Just a day after I finished last week's post on Aesthetics After Modernism, the copy I ordered of Peter Fuller's Modern Painters arrived. So I've been getting a full dose of the man's writings and enjoying it greatly. Do you feel that today's art criticism is thin, milquetoast stuff, afraid of offering judgments or crossing the conventional wisdom? You'll have no worries when you pick up a book by Fuller:
In 1989 I contributed to the colloquium, "The Church and the Visual Arts today: partnership or estrangement?", organised at Winchester Cathedral by Canon Keith Walker. I was appalled to see men of the church apparently nodding in agreement when a member of the staff of the Tate Gallery encouraged them to believe that Gilbert and George and Andy Warhol were among the greatest spiritual artists of our time. I had a vision of lurid stained glass windows with titles like Marilyn and Dick Seed rising about the altars of parish churchs and cathedrals throughout the land.
When my turn came to speak I tried to tell the assembled clerics about the ethical, aesthetic and spiritual bankruptcy of the institutions of contemporary art. I argued that it was up to the churches to rehabilitate the idea of the transcendent in art. It was not their task to condone the ubiquitous symptoms of anasthesia and spiritual bankruptcy which pass for art in the modern world. I don't think my words counted for much . . .
He sounds almost surprised at the reaction. Or even better, here he is, spoiling for a fight, taunting American writers for ignoring Patrick Heron's argument that American art of the '60s was influenced by earlier developments in British art: "Where, one wonders, is the considered response from an American critic or art historian? After all, chaps, you've had more than eleven years now." (Irving Sandler, whose Triumph of American Painting Fuller alludes to, did comment in a recent book on Heron's essay, yet seemed unable or unwilling to even grapple with it.) That Fuller managed to maintain a position designed to antagonize most of the art world, and yet not come off as merely out of touch but as a person articulating a very well-maintained, potentially viable aesthetic position, provides one measure of his achievement.
I have not read the entire collection, let alone all of his other books, so while I offer the following criticism, I must admit it may be unfair. The moral seriousness with which Fuller approached his subjects can only be admired. If, as the introduction tells us, he was given to quoting Ruskin's saying, "Tell me what you like and I'll tell you what you are", what did Fuller like, and what does that tell us about him? Again, I haven't considered all of the judgments the book offers, but two subjects that were of particular concern for him were, following Ruskin, Gothic architecture and British Romantic landscape painting. The former might be considered a more theoretical interest, though it did frame his understanding of what art and architecture should aim to accomplish, while the latter represented a living, ongoing concern.
What strikes me regarding these examples is the degree to which they imply the solitary individual or the unified collective, and downplay in comparison society understood not as a total unit but as a space of interaction. The Gothic cathedral may be the expression of a society, but it is so emphatically as a whole, gathered together before God. The empty landscape, haunted by the question of divine presence or absence, seldom provides a home for more than a few, isolated figures, even in those cases when the viewer does not lend the only human presence. By focusing on art that in different ways seeks to confront ultimate ends, with a degree of intensity and passion that makes other goals seem trivial, Fuller sometimes seems to turn his back on art that speaks of our life or emerges from our life in society. I don't mean social or political art, but art as a sociable affair: the values of wit, charm, and grace, the ways of civilized society, of humanity not looking to God or Nature but to itself. No doubt this criticism is unfair to the extent that Fuller's understanding of the range of aesthetic experience was intended to cover all human emotions. But given where he chose to focus his attention, it feels accurate nonetheless.
As I have been reading Richard Wilbur lately, I have to say that this tendency on Fuller's part reminded me of the former's famous poem, "Still, Citizen Sparrow". Wilbur gently addresses the sparrow, "childheart," "you who dart in the orchard aisles", asking that he pardon the vulture who "Devours death, mocks mutability". The vulture is beautiful, too, and bears tasks that, while they horrify, provide an end and the promise of a future that the sparrow, who "would have died / Gladly with all you knew", cannot offer. Perhaps not, but we recognize that sparrow in ways that we cannot the vulture. Fuller, like the vulture, shouldered nature; at certain moments, one respects, more than shares, his commitment.
Of course, the man was nothing if not various in his opinions. It's a sad irony that only a few years after his death, British art, which he had done so much to promote and sought to spur, would at last become an international sensation--with work precisely of a kind he would detest.