Stuckism: Art Against Art Against Art
The controversy that erupted after The Sunday Times published an article on the Tate's purchase of Carl Andre's minimalist sculpture "Equivalent VIII" (derided as the "pile of bricks") in 1976 spoke of the public's dissatisfaction with contemporary art, and, whether cognizant of it or not, their dissatisfaction with the art system (figure 1).'1 Essentially, the issue was one of demarcation. Another factor outside of the equation made popular by Marcel Duchamp some six decades earlier – artist-plus-object-equals-art – is necessary, that being the consent of the observer. The conflict arose because the consent seemed to be limited entirely to the museum directors, in the eyes of the public, at least. There must be some degree of exclusivity for an object to be deemed art, not because art should be an elitist leisure-pursuit of the upper classes, but rather because if every object is in fact art, then museums, galleries, art journalists and their journals, artists, and even the designation "art" all become completely redundant and unnecessary.
Figure 1. Carl Andre
127 x 686 x 2292 mm
The Andre affair, one of the earliest controversies over conceptual art to have occurred in the United Kingdom, was an early foray into what the Stuckists, a pro-painting movement founded in 1999, have called the "cul de sac of idiocy" in which conceptual art is stuck. '2 The Stuckists would agree with the conclusion Neil Mulholland arrived at in The Cultural Devolution: Art in Britain in the Late Twentieth Century, that the status of "Equivalent VIII" as a work of art was, entirely contrary to Andre's statements about it, contingent upon mystification. Indeed, as a result of the controversy many objects of would-be "found art" were submitted to the Tate by the public, which were in turn rejected and returned to the senders.'3 While the purpose of the Tate is to collect and to preserve all art deemed relevant by the judgement of the directors, whether popular or unpopular, it seems dubious when objects that are only considered art by a small, if educated minority, and furthermore, only considered art in light of technical, semantic justifications, are included in that purpose. As many have observed regarding conceptual art, the proverbial emperor that was "Equivalent VIII" was indeed naked in the Andre situation.
However, the Tate's purchase of "Equivalent VIII" was not the impetus for Stuckism, and it is doubtful that the Stuckists would even have had much a problem with it, aside from thinking it was a silly and unremarkable premise. There was nothing unethical about the transaction; it was merely unpopular. Its significance hinged upon the observer being indoctrinated into and subscribing to various strains of post-modern thought, which, quite simply, is not a realistic expectation to place upon the masses. The Stuckists are often considered an anti-conceptual art movement. However, while they do oppose conceptual art as irrelevant and self-absorbed, to call them an anti-conceptual art movement is to miss many of the finer points they make. An even less accurate and in fact fallacious belief is that they advocate a return to "traditional" art, similar to the agenda of the Art Renewal Center, who see Bouguereau as the pinnacle of all existence, and any deviation from sentimental neo-classicism as a cardinal sin (figure 2).
Figure 2 William Bouguereau
Naissance de Venus
Oil on canvas
300 x 218 cm
The name Stuckism is derived from this fashionable, yet erroneous belief about painting, particularly figurative painting – that it is void as a medium, inextricably attached to imperialistic and taboo pre-20th century doctrines and painters are all "stuck" in the past. Co-founder of Stuckism Charles Thomson has said "We are not saying there's a golden age in the past. The golden age is every age; it's the present, this is the golden age."'4 One of the most quoted statements regarding what Stuckism is about comes from New York Stuckist Terry Marks, from a 2004 interview in NY Arts Magazine (figure 3):
We all choose to be painters, but not as if rock & roll, television, cars, cinema, jazz, and the whole 20th century never happened. We're saying, "Let's use paint to describe our lives now." We're all interested in working representationally, but not necessarily with realism.'5
Figure 3 Terry Marks
Oil on canvas
20 x 16 inches
It isn't conceptual art that the Stuckists are opposed to as much as it is the business-end of the art world that has been largely responsible for conceptual art and post-modern ideas becoming the dominant, if not sole means of expression given credence in late 20th century British art, through the patronage and influence of a few powerful figures.
As such, we can infer that Stuckism does not refer to a style. Article 11 of the Stuckist Document "Remodernism" states:
It should be noted that technique is dictated by, and only necessary to the extent to which it is commensurate with the vision of the artist.'6
The concept of remodernism concerns spirituality in art and the possibilities for communication that art encompasses. Where modernism failed in its many forms, neo-plasticism, abstract expressionism, cubism and all of its offshoots, et cetera, was in being overly concerned with formal elements, becoming fixated on one element above all others, according to Stuckism (figure 4).
Figure 4 Piet Mondrian
Composition No. 8
Oil on canvas
75 x 68 cm
Article 3 of the Stuckist Manifesto states:
Stuckism proposes a model of art which is holistic. It is a meeting of the conscious and unconscious, thought and emotion, spiritual and material, private and public. Modernism is a school of fragmentation – one aspect of art is isolated and exaggerated to detriment of the whole. This is a fundamental distortion of the human experience and perpetrates and egocentric life.'7
Artists who the Stuckists admire as holistic include Van Gogh, Munch, and Beckmann, (figure 5). The Stuckists' aim is to appropriate the original principles of Modernism, but focus on "vision as opposed to formalism", because they believe that formalism on its own does not reveal anything about humanity. Article 14 of Remodernism explains the need for a new spirituality in art is:
Because connecting in a meaningful way is what makes people happy. Being understood and understanding each other makes life enjoyable and worth living.'8
Figure 5 Max Beckmann
Oil on canvas
47 1/4 x 63 in.
The group of artists who would found the Stuckists in 1999 had initially been acquainted with one another in the 1970's, long before their many manifestos, ever-present commentary on Britart, and their popular and hilarious clown protests of the Turner Prize Ceremony (figure 6).
Figure 6 Stuckist Demonstration at White Cube Gallery
25 July 2002
In 1979, Charles Thomson, Billy Childish, Bill Lewis, and Sexton Ming, four future Stuckists, formed a poetry performance group called The Medway Poets.'9 The history of this early incarnation of Stuckism is discussed in detail by Charles Thomson in "A Stuckist on Stuckism," but the most significant aspect of the story comes from Billy Childish's relationship with Tracey Emin. This relationship in fact provided the source of the group's name, as has been related so many times, when Emin, angered that Childish did not want to go to a performance art piece where her friend would be taking cocaine on a stage, declared "Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck, stuck stuck stuck!"
Long after their relationship ended, Tracey would become the celebrity she is today, making tabloid-ready autobiographical conceptual pieces like "My Bed," her entry for the 1998 Turner Prize as well as engaging in tabloid-ready behaviour like getting drunk and swearing on television (figure 7).
Figure 7 Tracey Emin
Mattress, linens, pillows, objects
79 x 211 x 234 cm
The issue that came up increasingly more and more after Stuckism began, though, was how much of an influence Billy Childish had been on her work. An article from 2000 by Graham Bendel on the subject observes similarities in several of Emin's works with ones done earlier by Childish, including poetry, comparing Childish's "Analysis of a Soul Rancid" from 1989 with Emin's "Exploration of the Soul from 1994, a 1996 project where Emin interviewed herself on film, which Childish had already done in 1988, Emin's famous 1995 tent work "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995," which was strikingly similar in concept to an early poem by Childish, and even a detail from her most celebrated work, "My Bed," which had a noose suspended over it, just as Childish had long had one hanging from his kitchen ceiling. Bendel concludes that she "is not as complicated as her sympathetic critics would like us to think," and that "Emin is Billy Childish repackaged: more neuotic, but less passionate."10 Emin's work, which is acclaimed primarily for it's intensely personal and confessional nature, is certainly in danger of losing credibility when compared to the work of Billy Childish which had so greatly inspired her. What struck many observers as odd suddenly was Emin's silence on the issue, and the fact that the period of her life occupied by their relationship was so rarely acknowledged in her otherwise well-documented life.
Despite his hand in founding Stuckism and co-authoring the manifestos with Charles Thomson that form the very heart of the movement, Childish left the group shortly after it's inception. He now describes Stuckism as the "bane of life now,"'11 and "wish(es) people would stop blaming the entire thing on me."'12 Still, he seems to subscribe to the same principles attached to the movement, and remains an inspiration to many artists and alternately a thorn in the side of Tracey Emin's public image (figure 8, 9).
Figure 8 Billy Childish
Oil on canvas
30.5 x 40 cm
Figure 9 Billy Childish
Untitled Self Portrait
Oil on canvas
2' x 4'
Most recently, Childish has entered the arena of America's popular media after the singer from the White Stripes, a group whose schtick is largely contrived from Billy Childish's many musical ventures (Childish has released over 100 albums) was insulted that Childish stated he did not listen to the White Stripes.'13 A minor spat ensued, where the singer perplexingly accused Billy Childish of plagiarising something, and then had Ebay.com remove an auction of a series of posters made for a Childish exhibition at The Aquarium (figure 10).'14
Figure 10 The Aquarium
The Jack 'whingy' White VS 'bitter' Billy Childish Commemorative Fine Art Poster
Ink on 190gsm Archival Matt Paper
43 x 30.5cm
Perhaps what is most remarkable about his involvement with Stuckism is that it ever happened, considering his need to be independent in everything he does.
The White Stripes debacle serves to illustrate why Childish has not become a celebrity, while Emin has. He is driven by a need to be completely honest, which makes any sort of art-world schmoozing completely impossible. The Stuckists have all passed the point-of-no-return in that regard, though. They have long been critical of Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, and perhaps the most powerful person in the British art world (figure 11.)
Figure 11 Charles Thomson
Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision
Oil and acrylic on canvas
101.6 x 76.2 cm
One single event that thouroughly illustrates the conflict occured June 4th, 2001, at the unveiling of Rachel Whiteread's "Plinth," a cast of a plinth set upside-down on top of a plinth (figure 12).'15
Figure 12 Rachel Whiteread
Charles Thomson, after Culture Minister Chris Smith finished a speech and left the podium, leapt up to the platform and began denouncing the Turner Prize and its' favoritism of conceptual art, completely ignoring the existence of painting. Afterwards, a confrontation ensued.
One senses even in photographs (figure 13) from the confrontation that Charles Thomson was positively relishing in the madness his antics were inducing upon the outraged Tate director.
Serota: "That was a cheap shot, using another artist's work to promote your ideas."
Thomson: "It's Dada."
Serota: "So that gives you the right to do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it?"
Thomson: "You and a few people like you control the art world and what goes on in it, and as artists this is the only way we can put our point of view across."16
At this, Sir Nicholas Serota walked away. But not long afterwards, the event was documented on the Stuckists website, beginning with an aptly ironic quote from Serota's book Experience or Interpretation: "a willingness..... to risk offence by unexpected confrontation can yield rewards."17
The Stuckist's most resounding muck-raking success to date occurred after Sir Nicholas Serota rejected the donation to the Tate of the 160 paintings exhibitted in the Stuckists "Punk Victorian" show at the Walker Art Gallery in 2005 (figure 14).
Figure 14 Paul Harvey
The Stuckist's Punk Victorian
Acrylic on canvas
212cm x 75cm
The exhibition, which was first Stuckist show to be held in a prestigious institution, was, according to Charles Thomson "a vindication of the fact that we've achieved a presence in the art world."'18 And so, it was a great insult to both the Stuckists and peripherally to the Walker when Serota turned down the donation of the work, stating in a letter to the Stuckists, also printed in the Sunday Times:
We do not feel that the work is of sufficient quality in terms of accomplishment, innovation or originality of thought to warrant preservation in perpetuity in the national collection.'19
Thomson's response was that it demonstrated that "the Tate is completely out of line with the rest of the country and the public, whose money it spends on things the public don't want," further deriding the Tate's recent acquisition of Chris Ofili's "The Upper Room," an installation of thirteen canvases depicting Christ and the disciples as monkeys, incorporating Ofili's trademark use of elephant dung (figure 15).'20
Figure 15 Chris Ofili
Mono Oro, from The Upper Room
Installation, 13 canvases
However, Thomson did not stop at that criticism, and pursued the issue further. Thomson's research led to the realization that Chris Ofili was in fact serving as a trustee to the Tate at the time of the acquisition of "The Upper Room." Through use of the Freedom of Information Act, he obtained the minutes of the meetings of Tate trustees, and found that the museum had purchased the work for £705,000, clearly a breach of interests.'21
The egg on the face of the Tate was all the greater because Ofili had been quite vocal in urging other artists to donate work to the institution.'22 The Ofili affair has earned a fair amount of respect for the Stuckists, at considerable cost to the reputation of the Tate and Sir Serota. Accusations of cronyism have only increased since Thomson's exposé. In October 2006, journalist Lynn Barber, the sole lay member of the Turner Prize jury, claimed she suspected the contest was a "fix," stating that while the organizers have encouraged the public to send in nominations, the nominations are ignored.'23
The Stuckist's have made many claims against the Young British Artists. The Stuckist Manifesto derides conceptual art, making the claims that "artists who don't paint aren't artists," and "art that has to be in a museum to be art isn't art," and furthermore that "Brit Art, in being sponsored by Saachis, main stream conservatism and the Labour government, makes a mockery of its claim to be subversive or avant-garde."'24 In the manifesto Anti-anti-art, the case is made that conceptual art is justified by the work of Marcel Duchamp, which is "anti-art by intent and effect." The contrast the Stuckists see is that "Duchamp's work was a protest against the stale, unthinking artistic establishment of his day," while "The great (but wholly unintentional) irony of Post Modernism is that it is a direct equivalent of the conformist, unoriginal establishment that Duchamp attacked in the first place."'25
The claims are however occassionally corroborated by an unlikely, yet somewhat more notable source – the YBA's themselves. Jake and Dinos Chapman, the brothers who rose to fame after Charles Saatchi purchased their mixed media sculpture "Hell" for £500,000, and whose celebrity has only further been enhanced by a retrospective of their work in his gallery and purchase of their "Chapman Family Collection" for £1M, have adamantly denounced their Britart peers, Saatchi, and the Tate in the media (figure 16).
Figure 16 Jake and Dinos Chapman
1999-2000 (destroyed 2004)
Jake Chapman, in an interview with "The Art Show" from November 2003 quoted in a Guardian Unlimited article, claimed that many of the YBA's "treat their work as a symptom of their ego," and that Saatchi's gallery is "simply an expression of one man's ownership." Chapman also stated to Guardian Unlimited that things at the Tate and Saatchi are "bending … towards a kind of lowest common denominator which could have a very negative effect on the production of art itself," and, perhaps betraying out-an intent of inaccessability, that this is "sympomatic of an increased sensitivity to a wider public audience."26 This statement does, however share some similarities to what the Stuckists had written three years earlier in a leaflet the Stuckists distributed at the 2000 Turner Prize ceremony: "The Turner Prize is not, despite what Sir Nicholas Serota believes, the popularising of art but its dumbing down into a circus of curiosities."27
Certainly the Chapman brothers consider themselves above their ever more accessible peers, such as Damien Hirst. This conclusion wouldn't be all that inaccurate, as the Chapman's were still pushing boundaries with works such as "Insult to Injury," an original set of Goya's "Disasters of War" prints modified by the Chapman brother's additions of clown faces imposed upon Goya's figures (figure 17), while Hirst had reneged on his early declaration of the death of painting and, around the turn of the century, relegated to selling paintings (figure 18).
Figure 17 Jake and Dinos Chapman
Insult to Injury (excerpt)
Figure 18 Damien Hirst
Household gloss on canvas
43.2 x 48.3 cm
The crassness of this enterprise has been expanded upon by Hirst himself, (and kindly compiled in The Stuckists: Punk Victorian book) stating in On The Way To Work that he had stopped making the paintings himself, which are canvases of colored dots, because he found the process boring. Hirst explained "the best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by Rachel," who is one of his spot-painting employees.28 In the same interview, Hirst revealed the true value of the paintings when discussing an argument with an employee who wanted one him to giver her one of "his" paintings, which she had been making. Hirst sarcastically told her:
"I'll give you a cheque for seventy thousand quid if you like. Why don't I just do that? Because you know you're going to sell it straight away." […] (T)he only difference between one painted by her and one of mine is the money.'29
However, Hirst, in an article from Guardian Unlimited of the same month, incensed at not being able to buy some of his works back from Saatchi, stated "I'm not Charles Saatchi's barrel-organ monkey… He only recognizes art with his wallet… he believes he can affect art values with buying power, and he still believes he can do it."30 Hirst's own actions and statements serve as well as anything a Stuckist could say to illustrate that he is slave to no one's greed but his own.
While not being focused on one specific style or technique may make Stuckism appealing to many artists, it is questionable as to how palatable that aspect of the movement will be for collectors and museum directors. When we consider that the top eight of ArtReview's list of the 100 most influential people in the art world for 2006 was composed exclusively of collectors and gallery heads (Sir Nicholas Serota came in at number three,) with conceptual artists Bruce Nauman and Jeff Koons rounding out the top ten, it becomes quite clear that it isn't the artists who are running the show by any means.31 Marketability is of capital importance to many of the powerful figures in the art world. It is a thorny, paradoxical predicament for the Stuckists, in that many of their key principles would be put into jeopardy if Stuckism found success, attempting to assimilate while avoiding the crassness of the art market that has been such a preoccupation for so many artists of this and the last century. The true success of Stuckism would be a complete overhaul of the art world, where the artists themselves are at the top, rather than the bottom of the pyramid of command.
If an era of "remodernism" is to dawn, it will require the late-20th century conceptual post-modern vogue to fall out of favor with the powerful figures of the art world, or else some great shift in public funding. When many of the major artists of contemporary British Art, themselves championed by such figures as Saatchi and Serota, have gone beyond the vagueness of earlier conceptual art about commodification and specificially stated that their benefactors, if not their contemporaries, are more interested in money and celebrity than art, the legitimacy of the Stuckists claims and the suspicions of many lay-people become increasingly validated. The euphoria of excess sustained by Britart through the 1990's and well into the 2000's can not last forever, just as the euphoria of academic art a century previous could not. However, when we consider how much money and credibility the figures of power would stand to lose if works like Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII, were to fall out of desirability for collectors, it is obvious that they would never allow that to happen.
If remodernism is to become a force in the art world, it will be through the young artists of today. In the modern era, art became autonomous because people were completely alien to the cultural referants that had informed art-making in earlier eras. The language of allusion and symbolism and the assumption of shared values deteriorated rapidly with all of the advancements in science and technology, new methods of imagining what matter is made of and creating images through photography, philosophies that questioned many of the cornerstones of society, ghastly methonds of warfare, and everything else that happened in the early modern era. The painting of pictures simply lost its meaning amidst the backdrop of the early 20th century. Despite this, we are still all humans, and as such, no matter how low a function it may be, we respond to pictures of people. And for a new generation of young artists, the answers Marcel Duchamp came up with a hundred years ago are no longer sufficient. Stuckism has provided a foil to the narrow-mindedness of the art establishment by proposing sincerity and honesty as integral to artistic expression, as opposed to the pretensions of irony and cynicism that became a hallmark of British Art in the late 20th century. The Stuckists offer a path apart from the sensationalist popularism of the mass media who "just don't get it," and the self-absorbed elitism of the art world. Upon encountering a work of art, rather than bemoaning the fact that it isn't a nice picture of a farm, or contemplating the artist's credentials and how the "contextualizing" act of putting it in a museum references to a particular strain of philosophy, the Stuckist will look upon the work for exactly what it is. Stuckism provides a perfectly sane and valid means to explain why a brick is still a brick no matter who sets it on the ground.
1 Colin Simpson. "Tate Drops a Costly Brick: How the Tate Gallery Spent £1 million in Two Years." Sunday Times. 15 February 1976.
2 Billy Childish and Charles Thomson. "The Stuckists." 4 August 1999.
3 Neil Mulholland. The Cultural Devolution: Art in Britain in the Late Twentieth Century. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003, 7-8.
4 Richard Moss. "Stuckist's Punk Victorian Gatecrashes Walker's Biennial." 24 Hour Museum, 17 September 2004, www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/exh_gfx_en/ART24134.html> (22 October 2006).
5 Carol Strickland. "Stuckist in New York City: An Interview with Narrative Painter Terry Marks." NY Arts Magazine, September/October 2004.
6 Billy Childish and Charles Thomson. "Remodernism." 1 February 2000.
7 Billy Childish and Charles Thomson. "The Stuckists." 4 August 1999.
8 Billy Childish and Charles Thomson. "Remodernism." 1 February 2000.
9 Charles Thomson. "A Stuckist on Stuckism." From The Stuckists: Punk Victorian / [edited by Frank Milner]. Liverpool : National Museums Liverpool, 2004, 8.
10 Graham Bendel and Frances Stonor Saunders. "Being Childish." New Statesman. 3 July, 2000.
11 Katy Guest. "Billy Childish: Childish Attitude." The Independent. 27 August 2005. < http://news.independent.co.uk/people/profiles/article308131.ece> (10 November 2006)
12 Rod Smith. "Ignorance is Bliss." Minneapolis City Pages. 18 May 2005. < http://www.citypages.com/databank/26/1276/article13300.asp> (10 November 2006)
13 Thomson, Charles. "Interview with Billy Childish." Artistica Modern Art Blog. 10 April 2006. (26 November 2006)
14 Guy Adams. "A Childish Spat: "Whingy" White Calls in the Lawyers." The Independent. 14 March 2006.
15 Charles Thomson. "A Stuckist on Stuckism." From The Stuckists: Punk Victorian / [edited by Frank Milner]. Liverpool : National Museums Liverpool, 2004, 6.
17 "Serota Tells Off the Stuckists." Stuckism.com. 04 June 2001. (10 November 2007).
18 Richard Moss. "Stuckist's Punk Victorian Gatecrashes Walker's Biennial." 24 Hour Museum, 17 September 2004, www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/exh_gfx_en/ART24134.html> (22 October 2006).
19 Dalya Alberge. "Tate rejects £500,000 Gift from "Unoriginal" Stuckists." TimesOnline. 28 July 2005, (22 October, 2006).
21 Alice O'Keeffe. "How Aging Art Punks Got Stuck into Tate's Serota." The Observer. 11 December 2005.
22 Hastings, Chris. "Chris Ofili Said Artists Should Give Work to the Tate for Nothing… So Why has he Accepted £100,000 for one of his Dung Pictures?" Telegraph. 14 August 2005.
23 Nigel Reynolds. "Have I Been Stitched Up, Asks Turner Prize Judge." Telegraph. 3 October, 2006.
24 Billy Childish and Charles Thomson. "The Stuckists." 4 August 1999.
25 Billy Childish and Charles Thomson. "Anti-anti-art." 11 April 2000.
26 David Smith. "Shock Art Turns on the Tate." Guardian Unlimited. 2 November, 2003.
27 Billy Childish and Charles Thomson. "The Turner Prize." 1 September 2000.
28 Gordon Burns and Damien Hirst. On The Way To Work. London: Faber & Faber, 2001, 90. Quoted in The Stuckists: Punk Victorian / [edited by Frank Milner]. Liverpool : National Museums Liverpool, 2004.
29 Ibid, 82.
30 Fiachra Gibbons. "Hirst Buys His Art Back From Saatchi." Guardian Unlimited. 27 November, 2003.
31 Collett-White, Mike. "France's Pinault Tops Art World Power List." Reuters. 13 October 2006. (29 October 2006)