Confessions of an art critic: do I realise how hurtful some of my comments are? Of course

Guardian art critic Adrian Searle is no stranger to artists and curators taking offence at his critiques. He’s the mildest of writers, he insists, just don’t ask him if he wants a cup of tea

A reader has written in to ask me how I write, the process I go through. I am happy to oblige. I arrive, I sit down, I write. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? If that were all there is to it, there would be nothing more to say. But what about gathering your thoughts, your note-taking and preparation, they ask. Do you write every day and what is your routine, what are your rituals and what are you wearing?

You shall be asking me next about my lucky writing underpants as well as the notebook that never leaves my side, and all the other little encumbrances with which my writing life is festooned, as though I were a Christmas tree of writerly baubles and foibles. Writerly, now there is a word I hate, almost as much as the detestable painterly, with its vain affectations, the twists of the brush, the muddling of colour and tonalities, all that melding and dabbing about, all that scrubbing out and filling in.

I almost miss painting, compared with the torture of writing. Do you have any idea what it takes, just to rest my elbows on this table? Or the slightest idea of the things I must do to pay for all this – the room, the electricity, and this little machine on which I type? Painters have it worse, of course, with all their paraphernalia, their studios, all that turps. I’ll bet you have never considered the stress I’m under. Nor do you care. It isn’t as if I have the sort of reputation that might make you wonder more about my personal habits, my love life, the childhood traumas that led me to become the writer I am today, never mind the flesh and blood person that sits in this chair. An indulgent editor told me that I have at last achieved the sort of status whereby it might be acceptable for me to include the occasional personal digression, so long as it doesn’t become a habit and only if it illuminates the subject at hand. The jokes in your last article caused a number of complaints, they told me. In fact we have a bulging dossier of such letters from artists and even some from their families, as well as from well-known curators and museum directors, not to mention gallery people, collectors and private individuals, all of whom have a stake in the reputations of the people that you write about. Do you realise how hurtful and damaging some of your comments are? Your niggling critiques, your lack of encouragement, the absence of generosity?

Of course I have an idea. Some people are so naive. This was not the first time I have been upbraided about my work in what another critic called recently my “silly articles”. Once, a respected gallerist took me for a corned beef and tomato sandwich in the pub next door to his gallery and explained, as though to a child, how important it is for everyone in the art world to stick together, contemporary art being assailed on all sides, misunderstood and derided, when in fact it is a balm to the soul and a bulwark against man’s inhumanity to man; almost, in fact, a religion. Or something of the sort. Whose side, he asked, was I on? Taken in by his almost fatherly exasperation, for a moment I felt close to tears, the sandwich an unswallowable wad in my mouth. Reader, I gagged.

Then there is the writing itself, that little critique I must finish by 12 o’clock sharp. Soon the telephone will start ringing about my “estimated time of arrival”, as if I were returning from a long voyage, through bad weather. In some sort of boat. I don’t even know what it’s like outside. I haven’t looked, much less dressed. Sometimes, I have been asked if I would allow some tyro critic to “shadow” me as I go about my work. It would be like being trapped in lockdown with a complete stranger. Even without the current hiatus, much of my time is spent staring at the wall and grimacing to myself, spying on neighbours through a gap in my curtains, idly flicking a duster about the room and admiring the embossed gallery invitations casually marshalled on the mantlepiece. When these activities fail to get me going I check my Twitter feed, as if some inspiration might be found there. But do not be fooled: what I am really doing is formulating, and getting down to some hard thinking while my body quarters the room, like Bruce Nauman doing a Beckett walk around his studio.

Process is an inadequate term to describe the wild-eyed, hyperventilating hysteric in full flush of writing, a personage who cannot abide the slightest interruption or the most innocent and benign enquiry. Ask if I would like a cup of tea and a biscuit and you would likely be subjected to a furious onslaught for presuming I should like sustenance of any kind when the creative urge is upon me, my juices flowing and fingers a blur at the keyboard. At such moments I am communing with Higher Beings, like the ones that commanded the painter Sigmar Polke to paint the upper right-hand corner of one of his canvases black.

On the page, I am the mildest, most humane and dare I say sympathetic of writers, while the one who is doing the writing is an incoherent monster, if not an absolute swine. But it isn’t always like this. Life would be intolerable if it were. Often protesting that I am only as good as my material, give me an artist I admire and work that I can identify with and it can all be plain sailing. It is a matter of identification, and an act of imagination. Show me the photographs of Bernt and Hilla Becher and I am with them under a blank sky, peering through a chain-link fence and positioning myself at a suitable distance from the rusting hulk of a decommissioned catalytic converter in the Ruhr, or in a French field, beguiled by the airy modernist folly of a water tower. I hear the skylarks, if there are any, the rumble of traffic, the wind flapping my trenchcoat, feeling the post-industrial melancholy and fiddling with the light meter. Ask me to write about Nan Goldin and I am cross-dressed in a Berlin apartment, never mind that I am in my tracksuit bottoms and slippers, unshaven and butch-as-you-like in my potting shed at the end of my garden off the South Circular Road. Put me in front of a Bridget Riley and I hear the screech of the masking tape coming off the roll. I’m not fussy. Embodied and emboldened, I’m there, and somehow already writing. My deadline approaches.

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