Jenny Saville? A heroic mediocrity. Tracey Emin? Outshone by your average newspaper cartoonist. And art critics, like their literary counterparts, should be encouraged to say so.
The Hatchet Job of the Year prize rewards brutal book reviews. The organisers have just announced their second shortlist, including nasty reviews of authors including Salman Rushdie and AN Wilson.
This innovation in literary criticism is impressive – and should be imitated by the art world. Someone out there should offer an annual prize for the most lethal review of an art exhibition, because art reviews are getting way too polite.
The sad death of Robert Hughes last year robbed art criticism in the English language of a courageous voice. Hughes was eloquent, honest, and did not care what artists, dealers and curators thought of him. One artist responded to his reviews by spreading libels, so Hughes simply published the libel himself and faced the artist down. The gory details can be enjoyed in his book of essays Nothing If Not Critical, which any aspiring critic should read at least 10 times.
Hughes wrote many of his most devastating essays in New York in the 1980s, when the city was enjoying a postmodern art boom and throwing up celebrity graffiti artists by the truckload. He denounced artists – Basquiat was one, Jeff Koons another – without regard for their fame, which is why his example is relevant to British art now.
Since the 1990s, London has spawned the celebrity artists and claimed the title of cool art zeitgeist city. So where's our Robert Hughes? Cowering in the toilets at Tate Modern.
The years of the British art boom have led to art criticism becoming ever more cosy. There are many reasons. The PR machines deployed by galleries are infinitely more sophisticated than anything in 80s New York; the artists are bigger celebrities than Keith Haring ever was; and there are many more of them. Have you tried counting the number of acclaimed artists in Britain right now?
But the real reason for critical timidity is that everyone is scared of the young, and art has allied itself with youth. Who wants to be seen as an oldie who just doesn't get what the kids are down with? Obviously, the dominant figures in British art now are mostly in their 40s and 50s. The idea of "young British art" was invented two decades ago, yet artists still carry that banner into advanced middle age. That's one of the reasons they need criticising – for failing to grow up.
To put it another way, the world is changing. The revolution in technology creates a cult of the new; anyone able to claim that mantle can get away with a lot. To criticise new art looks like a rejection of the new – and to be branded a conservative is a kind of cultural death.
Yet these are trivial reasons for critics to be cowed. There is a much larger truth. When a cultural wave has grown so large, for so long – the British art boom started rolling in the late 1980s – it is bound to have picked up a lot of rubbish. Wouldn't it actually be fun, as well as Doing the Right Thing, to burst a few inflated reputations?
Grayson Perry is a fine pundit, an interesting curator, but as a visual artist he is a hack whose work churns around and teems with futile incidents in a way that totally fails to soar. Tracey Emin draws with more life than he does, but not half as well as any newspaper cartoonist. If you think Antony Gormley is a good sculptor, go and see the childish figures he carved on boulders outside the British Library in London. Jenny Saville? A heroic mediocrity. The bloated reputations of so many artists of our time offer critics a lifetime's supply of truth telling, so why hold back? We should be going after this lot (and loads more) all the time, and at full volume. Instead, they are more or less guaranteed nice reviews that ignore the pustules of badness that seep out of chic galleries.