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.
I first met Peter at a Christmas party at the offices of Studio International, in 1975. He looked etiolated, like a swotty sixthformer given to bad habits behind closed doors. His pale skin, the smoothed-out shape of his head and features, reminded me of one of those pink axolotls that float penis-like in aquaria. My self-image was not helped by people mistaking me for Peter in subsequent years.
Having difficulty standing up, I was sitting cross-legged on a table. He introduced himself, congratulated me on a piece I had written and suggested we should get in contact as he thought we had ideas in common. I was flattered, though I had not read any of his work and was probably rather standoffish. I realised that for the first time I had met a man who was more opinionated and verbally aggressive than I was. I had met my own monstrous self – or worse.
At that time, thanks to the antics of a spoiltbrat Etonian millionaire, the shape of art magazine publishing was changing in Britain. When Pilkington Glass went public a Scottish architect of no great distinction, Michael Spens, became a millionaire. He bought Studio International, which as the Studio had been publishing since 1893. It had more institutional subscribers – i.e. annually renewed subscriptions by libraries both here and abroad – than the whole print run of most other British art magazines. In the later Eighties, under Spens’s ownership and sometime editorship, this great asset with its world-wide distribution of art coverage in this country was guided into unnoticed extinction. Back in 1975, Spens replaced Peter Townsend as editor of Studio International with Richard Cork. Townsend went on to found Art Monthly in 1976 with Jack and Nell Wendler. Under Townsend, James Faure-Walker had been a contributor to Studio International. Cork made his copy less welcome and Faure-Walker and others set up Artscribe.
Eventually Peter and I began to meet at Bertorelli’s for wine, talk, food and more wine. At my suggestion, John Tagg the critic and historian of photography joined our meetings. The three of us agreed – a pretty cynical move – to ask Cork, the new editor of Studio International whom Peter knew as a Cambridge connection, to make up this Gang of Four. The idea was to dominate Studio for leftist art criticism. Our discussions ran from art, Lukacs, Benjamin, Berger and the state of British politics through angry denunciations of the mindless complacency of most art criticism, to giggly vilifications of our contemporaries, elders and betters.
I was teaching part-time at Goldsmiths’ College and in the Painting School at the Rayal College of Art. Peter was surviving just by writing gloves-off art criticism and books, an extraordinary feat. I squeezed out a cautious article or review every month or so. Richard Cork once called me in Peter’s hearing ‘king of the freelancers’. This inaccurate description irritated Peter and there was always a kind of brotherly competition between the two of us, but it was for a time a mutual-aid relationship in which Peter was perhaps the more generous. In his own writings he made frequent reference to my critical work.
Peter worked extremely hard. I remember the critic and historian Paul Overy recounting how on his way home on the bus he often passed Peter’s flat in Graham Road in Hackney late at night and he would see his workroom light still blazing. He wrote for virtually every copy of Art Monthly in its first few years and not just articles and reviews – he even wrote long epistles for the letters page. He was also writing for New Society and other publications. And then there were the notorious diaries he was keeping, a part of which was published as Marches Past: ‘notorious’ because Peter seemed to suggest he would get us all in the and with his diaries.
As well as writing, trying to paint and teaching, I was working on an exhibition of post-war British art and an anthology of postwar British artists’ writings, both to be called Towards Another Picture. The exhibition opened and the book was published in Nottingham at the end of 1977. Peter had been approached by Linda Lloyd-Jones to organise a conference at the ICA and he turned to the Gang of Four for ideas. My principal contribution was to argue that, like Towards Another Picture, it should be constructed to show the conflict and diversity of ideas about art and thus undermine the then predominant model of a linear progressive development. There was even some suggestion that the conference be called Towards Another Picture. Peter reviewed the exhibition in New Society, where he argued that showing the variety of art ‘subcultures’ was a useful exercise in the sociology of art, but that the transformation of the fine art tradition was more likely to ‘come about through the sort of direct patronage with which the Arts Council is, at last, beginning to experiment, or through the muralist movement’.
This begins to point to the differences between us, and to a complementarity that animated the relationship. For me, imaginative culture is not a subordinate form of ethical consciousness. Therefore we cannot legislate to produce good art, but can show how existing conditions can limit and replicate values and kinds of art. For Peter, good or great art was the product and instrument of right thinking. What constituted right thinking, and its father figures, changed from his post-Cambridge dedication to social justice (Berger), through an English left aestheticism (Morris), passing on to a Natural Aesthetic (Ruskin).
In the event, the conference was called ‘The State of British Art’. It was held in February 1978, ran from Friday night through to Sunday evening, and was packed out. It did not include figures to argue for Royal Academy traditionalism, nor popular painting, which had both been included in Towards Another Picture. Nevertheless each session was organised as a series of conflicting ideas around a theme, rather as our book and exhibition had been. Peter, John Tagg and Linda Lloyd-Jones did most of the work and most of the perceptive selection of speakers, who ranged from Patrick Heron to Victor Burgin, Mary Kelly to Robyn Denny, David Hockney to Rasheed Araeen. The highlights included Lisa Tickner’s brilliant dismemberment of Reg Butler’s defence of his question: ‘Can a woman become a vital creative artist without ceasing to be a woman except for purposes of census?’ Peter exhibited his courageous intellectual bad manners. He was merciless, he went after the sinner as well as the sin. Alan Bowness, then a member of the Arts Council and tipped as next Director of the Tate, had claimed in his presentation that ‘as an art historian one simply watches a development and reacts to what one sees as honestly as one can. One does not, in my view, try to contribute.’ Speaking from the floor, his impassioned voice almost breaking like an adolescent’s, his gestures disconnected from the rhythm of the words, Peter picked this up and delivered a peroration whose crunch line was ‘if Alan Bowness is nothing more than a passive spectator, will he give us an assurance that he is going to resign from his position of influence, and that he has no ambition whatsoever to take on such things as the Directorship of the Tate Gallery?’ Bowness became Director of the Tate in 1980.
Peter and I worked together on another venture in the summer of 1978. Sue Grayson, then director of the Serpentine Gallery, suggested I might curate a show for them. I proposed a revised version of Towards Another Picture. I asked Peter to join me as co-curator. Works from across the spectrum of art were to be selected around three themes: Natural, Personal and Private. By Personal, we meant ‘pertaining to the body: how we depict bodies or evoke hedonism’. Each work would be accompanied by a photograph of where it normally hung. A fourth section was to be made of advertisements selected to exemplify the three themes. It was to be a brief survey of contemporary image-making ordered by what it was about, its themes. We were commissioned by the Arts Council to research and write a full-blown account of the exhibition, which we did. I believe to Sue Grayson’s regret, the exhibition was turned down by the Serpentine’s management committee.
I think it was that Sunday night at the end of the conference celebratory dinner in some Soho restaurant, with the Gang of Four’s egos gorged with success, that Richard Cork first offered or asked to publish a transcript of the conference in Studio International. This was agreed, tapes were edited and then transcripts were produced and re-edited. The material was given to Studio. And then nothing happened. Richard was in a very awkward position. In spite of his imaginative editorship, the publishers were steering Studio International on its way to bankruptcy. Issues were appearing irregularly. Peter, John and I asked for the copy back. Other people were interested in publishing the material. Cork refused. As Peter happened to have an old Cambridge friend who was now a solicitor, the Gang of Four became the Litigious Three. The issue was published just in time to meet a deadline failing which the right to publish would have been withdrawn.
In October 1979 John and Peter published an attack on Richard Cork in Art Monthly belittling his under-theorised conversion from Conceptualist Art to the stance of a ‘committed socialist’ advocating art with a social purpose. Part of the cruelty of the piece lay in belittling Cork for their own influence upon him, which had in part taken place in the context of apparent friendship. ‘Cork has shown himself to be a critic who floats without direction, according to the ebbing of the mainstream. But even his buoyancy is more like that of a sponge: soaking up the eddying ocean around him, his theory of art is as fluid and vacuous as his theory of politics. The authors of this article are working from very different (and in some ways opposed) positions within the spectrum of the Left critical responses to the arts; and yet each of us can see, embedded within Cork’s latest utterances, the flotsam and jetsam of our own analyses.’
By now my professional relationship with Peter was very close. Our families had met and my wife Catherine and Colette Fuller were friends. We found a field south of London, not far out, surrounded by trees and with a stream in which the children could paddle while the adults ate, drank, talked and snoozed. Peter’s subsequent enthusiasm for nature was always undermined for me by my sense of how out of context he looked on these trips: he seemed always to be blinking as if he had just been dragged away from his typewriter into the sunlight. He was the first to run from the advancing herd of cows.
The opposed positions of Peter and John Tagg became clearer shortly after the funeral of Lord Mountbatten in the late summer of 1979. The Litigious Three became the Magnificent Two. John, Peter and I met at Peter Townsend’s house for dinner. I wanted to talk about watching Mountbatten’s funeral in a Greek chip shop in Lewisham: how it felt, how I was touched, and the discontinuities. John wanted to talk of theoretical issues. He had been reading Althusser. It became an argument about death as a fundamental reality. I assume John was arguing that any conception of death is constituted within an ideology and that in that sense it had no absolute unmediated reality. In the background was the knowledge that John’s mother was dying of cancer. There was a lot of drink and a lot of shouting and the Townsends went to sit somewhere else in their house to get away from us.
The question at issue was how should theory relate to practice. I think John was taking the view that we can escape ideology through theory: therefore one’s practice as a critic should be based on an entirely theorised position. I retained an artist’s scavenging use of theory. Theory was a very necessary means of interrogating and revising habits of mind and practice. I felt a perhaps disabling scepticism about sytematically-elaborated structures of ideas as a ground for reflective life. I took experience as a given to be questioned, explored and rethought by means of cultural theories. Peter was not just sceptical: he was developing a counter-theory.
I don’t know at what point Peter decided to wage war on French-theory-derived Marxism. That evening may have been one turning-point. As a critic writing for the general press, it would have been professional and financial suicide for him to have adopted it. In that sense the choice was not open to him as it was to the people he opposed who held academic posts. But what makes him entirely unlike arts reviewers who still drivel jejune humanist cliché, he had read and questioned, and I quote, ‘Althusser, Lacan, Kristeva, Derrida, Balibar, Hadjinicolau, Coward, Ellis, Tagg, Burgin, Griselda Pollock, Kelly, Screen Education or Tel Quel’, and constructed a materialist counter-humanism which saved, or at least guarded, the legitimacy of common-sense language.
We had both been invited to give papers at a conference at Dartington Hall entitled ‘Art, Politics and Ideology’. A version of the paper he delivered, from which I have just quoted, was published as ‘In Defence of Art’ in Beyond the Crises in Art in 1980. He had suggested, and I agreed, that in our papers we should oppose the idea of art as mere ideology. I spoke before Peter, as I remember, and gave a paper looking at the political economy of art which in its final section went into a reverse of the argument that was expected. I argued that political economy did not explain the experience of works of art. This was tittered at by some of the sophisticates.
When Peter came on to give his presentation, a sense that the conference was to be a rather academic exchange between a fairly homogeneous group of left-wing art intellectuals was mildly threatened. By the time he had finished it was as if the room was full of shards of broken glass. He went on much longer than he had been scheduled. He read his paper in monotone, hardly looking up, the words pouring out over a packed room of new-generation theorised intellectuals and confused students. But the barely suppressed aggression of the voice, the rhetorical and abusive rush of the argument, made it riveting. In the tradition of Marxism Peter set out not to persuade his opponents but to destroy them, to show that their motives were base and that their reasoning was corrupt. Some of those whom he attacked were present.
‘In Althusser, it is not God who makes “man” in his own image, but ldeology-and-the-Mode-of-Production, IMP, which functions in his system exactly, but exactly, as if it were God … all essential qualities of men and women – the result of their specific biological condition – are alienated from them, and attributed to the great IMP.’ He went on to quote E.P. Thompson’s recent attack on Althusserian theory as allowing ‘the aspirant academic to engage in a harmless psychodrama, while at the same time pursuing a reputable career’ – or, said Peter, ‘I might add, artistic career, vide Burgin, Kelly, etc. It is, however, a total betrayal of historical materialism – to which I am committed.’ There were echoes of our argument with John Tagg in Peter’s remarks on Althusserian splinter groups, ‘many of which question Saint Louis Althusser’s total banishment of the human subject. Even the most psychotic amongst us sometimes gets that hint that we exist as a limited, physical organism, subject to birth, bodily existence and death.’
Looking back, I think that Peter’s subsequent writings are really all a footnote to the position he constructed in that paper. It raised important questions, it gave many people pause for thought, and it still in part informs my own thinking. But while it allowed him to function as critic with increasing success, it cut him off from much of the most serious art and criticism of his time. It obliged him to hold in public that works of art are available to some universal common-sense understanding and judgment. The names of the good and the bad artists and theorists might change or be extended, but the insistence on some nature-derived truth froze the core of his thinking. His fundamental arguments got no more sophisticated: they just accumulated more authorities and corroborative interpretations. It was, to use a piece of Marxist terminology, a reification of the principles of his intellectual life; this was the rock upon which he built his Church.
The Dartington Conference was held in November 1979. Peter and I went to New York together in early December. Peter had been asked to defend an article he had written attacking recent American art at a panel discussion at the Cowper Union. He urged me to join him – I had not been to America before. ‘I’ll show you the ropes and you can swing on them.’ But a movement from brotherly alliance towards sibling rivalry had begun. On a jocular level we were both aware of what was going on. For instance, I had just had the briefest of flings with someone in my office. Peter had previously met her and become keen. I taunted him by saying he was welcome to the fame as long as I continued to get the fucks. I would point to huge New York office blocks and claim that I saw every one of the myriad windows as signifying orgasm.
Most writers are paranoid, whereas most painters are depressive, a friend who notices such things once suggested. Peter had an enviable ability to read the world as essentially rotating around him and his ideas. I could live with his voracious ego as long as my own was pretty bloated. But at the end of the Seventies I was working on the Gulbenkian Enquiry into the Economic Situation of the Visual Artist, which was not an easy ride for anybody involved, and my own economic situation was rough. The enquiry removed me too far from art and its interpretation to sustain my sense of my own critical project, from the work that kept emptiness at bay. In New York I felt lost in Peter’s shadow. He pushed, hustled and ‘bopped’ around the New York art world. As our stay was coming to an end and the sky turned to lead and the snow fell we had difficulties getting a flight home, Peter seemed almost pathetically anxious to get back to his wife and child.
I cannot remember how long afterwards it was that he rang in the night, his voice wailing over the telephone, saying Colette had left him. Peter’s distress was all-consuming and harrowing to behold. I think I failed him at this time. In a way, his severance from the Left was a turning off his back on those whose friendship had proved inadequate to the severe tests he gave them. His anger and bitterness did not subside until he met and married Stephanie Burn.
Intellectually we were moving apart. My increasing rejection of his position came in part from having tried to work within it. Peter was now clearly more successful than I, and he took pleasure in making that obvious. Meetings were painful for me. But there was still the intellectual excitement and humour. We shared a hostility to the art-hating puritanism of the English Left. But as our differences deepened discussion descended at each meeting into bruising and acrimonious arguments.
Peter dealt in moral blacks and whites. Having spent seven years of my life in a Quaker-run boarding-school, I am allergic to a dictatorship of the self-righteous policed by moral bullying. The effect of an aesthetic based on some supposed relationship to nature is to make all others beyond its pale perverse, ‘unnatural’. His account of European Modernism and the works he labelled Modernist is inadequate. While joining and in some cases preceding him in praising and selecting the work of some non-Modernist British artists, I thought his construction of a British tradition was historiographically crude, and reckoned that it carried some politically unpleasant implications. At times it seemed to me that the whole theoretical construct could end up as a justification for The Archers as the paradigm of art. Above all, it would seem to me that his moralism blinded him to the most valuable characteristic of high imaginative culture in our time. It is not primarily a moral or political instrument; it is a complex and alienated form of ethical consciousness; it comprehends complexity and ambivalence.
We used to joke about who would be the first to attack the other in public. Independently, and without foreknowledge, we both did it at the same time. He called me a ‘posturing artworld intellectual’ in the second number of Modern Painters, which, in reporting its launch, I described as Thatcherite. We exchanged telephone calls; they included humour as well as arguments. In October 1988 he generously commissioned and paid for me to go to New York to cover the Kiefer retrospective, but then humiliated me in the process of editing my review. I am not going to enumerate here our public and private blows over the next few years. There was intellectual substance to the exchanges, but neither of us comes out particularly well, and in my case there was a nasty thread of envy. But it was all done in the belief there would be some day a glorious and uproarious reconciliation. Each of our meetings tested out the possibility. At Christmas 1989 we got a card from Peter – his 1988 card had been abusive. In his jerky scrawled writing he wrote: ‘No hard feelings on this side.’ I never replied, and on 28 April 1990 it became too late for ever.