Charles Thomson is a cofounder of the Stuckist art movement (www.stuckism.com) with Billy Childish. Billy has now left the movement, but it continues to grow, with 160 member groups in 40 countries. Both Billy Childish and Charles Thomson were in the “Medway Poets” group, which also included Tracy Emin.
They are famous for their demonstrations outside the Turner Prize ceremony and their actions have prompted an investigation by Charities Commission which led to an official rebuke of the Tate Modern. In another example of Charles’ tireless assault on the art establishment he ran for election against Chris Smith, who was at the time Culture Secretary. We spoke to him about the Stuckists as a movement.
Tracy Emin, Charles Thomson and Billy Childish in 1987,
all of whom were members of the Medway Poets.
TTI: In this issue of the magazine we’re trying to understand why some people start creative movements. Presumably most artists will have some guiding philosophy, but more often than not they’re happy letting that philosophy take a back seat to their work. Other artists, like yourself, feel the need to define their philosophy and invite others to subscribe to it. Was it simply your passion to show the errors of the mainstream art world that drove you to found Stuckism? Did you feel that the public couldn’t view your work without the context of Stuckism, or was there another reason that you founded the movement?
CT: It started for the same reason most art movements in the modern era have started, namely that a bunch of artists with a common ethos and practice thought they had something better to offer than the establishment and set about trying to promote their work and ideas. The dominant mode in the art world now is based on Marcel Duchamp’s idea that anything can be art if the artist says it is. If you subscribe to that, you will be able to fit in with the mainstream network of galleries, dealers, collectors, museums and critics. If you don’t, you will be marginalised. We reject Duchamp’s philosophy of anti-art, which has not invigorated but enervated art; instead we posit values of art.
The career-minded automatically walk the walk and talk the talk, which is transgression for the sake of it, i.e. adolescence. They work within the art code, as Matthew Collings has termed it. He wrote in Art Review in December 2004:
“The drift in the art world for years has been to come up with pseudo-popular forms for formerly (that is, in the 1970s) genuinely elitist or obscure conceptual art contents. But you can’t get it wrong – wrong popular is punished with sneers. (Grayson) Perry is right popular like Tracey Emin; both are victims of abuse, use text, do multi-styles and are willing to be embarrassing in a controlled context where the codes of the conceptual academy are confirmed. (The Stuckists are of course wrong popular: they do the fourth thing but only the first half of it.)”
It’s quite a skilled job to get the nuance just right, but people know when you have and when you haven’t. Matthew seems to think the Stuckists are trying to get it right, but are incompetently getting it wrong, which is remarkably unperceptive of him. In fact we know full well how to get it right, but we don’t want to. We deliberately get it wrong by using the art world as the butt of the joke, instead of letting it in on the joke. This requires a lot more finesse than actually getting it right.
Stuckists demonstrating at the Turner Prize in 2003.
It would not be very difficult to fit into the art world. Billy Childish, the co-founder of Stuckism with me in 1999 (he left in 2001), was offered shows in the Britart arena, but he wasn’t interested. Richard Cork, fomer art critic of The Times and staunch advocate of the current establishment, told me he thought I was something of a conceptualist. In fact I was given a conceptual art award by the Birmingham-based proto-Mu group for the Stuckist demos against the Turner Prize outside Tate Britain, which we’ve now done for seven years. Billy and I used to joke that we should announce the whole of Stuckism was a piece of conceptual art. Then Stuckism would be accepted.
If you look at individual Stuckist artists’ work, a lot of it could sit quite happily in the Sensation exhibition alongside Britart. However, that would bring out a particular aspect of the work which is not the most important aspect. When the work is exhibited alongside other Stuckist work, then it is read in a different, more appropriate and more meaningful, way. So the bottom line is that I found it necessary to set up the right context for my work and for the work of artists I had collaborated with over the years. It was just a question of presentation and the name Stuckism fitted the bill nicely. The most important thing is the work we’re doing, which existed a decade before Britart. Attacking the mainstream art world just happens by default, but is not of itself particularly important, apart from the fact it has brought a lot of attention to bear on Stuckism.
Charles Thomson’s Studio.
TTI: You have a twin role as an artist and a campaigner. Do you see yourself more as one or the other?
CT: I have many roles. Those are two of them. The main one is as a human being. But if you ask me to choose between artist and campaigner, then I would see myself as the former, even though a lot of the time I am doing more of the latter, mainly because there’s no one else to do it otherwise.
TTI: In a way your expert promotional skills and ability to garner attention for the Stuckists are the same skills that made the YBAs so prominent. Is that a tension, or an unfortunate necessity?
You’re right: they are the same skills, and I would rather it didn’t have to be that way, but I didn’t make the rules, although I have familiarised myself with them. I give full credit to Charles Saatchi and Damien Hirst, who changed the rules into what they are now. Before them, there was a more natural progression for an artist and a greater generosity from more established figures genuinely helping younger talent. This is evidenced, for example, by Peter Blake and Alan Jones, both of whom came along to the opening of the Stuckism International Gallery in Shoreditch in 2002. Peter asked me to sign the Stuckists book I gave him, though I said I felt it should be the other way round! Vision shifted with Britart into the competitive and exclusive marketing of a commercial product. Of course there’s always been that element in art, but a balance between that and art for its own sake was broken. You can no longer rely on the worth of your work to see you through. It is the worth of your PR, which can equally well promote a genius or a baked potato. Personally, I don’t want to promote baked potatoes.
There is one major difference in the exposure achieved by the Stuckists and the YBAs (apart from the fact we only get a fraction of what they do), because they were promoted by an advertising multi-millionaire with worldwide connections, and we have had to do the job ourselves with minimal resources. If Stuckism had the same backing, then it would already have easily achieved the aim of replacing Britart in this country and changing art worldwide. Even so, there are now Stuckist groups all round the globe and we are studied in many colleges in this country and abroad. When Saatchi adopted our ideas and paraphrased our manifesto to promote painting – thereby turning into a Stuckist – I wrote to him and suggested a partnership, but I didn’t get a reply, which is a grave loss for him, as it would have ensured the historical recognition he desires. Britart certainly won’t, as he has realised himself now by divesting himself of it, as we recommended some years previously.
The Stuckist Book.
TTI: You make some bold statements about the future of Stuckism, notably that it is as important as the renaissance. One obvious difference between previous phases in art and Stuckism is that no one ever sat down and thought “I should start something called the renaissance”. Is Stuckism going to be the first major cultural shift to be orchestrated?
CT: A lot of people throughout history have been very conscious in their intent to launch a new impetus into the world. The history of modern art is one of people doing exactly that time after time, and it is the same in other fields with figures like Karl Marx, who at one time was a loner in the British Library with an idea or two – and look what happened as a result. Ideas form – and a change in them can therefore transform – our reality.
The Mediaeval period was world-denying in favour of an unseen theological existence, shown in its flat iconic images with no interest in simulating material reality. The Renaissance reacted the other way until it reached a scientic materialism that believed only in material reality. Stuckism, and its projection of a cultural period of Remodernism, proposes a holistic synthesis of these, so material and spiritual achieve integration. That is the big idea. It is one drawn from Kabbalah, amongst other sources, such as Jungian psychology with the notion of conscious and unconscious in a dialogue towards self-knowledge, which Jung termed individuation. New movements are brought about by a cumulation of historic forces, but certain individuals or groups are in a position to understand and articulate them publicly, which probably gives those people a bit more kudos than they really merit.
TTI: Do you think you romanticise the role of art? Money and religious imperatives have been motivations in much art that is considered great. The common thread of your manifestos seems to be art as honesty of expression. Has this ever been prevalent in art?
CT: Romanticism is the polarity of the equal delusion of classicism: it is only when they are brought together that you get resolution. Motivation is different to achievement and not necessarily relevant to it. Great art exists despite the mercenary aspects and religious dogma, not because of it, and has qualities that transcend the purported purpose. That element of honesty is at the core of any art worth having. If it’s not there, you can only have fantasy (aka fashion), which over time fails to engage or fulfil. In addition to financial and religious imperatives, you could list mythological imperatives, vanity, novelty etc., and again great art asserts itself despite all of this. The best model in Western art for today is the Post-Impressionist period. It was a point where certain limitations were removed (e.g. the camera replaced the need for art to depict the outer world realistically) and conflicting forces came into balance, since vision and communication had not yet degenerated into randomness and titillation. An integrity was achieved, to a certain extent by accident. Stuckism takes that on with a conscience intent, having seen, in the subsequent development of Modernism, how disasterous it can be if you don’t. That development has been a kaleidoscope of blind alleys, and the amount of people who have piled into them doesn’t change that reality.
Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision,
2000, painting by Charles Thomson.
TTI: Stuckists are not fans of the “postmodern”. Leaving aside the bullshit that’s written about it, one seemingly undeniable aspect of postmodernism is the death of mass culture. Isn’t this just a technological fact? Can Stuckism turn the clock back on postmodern communication methods such as the internet? Or are you primarily concerned with other aspects of postmodernism?
CT: Postmodernism is the inevitable consequence of the way Modernism developed, which was a series of idealistic extremes. Extremes contain their own inbuilt destruction, while idealism always leads to disillusionment and cynicism, the core of Postmodernism, which has seen too many visionary beliefs fail to be able to have one any more. All that is left is the instantly attainable, which is celebrity and commercial success, with a desperate need to neurotically and ironically recycle the ruins of the past as the only apparent recourse to avert futility. Remodernism sees what can be used positively from history, which Postmodernism doesn’t because it sees only the surface.
There is mass culture today in a way that has never existed in the world before. You can find Coca Cola and MacDonald’s everywhere, not to mention satellite TV and the World Cup. However, I don’t see this as Postmodernism. It is Popularism, which is the entertainment of the masses (I don’t intend this derogatively) as it has always existed throughout history. Postmodernism, like Modernist culture, has cut itself off from mainstream society and exists for an elite group. It has bypassed most people because it doesn’t relate to them and they don’t relate to it, except as an oddity and a joke. Their defence mechanisms are firmly and sensibly in place against assessing a rectangle of bricks as anything more significant than bricks in a rectangle, or a shark in a tank as anything other than a tank with a shark in it.
The internet has made the esotericism of Postmodernism even more irrelevant than it was already. Postmodernism’s brief unsavoury moment of minor importance has been outmoded by the democratisation of the popular voice on the world wide web. The internet is part of the Stuckist proposal of Remodernism with its honesty, communication and openness. Stuckism has no interest in turning any clock anywhere, backward or forwards. It has an interest in being now. The first Stuckist activity in 1999 was to set up a web site, thanks to the abilities of Ella Guru. Stuckism has spread, primarily through the web to over 160 groups in 40 countries, and Edward Lucie-Smith has deemed it the first art movement to spread via the internet. Saatchi’s use of the web marks a radical departure from his previous history of showing the backwater of the so-called “cutting edge”. His opening up the Saatchi Gallery web site to all who wish to display their work again follows the example of Stuckism, which has allowed any interested artists to form their own independent group. This is Remodernism, not Postmodernism. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that there can’t be a qualitative assessment of art. Everyone can be an artist, just as everyone can be a brain surgeon, but some people happen to do it better than others.
Punk Victorian Exhibition, Walker Art Gallery, for the 2004 Liverpool Biennial.
TTI: It seems to me that the kind of activity you are engaged in – having a manifesto as a context for your art – will be increasingly important when there is no “mainstream” culture (if you think that’s an important trend). Do you think artists will feel an increasing need to articulate their philosophy?
CT: Our real manifesto is the work. Unfortunately the art establishment has a very limited capacity to see things for what they are any more, having spent so long convincing themselves that things are something which they’re not, so we had to write a manifesto to make it plain to them they we do not agree with what they’re saying. There is no need for such a manifesto for the general public, who are quite capable of seeing things for what they are. We had a major show, The Stuckists Punk Victorian, at the Walker Art Gallery during the 2004 Liverpool Biennial. It was extended from two to five months and described by the museum as “a really, really popular show and very successful”. Good art speaks for itself, addresses human concerns shared by others, and communicates in a way that people can relate to. It also works on different levels, and I’m not saying everyone gets everything about it, although there is an intuitive connection nevertheless. Nor am I saying that everyone will like it or that such popularity is the only thing that counts, as there have been times in history when this has not happened. But I am saying it is a relevant consideration now.
interview by Jimmy Tidey