The life of Brian


"Damien?" says Brian Sewell, his expression somewhere between a rictus and a moue. "Oh, he's really not entirely without talent, you know. I mean, the dead sharks are all crap, of course, but he did once have some work in an exhibition at the ICA, some boxed pieces, which were really quite intelligent, in the sense of their provoking the sort of emotions they were clearly intended to provoke. I rather fear that fame has gone to his head, though. The first thing I'd do is get him away from that ghastly agent of his and set him to doing some serious work again."

If this in any way spoils your Christmas, Mr Hirst, my apologies. Among contemporary artists, receiving a brisk drubbing from Sewell - art critic of the London Evening Standard and self-appointed scourge of the new - counts as something of a badge of honour. ("He once called my pictures 'shallow playthings for the childish mind'," recalls a delighted Martin Maloney, founding father of New Neurotic Realism and the ICA's latest terrible infant. "It was great.") Having Sewell show concern for your artistic well-being - and on Christian-name terms to boot - is the aesthetic equivalent of having the late Papa Doc Duvalier say kind things about your electoral system.

You might also have thought it was about as likely. Sewell's line on art is famously that, give or take the odd gasp, it is dead. "The trouble with corpses," he says, "is that, half an hour or so after their demise, they have a tendency to evacuate their bladders and bowels. You might say that that's what we've been seeing in art for most of this century." Sewell pauses naughtily. "You might say that that's what we've been showing at the Serpentine Gallery."

You might, of course, but only Sewell does: an exclusivity in which he openly rejoices. It is not just New Art that is the subject of his odium, but New Art History ("A load of absolute crap": B Sewell) and New Museology. While the assembled art press clapped its critical hands at Jonathan Miller's recent National Gallery show, "Reflections", Sewell spent two furious pages attacking the exhibition for its reduction of painting to a subset of neuropsychiatry. "The abject genuflecting to that man" - ie, Miller - "by everyone except me was quite nauseating," says Sewell, beaming happily. "All this nonsense about where Velazquez would have had to have been standing in order to have seen the precise reflection he painted in the mirror in Las Meninas. I mean, it is an iconographic tradition that Miller clearly simply does not understand. I just wanted to get out my penis and flash it at all those mirrors. What would Miller have made of that?"

What indeed? The attentive among you will have noticed something curious about Sewell's critical discourse, namely that he has a bad mouth. In the course of half an hour's conversation, the man who has come to be a byword for Bluntish aestheticism and old-fashioned connoisseurship will typically throw in a couple of craps, a fuck and a bugger or two, these made all the more alarming by their being delivered in the over-locuted tones of a Noel Coward film. Bodily functions and private parts also play a disproportionately vivid part in Sewellspeak. When not cursing the philistinism of modern painters and his fellow critics (particularly, for some unknown reason, the hapless Natalie

Wheen of Radio 3), Sewell indulges a decidedly laddish fondness for motor cars, a subject on which he writes with altogether more tenderness than he does of modern painting. What can it all mean?

Let us consider Brian Sewell as a piece of performance art. Try to call to mind the aesthetic beliefs (let alone the face) of any other current critic and you will find yourself floundering. What does Wheen look like? What sort of casual wear does the Independent on Sunday's Tim Hilton favour? Where do the Financial Times's William Packer's tastes in painting lie? It is difficult to say. By contrast, Sewell's Jan Morris-ish visage, crew-neck jumpers and abiding contempt for abstract expressionism are as familiar to aficionados of the Standard 's art pages as is the Mona Lisa's smile.

This fame is largely the result of a carefully nurtured perversity: the aesthete with the Rabelaisian vocabulary, the critic who has a soft spot for both Masaccios and Maseratis, the connoisseur who effs and blinds in the cut-glass cadences of Dame Edith Evans. Sewell's fame is inseparable from his disagreeableness: he has only to see a sacred cow to appoint himself its personal gadfly - even, when occasion demands, turning his sting on himself. (At least part of the point of Sewell publicly championing Damien Hirst is that it is the very last thing you can imagine him doing.)

When the National Art Collections Fund recently asked a group of four luminaries to choose fantasy collections with which to decorate their homes, three of them obligingly chose house-sized works. Sewell's first choice was the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was a telling selection, and not merely because it encapsulated Sewellian perversity. Deep down, Michelangelo may be to blame for the man. When, last week, Sewell explained to an adoring audience of NACF members just why he had included the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Michelangelo's early Vatican Pieta among his works, various things became obvious.

First were the speaker's brilliance and erudition, two qualities which he does not necessarily share with all of his fellow scribblers. (Sewell's dislike for Hirst's agent is based on an even more unusual first-hand knowledge of the art market, the Standard's critic having dirtied his hands at Christie's in a former life.) Second was a shared passion with Michelangelo for the heroic male nude.

A third Michelangelesque quality in Sewell was less obvious, however. Vasari's biographical sketch of the painter is probably the first extant literary example of the idea of rugged individualism. Michelangelo, as portrayed in Vasari's Lives, is more than merely a bolshie git: he is a bolshie git whose bolshiness is inseparable from his art, whose dislikeableness is palpable proof of his genius.

Thus Brian contra mundum, a man who suffers for his art. Musing over a cup of National Gallery coffee, Sewell remarks, with a certain obvious pride, that he "knows no one". Sewell horror stories abound, many of them, one suspects, put about by Sewell himself. ("The obituaries people at the Independent rang me just after my second heart bypass operation to ask for my help in compiling my own death notice," chortles the famously secretive critic, whose bio-graphy is the source of much ill-natured speculation. "I told them to piss orf.")

There are two worrying things in all this, however. The first is that the kind of people who like Sewell's writing most are the very people he himself would probably like least: lower-middlebrow bigots who don't see the game, and who view his profoundly reasoned and deeply held prejudices as just-ification for their own shallow ones.

More alarming by far, though, is that Brian Sewell is actually rather a nice person: a man who describes himself as a sentimental socialist and who stood by Anthony Blunt (another Michelangelesque sufferer for his art) while much of the rest of the art world cut him dead. You might add that if Damien Hirst were down on his luck, Sewell would probably do the same for him. But let us not spoil his Christmas further.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition