Ashley Davies: Put downs are fun if you’re not the target

Brian Sewell spoke his mind, and if he did not like something, he said so ' forcibly and often rudely. Picture: Paul Chappells
Brian Sewell spoke his mind, and if he did not like something, he said so ' forcibly and often rudely. Picture: Paul Chappells
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The late Brian Sewell pulled no punches, and people loved him for that, writes Ashley Davies

Within minutes of the news of Brian Sewell’s death breaking last weekend, social media was awash with variations on jokes about how the famously acerbic art critic was now issuing biting assessments about the garish vulgarity of the Pearly Gates.

Oscar Wilde was not averse to a put-down, and not above recycling them. Picture: Getty

Oscar Wilde was not averse to a put-down, and not above recycling them. Picture: Getty

He wasn’t one to hold his tongue if he didn’t approve of something. There wasn’t much evidence that fear of hurting anyone’s feelings would prevent him from issuing a mouthful of acid in the defence of his notion of good taste (there is irony here, of course, but it would take a hardier and smarter soldier than me to point that out in his vicinity).

While, in real life, most of us might feel uncomfortable in the company of a person whose well-articulated contempt was so close to the surface, there’s something rather intoxicating about listening to an erudite expert artfully expressing their displeasure about an individual, concept or piece of work.

If it’s just nasty, and the attack is made upon a person who may not have the wherewithal or inclination to defend themselves (as, perhaps, in the case of Victoria Beckham, about whom Sewell said, in the context of her husband’s achievements: she “comes along, wearing virtually nothing, and steals the photographs, steals the occasion – and she’s just a common little bitch”) it feels like no more than prettily worded snobbery. But when the whittled criticism is turned on an intellectual equal – or indeed one who has made a fortune from art which, some might argue, disguises their talent for drawing or painting – we find a comfortable seat and reach for the popcorn.

Some of Sewell’s best-known attacks have been dusted off in the past few days. We’ve been reminded that he once described the “trivial” Tracey Emin as “art’s Jade Goody”, and that he said Banksy “should have been put down at birth”.

It has also resurfaced that he once called for the sacking of Tate director Nicholas Serota, describing one of his exhibitions as a “prime example of the hocus-pocus and mumbo jumbo by which the false intellectuals of the arts world are able to ‘hey presto!’ anything into art”. And about a fellow critic presenting arts programmes, he said: “We get Waldemar Januszczak standing in front of a painting, looming at the camera like some kind of North Korean dictator, while you can see two square inches of Van Gogh behind him.”

While some of these exchanges have been described as feuds, the responses seem a little too diluted to have earned such a description. Maybe those who were insulted knew there was just no point in going head-to-head with Sewell, for whatever reason. True feuds, though, make for glorious viewing. Even when you couldn’t – by any stretch of the imagination – describe the combatants as intellectual giants, it’s hard to look away. The allure is enhanced when one struggles to identify redeeming features in either party.

Jeremy Clarkson and Piers Morgan had (or have, depending on who you listen to) a dispute which dates back to 2000 when the latter’s then paper, the Mirror, printed pictures of the then Top Gear presenter with someone who wasn’t his wife. Like a couple of proud little fighting cockerels, they allowed each other to be wound up – on social media and in person – and a few years ago Clarkson ended up punching Morgan several times at a lunch event. Morgan claims to have responded at the time with: “My three-year-old hits me harder than that”, which is the verbal equivalent of saying: “I know you are but what am I?”

Contrast this retort, if you will, with the delicious dispute between Gore Vidal (who once said: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies”) and Norman Mailer. Upset by being compared to murderous cult leader Charles Manson and having his book, The Prisoner of Sex, being likened to “three days of menstrual flow” (we’d be forgiven for being perplexed by his expertise on the subject but nevertheless applaud his imagination), Mailer headbutted Vidal. Several years later Mailer threw a drink at Vidal who then punched him. Mailer’s response, while still bruised on the ground, and possibly bleeding, was: “As usual, words fail him.” Take note, Mr Morgan.

It’s only natural that the literary and aesthetic world would be a fertile terrain for beautifully crafted insults; brains, realised and thwarted ambitions, competition and jealousy make for an irresistible cocktail. And scathing attacks are ripest for picking when those who would issue them feel under attack themselves. The artist James Whistler, known in his day for flamboyance and arrogance, responded (albeit privately) to a review criticising his painting, Symphony in White, for having colours in it with the words: “Can anything be more amazing than the stultified prattle of this poor person?… Good God, did this ass… in his astounding wisdom believe that a Symphony in F contains no other note but… a continued repetition of F F F. Fool.”

As a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, Whistler has gone down in history for a fabulously scathing comment alluding to the former’s occasional reputation for appropriating the wit of others. When Wilde said: “I wish I’d said that”, Whistler is said to have responded with: “You will, Oscar, you will.”

Grandstanding is a vital component in true public feuding (if an icy insult is spat out in private, how will anyone be able to worship and fear the orator?) and Twitter provides the stage, lectern and microphone. But those who wish to launch such an overt attack should be careful: if your brains and wit don’t match those of your target you will be identified as a troll and possibly made mincemeat of. Just witness JK Rowling’s elegant online crushing of those who attempt to abuse her. My favourite: “The internet doesn’t just offer opportunities for misogynistic abuse, you know. Penis enlargers can also be bought discreetly.”