Notebook

Why they hated Brian Sewell

‘There’s been no female Titian’: Brian Sewell at Santiago de Compostela in 2003

It was easy for the many people who didn’t approve of Brian Sewell to dismiss him as a comic figure because he spoke in that funny voice. Yet Sewell was in deadly earnest when he wrote about art. He was certainly as earnest as the little boy in the story who exclaimed, to the consternation of onlookers, that the emperor was wearing no clothes.

So, almost alone of art critics, Sewell wrote that the respected icons of our 21st-century art world – the Tracey Emins, the Gilberts and the Georges – were not worthy of the name of art.

That caused annoyance enough. But what really upset people and caused a group of VIPs from the art world to call for his dismissal from the Evening Standard, for which he wrote a weekly column, was the pronouncement that there were not, and never have been, any great women artists. There was no female Titian, no female Rembrandt.

He could have added for good measure – and perhaps would have done, given the encouragement – that the same could be said of music: there was no woman Beethoven, no woman Mozart.

What was most annoying about this observation about women artists – just as much, if not more so than his dismissal of Tracey Emin and co – was that it was perfectly obviously 100 per cent true. There was no female Rembrandt and there was no point in trying to find one who had been hitherto overlooked.

Sewell’s point was annoying not so much as a piece of art criticism as an attack on the whole feminist movement, because it challenged its central tenet that there is no difference between men and women, that they both have the same abilities.

It is the same idea that has now at long last persuaded the Church of England to appoint women bishops. And very appropriately the first female diocesan bishop, the Rt Rev Rachel Treweek, has revived the old argument about the gender of God. It is as if she has decided that, if a woman can be a Church of England bishop, why not God as well? At least, she argues, we should agree that God is neither male nor female.

One of the many differences between men and women is that women are known to be more practical. So it is surprising to find Bishop Treweek proposing a reform that would cause not just a theological upheaval but also all kinds of more mundane difficulties. Taken to its

How to picture a genderless God would exercise the General Synod for years

logical conclusion, the abolition of the “male” God would involve having to rewrite the hymn book, the prayer book and the whole of the Bible, beginning in the Garden of Eden, and removing any amount of stained-glass windows featuring God as a Father Christmas lookalike with a white beard. How to picture the new genderless God would be something to exercise the General Synod for many years to come.

It is this idea of the sameness of men and women that has characterised the argument in favour of same-sex marriage. But the argument against it, having nothing much to do with homophobia, is just that it is same-sex. Those arguing in favour reject the obvious truth, as clear as the non-existence of a female Mozart, that marriage is the joining together of two very different creatures. That’s the whole point and, if you like, the whole fun of it.

The joining together of man and man, or woman and woman, may be objectionable in the eyes of the Church. But the real objection to it is that, whatever else it is, it isn’t marriage.

Brian Sewell was the gayest of gay people. But I’m certain he would have said the same. Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and The Oldie

Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and The Oldie