Alan Bennett attends a screening of "The Lady In The Van" (Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage)

From major to minor

Who’s minor and who’s major reveal the power of collective prejudice

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The countless online directories of quotes include this from Alan Bennett’s 1994 collection Writing Home: “I don’t know whether you’ve ever looked into a miner’s eyes for any length of time . . . because it is the loveliest blue you’ve ever seen. I think perhaps that’s why I live in Ibiza, because the blue of the Mediterranean, you see, reminds me of the blue of the eyes of those Doncaster miners.”

It originated not in that book but in the script of Bennett’s series On The Margin which I watched with delight the first time it was broadcast, in early winter 1966-67, and haven’t seen since. The BBC probably wiped the tapes.

The quotes industry which of course feeds off itself, multiplying its errors in supra-journalistic fashion, negligently and stupidly omits the cracking punchline. It is, from memory: “And I am, I suppose, in a very real sense, a minor writer.”

Who’s minor and who’s major and who decides? John Berryman’s description of Housman as “an absolutely marvellous minor poet” deserves a prize for impudent patronisation, another for the faintest of faint praise and a third for the presumption that his audience would share or at least understand the unspoken criteria by which such a classification is made.

It’s offered as a matter of irrefutable fact rather than the expression of a preference. It is a lazy orthodoxy but once tainted there is no reprieve at the court of smugly informed opinion: there’s safety in sharing the cosy warmth of the received idea and the knowing bias.

The most dispiriting prejudice is that against figurative painting in the age of abstraction and conceptualism

Still, when John Burnside refers in The Music of Time to Oscar Williams as “a minor versifier” it’s difficult to dispute given the corroborating evidence from a dryly damning review by Randall Jarrell of Williams’s A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry: “It has the merit of containing a considerably larger selection of Oscar Williams’s poems than I have seen in any other anthology. There are nine of his poems and five of Hardy’s. It takes a lot of courage to like your own poetry almost twice as well as Hardy’s.”

But what of Jarrell’s own status? Had he written only books for children, some uneven collections of poetry and a patchy proto-campus novel he would no doubt be consigned to the bin marked minor. But he wrote what was once accurately if backhandedly described as “the only poem by Randall Jarrell anyone knows”: the art is praised, the artist isn’t.

That great five-line poem The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner grants Jarrell a sort of immortality, just as Max Bruch, who wrote hundreds of works, is rescued from oblivion by a single piece, his first violin concerto.

While these measures of who’s minor and, presumably, who’s major, make for a mildly diverting game they also reveal, should we bother to gape, the power of collective prejudice, of torpor and forgetfulness to colour, or even form, the history of literature and painting which conventionally values the self-proclaimed Big And Powerful And Deep — the lumbering symphony, say, or the doorstep novel — over the sheer art of the quartet or the short story.

The most dispiriting prejudice is that against figurative painting in the age of abstraction and conceptualism: it is labelled minor and provincial no matter how accomplished it may be: provincial is a typically slack epithet of disparagement. William Cooper’s 1950 novel Scenes From Provincial Life is provincial only in a literal manner. But while the title may have been something of a rallying cry to that decade’s anti-modernists Aim, Wain, Brain (Evelyn Waugh’s construction), it is drabness itself 70 years later.

There are countless descriptions that fit Richard Eurich. And some that don’t: “Hampshire artist” is demeaning despite the fact that Southampton Water, Fawley, Calshot, the Solent, the spit leading to Hurst Castle, the groins at Lepe, repeatedly appear in his paintings, which might often be representations of the topographies of his dreams so contorted are the loci, so distended and diminished are they by the artist’s games with scale and perspective: massive vessels loom from beyond the horizon; the point of view is a bird’s or a balloon’s or a long lens’s; the sea is vertical; human figures look like collaged cut-outs; Whitby is mixed with Portland; a heightened sense of place is evident, lack respect for that place’s geographical location is equally evident.

The title which Andrew Lambirth’s fine new book cries out for is Ways of Seeing, but that has evidently already been allotted. The author has settled on The Art of Richard Eurich. It shows many Eurichs, none of which can possibly be called minor. Though that is the rung on the ladder where he’s stuck, a rung he shares with Edward Burra, Meredith Frampton, Tristram Hillier (whom he alludes to in Sunday Afternoon, Glarner Alp), Carel Willink, Charles Sheeler, Manfred Jurgens and many painters of the Weimar Republic who neither daubed nor eschewed the great tradition that stretched back to van der Weyden and Grunewald, Durer and Baldung, in favour of what would now be called appropriation, that is, looking outside that tradition to Africa and Oceania, and taking inspiration from ill-understood work that was crude, tribal and raw because it was so very, very real.

That it was meaningless to them did not deter the appropriators. Here was the beginning of art about art which had nothing to do with the society in which it was made and was thus mere decoration and pattern-making, shapes and colours and textures (the lumpier the better). Here too were the seeds of Western Europe’s self-hatred and proudly proclaimed shame: what came from without its ambit was steeped in authenticity, an authenticity which could be ours if it was copied. Couldn’t it?

Those who neglected to copy this now very old fashion were branded reactionary and minor. Avant-gardism and coarsely laid paint lead to the adoration of such truly minor and truly overpromoted badigeonneurs as Lucian Freud, whom I’ve never been able to take seriously. And since Robin Simon asked, “Are all those uphill floorboards really successful, or are they distractingly bad?” all one can do is laugh. The answer to the question is, incidentally, the latter. Freud’s greatest achievement was his rackety life which he bequeathed to his biographer, the omniscient William Feaver.

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