From “The Pharmaceutical Bestiary” show.
Stuckism was, and still is, far more than just an anti-conceptualist standpoint taken by a few artists, apparently ‘stuck’ using an ‘antiquated’ medium in a pseudo-naïve style. The timing of the rise of Stuckism coincided with the popular rise of the ultimately democratic medium of self-publicity, the internet, and consequently many people painting in this style from all over the world assign the name of ‘Stuckism’ to their work and broadcast it to the world without really understanding the reasons behind its foundation. Because of the apparent initial similarities of the very individual paint techniques practiced by those initially working under the banner of Stuckism, and no doubt also due to the fact that the group assigned themselves an ‘ism’ to work together under, the popular media and the general public interpreted the name in a similar manner to the countless other well known ‘ism’ art movements. The idea of Stuckism as a technique stuck.
What is key to the whole understanding of Stuckism is not the aesthetic sensibility of the work of the movement’s practitioners or even the manner in which it came to prominence, but the point in time that it came to prominence. Though I’d be loath to put the responsibility for anything as culturally wide scale as an art ‘movement’ or even ‘anti-movement’ on the shoulders of one individual I’ll maintain the Billy versus Tracey story as a convenience that people can relate too. Billy Childish and the originating Stuckists did not respond to the YBAs in an oppositional sense, and then start to paint in the way they did. The reasons that the Stuckist artists paint the way they do are the same reasons that many others, myself included, continued to paint through the nineties when the art education establishment was pushing the art party line that conceptualism was king. To use a now clichéd word, this return to figuration and paint was nothing more than an end of the century “zeitgeist”.
It was the obvious route to take if someone who wished to be perceived of as an artist, wanted to achieve that goal in the old-fashioned and empirical manner of comparative achievement of applied and accumulated efforts. What does that mean? Work basically. That is, the continual practice of technique, the continual exercise of self-editorial control and the continual development of patience in the face of producing work you may not be happy with. And of course, the decidedly undemocratic, un-postmodern belief that there may be such unfashionable, un-pc things as recognition of the western male dominated art history, the belief in the existence of innate talent and ability or, at the very least, the Romantic idealistic sensibility of the artist.
Before I get lynched please note that I only stated that the western male dominated art history should be recognized. I have never suggested that it should be the only history. Modernism and the movements that led to it are not without fault, but also, and importantly, that does not mean that they are not without some merit.
There are other ‘isms’ associated with Stuckism and on a personal basis at least, the reasons that I am happy to be associated with the Stuckist term is through one that I have attempted, in a small way, to champion – Neomodernism. I have been previously subject to attempted baiting by some critical halfwit asking which came first, Remodernism, Defastenism, Stuckism or Neomodernism. Needless to say I told them where to stick the question. I’m not in the ring to claim this or that ‘ism’ was first or second.
If these idiots posing as experts extended their analysis beyond the insightful puddle-like depths of tabloid journalism they would realize that this variety of cultural responses is the obvious outcome of any number of geographically diverse artists, bloody minded enough to shoot career aspirations through the foot; driven through frustration to the point where they will willingly bite the hand that most might prefer fed them. Once again – it is nothing more than the spirit of the times of those that hold a belief in the value of independent thought. It is artists refusing to accept that the commonly accepted notions of what constitutes art (figurative painting and sculpture) are dead.
Like Stuckism, Neomodernism is not a return to something that came before stylistically. It is an attempt to progress art from its current moribund obsession with pseudo-intellectual analyses – but with reference to all art history. It is a celebration of creative spirit over academic, politically correct desiccation. It is a renaissance of that old art battle ground where the Romantics take on the Classicists.
Anybody involved with the art world will be aware of the term Modernism when taken in the Greenbergian sense. Like any other history it was extremely selective and exclusive and because of this, not despite it, as it was usually taken in the last thirty years, it opened up the cultural debate to other important avenues that were equally dogmatic in the hands of their academic champions. Feminist art, black art, queer art; the list goes on.
In my opinion (a phrase you rarely hear from the defenders and maintainers of the current hegemony) the work I consider most likely to stand the test of the time is that which is grounded in applied effort, application of craft and workmanship and celebration of the values of art established generally, though not exclusively, over the last six centuries. An art that a public audience can engage with, without being told pre-emptively what to think about it or how to correctly interpret it.
I am sure that the current artistic vanguard will be seen in the future art histories as a ‘blip’ – perhaps (if today’s cultural history makers are lucky) even an interesting blip. With the applied perspective of the distance of time and when viewed by a general public not subject to the current critical bullying; when the current raft of people who call themselves artists are viewed in the context of artists before and after, I am sure that those currently outside of the chosen establishment circle will be vindicated in their rejection of current supposed valid contemporary practice.
I also maintain another difference of critical definition that some refuse to accept. And even though it may only be a matter of semantics I think it is a characterization that adds lucidity to understanding not only the current art world politics, but those that preceded it. That is the difference between the vanguard and the avant-garde. The vanguard is the established order; the avant-garde is the challenging unorthodoxy. The current British conceptual and installation art driven establishment cannot by definition be the avant-garde. It is in fact the old Classical orthodoxy itself, pompously declaring intellectual superiority and authority over any art that cannot be assimilated.
The return to an aesthetic and medium that the public recognize will be championed by the new Romantics, the Stuckist avant-garde. Whether the current art establishment likes it or not.
Art history is littered with episodes of challenge to the established cultural order and of course, that is the way it should be. The only way an artist can justify their practice as being relevant to its audience is to push forward down different roads to those currently in the mainstream, engaging the viewing public with fresh interpretations of the one constant subject of art. Not art itself (one of the current curatorial clichés) but humanity, even if that means re-investigating previously utilized media, subject matter or critical sensibilities.
There is little difference between the last great culturally fascistic order (the nineteenth century European art academies) and that which now holds sway. Allegedly they differ because the work that challenged the old academy is the foundation of what stands now – as if all that preceded is absolutely irrelevant. A very selective and convenient history.
The reason that Modernism took hold critically as well as in the mind of the public was twofold. Firstly the new work bore direct relevance for a western world audience that was in the grip of rapid industrialization, urbanisation and mechanized warfare. But, secondly, I would suggest that what was more significant to the old European academic fall from grace was its relative cultural parochialism outside of the western nation’s capitals. Today’s cultural empire, despite protestations of being inclusive, is just as exclusive. There might be the occasional loudly celebrated trumpeting of ‘new’ aesthetic sensibilities (Australian aboriginal art and the current commercial obsession with contemporary Chinese work are prime examples), but these are rarely inclusive beyond their being the latest fashionable item for the wealthy art cognoscenti to accommodate in their collections. They are, shamefully, the cultural equivalent to the whinging middle class liberal of old loudly proclaiming ‘Look at me, some of my best friends are black’.
When it comes to the larger, global art arena we are still in thrall to a few private and public collections, despite the huge wealth of variety around the world. The A list supports a few favoured biennales, world shows and of course a few select ‘competitions’, of which the Turner is perhaps the best known here, demonstrating that nothing has changed relatively in terms of real inclusivity.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the time of the Impressionists and the time of the Stuckists is the current insidiously pervasive nature of global media. Today this is a lazy media that no longer even bothers to seek out its source material. Why should it waste its time, money and effort if its agents, the arts journalists, need only to stay in the office to be spoon-fed by galleries and promoters of whoever or whatever will be the next big thing. Why should they challenge a critical discourse that even they, masters of language and the written word, cannot fully fathom? Are the general public going to challenge the accepted wisdom if even the art media doesn’t?
Is Modernism dead? Yes – of course it is. High Modernism, Greenbergian Modernism, Formalism whatever you want to call it, is dead. It moved from the radical American painterly investigations of medium (and occasionally spirituality) in the 1950s into the bargain print section of B&Q and IKEA. But similarly the intellectual and nihilistic posturing of Duchamp is equally dead and irrelevant. It was an interesting philosophical exercise, tied to the uncertainties and horrors of its time, a time that is nearly a century past. Like the musically opposed excesses of prog-rock and punk, we have had our artistic extremes of excessive introspection and even more excessive anti-art nihilism. Now it is time to move on, looking to the past art histories with respect, and working their lessons into future work without falling victim to the current incessant obsession with novelty.
I am not opposed to conceptual art. I have seen installations that have moved me to real joy – but this is a distinct rarity. What I am opposed to is the current glut of deliberately obscure work disguising a paucity of talent – which is usually the case with what is today considered ‘conceptual art’. I would argue that all art should be ‘conceptual’. The arguments usually used against figurative painting work both ways. If a painter, disassociated from the work, produces nothing more than illustration or decoration then an installation or assemblage, if produced with equal lack of integrity, is probably no more than land-fill with a wall label.
My ego and id is inextricably bound up in every piece of finished work I produce; my work is both conceptual and primal. This is not a stance I have formulated. This is the position of most painters that I know. On a personal level painting is the medium of self-discovery. I don’t want my practice to interminably ‘investigate art itself’. I want an art that is honest, personal and capable of communicating to the viewer. Art that investigates art is no longer art that can engage interest, except to students of art critical theory or art history. Who in their right mind would want to produce work for such a small audience? Unless of course they are only doing it to achieve immediate critical success amongst those who they know hold the key to their being recognised as serious contenders for entry into the pantheon of art history.
I am fed up reading reviews of exhibitions that simultaneously say the same and yet say nothing. Reviews that celebrate the conceptual significance of a twenty-something year old’s installation. Recently graduated art students are not philosophers. They do not have the intellectual discipline. Believe me – I have spent time talking with published practitioners of philosophy whose capacity for thorough and organised analysis astounds, impresses and occasionally frightens me. I’ve talked to recent Fine Art graduates too – graduates that inevitably know the market more thoroughly than the history; this has had the occasion to frighten me, but certainly not astound or impress.
Painting pictures is important. People outside of the art world understand it without great tracts of explanation. That is its problem for the art critical industry – figurative painting and sculpture undermines their supposed intellectual authority and allows the public audience to engage without their mediation. It is this that Stuckism is about – the celebration of a truly democratic and inclusive art. Consequently this also means acting occasionally as a more confrontational campaigning body. Along with the Stuckists I too maintain that the critical and curatorial fraternities can shove the Turner Prize and its like up their arses. It’s no different than the other national gongs like knighthoods and MBEs. We don’t need the spurious stamp of acceptance gained by the judgements of a few individuals with vested interests acting in the egomaniacal notion that they can arbitrate the taste of nation. When a student contacts me out of interest in my working methods, or an individual on low wages is willing to pay for a painting in monthly instalments over a period of years, or praise for my work comes from another painter – that is when I feel justified in my choice of working direction.
The most important aspect of the Stuckist manifesto is the one that’s usually ignored – that Stuckism is an international non-movement. This is why it can be associated with Defastenism, Remodernism and Neomodernism. The Stuckist manifestos were good in bringing to the fore a challenge that was noticed and comprehensible to the public. They can be read, understood and be found refreshing and honest.
Unfortunately the manifesto is a point of reference for journalists, critics and historians to be able to accredit the ‘movement’ without having to apply any level of effort in personal analysis, but the manifesto in relation to the wider movement is unimportant. The important aspect is that there is a genuine avant-garde (who just happen to champion craft, application of effort and art that communicates outside of the arena of established fine art criticism) who are willing to challenge a vanguard that hang onto the coat tails of an art theory that is nearly a century old.
On a personal note, when first becoming aware of the Stuckists, certain aspects of their manifesto made me realise that I wasn’t the only person feeling the same way. I’m not a Stuckist painter. I’m not a Neomodernist painter. I’m just a painter. Their manifesto was penned in October 1998 – the Stuckists were painters before they were called Stuckists.
So you see – Stuckism is so much more than a style, medium or technique. Stuckism is a vital challenge to an arrogant art elite, based like the old academies, on financial interests. Stuckism, like Neomodernism or Defastenism or a hundred other ‘isms’ is only a convenience for people’s comprehension of aspects of the cultural world that they really don’t have the time to examine themselves – oh and lazy journalists.