The Art Critic and the Art Historian

Critical Inquiry 1 (3):497-519 (1975)

Quentin Wheeler-Bell
Kent State University
But while the literature of art is, in publishers' terms, booming, it has in one respect suffered a loss. During the past two hundred years there has usually been some important figure who acted as a censor and an apologist of the contemporary scene, a Diderot, a Baudelaire, a Ruskin or a Roger Frye. Who amongst our living authors plays this important role? What name springs to mind? I would suggest that no name actually springs; the last of our grandly influential critics was Sir Herbert Read and since his death, whatever else modern art may or may not possess, it has no prophet. This is not to say that aesthetic prophets are necessarily desirable nor that there are not some very conscientious and extremely perceptive critics at work today; in view of the fact that I am within a fortnight exhibiting my work in a London dealer's gallery , it would be folly to deny it. But it is I believe true that for better or for worse we have no grand pundit of living art and I believe that this lack may be concerned with what I see as a certain diminution in the role of the art critic, a certain decay in this department of literature. It is a tendency which I regret and the causes of which I want to try to discuss. It arises I believe from a misunderstanding concerning the proper functions of the critic and this confusion of purpose will be my theme. First, however, I think that I should glance at two important circumstances which make the work of an art critic particularly difficult today. Quentin Bell, professor of the history and theory of art at Sussex University, has written Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Of Human Finery, Ruskin, Victorian Artists, and, Bloomsbury. His article, "Art and the Elite," appeared in the first issue of Critical Inquiry. "The Art Critic and the Art Historian" was originally delivered as the Leslie Stephen lecture at the University of Cambridge on November 26, 1973. Other contributions are "CRITICAL RESPONSE: Notes and Exchanges" , and "Bloomsbury and 'the Vulgar Passions'"
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DOI 10.1086/447798
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