Invective against invective

I started this blog over three years ago to consider the intersections between poetry and art, and my personal impressions of the two. I generally post about things I like, and a few kind followers occasionally comment or share on Twitter. My last post, which dealt with what I consider poor public sculpture, received more comments on Facebook than any of my previous posts. Many people joined the thread to agree or post their personal favourite bad statue. A few people posted to defend the main subject of the piece, Meeting Place, the colossal sculpture of a kissing couple towering over St Pancras Station. A few of the defenders had a go at me for being ‘unromantic’ and ‘snobbish’; the latter I find particularly interesting, and I will come back to that in a moment. Although I defended myself on both counts, I didn’t mind, because I enjoyed the debate the post created. I have always maintained that I blog chiefly for myself, as a way of making a record of things that strike me (and sometimes those ideas feed back into poems) but it would be disingenuous if I didn’t say I’m pleased people read it, and feel the urge to comment.

Although the name of my blog might suggest otherwise, my posts tend to spring from a positive reaction, so I am fascinated that the one which has received so much attention stems from the negative. I wonder if it’s easier to be negative, or if there is a greater public reaction (mainly excitement) to dislike; certainly we remember bad reviews more than good ones, as the reviewer is often trying to build a memorable metaphor around negativity. The most famous literary example is Mary McCarthy railing against Lillian Hellman: ‘every word she writes is a lie, including and and the’. Only a clever writer could attack another writer by digging down into the minutiae of her syntax. Hellman’s reaction was to take out a multi-million dollar lawsuit against McCarthy. I’m not sure many people read either one of them now, but most people know the put-down.

We all know what we don’t like, and that dislike, indeed even hatred, often elicits a more passionate response than love. Certainly more visceral. Dislike can allow for humour: I will always remember Laura Cumming, the Observer’s art critic, saying that Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon sculptures were like ‘Action Man on top of a wardrobe’. I don’t agree with Cumming’s take on Gormley, but she is such an intelligent writer, and always manages to underpin her criticism with reason, that I always read what she has to say (and the Action Man dig did make me laugh).

Perhaps it is more difficult to express love or admiration without being clichéd or obvious, perhaps it is more difficult to pin down why we like something, why it moves us. Like seems to me to be a slower more considered process than dislike, which is something that hits you quickly. I didn’t have to look at Meeting Place for a long time to decide I hated it – my hatred was immediate and complete. To say why I hated it might be a slower process – finding the right words always is. But to say why I like something – in the case of my blog, often a work of contemporary art – is freighted with not just my personal inclinations and prejudices, but a whole warehouse of cultural baggage.

I am not an art critic (and I’m not sure what experience you need to be one). I have a undergraduate degree in art history, so that gives me a certain amount of knowledge, or at least background. Despite that, I find much academic art writing, and certainly the curatorial ‘art speak’ commentary that sits alongside most exhibitions these days, very off-putting. I am not sure if it’s the writing that exists around art – more likely the vast quantities of money, and possibly the difficulty of the art itself – that leads to the perception of elitism. To go back to Paul Day, the artist behind Meeting Place, he seems to be arguing that his work is a stand against elitism, in its appeal to ‘universal values’. Does it then follow that expressing a dislike for the sculpture is a kind of snobbery, an embracing of elitist ideals? Can we ever like or dislike anything without carrying our entire upbringing and education into the decision?

Perhaps not. But there are other artists that my education tells me that I should like, who are held up as great masters – Renoir and Rubens for example – that I absolutely hate. Something about excess, about colour, the mounds of flesh in Rubens, the profusion of pink in Renoir. Is that just down to taste? And how is taste constructed? Why do I love Joan Mitchell or William Scott? Some things grab you, channel into the already-existing patterns that you’ve established for yourself of what is beautiful and moving, and some things don’t.

And this is where language comes in. The project is not just to like or dislike, but to work out the words to express those reactions. It is subjective, but hopefully it might occasionally chime with others.