There are some of us, of a certain age, who remember the impact that the quarterly magazine Modern Painters had on the visual arts in Britain. Founded by the late art critic Peter Fuller in the mid-1980s, Modern Painters did much to bring a certain kind of art to the attention of a wide public, and some of the work Fuller did in this respect was commendable, for sure. Personally I owe much to Peter Fuller for him giving me my first real break in writing on the visual arts in the second issue of his magazine that had quickly captured the imagination of many who felt marginalised by the internationalist trend at that time. Though Fuller was to tragically die in a road accident on the M4 motorway in 1990, his influence was still felt for a while following his death, though it waned. Some were glad of that, and others not, for he was certainly very good at dividing opinion.
Fuller divided opinion in a way that was often fascinating, and at time infuriating, though. In 1988 he was quick to warn against the ignorance or xenophobia yet argued passionately for an “informed provincialism in art, which looks for immediate meaning in local forms, and finds its larger sense through affiliation to a national tradition” (Seeing Through Berger, 1988). I remember writing around that time, that Peter Fuller’s ‘take’ on art was similar to that of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. As far back as 1942, Vaughan Williams had warned (long before the European Union was conceived, and long before it faced the current threat of disintegration), that when “the United States of Europe becomes a fact, each nation must have something to bring to the common stock of good.” Opposed to a Europe populated by “good Europeans, sharing a universal language in the arts”, Vaughan Williams had asserted, “what we have to offer must derive essentially from our own life. It must not be a bad imitation of what other nations do better” (National Music and Other Essays, 1963).
For some, Peter Fuller, represented a similar position with regard fine art in the 1980s. The composer David Mathews has said of Vaughan Williams that his “understanding of […] musical tradition and his love of his native landscape came together at a particular moment during the Second World War when everything he most cherished was under threat of destruction” (in: Towards a New Landscape, 1993). Fuller, meanwhile, became most vocal about a traditional aesthetic in the visual arts during a period remarkable for the emergence of a brash materialism that was a signature of life in the financial sector prior to the economic crisis of 1987. In such a pre-crash climate, Fuller perceived a different kind of destructive influence: “the Young Turks with their Saatchi-style values and transatlantic air tickets” were, as he put it, “taking over the Parthenon,” (Interview with Matthew Collings: 'Onward Christian Soldiers', Artscribe No.52). They were, eroding traditional values to such an extent that our culture was becoming “so warped it could sustain no widely shared artistic language, nor give rise to a style that was any more deep-rooted than a passing fashion” (in Images of God, 1990)
The Problem for many was that Fuller was a Tub-Thumping Little Englander, propagandising in method and (in the latter part of his life) deliberately divisive in his tactics. It is important to clarify that Fuller, like Vaughan Williams, was pleading a case for an informed provincialism which avoided at all costs what was once the art historian Kenneth Clark's worst fear: as Clark had argued, provincial artists are often “complacent” and “out of mere ignorance […] refuse to look beyond the circle of their fellow mediocrities” (Moments of Vision, 1981). Vaughan Williams believed that he avoided such traits in seeking a political internationalism and a personal individualism, but the jury may still be out on Fuller’s agenda, for following his death his contribution was rather quickly erased, and the magazine he had founded soon withered and morphed into something quite other (ironically, yet another organ of a brash materialism in the art world). To the surprise of many, his legacy did prove quite short lived, therefore.
Fuller – always so fond of absolutes – also got it wrong quite often. At his home in Stowlangtoft shortly before his death, I once asked him about a Turner Society lecture he had delivered at London’s ICA, at which he had announced to the assembled audience that the Tate Gallery was, “attempting to impose the taste of an arid and bankrupt aesthetic” in the guise of the Turner Prize. Perhaps there was something in that but Fuller, for those who remember his thoughts on the art of those times, will no doubt recall his belief that any support for the Turner Prize revealed a paucity of critical perspicacity, and artists he had once championed he later shunned when they became Turner Prize nominees (a notable case being the painter Thérèse Oulton). He was, in short, ferociously opposed to what he perennially referred to as BICCA (an acronym he had invented that referred to what he thought of as Biennale International Club Class Art) but those he shunned did not always deserve to be thrown into the camp he had devised for them.
Many of us back then could be forgiven for losing count of just how many times Fuller was heard to argue that we should not confuse the bombastic bigness of German painting (a favourite bête noire in his propagandising mission) with the greatness of smaller pictures emanating from what he thought of as a ‘British Tradition’. As Fuller argued with regard to those who took their lead from the wider European scene back then, they were sliding down a slope towards cultural pluralism, the corollary of which would be a homogenous European art that is corrupt and bland. Of course he was wrong, but not because his critics and adversaries were necessarily right. Fuller was very much of his time, as I have noted. He was obsessed with the international art market and, although not without a sense of humour at times, always keen to polarise opinion on this if he could. His reputation rested on it to some degree, after all. He was good TV. He wrote compellingly, too, and could drum up an audience for sure, and yet ultimately his influence, with the benefit of hindsight now, was ultimately destructive.
Of Fuller’s tendency to argue his case via the discourse of propaganda, Julian Stallabrass has alluded to what he calls Fuller’s moral McCarthyism, in which the critic could often be seen to condemn those that stood in his way with accusations that they had no affection for either their nation, its people, its traditions, its customs, or its landscape – sometimes all of these things at once. Stallabrass has also (I think convincingly), shown that Fuller’s essays often followed a format that depended upon the techniques of propaganda to establish his own moral rectitude, and then wear his readers down by sheer repetitive output too. If you read Fuller through a Stallabrassian lens, this makes perfect sense. The fact is, however, that he was so much of his time, and his death came so early (he was in his early forties when he died) that in a tragic twist of fate, he was thus deprived of seeing art that he may have approved of, or may even have changed his sometimes Stalinist position on what did and did not represent good art.
That painters of the kind he ordinarily approved of could produce work that revealed a new form of post-conceptual painterly aesthetic, would have perhaps been unthinkable to him. Who can tell what he would have made of it? I don’t know. Looking at Fuller’s criticism today is rather like looking through a telescope from the wrong end. It has become diminished and so, so small, and yet at the time he was writing it seemed so huge. There is obviously a cruel irony to this. While Fuller championed artists such as John Bellany and Arthur Boyd for their imaginative transformation of materials into hard-won, high-calibre works deserving of wide attention, he missed out on a new generation of artists who today paint with great economy and equal conviction to elucidate their thoughts on pressing matters that were only just entering the public consciousness at the time Fuller died.
Take, for example, this single work by David Cass (below). Of what does it comprise? It is titled Arctic (2017) and is a painting in oil on a pill tin attached to a thread spool. It measures just 10cm by 4cm. And yet, look at it! Cass too seems to be asking us to look through the wrong end of a telescope here too, but what he depicts is not diminished. In some strange way it seems magnified.