Saturday evening on Radio 3, a prattle of Oxbridge voices reviewing an exhibition selected by and posthumously mounted as a tribute to Peter Fuller. The wannabe Oxbridge voice of Giles Auty, art bumbler for the Spectator, declares ‘Peter’ was led by his arguments rather than his eyes. Up speaks real Oxbridge voice, while duly patronising to Auty – not really one of us – does agree Fuller was not guided by pleasure. All assent. Art then is all about pleasure, and art criticism, presumably, a guide to a particular fleshless form of hedonism. The British Broadcasting Corporation – the dominant cultural institution in Great Britain, state-supported and with immense resources – gathers together a group of people to discuss the arts on the channel most directed at the educated, and they say – in the century whose art is dominated by such images as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Duchump’s Large Glass, by Beckmann’s visions of hell – that art is about pleasure.
The point is that these people are chosen not in spite of their militant complacency but because of it. The staff of the BBC are vetted by MI5 and Radio 3 has long operated a ban on Marxists. Peter Fuller was only given air time at the end of his life, after twenty years of writing, and then to read a reactionary sermon from his book on Ruskin. It is not simply that a whole generation of diverse cultural discussion has hardly surfaced on the BBC: those now in charge are toadies who have been willing to operate such bans without public protest, and who have been required to construct a discourse on culture as if Adorno, Horkheimer and Benjamin, Kristeva, Barthes and Foucault, Williams, Eagleton and many others had never existed.
My intellectual disagreements with Peter Fuller in the last years of his life turned on his espousal of this complacency, his attempt to give some theoretical and ethical substance to this Establishment philistinism. For him, it was going home. Paul Johnson in his tribute to Fuller in the Sunday Telegraph wrote: ‘He insisted that art criticism had become the prisoner not only of an undistinguished clique but of a base and repellent vernacular. He aimed to restore it to English literature.’ Peter Fuller did at times write with wit and brilliance, but what he was restoring art criticism to was Eng Lit rather than literature. By Eng Lit I mean that puritan and parochial academic tradition of which Leavis was the major school marm.
‘When I am in London, I live effectively as an exile. As a radical intellectual, I am always on the margins, on the outside, looking in.’Peter Fuller wrote this in 1975. By the end, he had joined the club.
At the time of his death in a road accident on 28 April 1990, he was the founding editor of Modern Painters, had recently published Theoria, his 15th book, and was critic for the Sunday Telegraph. For the death of a relatively young art critic there was a surprising amount of obituary and tribute: ‘surprising’ because the British press has little interest in art and art criticism – coverage offered in the mainstream press is usually in the hands of one of the arts editor’s thicker Oxbridge chums. But Peter was clearly different. For one thing, he was not a reviewer. He really was a critic. He had an elaborated critical position. What he considered excellent in each work was enlisted as furthering his critical polemic. What he understood and disliked, and what he failed to understand, such as much of the European avant-garde art of this century, was damned as evil and corrupt, or, in his earlier life, bourgeois and reactionary. His work was widely hated, liked, agreed and disagreed with. It did and does enter serious arguments about art, if only to indicate what the interlocutors are against. This is not true of anyone else writing regularly about art for the mainstream media.
So Fuller was an extraordinary figure, but the object of most of the obituaries was to obscure the extraordinary nature of what he had done. In spite of the likes of those who wrote the obituaries and their editors, he managed to write and live by intellectually ambitious art criticism for nearly twenty years. The obligation for editors to mark his death came from the attention he had won from the media rather than his seriousness as a critic. He was news because he had founded, and launched with great editorial acumen, an art magazine which seemed to know about modern art, but was saying the kind of things that art-ignorant educated English say about it. The first issue included the text of the Prince of Wales’s first assault on modern architecture and an attack on the Art Department of the Arts Council by the Council’s former General Secretary.
Journalists are cultural policemen, but they lock out of public culture anything that cannot be imprisoned in journalistic common sense. Fuller’s death required of art reviewers unfamiliar kinds of report for their superintendents: they had to demonstrate that they had their beat under control, that they did know this man well, understood his work, were of course of at least equal critical status, and that he was a significant figure because he had sloughed off all this Marxist-psychoanalytic-artworld nonsense and agreed with their own mindlessly reasonable practice. Edward Lucie-Smith even seemed to claim personal credit for setting Fuller on the right course:
In Fuller’s early, hard-line Marxist days … I once told him that I would respect his criticism more a. if he wrote in a better style, and b. if he showed some sign of a sense of humour … His style did in fact improve markedly as the Marxist, and then the psychoanalytic jargon dropped away. In recent years he wrote the clearest and most flexible prose of any British art critic. The sense of humour, I suspect, was always there, but he became more able to share it.
The tale was told of this controversial critic who had become an enemy of Modernism and Leftism. ‘The sworn enemy of the slipshod obfuscations of Modernism, Fuller pounced on anything that smacked of mental sloth or moral vacuity,’ opined the anonymous author of the Telegraph obituary. Roger Scruton in his memorial service valedictory saw Fuller’s intellectual life as growth towards a maturity into which he had just entered, a movement towards the familiar shape of right thinking.
This was not the Peter Fuller I knew and still miss terribly. He was anguished and angry. Raised in Nonconformist bigotry, he was a narcissist and an obsessive: this configuration gave a sameness to all of the positions he elaborated. It was his pain that made him an exceptional critic and man. At the end it even drove him to try to theorise the cosy.
I belong to the world, the time and the ideas that Peter Fuller was praised for having thrown off. I want to give some account of our relationship and go over some of the arguments I can no longer have with him.
You are not logged in
- If you have already registered please login here
- If you are using the site for the first time please register here
- If you would like access to the entire online archive, buy a full-access subscription here
- Institutions or university library users please login here
- Learn more about our institutional subscriptions here