[Greatest-artist debates are often futile.]
I had the pleasure last Sunday of sharing a platform with the fine art critic and art historian Michael Fried. We were at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and we were supposed to be talking about the relations between photography and power. It was arranged as part of a series of talks in the context of the Pictet Prize. Also involved were Leo Johnson, the specialist in sustainable development and an increasingly active film maker on the subject, and John Riddy. John is one of those artists-who-use-photography who passes almost ignored in the photographic world but far from ignored in art circles. Strange how these tribal divisions continue to be promoted as though they made general sense. As far as I’m concerned a photographer is free to call himself an artist or not, and is free to consort more with artists or more with photographers. But I don’t think doors should be closed to people just because they refer to themselves as photographers. The Tate, notoriously, was until recently completely closed to photographers, and the Tate itself and the national collection, are immeasurably the poorer for it.
Anyway, we chatted about this and that, as panel discussions do. It seemed interesting from where I sat, if not very focussed. Early in his exposition, Michael Fried casually dropped something into the conversation on which nobody challenged him (they were holding their breath to challenge him later).
” How many Londoners,” he asked,” how many British people, in fact, realize that there is a man who lives in Hampstead and who works in Camden Town, who is the greatest British artist since Constable? I mean Caro. ”
I don’t in any way wish to denigrate Sir Anthony Caro by stripping him of Michael Fried’s title. Equally, I don’t see that Michael Fried’s assertion should go uncontested.
John Constable died in 1837. Is Anthony Caro really the greatest British artist since then?