The Genius of British Art

Mr Jacobson is a seductive and idiosyncratic art critic.

When Howard Jacobson, who comes from Manchester, announced in the third film in Channel 4's (mostly) excellent series The Genius of British Art (17 October, 7pm) that he takes "any slur on the provincial personally", I wanted to kiss him. Honestly. I wanted to scoop him up and stroke his lustrous hair and tickle his bristly chin. Like him, I used to be embarrassed by my provincialism. I was always straining to lengthen my vowels. But now, also like him, I don't give a toss. And thus I can say without any nervousness at all that I agree with him entirely when he argues, as he did on screen, that the contents of Tate Modern are pretty flaccid compared to, say, those of the Lady Lever Art Gallery on the Wirral. Give me Lawrence Alma-Tadema over a load of porcelain sunflower seeds any day of the week.

Jacobson's subject in this film was "flesh", which is to say: tits, bums and phallic symbols. Oh yes, and fairies, too, which the Victorians liked to use to suggest desire and all the terrors and mysteries that accompany it (I loved the way Jacobson said the word "fairy"; he imbued it with a kind of boyish tastiness, as if describing a delicious fish supper or a Curly Wurly). His contention was that it is wrong to think that the British don't do sex, and especially wrong to think of the Victorians only as prigs and prudes, as "furtive hypocrites".

Exhibit A? Two paintings, one by Monet, the other by Sickert, both of a naked woman. In the Monet, said Jacobson, the woman looked like
a piece of fruit. But in the Sickert, there was the suggestion of a backstory: of thought, doubt and motivation. Fruit versus thoughtfulness? Round one to the British. "We don't just do the fires of today," said Jacobson. "We think about how we'll feel tomorrow."

There followed a brief tour of our finer regional art galleries. At the Lady Lever, Jacobson stood in front of The Tepidarium (1881) by Alma-Tadema and pointed out a few of its quirks. The naked woman that is its subject holds in one hand a back scratcher and in the other an ostrich feather; she languishes on a particularly hairy animal skin and at her feet stands an azalea bush.

Jacobson did not suggest aloud that the woman had possibly been masturbating, but he did say the word "bush" quite forcefully, which made me smile. Later, gazing at a sculpture made of tights and an old chair by the Britart star Sarah Lucas, he pulled the same trick with the word "gusset", with the result that, even as he professed his admiration for Lucas's work, you felt his disdain and began to share it.

I found myself seduced, which was appropriate, in the circumstances. Jacobson is one of those rare men who can swoon openly about art - be it painting or literature - without sounding remotely poncey. This is because he feels it. He is a writer, not a presenter; nothing he says has the ersatz tang of performance.

However, I'm afraid I'm going to have to tick him off all the same, though I accept that the bliss of his Booker Prize win means he is unlikely to give two hoots about anything I say just now. About ten minutes before the end, Jacobson visited the intellectual cul-de-sac that is known as "Blame the Feminists". All men are misogynists now, he said, whether they look or don't look. He then blamed the massed ranks of overly sensitive and censorial wimmin for the neglect of William Etty, the York-born artist, whose nudes are mostly in storage these days. Apparently, we just can't take him.

This is pure rot. Most Victorian art remains madly unfashionable - this is one reason why I love it so - and Etty is a victim of this, not sexual politics. If Jacobson's argument, that we women disdain what we muddle-headedly perceive as Etty's misogyny, were true, the work of Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud, even Jenny Saville, would be also in storage. Oh, well. I will not snark on. In the context of Jacobson's film and of his victory in the Booker (at last!) it is a small thing. I don't want to be a killjoy. I just thought I'd point it out.

“The Genius of British Art" continues on Sunday evenings until 7 November

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!