Art and cities


[A bit about Matthew's new book Art Crazy Nation
has been added here in November 2001]

This is Matthew Collings

Matthew Collings is best known as the presenter (and writer) of the TV series This is Modern Art, and the presenter of Channel Four's coverage of the Turner Prize. He is also an artist, writer and general-purpose contemporary art commentator.


Why are we talking about him here? Because he is one of the best writers on art and culture ever. His unpretentious and accessible but quietly well-informed and sneakily intelligent style make his work a joy to read. The pleasure of reading his style is such that it wouldn't matter if all of the information content was made up. The fact that you learn stuff too is just a bonus.


Matthew's first book Blimey! (subtitled -- with uncharacteristic long-windedness -- From Bohemia to Britpop: The London Artworld from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst) is probably his most entertaining. Very frequent chunky headings make the paragraphs easy to consume (writers note -- who would have thought this simple stylistic feature would positively affect the reading experience so much?), and the chatty style is quite radical for a book in this traditionally muddily-worded area. The laconic discussion is nothing like the trying-to-be-hip blether of 'For Beginners' or 'For Dummies' books though... it's more like having an intelligent and funny companion who is just explaining what's what.

Couldn't be nicer

Hello Reader! That's how Blimey starts. There's no nicer way to start a book. Why don't all books start like that? How rude.

Amazon controversy

One of the customer reviews at, from someone in California, complains about Collings's "incredibly disorganized, ungrammatical account" and his "obnoxiously chatty" style. Whilst everyone is entitled to their view, heh heh, this is an alarmingly stodgy, conservative, dull-minded response to such a wonderful book. Still, it's a helpful reminder that intelligence and talent are not equally distributed throughout the population; and that ground-breaking art is not always welcomed with open arms.

Everyone else at loved it though. Well done, Amazon customers! as Matthew might say.


Somewhere I read about how a critic had been furious with Matthew because he had said that Lucian Freud's paintings were brown. The critic wanted to know how on earth Collings could have said such a thing. Collings replied that he had just wanted to say something 'normal' about the artist. And the paintings were brown.

Contradictions of modern living

Matthew Collings doesn't pretend there is one truth, or one way of looking at or talking about art. He is neither unnecessarily respectful or disrespectful about artists and movements, reserving the right to be cheeky or nice -- or, significantly, both -- about his subjects. This shouldn't be very unusual, perhaps, but it is.

Critic David Sylvester put it very well, in a review of Blimey, when he said: "One of [Collings's] great strengths is his insistence that in art things are not either/or but both/and. He is constantly aware that something can be basically flawed, can be pretentious, even a little bit phoney, but can still have artistic power."

Still artcrazy after all these years

Matthew's newest book, Art Crazy Nation (published October 2001) is a sequel to Blimey, taking a largely delightful wander through the British art world of the past five years. It's full of good stuff, very readable, and it is nice to see a return to the personal style of Blimey after the more sensible, textbook kind of approach which was necessary in This is Modern Art. Ironically, though, even Matthew's fans may find that he has gone a bit too far on the personal rambling here - the text is occasionally a bit overindulgent in telling you stuff about himself that we could live without. However it's highly enjoyable and recommended. As I read the final page, I was definitely disappointed that I'd have to wait a few years for the next one.

Good bits

Here are a few bits I just picked out of Blimey. The book is full of them and you should buy it if you want more.

On private views: "Private views are emotionally quite intense, although the emotions are never expressed, they just go on in your head. On the outside you appear normal and go around saying Hi! brightly, or, Hmm, that's interesting. But inside you are reeling. The shocks come fast and hard. Regular private view goers have disintegrated personalities and are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome." (p.76).

On London galleries: "You go in, nobody talks to you, you look around and leave. Unless you're a critic or a collector, in which case someone will come and suck up to you a bit unpleasantly." (p.172).

On how artists should relate to curators and art critics: "Always make them feel good about themselves by flattering them and saying how good you thought the last thing they published or organized or whatever, was. Then subtly put down the work of all other artists, so they gradually think yours is really good and they imagine they thought of it themselves." (p.128).

Artists on TV: "When I worked on The Late Show, artists would come up and say Hey, The Late Show is really bad. But then after they'd been on it they'd say, Hey, The Late Show is getting better. And they'd really mean it and not see the connection." (p.192).

On art theories: "They're great, those theories. They last for a few years and then get used up." (p.148).

On formalism: "After all, is it so bad? What is it anyway? Nobody knows." (p.34).

On obscure writing in art magazines: "Artworld people say, What do you mean you can't understand art talk? Would you expect to understand the talk of a nuclear physicist? Don't you see that art is a special subject like that, you have to do some work at it! But in reality people in the artworld mostly just think moronic thoughts like everyone else, and it's nothing like nuclear physics." (p.182).

Collings texts and web links

Matthew's three books are reviewed on the Some Things about Art and Cities art books reviews page.

Matthew writes a diary in Modern Painters magazine. Two of these diaries appear on the BowieArt website here. On the Modern Painters website you can read the Spring 1999 Diary and Spring 1998 Diary.

A day in the life of British art, including an encounter with Gilbert and George, from The Observer (19 March 2000). interview with Matthew (December 1999).

London Art interview with Matthew (June 1999).

The Idler interview with Matthew (November 1999).

You've made your bed..., Matthew on Tracey Emin's (The Observer, October 1999).

Everyone's a critic, Matthew responds to critics of his TV series This is Modern Art (July 1999).

21 Publishing's pages about Matthew's books.

Modern art makes me sick, Stuart Jeffries criticises Matthew a bit.

No end to the interactivity

E-mail me with comments, or additions for this page. Thanks.