Charles Thomson On Stuckism
Put that light out! Don’t you know there’s a war on: a war against Postmoderism, a war against the capitalist exploitation of a nation’s profound ability - a war against the fundamental financial restrictions being heaped upon the UK’s future art talent like a blizzard of ASBOs hurled at a coach party of youth club members from a deprived area of the Potteries.
Kill Bill? First we’ve got to get Charles Saatchi, Nicolas Serota & Sarah Kent! Kent, art critic for Time Out, famously dismissed the Stuckists as ‘vociferous opportunists – a bunch of Bayswater Road-style daubers. Are you sure that’s how you spell ‘Kent’?
Nat Shooter caught up with one of ‘the few’ fighting any serious kind of rearguard action – leader of the Stuckist International – Mr Charles Thomson.
trakMARX - How did the Medway poets group form?
It just happened organically as people got drawn together in various poetry readings in Maidstone (from 1976) and Chatham. Bill Lewis and Rob Earl organised Outcrowd in Maidstone. Alan Denman, a tutor at Medway College, organised poetry readings at the York Pub in Chatham. We formalised the name in 1979.
trakMARX - To what extent did the early poetry readings in Kent work as a basis for the full on battle with the art establishment?
It was the foundation for what we are doing now. The core of the Stuckists met then. We formed a strong (even if at times contentious) bond, and evolved ideas and modes of art in different media – poetry, painting, music.
trakMARX - Were many of the ideals (now laid out in the Stuckist manifestos), such as the focus on spirituality and the importance of being artistically genuine, present in the early days of the Medway poets?
It all comes from that, but has been refined over the years. Same ethos.
trakMARX - How did you come about meeting Mr Billy Childish?
I met him at a poetry reading in the York. He was reading when I arrived. I think he heckled me and I heckled back.
trakMARX - Whose initial idea was it to form the Stuckist group?
Mine. Billy already had Group Hangman in existence, and I had an embryonic group, but needed a name for it. I found the name and it seemed obvious to ask Billy if he wanted to join forces, which I did in his kitchen in Chatham prior to a poetry reading that evening 29 Jan 1999.
trakMARX - The moniker of the group 'stuck' after Tracy Emin (Childish's ex-girlfriend) insulted his work: 'Your paintings are stuck, stuck, stuck - you are stuck!'. Although Miss Emin has not done so badly out of Stuckism (using it paradoxically to further her career, whilst stealing a hell of a lot of ideas along the way) would it be fair to say you've played the Emin card with a knowledge that it'd roll in the publicity?
First the insult to Billy, then his poem recording it, then (few years later) my coining of the term. Tracey benefited hugely from the Medway Poets and Billy Childish in particular. Her first book Six Turkish Tales in the eighties was edited by Bill Lewis, published by Billy Childish and printed by me. Then she disowned it all. She owed a debt which she wasn’t paying. I am happy to collect that debt. The Emin card was very conscious indeed. But it was only the sort of thing that had been happening all along – it used to be Alan Denman or poet Richard Burns (or me or Bill Lewis) who got satirised. Occasionally Billy did, but he objected to it even more than I did.
trakMARX - Emin was involved in the Medway poets, did she have any kind of central role or influence over the group earlier on (or was she too busy
You must be joking. She was green behind the ears, 18 years old, obsessed with Billy and copying everything he did. I always did – and still do – consider her the least talented member of the entourage. She wasn’t even a member of the Medway Poets anyway, but she was featured in readings here and there, as everything could be a bit of a free-for-all. I always recognised she had charisma.
trakMARX - Criticism is often directed at Emin, more so than other YBA's.
That’s not true. That’s just how it is perceived. I analysed this for an interview for 3AM web mag.
We didn’t even do a Turner Prize demo the year she was nominated.
trakMARX – Is there still resentment towards her amongst the original group members for being unable to resist the celebrity and cash?
I don’t think there was ever ‘resentment’ for that, only a sense of injustice that someone had taken so much and returned so little. I think people feel sorry for her, because she’s so messed up.
trakMARX - Has she betrayed the group and gone against the ideals she supposedly shared at the beginning?
I think she benefited from the ideals, but they weren’t her ideals in the first place. We were all (a) ambitious and (b) wanted artistic integrity. But what is the bottom line? With Trace it was (a). With everyone else it was (b).
trakMARX - Has Stella Vine's Stuckist profile altered since being swallowed by the Saatchi machine?
She’s still doing Stuckist paintings, if that’s what you mean! But then they were done prior to Saatchi. This is analysed on www.stuckism.com She is completely paradoxical, dissing my ideas and worshipping Billy’s, yet Billy and I agree we have the same ideas. One begins to suspect something personal is creeping in here, as I was married to her & he wasn’t.
trakMARX - The rotten stench of modern art is now overpowering, it has become predictable meaningless crap. At what point (along the ugly road) did you decide that things needed to change?
Oh, when I was at art college – Thurrock Tech Foundation (1973-75) and Maidstone College of Art (1975-79) – I was the only person in ten years to fail the degree.
trakMARX - What are your main concerns with regards to postmodernism and its effect on the future of art and society in general?
The cynicism and irony that only holds celebrity and commercialism as its gods. That can’t be a good thing.
trakMARX - The Stuckists have attacked many of the financially dominant, gallery-owning figures of the art world. Why?
For their philosophies.
Have you had any further response to your open letter, beyond the rather lacking 'No comment', from the high and mighty Nicholas Serota (director of Tate Modern)?
Director of Tate Modern, officially. He was the only person who’s ever responded directly. At least he acknowledged our existence.
trakMARX - Surely nobody actually falls for a pickled sheep, a pile of bricks and some pornographic vases.
Oh yes they do – critics, curators, gallerists, art judges, etc. Actually Ella Guru thinks the vases are Stuckist. I think they’re nice vases but conventional, but then I do have conventional taste in vases.
trakMARX - Do you believe the public have been well and truly conned by all the intellectualised bullshit surrounding these laughable offerings to the art world?
The public don’t believe it for a minute. I know, because even the people who pay to view the Turner Prize come out and support our anti-Turner Prize demo. Even most of the people who go into the exclusive art celeb dinner for the award of the prize encourage us!
trakMARX - It seems modern art is about social commentary.
No, no, no, no, no. It’s about artists up their own arse.
trakMARX - BritArt does this, dirtily so, whilst not so much commenting on our culture as participating in it. Hirst et al seem to perfectly sum up society’s materialistic obsessions: money grabbing tendencies, stupid social orders and inability to be real (basically we're failing in every way possible). Could the ideals of Stuckism influence society beneficially?
They could, because people have an inner drive to integrity of the soul. If they don’t connect with that, their lives are impaired through lack of real satisfaction, knowledge and meaning, which can lead to not only emotional but also physical dis-ease. We all need a bit of encouragement and role models.
trakMARX - Do you see Stucksim as an inevitable response to a tired (movement) in the same way the stale art of the time was replaced by Dadaism?
Yep, historically inevitable.
trakMARX - Postmodernism has had art pickled in a jar for a hell of a long time. The same idea has by now been well and truly sucked dry. Is one of the reasons for Stuckism's existence simply the boredom of seeing the Brit-pack still on central stage?
The ethos existed in the Medway Poets and was relaunched as Stuckism specifically to address the contemporary situation with the emphasis on visual art this time round. Not boredom, more like disgust.
trakMARX - Stuckism is now recognised as an International art movement. Your manifestos have clearly 'struck a chord' with many. Surely these groups already existed in some form or other prior to Stuckism (except without a decent PR
representative and a written manifesto)?
That’s right. Sometimes groups existed and sometimes individuals. They get in touch and tell us they already have that understanding. We provide a rallying point. Strength-in-numbers. That is what the establishment has. Now we have a grassroots movement, started and promoted by artists.
trakMARX - Would you say there's a shared style and painting technique within the Stuckist group or are there 'no boundaries'?
Definitely not a style. There are people painting in the whole spectrum of styles and painting techniques. What is ‘in common’ is the honesty to emotion, experience and self, and the directness of communication. This comes from the strength and integrity of the individual artists.
trakMARX - Being against the elitism of modern art per se, does this make Stuckism the only alternative for 'everyman/woman'?
I doubt it, but it is the most visible and is leading the way.
trakMARX - In ending the elitism of present modern art and lifting the boundaries currently there for many people, how do you draw the line to prevent a world full of artists and empty galleries?
There is no danger of that. You have to work at art like everything else to do it well.
trakMARX - How is Stuckism 'spiritual'?
Because it advocates values that are to do with inner reality and life, and not just to do with material success, though it doesn’t deny the latter either. A holistic approach is to join heaven and earth, with each part taking its proper place in the whole – the Buddhist Middle Path, the Central Column of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Tao.
trakMARX - Is technical ability important (if an artist is 'spiritually sorted')?
Oh yes. You can be spiritual and not a good artist. But ability without spirit (and soul) is barren.
trakMARX - Do you believe everybody has the potential to become an artist?
Does everyone have the ability to be everything – a gardener, an athlete, a brain surgeon? Maybe, but some things are right for people and not others.
trakMARX - Many of the Stuckists have revealed a lot about their background. How do you distinguish between simply being honest and open and playing on it for success (as Emin has been accused of doing)?
Again, everything in its proper place and in proportion. We’re not prissy about things, but we do want to be honest about what we’re doing. It’s a question of what you are really doing and knowing the truth of that. Celebrity has its place to celebrate something worth celebrating. So you play on something for success. Fine. When you’re successful, then what do you do with it? That’s the key point. It would be better if people became successful because they’d achieved something worthwhile, but that isn’t how things work in society at the moment, unfortunately. I have had to draw attention to the art through other means, eg clown demos.
trakMARX - If Stuckism is against the cult of the ego-artist, then wouldn't it make more sense to remain anonymous?
The ‘cult of the ego-artist’ is that the ego is the main thing going and not the art. Let’s face it, you have to have some kind of ego need to draw attention to your art in the first place or you’d be in a cave. Anonymity wouldn’t be a benefit to society. We’re not puritans. We’re just trying to be real about things.
trakMARX - Is there not a fear of the
manifestos overshadowing the actual art?
Que sera. I am confident in the art and the manifestos both doing their specific jobs.
trakMARX - Or the Stuckists being held up as
individual celebrity figures?
I hope they are. They have got something to say and need a platform to do it from. I’d rather have Billy Childish or Bill Lewis on that platform than Damien Hirst (or even Stella Vine, though she’s ten times better than Hirst).
trakMARX - It's difficult to know whether Stuckism is an artistic movement or simply an attack against post-modernism.
Not for me it’s not. It is there as a stand-alone manifestation of irrepressible creative force.
trakMARX - Is it more important to you (and
Stuckism) to bring down Brit-art or to go on creating?
The two things work in tandem for me. I can’t hide away in my studio and ignore what’s going on outside, nor can I deal with all this art political stuff without connecting with my own creativity en route. Most of the Stuckists can’t be bothered to spend time fighting Britart. They just go on creating.
trakMARX - Whilst the approach in opposing Brit-art may well be radical (with clown demonstrations, protests outside the Turner Prize awards ceremony, mockingly titled exhibitions of 'the real turner prize' and taking Serota and Saatchi on), would you describe the traditionalist ideas Stuckism is striving to bring into art as a push towards neo-conservatism?
If you’re coming from the self you integrate tradition and innovation. If you are an imbalanced person you will think a balanced person to be extreme - a neophiliac (addict of the new) – will see a balanced person as reactionary. But extreme positions always generate their opposite. Someone who believes in absolute freedom cannot tolerate any challenge to this – then they become dictatorial, which contradicts their philosophy because it contained that inherent flaw all along. There are no absolutes in that sense.
trakMARX - You failed the art degree course at Maidstone Art college, why was that?
Because I was an artist, which is what the tutors told us to be when we first arrived, but they didn’t really mean it.
trakMARX - Do you think that rejection early on helped shape your dislike of the art school structure and pushed you towards the ideals of Stuckism?
It was the other way round. My ideals led to a dislike of the art school structure and hence I was rejected.
trakMARX - Who would you say are the main influences on your art?
Japanese woodblock prints, via Van Gogh, German Expressionism (Die Brucke – Kirchner, Schmitt Rotluff – Max Beckman) and a guy at Maidstone College called Steve Maughan who did punk art with a biro.
trakMARX - How has Kabbalah influenced your style, and contributed to the ideologies of Stuckism?
This is a bloody long series of questions. OK, Kabbalistic understanding of three levels or worlds – material, emotional and spiritual. I want to paint the world with a synthesis of those. Also, the path of honesty from ego to self. That is key and informs what I do – an attempt to be honest, what Billy calls uncensored, I believe.
Stuckist ideology is a synthesis of Buddhism via Billy and Kabbalah via me, transposed through our own experiences and understanding.
trakMARX - When you say your paintings are taken from real life, does that mean you lift up the simple everyday experience?
I guess so. Painting takes me to a meditative kind of state where the mundane, the emotional and the spiritual coalesce.
trakMARX - Do you want recognition and acceptance from the art world and the wider public or are you anti-success?
I would like recognition and acceptance, but first of all I have to give it to myself and that is the most important thing of all to achieve – which I have. I can live without it on wider scale if that is where my path goes, or deal with it if it comes. I’m for ‘success’, as you put it, but not merely material success. That, on its own, would not be at all fulfilling. The best success is doing a painting that you love.
trakMARX - You say you 'don't like Pop Art on the whole because I find it uses the cartoon style in a mechanical soul-less fashion'. Surely your art work with its 2D flat painting and bold colours uses the same techniques. Is it just the manifestos behind them that differ?
You’ve answered that in your quote from me: I 'don't like Pop Art on the whole because I find it uses the cartoon style in a mechanical soul-less fashion'. I want to use the style in a meaningful way, as one finds with, for example, Hiroshige, Hokusai, Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, SP Howarth, Wolf Howard and so on.
trakMARX - A number of Stuckists have been heavily involved in music (Billy Childish, Sexton Ming) have you been been mixed up in any bands, performances or records since the early Medway poets performances?
I was in a poetry band called ‘Heads on Springs’ with James Armstrong, Steve Coots and Jane Hanley for a while. I was a full-time poet for thirteen years from 1987 and did performances with a synthesiser. I gave up visual art for fifteen years and returned to it in 1997.
trakMARX - You've written a number of poetry books, and were at one point a children's poet. Are you still writing poetry?
Yes, but not much due to lack of time and having become a bit jaded with it. It’s on the back-burner. I wrote some about Stella (Vine) which are pretty near the bone, during and after our relationship and marriage. SP Howarth, who is a poet as well as a Stuckist artist, said he thought one of them was the best love poem he’d ever heard, or something like that, but then he is a horny individual. I’m not even going to tell you the title of it.
We’ve had performances by the Stuckist poets (not a formal group), which consisted of over half the artists in the group. They’re not just amateur, flimsy poets. They’re as full-on and powerful with that as they are with everything else. They’re an amazing, dynamic and talented bunch of people. It’s incredible to get them all together like this. Just one on their own could easily stand out as a significant figure in the arts.
trakMARX - Does your poetry focus on the same things important to you in painting?
Yes, but you’ve got to take into account the differing developments of each genre, which also create demands when you’re working within it. I find it easier to express balance in the visual. Poetry seems to demand more of an attitude to make it successful.
trakMARX - There seems to be a major lack of media attention surrounding Stuckism, considering the size of the movement. Have you had much coverage from art zines or are they siding with the Brit kids?
Ho ho ho. We get coverage from news journalists, but not art critics. We’re still waiting for our first review from an art critic in one of the four ‘serious’ national papers. Only one has even mentioned our existence (Adrian Searle in The Guardian), but we did get a review in The Financial Times. The only art zine that’s mentioned us is Art Review. As far as the rest go, we don’t exist. It’s all fashion and fear. No guts in the art world.
trakMARX - There've been a number of exhibitions of Stuckist work across Britain. How have the shows been received by the public?
At Folkestone 2000 the visitors book was full of scatological remarks. Wednesbury (near Birmingham) 2003 it was full of delirious praise. In between there has been a generally good response, people finding the work refreshing and accessible.
trakMARX - In the Stuckist manifesto one of the dislikes of modern art is 'the sterility of the white wall gallery system'. Have there been many Stuckist exhibitions in alternative surroundings which stray from the mundane white box?
Not till Stuckism International opened in Shoreditch, London, with, upstairs, bare brick and maroon walls and, downstairs, deep green walls. Wednesbury Museum was good – classic Victorian environment. The Walker Gallery in Liverpool is hoping to change the white walls for us for our show there in September for the Biennial.
trakMARX - Stuckism has been pretty much overlooked by the Tates – the supposed ambassadors of new art. Is this a result of the public denouncing of Serota and Tate art demonstrations?
We’re not offering any prizes for the correct answer to that question.
trakMARX - If you had an exhibition offer would you take it up?
Definitely. We should be in there. The Sunday Times asked the Tate why we weren’t represented. Apparently they have a limited acquisitions budget. Limited to the £700,000 purchase of thirty-one basalt blocks supplied by Joseph Beuys, that is. For that money they could have purchased an entire worldwide art movement overnight – but not for long I think.
trakMARX - Where the Tate has failed, the Liverpool National Walker Gallery is stepping in with 'The Stuckists Punk Victorian Exhibition' (plug: 18th Sept – 26th November).
Yes, it’s brilliant, and the people there are full-on.
trakMARX - Who’s showing, and what does it involve?
The structure of the Stuckist movement is independent Stuckist groups that form a network. They are all autonomous, entitled to their own interpretation and initiatives. Likewise I am entitled to mine. If another group wants to put in the work, they can open up a Centre, get shows and curate things to their taste. Some have done – for example Melbourne, New Haven (US), Lewenhagen (Germany), Brighton, Newcastle, Maidstone and a travelling show from Kentucky.
I am curating the Walker show in liaison with Ann Bukantas, the Fine Art Curator there, and it will be an extension of what I am doing in the Stuckism International Gallery. There are around fifteen main artists I choose to highlight, centred around the original London group, but every group will be invited to have at least one work on display to represent the diversity and breadth of the movement. Ann is quite keen to have this international aspect. Some of the past Stuckist shows I’ve arranged have also represented international groups.
trakMARX - The anti-establishment views and DIY ethos of Stuckism have much in common with Punk Rock. Is much influence taken from it?
Yes, and from the sixties underground culture. Punk was the starting point for the Medway Poets fused with a bit of Montmartre.
trakMARX - Everyone's ready to jump on the next populist bandwagon – people are drawn in by the now manufactured idea of revolution, it's 'cool' to be anti. Are you not worried that in the same way many people are attracted to the anti-establishment views of the establishment, that you'll get people attaching themselves to Stuckism simply because it rolls off a long list of anti's (anti-anti art, anti-BritArt, anti-conceptual, anti-establishment, anti-emin, anti-pickled sheep - and so on...)?
No point worrying about everything – you’d never do anything. I think you’ve got to be true to what you believe in and act from the best motivations. The outcome is out of one’s control. Even if people are attracted to Stuckism for the ‘wrong’ motivations, hopefully they will pick up something worthwhile nevertheless.
trakMARX – Is Stuckism pushing to revert back to painting styles and techniques of old?
Not exactly. Just painting. In fact, really, just honesty and reality and seeing things for what they really are.
trakMARX - Are you anti-progression?
People rarely read what we write. They read what they think we write, in a mental knee-jerk reaction. The last point of the Stuckist manifesto reads:
'Stuckism embraces all that it denounces. We only denounce that which stops at the starting point Stuckism starts at the stopping point!'
In the Middle Way, progression and reaction are male and female, yang and yin; and out of their interaction becomes a third element of creative unification. The West mistakenly equates progression with the whole and as a goal in itself, seeing reaction as undesirable. Jung’s model of progress was a spiral going into the Centre – sometimes you appear to be going backwards compared with your previous direction of travel.
trakMARX - If the way forwards in art is backwards then where do we go from here?
That was a neat link into your question above. Reculer pour mieux avancer. The Renaissance was going backwards to classical times. Organic vegetables are going backwards to what always used to be called vegetables before we had chemicalised vegetables. You can never go truly backwards, but you can integrate something valuable from the past, which has been lost, into the present. If you’re on a journey through a town and you find you’ve driven down a cul-de-sac you have to drive out of it and get back on the road you’ve just left to continue the journey – but the next time you do that journey you will know better. Art is in a cul-de-sac at the moment. The Stuckists have been down there and we’re back on the journey again.
trakMARX - You're up against money, power and (effectively) the government (Serota being paid with public money and all).
So’s the Walker – it’s government-funded and has the same status and system of trustees as the Tate. And judging by present behaviour it deserves it rather more than the Tate. Two cheers for democracy (who said that?).
trakMARX - Do you think Stuckism is likely to bring down Brit-art, transform a whole establishment way of thinking and change the direction of future art?
History will do that inevitably. Stuckism’s just a channel for that force. Someone said that a new scientific theory wins the day not by converting its opponents, but because they die off and a new generation grows up differently. It’s maybe significant that the established zines ignore us, but new ones have no problem about giving us space, eg Wideshut (8 page feature) and Rant, both from the Manchester area – and your good selves for that matter.
My agenda for Stuckism has always been to replace Britart in this country (replacing Damien Hirst with Philip Absolon) and to change art worldwide. We have that strength and capacity because we draw from a foundation that is much greater than we are.
Stuckism International Gallery,
3 Charlotte Road,
Tel: 020 7613 0988
There are over 80 Stuckist groups and 6 Centres worldwide. Stuckism: it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it.
Natalie Shooter – tMx 14 – 04/04