed to fashionable, gimmicky pieces?
The short answer to that is no, because if you apply objective standards you will get no advance. You might condemn new ways of doing things as nineteenth-century academic painters condemned the Impressionists. Having said that, I do have very serious problems with so-called artists like Helen Chadwick, because it seems to me that neither her Piss Flowers, as these snow pieces were called, nor her Chocolate Fountain, which was a pure reference to the emptying of the bowels, nor throwing furniture out of a first floor could possibly constitute works of art. If they are works of performance, then perhaps their place is in the theatre, but not in the art gallery.
One of the central difficulties for art historians and indeed anyone who is interested in art is what might be called the matter of taste. Can taste ever be a reliable yardstick?
No, we should never have an intellectual argument based on the stomach’s response to things, though I do think you can trust your stomach, since it is often a very reliable guide as to whether something is good. I know that sounds absurd, but it’s that same kind of visceral clench that you get when wonderful music is being played. It should do the same when you’re looking at something.
Is it possible to say, for example, that David Hockney is not to my liking, not my taste, but I recognise that he is an important artist?
I could demonstrate to anyone who would care to listen to me that David Hockney is a rotten painter. In the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, he became, fairly briefly, a brilliant draughtsman, and that is all I would give him. David is somebody who does not understand the paint; he has absolutely no feeling for it other than as colour between lines, absolutely none. He talks a great deal about perspective, but he has no sense of aerial perspective, nor does he know anything about varying colour, nothing at all.
To what then do you attribute his rise to fame?
Entirely to his homosexuality. He came in as a flamboyant homosexual at just the right moment in the 1960s, when everyone for the first time ever was determined to be liberal about it. People who were not themselves homosexual would buy David’s work and hang it in the drawing-room as a demonstration of their own liberal attitudes, and it’s just gone on from there. And once you entrench a painter in the public mind as the great painter of the day, he goes on as such. We are now turning him into a guru, a wise old man, but he’s no wiser than the street cleaner, if as wise.
One problem, I suppose, is that we know that when people saw the pictures of Manet or Cezanne over a century ago, they seemed outrageously modern and people were shocked and dismayed and felt that everything that they had known and loved about art hitherto was under threat. We are traditionally very bad at dealing with the shock of the new, are we not?
No. You just have to consider the history of collecting to dispute that. I mean, Degas had an agent in Manchester, for God’s sake. That doesn’t suggest to me that there was no appreciation. Or if you look at the great Scottish collections, there were some far-sighted Scottish dealers selling wonderful pictures to people who built ships. Then there’s that old foolishness about all the Impressionists dying in poverty. They didn’t. It cost Monet just ten pictures to buy Giverny, that’s all. He was turning out a picture a day, and he was a rich man. Degas was rich, and Renoir was also rich. Gauguin and Van Gogh were the odd men out; you can’t apply their level of penury to all the others. I simply do not understand how this myth survives. Of course, there have always been opponents, but right across Europe there have been collectors and dealers who have supported the painters at the time – you only have to look at how early their work was being bought by major institutions. In the Neue Pinakothek in Munich there is a wonderful picture by Manet, a kind of breakfast picture – I can’t remember what it is called – but it went there pretty well at once. It didn’t have to hang around a studio. There were great German dealers in places like Düsseldorf – Dusseldorf, for heaven’s sake, the Manchester of Germany!
Selling aside your specific objection to modern conceptual art, would you concede that art, like music or architecture or literature, does not stand still; it moves (as it has always done), and this is in itself not a bad thing, but just something that happens?
It’s something that must happen, otherwise there is no change. If it didn’t happen then the whole of Western art would be exactly like the wretched icon. Painting in Cyprus, produced for holidaymakers and resembling things that were painted a thousand years ago. You must allow change, and the wonderful thing about the history of art is that change is so evident. How do you get from Giotto to Donatello? How do you get from Donatello to Michelangelo, from Michelangelo to Bernini? It isn’t a single line, it’s a cat’s cradle of a line of development, looping backwards and going up and down in terms of quality.
Conceptual art leaves you cold – there is nothing, you say, that lifts the spirit. Can you be sure, however, that there is nothing that lifts the spirit of others?
That isn’t quite my view. Let’s take something which is possibly a familiar example: the first set of cage pieces by Damien Hirst. These are glass containers with steel frames and when they were exhibited in the ICA some years ago, I was deeply moved by them. They were very disturbing. They were not beautiful, but they did what beauty does, which is affect the spirit. Which is why I am very defensive of Damien, because he has gone through phases which are not just flamboyant things with sharks and sheep; he has also touched on things that are essential to the darker side of human nature, and no one can take that away from him. My esteem for his work is very high.
A few years ago you said: ‘It is terribly disturbing to find oneself literally loathed by people. I hardly go out at all now, except to go to galleries.’ Has that situation changed at all, or are you still disturbed by the strength of people’s reactions to you?
I am disturbed, yes. I have become something of a recluse, and I now very largely no longer go to the press views of exhibitions in case those who most dislike me are there. My presence seems to disturb them even more than their reaction disturbs me. There was one woman critic, for example, who had a fit of hysterics at the Royal Academy and said she couldn’t bear to be in the same room. She just screamed to the company at large, ‘There’s that terrible man!’ She tried to go to another room but found she couldn’t get out because she was at the end of the sequence of rooms. So I just said, ‘Oh, sod the bloody woman. I’ll leave and come back when she gets herself out of the gallery.’ And I left.
But isn’t there a very real sense in which by holding such strong views you invite strong reactions? I mean, your writing style is, to say the least, provocative, and some would also argue that it is gratuitously insulting and also sometimes designed to hurt. My point is this: if you feel wounded and distressed by people’s loathing of you, aren’t you also engaged in dishing out hatred and venom to others, who presumably feel pain and distress just as you do?
I only ever write about people and exhibitions which are there as targets. I am in awe of no institution, so if an exhibition is put on at the Royal Academy or the National Gallery and it seems to me to be shoddily done, then I will say so. If there is an exhibition of, let’s say, the early works of Gainsborough at the National Gallery, and they are so foolish that they can’t see they’ve got the order wrong or they have simply not understood the material, then they deserve to be slaughtered for it, because they of all people should know how to do it. If they do it badly or foolishly, then they must put up with the criticism. I very rarely tackle a young painter. I will tackle an old one who is well established, like Lucian Freud or John Wonnacott, a British representational artist. I would normally never think about writing about him, except that he is suddenly thrust under my nose as one of the great figurative painters of the late twentieth century. Well, he is nothing of the kind. I feel challenged, so I respond. But at the same time I write quite a lot of letters to painters who are virtually unknown. I am invited to their exhibitions and if I go, then I think they deserve some comment. That way they are not exposed in the Evening Standard, no damage is done, and I haven’t been beastly to them in public, which is what I am always accused of. If they tear the letter up in a rage and stick pins in a wax image as a consequence, so be it, but I have done my duty as a critic, albeit privately.
But do you ever worry about the effect that your attack might have on the person who is under attack?
I think it’s fair game. If a man has put himself forward, or is put forward by his dealer for gain, then he must take what comes. It’s absurd that he should ask for praise and then be angry if he gets something other than praise. One of the most disagreeable things that ever happened to me was going to an exhibition and bumping into Lawrence Gowing, who at one point had been my tutor. He put his arm round me and told me that he hoped I would give the painter unalloyed praise. If you knew how much Lawrence spat when he said the consonant p, you would have some idea of how unpleasant this was. But the real unpleasantness lay in his expectation of unalloyed praise for a boy who was a pupil of his, just because he was his pupil and because Gowing thought he ought to be pushed. This is not good enough. Art is much more important than the people who make it.
A few years ago the American painter R. B. Kitaj left this country after his wife’s death, which he felt was connected with the savage reviews of his work. Allowing for the fact that he was clearly disturbed by his wife’s sudden death, the fact remains that you called him ‘a vain painter, puffed with amour propre, unworthy of a footnote in the history of figurative art’. Did you feel any measure of regret about writing that?
None whatever, absolutely none. It’s completely true. Nothing has ever been published that I have felt the need to retract, although I have occasionally written a review and wondered about it afterwards, returned to the exhibition, pondered the problem, and then rewritten the review. So I do sometimes reconsider.
Putting it another way, even if you stand by your judgement of Kitaj’s work, did you have second thoughts about how it was expressed?
Your Evening Standard articles are widely read and enjoyed, but the articles clearly offend a number of readers. Indeed a few years ago a group of thirty-five prominent members of the art establishment wrote to the then editor demanding your resignation. How did you feel about that at the time?
I was given warning of the letter by young Waddington [of Waddington galleries]. He rang me and said that it had been sent to him for his signature and he thought it was a disgrace, and he wished to read it to me so that I should know what was coming. What he read was a letter which I really wish had been published in that form, because I could have sued every one of the signatories. As it was, they had clearly been told to take a bit of legal advice, and so it was rephrased, which is a pity, because I was looking forward to a fight. It made me feel physically sick, because there were names on that list of people whom I respected, whom I did not think of as enemies. I now know that many of the signatories got there by chance. Marina Warner, for example, had not read the letter or sent it – she was just told by those who organised it that I was violently misogynist and I ought to be taken down a peg or two. She is a feminist and so her name got on to it, but I know she regretted it.
You were accused of virulent homophobia and misogyny…
[Laughter] I plead guilty to one or the other, not both. Some of my best friends are women. I own pictures painted by women.
You have sometimes also been accused of being anti-Semitic…
I am not anti-Semitic, I owe an enormous debt to my Jewish mentors, particularly at the Courtauld Institute. I am also indebted to the Jewish boys at school, whom I am sure I called ‘bloody Jews’ just as everybody else did, though I regret it. They brought a level of maturity to the school that would otherwise not have been there. A twelve-year-old Jewish boy is older than a twelve-year-old Christian boy, and I benefited from that.
In your article on Clause 28 in the Standard you wrote that a man’s sexuality is deeply determined, and that we all know what we are well before the onset of puberty. Do you think that those who appear to remain confused about their sexuality in adulthood are really homosexuals trying to come to terms with their homosexuality, or perhaps trying to fit into the heterosexual mould?
I don’t believe that everybody who is opposed to homosexuality is simply covering up some kind of homosexual drive of his own; that’s just a comforting myth. ‘He’s kicking me because he’s really queer’ does seem to me to be a silly argument. I don’t know what the answer is. There is a deep-seated homophobia in the English psyche, and I don’t know why it’s there or why it persists.
The bill to repeal Clause 28 was defeated by a sizeable majority in the House of Lords. What do you think about this and the concerns of Baroness Young that standards of decency and morality are at risk if Clause 28 is repealed?
I don’t think that any boy – I can’t speak for girls, I know so little about them – is ever diverted from his sexual path by the alternative. He always knows what it is. About twenty years after I left school one of the few boys I had kept in touch with decided to give a dinner party for our contemporaries. There were about forty people there, men and their wives, with me the only unmarried one there. The wives seemed to me to be largely vain and silly women who were talking boastfully about their aspirations for their children and so on. At some point homosexuality came into the general discussion and during one of those crystal moments of silence, I suddenly heard myself say, ‘I think I’ve had enough of this debate. There isn’t a single man here with whom I have not had sex. And on that note I shall bid you all farewell.’ The point of that story is that I had had sex with every one of those boys, and they had all married and had children. I was the queer one. They were all normal. So whatever we did together – and they were perfectly happy to have sex with me at the time – our sexual drives were established well before we were involved in any way with each other. I am convinced that we are what we are at a very early stage.
In your article about Clause 28, you refer to the ‘righteous’ Cardinal Winning and his ‘hysterical bigotry’. Without wishing to defend Cardinal Winning, isn’t he in a sense merely expressing the traditional view of the church based on scripture and theology?
Yes. It’s precisely what confronted me when I was in my late teens and early twenties, trying to reconcile what I believed to be my faith, with what I knew was my sexuality. That was a long time ago, and the church is still unchanged in its attitude to the problem.
Cardinal Winning is deeply conservative – he does not want the church to move with the times on issues such as homosexuality and abortion, and there is little reason to doubt that his views are sincerely held. When it comes to art, many people would argue that you too are deeply conservative and resist any attempt to accommodate modern practices. What distinguishes your own approach from that of Cardinal Winning?
[Laughter] I think you are too clever by half. But it’s actually quite an easy question to answer in the sense that there hasn’t been enough time for the dross to fall away. In the art world we make various assumptions, one of which is that it is enough for an artist to declare himself to be an artist for him to be regarded as such. Since the artist is a creature of great instinctive wisdom, it follows that everything he does and says must be taken very seriously, which is what happened with David Hockney. But with the passage of time, when most of these works of art have fallen to pieces and can’t be reconstructed, people will begin to sort the wheat from the chaff. The advantage of being a critic is that one can begin that sorting process very much earlier than an institution like the Tate can. The Tate is a museum as well as a gallery and as such it has a different duty from the National Gallery. The National Gallery is small, and it has no hope of covering the whole history of art. It can therefore choose the most exquisite, the most moving, the most exciting, the best examples. The duty of the Tate Gallery, certainly as a museum of British art, is to be complete; therefore it should have eighteenth-century rubbish in it, it should have nineteenth-century rubbish in it, and by the same token I expect it to have twentieth- and twenty-first-century rubbish in it. That’s what it’s there for.
The point I was trying to make is that sexual mores have undoubtedly changed over the last twenty or thirty years. Things that would have once caused outrage are now widely accepted in society, if not by the church. Could it not be said that the art world is similarly resistant to change?
No, I think the art world does accept everything; it’s not a bit like the church. The art world would benefit from the odd bit of discipline, somebody of some standing to say, ‘This is not art – whatever it is, it isn’t art.’ Take so-called video art, for example. If you were to put it in the cinema, it would be seen as crap; it wouldn’t have a hope of surviving because it’s professionally inept. The average video artist is simply incompetent and would not be employed by any advertising agency. So I would prefer to scrap the lot of it, for it illuminates nothing, it adds nothing to the sum of beautiful things that move the soul. But going back, to your basic point, to me being the Cardinal Winning of the art world, I don’t think that’s true. There are things that excite me, there are things which from time to time get through what may seem to be my carapace of prejudice.
Would you argue, as many people do, that there is moral equivalence between straight and homosexual sex?
I think that in a fair society there probably could be, but I go no further than that.
Do you think ideally sex ought to take place in the context of love, or are the two quite separate in your view?
Oh, for heaven’s sake, that’s a terribly old-fashioned thing. Sex, like food, works at all sorts of levels. You could go to a restaurant and have something that is exquisitely titillating to the palate, or something that simply stokes the boiler. Sex exists as a kind of constant in men’s lives: it’s there all the time. It varies between extremes of affection and extremes of activity, which are simply purgative.
I notice you say in men’s minds. Do you think women are different?
I imagine an enormous number of women, once they’ve had a baby or two, would say they’d rather sex went away, that they really don’t want any more.
You say somewhere of your mother: ‘For the first part of her life, she was a flapper and easily bedded.’ What is your feeling about that? Is it pride, or dismay, or perhaps incredulity?
I think of it as a possible explanation for my own inclination to be at her age as promiscuous as I was. I’m sure that anybody who remembers me at school will remember me as the school whore.
You say in the same article that children inherit their parents’ sexual problems. Would it be too literal an interpretation to infer from that comment that you are also a flapper and easily bedded?
I was. I am now something of a monk. I can no longer believe that young men with whom I would like to go to bed would like to go to bed with me.
What place does love have in your life? Do you fall in love easily, or are you circumspect when it comes to love?
I have been deeply in love with the same man for almost thirty years. He’s married, he’s on his second marriage in fact, but the love isn’t quite unrequited. Occasionally I leave a message on my answering machine which says, ‘I am busy committing adultery. Please leave your number and I will return your call when I stop for coffee.’ And it’s true, because although I am not married in any sense other than to him, he is committing adultery, so I share it.
Some people have suggested that you might suffer from loneliness. Is there any truth in that?
Probably. I am a melancholy soul. I have absolutely no control over it. The melancholy comes and goes without any obvious explanation; the only consolation about it is that it goes, it always goes.
Where are you on the political spectrum, would you say? You described William Hague in an article as ‘ludicrous’ and ‘repellent’. Are you more enamoured of Tony Blair?
No. He is ludicrous and repellent too. I hate that grin, that ready grin. It’s even worse than John Major’s.
But do you think Blair is a good prime minister?
No, he’s all wind and waffle. What I deplore about Tony Blair is that he is prepared to run with the Thatcher legacy; it suits him because it will get him re-elected. I had great hopes when John Prescott said before the election that there was a strong possibility that they would renationalise the railways, that they would not be run for profit, that we would get our money back. If he had stuck to that, I would have voted Labour but by the time the election came it was already perfectly clear that wind and waffle were all that they had to offer, and that is all we’ve had since. There’s only one serious politician in the Labour camp, and that’s Gordon Brown.
In an article entitled ‘Me and My God’, I couldn’t help noticing that you have a slightly tortured attitude to religion. Would that be a fair comment?
You started off as a Roman Catholic and then had Anglicanism imposed on you by your stepfather, but gradually you began to have more and more doubts about what might be called the core beliefs of Christianity, though you also seemed to be troubled by guilt…
The guilt is entirely associated with my homosexuality. It is the feeling of exclusion and rejection. If one could change that, I might feel differently.
Would you say perhaps that it is almost as difficult not to believe as to believe?
I think it depends entirely on your background. If I had had no background in the church, then I don’t think I would have any longing to join it. It would be enormously comforting to be able to return to a belief, but I don’t think I shall. My lack of faith is supported everywhere I look – Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia. Where is God?
From what I read you are obviously troubled by what might be called the problem of evil and suffering in a world created by a benevolent God. You say, ‘I have some sympathy if he cares not a damn for the human race; it is pretty ghastly. But that he should inflict harm on the animal kingdom seems beyond acceptance.’ Is that your sincere belief, or is it intended to be slightly rhetorical?
It is my sincere belief. Christ preaches about the importance of the lilies in the field, the sparrows in the air, but look at what has happened to the lilies in the field and we now have no sparrows. What is the answer? The answer is that he isn’t there, because if he were, he of all people would do something about it. Every time, for example, I read about the Siberian tiger or the Pyrenean bear becoming extinct, it makes me so angry.
Your love of animals is well known. What is it about animals? Do you feel they are safer than people perhaps, more loyal, more loveable?
The care I give to a bird with a broken wing is not conditional on being rewarded with loyalty and love. But the wonderful thing about owning dogs, and to a lesser extent cats, is that you do get a response which is human in some degree, or recognisably of the same nature as a human response, but that’s a bonus. If I had the opportunity to live my life again knowing what I know now, I would not be an art historian, I would be a vet.
Your stand against religion seemed to waver when you had your heart attack and then a heart-bypass operation. Indeed you told the staff that if anything went wrong they were to send for a priest. Was this a version of Pascal’s wager?
[Laughter] No, it was an entirely unconscious reaction. The nursing sister had challenged me with her brisk bright businesslike approach, and with her clipboard in hand she told me there were one or two details which had to be settled, one being that I was down as an atheist. Although one feels more dead than alive in such a situation, I said, ‘No, no, I’m not an atheist. I am an agnostic, but if anything goes wrong, call a priest.’ It was purely instinctive. Besides, I see absolutely nothing wrong with going through the motions of the Roman Catholic preparations for death, which can be very beautiful and moving.
Are you afraid of death?
I don’t think so. It will be the nature of its coming that really gives the answer. I think I can put up with pain or physical disablement, but if my brain should become addled…of course I shall not be aware, and that is the comfort. My mother in the last year or two of her life had no idea at all that her brain was not functioning. I used to go and visit her as a regular discipline, and one particular day when I went into her room she was lying with her eyes shut and her hands doing quick finger movements, as though playing the piano. I sat there and she took no notice of me – she didn’t even know I was there. Eventually I got down on the floor and touched her knee. She opened her eyes, went on making her hand movements, and just said, ‘Don’t interrupt! I’ve told you before not to interrupt me when I’m practising.’ And it just went straight back to my childhood. I found it terribly disturbing because it was quite clear that she had no idea how old she was, she had no idea of the circumstances, her sense of reality had gone. But I think she was perfectly happy.
Are you resigned to oblivion when you die, or would you like to think that there might be an afterlife?
Of course I’m resigned to oblivion. The great book on Michelangelo is not written. It won’t be on anybody’s shelf. That is the only afterlife I should have liked, to have written that book, and I now know I shan’t. I suspect I shall die in harness with the Evening Standard, scribbling ephemera. And the book won’t be there.