John Bayley

A visit to the exhibits at the Tate Gallery short-listed for this year’s Turner Prize shows how professionalism today runs not only artistic theory but art itself. There was nothing to take in except the theory of it. Animated discussion, even cries of pleasure and pain, were to be heard from the neighbouring exhibition of the strange and superb work of Gerhard Richter. But from the viewer of ‘the best that is being done by younger British artists today’ no ordinary expression of opinion seemed worthwhile, or indeed possible. Amateur appraisal had become pointless. I was reminded of a pamphlet called ‘Speaking for the Humanities’, issued by the American Council of Learned Societies, which stated that since the humanities are under threat they must be run by those who take them seriously – ‘by professionals rather than by amateurs’ – and by specialists who do not make the mistake of assuming an audience ‘both universal and homogeneous’.

The pamphlet was quoted recently by John Gross in an afterword to a new edition of his book The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters.[*] Gross assumed a combative stance, calling his piece ‘the man of letters in a closed shop’, and speaking of the ‘cold horror’ that filled him when he contemplated the professionalisation of criticism today and the spread of literary theory. But he also recognised that there was something forlorn about such aggressiveness, which only made the professional men more cocky. Their chief weapon is to present their opponents as unconscious and thus benighted theorists, ‘unselfconsciously sustaining traditional social and cultural exclusions’. The old-fashioned humanities man who thinks he has an open mind is ‘simply in the grip of an older theory’.

That truism is apt to have a boomerang effect, for new humanities men often seem equally unconscious that their political and ideological role is a surrogate one. The stuff of art is less important to them than correct attitudes and procedures. The professionalised response is good at taking over when there is nothing much to respond to, as in the case of the Turner Prize exhibits. On questions of art or literature the man of letters did at least say straight out what he thought, however much he may have been conditioned to think it. He did not compel a work of art to understand, indeed to create, itself: he gave his own response to it, his own awareness of approval, curiosity or dislike, which he could justify only in part or not at all, since they came out of him as the work of art from its source, albeit on an appropriately lower level. Amateurs and professionals of the humanities should none the less be able to live with each other quite happily, but politics – a surrogate politics that claims to be present in all their responses – requires them to wage factitious war as a matter of display. The cuckoo may be determined to take over the nest, as Gross fears, but that too is seen from both sides as more show, gambit and stratagem than reality: an aspect of the technique of presenting the literary past and present in ritualistically political terms.

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[*] Penguin, 368 pp., £7.99, 29 August 1991, 0 14 014413 7.

[†] Chatto, 1319 pp., £35, 2 December 1991, 0 7011 3857 2.