The British have not been well served by their most popular critics of modern art. Their specious prose and philosophical posturing often masked confused, contradictory thought, producing a writing that was both patronizing and mystifying. They tended to be isolated by an atmosphere of philistine hostility which rarely allowed them to proceed beyond an endless rehearsal of fundamentals—supposing that their thought would have allowed it. The most celebrated critic of the Thatcher years was not one to accept this condition lightly: Peter Fuller was an irascible and uncompromising writer, who, while never forgetting to court a public, journeyed from Marxist to conservative, from materialist to quasi-religious views, barely touching the middle ground. Of his early affiliations Fuller wrote, ‘. . .in the early 1970s, I certainly came close to believing that the editorial board of the nlr had access to “The Truth”, to which I could be a party if only I understood their texts correctly.’footnote1 This attitude was abandoned in the later seventies in favour first of essentialism (founded on psychoanalysis and biology) and then conservatism. Two recent books, assembled from fragments of Fuller’s work, provide an opportunity to assess his later writing and to suggest its relation to the state of contemporary art and criticism: Peter Fuller’s Modern Painters is a collection of essays and lectures, and Henry Moore is collated from published essays and unpublished notes according to a plan which Fuller had made before his death in 1990.footnote2 Fuller’s books and Modern Painters, the magazine which he founded, reached a public well beyond the normally closed circle of the art world, and so they are interesting not only for their content but also as cultural phenomena. Although, following his death, his reputation has gone into decline, an analysis of Fuller’s work and political trajectory may yield insights into the condition of culture under Thatcherism.

Fuller’s passage from Left to Right was common enough, yet perhaps in his case its form was peculiar. His early materialism was radical but literal, fixed on the determining force of the market. For instance in 1976 Fuller endorsed Hugh Jenkins’s argument that art should be entirely freed from the market so that historically significant works would become available to all.footnote3 Puncturing the transcendence of art meant revealing its basis in money: he asked Jasper Johns if he restricted his output to keep prices high, and quizzed the dealer Leslie Waddington about the propriety of his financial dealings and the payment of tax.footnote4 Later, the extent of his conservatism was equally absolute; the market was considered completely irrelevant to the aesthetic quality of work produced, as though it were a transparent and entirely natural system (mp, p. 41).

At its best and most considered, Fuller’s criticism held out a powerful vision of a culture in crisis, evaporating between the poles of triumphant but mendacious commercial media and liberal but vacuous fine arts. Using Sebastiano Timpanaro’s biological materialism, and Raymond Williams’s relation of biological processes to the material techniques of making art, Fuller argued that the material basis of fine-art media themselves could serve as the foundation for a non-ideological practice which might open up glimpses of a socialist future.footnote5 The analysis was often acute but the recommendations were less than convincing, and elements which were later to serve conservatism were already evident. Timpanaro was used to support the priority of biology, not only in terms of history, but also in terms of importance. The idea of material processes was later extended well beyond mere media to more properly ideological notions of ‘the conventions and devices which are the inheritance of a living. . .tradition’ (hm, p. 8).

Later, Fuller saw his switching of allegiances as a meaningful narrative so, while he often relented his Marxist past in print, he was reluctant to dispose of the husks of leftist terminology. ‘Materialism’, ‘structures of feeling’ and ‘the aesthetic dimension’ recur until the end, stripped of all connection with the critical theories in which they had originated. Even Fuller’s early work used materialist analysis only for art which had failed: ‘When little or no work strives to transcend the present and affirm the potentialities of the future, a critical methodology based on social and economic analysis becomes almost sufficient.’footnote6 In other words, materialism was ‘almost’ sufficient to analyse degenerate modernism but was inappropriate to authentic art. Bankrupt avant-garde work was contrasted with art which provided ‘glimpses of moments of becoming’ in a historically transcendent sense.footnote7 Yet behind such phrases, spiced with Benjamin, there was never any sense of just what reality should be transcended. Even Fuller’s materialism was only ever its spirit. His sentences often bring to mind Eric Morecambe’s reply to André Previn when told he was playing the wrong notes; they are the right notes, he said, but maybe not in the right order.

Fuller exercised his invective indiscriminately, yet all that was most positive in his writing was negative. His descriptions of contemporary art as empty and trivial were often accurate. For Fuller, such art was rootless and unpopular; ordinary people rejected it in favour of the comfortable figuration of chocolate boxes, advertisements and the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Modernist art, like its architecture, was a negative image of what an art should be: industrial, inhuman, serial and anti-aesthetic. Andy Warhol was its paradigmatic figure. Here was an artist who deliberately cultivated and exploited the banality of mass culture: ‘. . .Warhol’s imagination was negligible, his painterly skills nugatory, and his aesthetic sensibility non-existent. . .there is nothing there except “the evil of banality”, anaesthesia itself’ (mp, p. 138). Fuller rightly criticized much of the nonsense talked about Warhol, yet his own judgement was typically absolute. There was a complete refusal to see that there might be anything radical about the artist’s project. He had no conception that Warhol’s very blankness, inhuman repetition and absolute commercialism might critically illuminate just these qualities in the art world as a whole.

The fundamental problem with contemporary art, as Fuller saw it, was the lack of a ‘shared symbolic order’ on which its foundations could rest and from which sophisticated yet accessible superstructures could be built. Without such a bedrock of common understanding, art tended towards the simplistic or the incoherent. For Fuller, the emptiness and autonomy of modernist art reflected its lack of social function: the arts could be free only because they were irrelevant to the stifling and inescapable operation of the ‘mega-visual’ culture of advertising and commercial imagery.footnote8 When this argument is made from the Left, the focus rests on the destruction by capital of organic communities which had created their own common cultural context. However, Fuller’s leftist critique of conventional modernism (especially the work of Anthony Caro, Bridget Riley and Richard Hamilton) required little adjustment to shift it to a judgement from the Right, which lamented the lack of an authoritarian, religious system. The shared symbolic order had been abandoned with the religion on which it had rested, and the blame lay with Darwin and geology. Fuller’s belief that such an order had held fast until the middle of the nineteenth century is of course extremely dubious. It ignores the repression of dissent, the great diversity of views, and the critique of religious doctrine on logical and historical grounds from Voltaire onwards, while favouring a fabricated tradition of earnest English cranks and eccentrics, of which Fuller was self-consciously a member.

With the fall of a shared symbolic order not only art but mankind’s whole relation to nature suffered; once it was learnt that ‘the natural world was unrelated to divine creative activity’, it came to be regarded as fit only for exploitation (mp, p. 59). Fuller writes as if such exploitation dated only from the last half of the nineteenth century, and as if Genesis could not be used as a pretext for environmental despoilation. Nature was supposed to serve as an absolute grounding for Fuller’s theories, and he occasionally flirted with scientific theories in order to make this foundation seem more plausible. So fractals pointed towards ‘the scientific truth of the Romantic insight that the whole world is contained in a grain of sand’ (mp, p. 180). Yet in citing Clement Greenberg to the effect that ‘the highest aesthetic sensibility rests on the same basic assumptions. . .as to the nature of reality as does the “advanced” thinking contemporaneous with it’, Fuller claims that here he was wrong on this most fundamental of issues (mp, p. 75). Fuller’s use of science, then, was hardly a matter of principle, but rather an expedient employed whenever it was convenient. Chaos theory and its visual expression in fractals are indeed likely to be of service to materialism for they demonstrate how forms of great complexity and variation can be derived from the action of very simple forces. In chaos theory, nature (but only part of it) emerges as structured but radically contingent, while in Fuller’s writing it is unified and departicularized, a Victorian moral essence or inhabiting spirit. As a basis for his theories, it was static and ahistorical, no hint of the dialectic played through it.