‘Mediocrity weighing mediocrity in the balance, and incompetence applauding its brother – that is the spectacle which the artistic activity of England affords us from time to time,’ says Gilbert the aesthete in Wilde’s ‘The Critic as Artist’ (1891). The Nineties – the 1990s, that is, not the 1890s – were one of those times. In the days of Cool Britannia and the Young British Artists (YBAs), a lukewarm slick of self-congratulation covered the critical landscape like slurry at a piggery.
Richard Dorment was the Daily Telegraph’s lead art critic in those years. Between 1986 and 2015, Dorment wrote more than a thousand reviews. Exhibitionist brings together just over one hundred of them – arranged not in order of composition, but in order of the period they cover. This structure emphasises art and art history over their epiphenomena, the developing sensibility and expressions of the critic. For all Wilde’s asseverations about criticism being ‘creative in the highest sense of the word’, this is surely the proper relationship between art and analysis.
The chronology supports a polemic. In 1986, London had no major museum of modern art. The art market, Dorment recalls, meant ‘Old Master dealers within walking distance of Sotheby’s and Christie’s’. Interest in contemporary art was ‘intense – but limited to a relatively small, hidden group of curators and enthusiasts’.