Wowsers, I’ve just read probably the most mean spirited review on an artist’s work ever, by Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones (you can read it here if you haven’t had your daily dose of bitterness yet).
Now, Jones unquestionably knows more of art’s historical movements and awkward stages than I do, but I’m not sure that necessarily qualifies him to go on the attack the way he did in reviewing Maggi Hambling’s new show at the National Gallery in London. I didn’t actually know who she was when I read his review (though her face was familiar to me once I googled her, so I’ve obviously come across her at some stage) and perhaps that shows me for the ignoramus I truly am, but something in the tone of his column made me want to seek her out.
This is some of what I found:
Honestly, I can’t see what the problem is. Aside from a slightly off-putting need to be photographed holding a cigarette and looking menacingly at the camera in every portrait of her, I don’t see much wrong with Maggi Hambling and her art. Does it sell for more than it’s worth? Probably. Doesn’t most art? Probably.
Jonathan Jones describes Hambling as being bereft of “a soul, a brain or a good eye” but I don’t see much evidence of that claim. He’s worried her work is a pastiche of everything that’s come before, but even Picasso acknowledged the role of other artists in influencing each other. “Good artists copy, but great artists steal” was a wisdom that dropped from the praised Spaniard’s lips, wasn’t it?
Jones is particularly bothered by Maggi Hambling’s celebrity status, and that is fair enough. I didn’t immediately recognise her name, but I’m apparently in the minority. Celebrity does cause tension in the art world – Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, Andy Warhol…they’ve all played this game before. And yet they’re all still here and managing to remain not just relevant, but vital to the survival of galleries around the world. So who cares as long as they can sustain that level of exposure? You know what I think? I think that if your problem with artists is their celebrity, then you need to look more at the media circus which creates it – the same media circus that pays you a wage to write about them – and put your energy into critiquing that. A writer like Jones doesn’t really need to lower himself to using derisory language like “loathsome”, “hopeless”, “daft” or “nonsense” when critiquing an artist’s work. Not unless the artist in question once took to the newspapers describing his mother in equally derogatory terms, and this is just some tit for tat personal bitchfit being played out in public (which, as far as I can tell, is not the case). His line, the one I suspect he’s proudest of, “if she’s a painter, then I’m Rembrandt” is just schoolboy level stupid.
No, Jonathan, no. You don’t need to get yourself so wound up you come off sounding like Joan Crawford’s nasty little sister. Because if that makes you an art critic, then I’m Robert Hughes.