Saturday, 12 April 2014

Art criticism in 'The Listener', 1951-2

Having spent a lot of time looking at visual arts contributions to publications such as The Listener and New Statesman in the fifties, I've been puzzled by a minor grammatical point in the secondary literature. This is the tendency to write 'Sylvester was art critic for The Listener' or 'Berger was art critic for the New Statesman', etc. Actually, Sylvester himself did the same, in the first person, and with capital letters ('I was Art Critic of the New Statesman'). This isn't incorrect- he worked for the paper, writing art criticism. But what I mean to say, in an annoyingly indirect way, is that it might be useful for us to start using the indefinite an art critic, to flag up the fact that The Listener and the New Statesman, at least, never seemed to be using just one art critic.
                I decided to actually list who was writing for The Listener in what I knew to be a transitional period, between late 1951 and early 1952. For the few years prior to that, Wyndham Lewis had been writing art criticism for the paper, totalling around seventy articles I think. In early 1951 he had to stop reviewing exhibitions as he was afflicted by blindness. David Sylvester started writing regularly for the paper in 1952, and was averaging around twenty articles a year for the paper in the mid 1950s. This is still less than an article a fortnight, however, and since The Listener seldom went a week without at least one article which it categorised under 'art' in its contents, there were of course other hands involved.
                So the 1951-2 period was chosen to see what happened in the interim between Lewis resigning and Sylvester writing regularly. From July 1951 to June 1952 thirty-seven writers appeared in the art section. There were also five weeks when there was no writing on art, just a page of picture s from recent exhibitions. There is, on the other hand, a distinction which is implicit in referring to the 'art critic' that this isn't just someone who writes about art for the paper, but who does something more specific. In other words, by saying 'art critic' for The Listener we probably mean 'the person who writes the regular column called 'Round the London Galleries''. In that case, we can narrow it down a bit more. There were twelve of these columns in this period, written by:

Eric Newton (5)
Quentin Bell (4)
David Sylvester (2)
Patrick Heron (1)

So we could accept this was a transitional period in which two well-travelled senior critics filled the gap before Sylvester started writing regularly, and leave it at that. But I think there are a couple more observations to make on this period. The first is that the remaining contributions can be split into a handful of categories:

Artists/Practitioners: Graham Sutherland, Peter Rose Pulham, Walter Gropius etc
Art Historians: Pevsner, Anthony Blunt, John Pope-Hennessy, Edgar Wind etc
Critics: Herbert Read, Bell, Newton, Sylvester etc.

Apart from throwing up a few interesting articles I probably wouldn't have seen otherwise, this made me wonder: if the art critic is the person writing 'Round the London Galleries', and another critic writes criticism for The Listener, are they not also 'art critic' in some sense? Particularly if they have a history of writing 'Round the London Galleries'? I suppose it comes down to regularity, but I suspect that if I were to extrapolate this across the decade, I would find Newton and Bell writing a decent amount number of articles for the paper, even though neither of them seem to be thought of as Listener writers. But then again everyone seems to think of Sylvester as a New Statesman writer first and a Listener writer secondly, if at all, even though his connection with the latter was at least as strong.
       The other thing to say is that a number of these pieces originated as Third Programme scripted talks, which even if it doesn't forfeit their claim to be considered as 'art criticism', perhaps means that they are thought of as transcribed talks rather than as art criticism in the sense of something that the 'art critic of The Listener' would produce. I hope to do some work on the connection between the Third Programme and The Listener in future. For now, all I mean to say is that there was a lot more going on in these arts pages than we might think from being told that Lewis/Sylvester was the paper's art critic.

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