Charles Thomson “Top Hat”
The Stuckist is not a career artist but rather an amateur (amare, Latin, to love) who takes risks on the canvas rather than hiding behind ready-made objects (e.g. a dead sheep). The amateur, far from being second to the professional, is at the forefront of experimentation, unencumbered by the need to be seen as infallible. Leaps of human endeavour are made by the intrepid individual, because he/she does not have to protect their status. Unlike the professional, the Stuckist is not afraid to fail.
-Billy Childish and Charles Thomson, The Stuckist Manifesto
In October, the international art movement Stuckism will be the subject of a significant exhibit at the University of Kent, Canterbury England.
It’s not easy to gain such institutional recognition when a large part of your reputation comes from directly challenging the pretensions and presumptions of the arts establishment, instead of conforming to their elitist notions of socially acceptable targets. And yet, over fifteen years after the first group was founded, Stuckism is gaining a grudging acknowledgement as a relevant and historic part of the ongoing continuum of art.
In 1999 London was arguably the art capital of the world, and there was sensational hype around Conceptual art: the idea that an idea was all that mattered, and the more off putting the idea was, the better. Conceptual artists mostly aren’t talented enough to create their own art, which is farmed out to technicians and craftsmen. The main functions Conceptual artists fulfill is to act as loutish PR agents for their own awesomeness, suck up to high roller investors, and enact the exhausted and hollow rituals of shocking the bourgeois. They are enabled in these charades by a compliant media, the thoroughly compromised academy, corrupted cultural institutions, and ignorant, trophy hunting tycoons. In the Post Modern age, admittance to the New Class aristocracy of the well connected requires capitulation to their nihilistic and decadent world view, in addition to the usual grovelling and throne sniffing. The results of all this collusion are hideous.
But confronted by this festering pit of cultural suicide, some chose to articulate the promptings from the still, small voice inside. The voice that pointed out art is not about money, power and celebrity. Art is about seeking integrity, accepting responsibility for our own struggles for personal growth, and sharing that process so others can see. Art is a tool for communication and connection, and to treat it as an exclusive toy for an arrogant ruling class is an insult to humanity.
Such ideas led to the founding of Stuckism, codified in a manifesto written by two English creatives, Billy Childish and Charles Thomson. The first group exhibit of these independent artists was held in September 1999. Since then, over 230 Stuckist groups have been established in 52 countries all around the world.
Stuckism made a splash by embracing the kind of urgent, expressive figurative painting considered unfashionable at the time by art world technocrats. There’s not one set style of Stuckism; it’s more a matter of motivation. Instead of aiming to create slick commodities, a Stuckist is more concerned with trying to trying to honestly engage with the process of creation, making both mistakes and discoveries along the way.
Childish and Thomson took their ideas a step further in the Remodernism manifesto. There they identified the elite have broken their credibility by favoring materialistic, relativistic Post Modern thought. The neglect of the spiritual nature of life is corrected by recognizing the experimental nature of Modern art as an expression of the soul.
Like Groucho Marx, another infamous mustached iconoclast, Childish wouldn’t be a part of any club that would have him as a member. Billy soon left the group that he helped to define, although he continues to paint, with increasing success. He now describes himself as “an armchair Stuckist;” while he appreciates the ideas, the tasks involved in organizing and maintaining a global network of artists aren’t for him.
However, his co-founder Charles Thomson has remained committed to providing a structure in which idealistic artists can operate and network. Since starting Stuckism, Thomson has continued to perform as an arts activist and advocate. He writes, speaks, protests and critiques, as well as creating his own Cloisonnism inspired paintings; his most recent solo exhibit is being held this fall in Prague. His efforts have provided a much needed perspective on the dysfunctional establishment art world.
I was honored to be asked to take part in the Kent exhibit, and wanted to take the opportunity to find out more about Charles Thomson’s thoughts on the past, present and future of the arts and culture. We completed the following interview in email exchanges.
How did you initially get involved in the visual arts?
Charles Thomson: I did a coloured crayon drawing of my teddy bear and sold it to my grandfather for a penny. I was about five at the time. It’s carried on from there. I have – with occasional lapses – always been involved in a creative field, poetry or painting.
How did you come to found the Stuckist movement?
CT: It was a vehicle to promote a group of artists who paint contemporary pictures with ideas, emotion and meaning, as opposed to exhibiting a dead shark and calling it art (whereas most of the rest of the world calls it a dead shark). I had the idea for the group and co-founded it in 1999 with Billy Childish (who left after a couple of years).
Why do you think it has gained such an international following?
CT: It embodies the values that a lot of artists have, but who find themselves sidelined by a Postmodern ethos that puts celebrity, cynicism and commerce above any spiritual or deeper human values.
What makes an artist a Stuckist?
CT: They appoint themselves, in the same way that people became Impressionists or Surrealists etc.
You collaborated on two major manifestos: Stuckism and Remodernism. The Stuckist Manifesto directly addresses the mismanagement and excesses of the contemporary establishment art world. The Remodernist Manifesto evokes a larger social context with vast implications. It provides a positive alternative to the sophistry and manipulations of the Post Modern mindset so prevalent among cultural elitists. How did the writings of these two works develop?
CT: With great difficulty. It’s not too difficult to know what your values are. It’s a lot harder to express them. It’s harder still to express them in a meaningful and memorable way. That last part was quite an ordeal. Fortunately both Billy Childish (with whom I co-wrote the manifestos) and I had worked for many years in writing and poetry, so we had a lot of verbal resources to draw on.
Another issue was that Billy and I came from very different directions. I would say that he was rhetorical and I was analytical. The meshing of these approaches was very trying at times, but ultimately very rewarding.
Why do you think the cultural elites advocate such dysfunctional art?
CT: Because they are dysfunctional elites, cultural in professed aspiration but driven by a realpolitik of kudos and cash.
The arts and media elites reacted with hostility when the Stuckists were founded. But now it seems whenever the press wants a comment on the latest conceptual art outrage they seek you out. What has your relationship been like with the establishment cultural industries? Has there been any change through the years?
CT: The situation has not substantially changed. In the UK, the press in particular – and the media in general – is divided into two sections, namely art criticism/review and art news, the former mostly written by specialist critics, i.e. collaborators of the art establishment, and the latter mostly written by standard journalists, i.e. opponents of the art establishment. Arts journalists speak to a much wider readership than the arts pages at the back of the paper, and they provide a much more rounded view.
The art establishment has softened slightly, but is still very much opposed to Stuckism. What is happening now though is that a new generation is growing up with an acceptance of Stuckism as a valid entity, embodied in, for example, the Penguin Modern Classics book, “100 Artists’ Manifestos: from the Futurists to the Stuckists”, edited by Alex Danchev.
There seems to be a connection between Stuckism and alternative music. Black Francis of the legendary band the Pixies founded the Amherst Stuckists, and is represented in this exhibit. Kid Congo Powers of the Cramps has expressed his admiration. And movement co-founder Billy Childish is a prolific garage rock recording artist. What do you think inspires these musicians about an artistic philosophy like Stuckism?
CT: They basically have the same philosophy – of making art that is genuine, expressive and inspiring. The music world interacts with its wider audience, as does Stuckism, whereas the established art world ignores its audience and interacts with its power brokers.
The Stuckists were infamous for protesting the annual art event the Turner Prize, but now have discontinued the process. What were some notable things about the protests? Why have you discontinued them?
CT: One notable thing was longevity – we protested from 2000 for 15 years. Another was the spectacle and ridicule. We dressed as clowns initially and walked through the gallery like that. Last year we were there handing out leaflets to apologise that we weren’t protesting because the exhibits were so bad they weren’t worth protesting about. (That amused the press.) The protests struck a deep chord with the general public and also the news pages of the press. The protests were a lot more meaningful than the exhibits. We may have discontinued them, but then again we may not.
How did this show at the University of Kent come about?
CT: The students of the MA Curating course invited the Stuckists for a show as their end of course project. I collaborated with them on the form it should take, which is a representation of Stuckism now, based on UK Stuckists but showing the relationship with Stuckists internationally.
Are you optimistic about the direction the arts are going in? Why?
CT: I do my work and I see my colleagues doing theirs. This has been a collaboration stretching back in some cases to the late 1970s. This is the direction art is going in as far as I am concerned. As for the wider picture, I recommend a study of history. We are in a mirror image/parallel world to the nineteenth century, where an ossified establishment was opposed by pioneering radicals.
What is happening in your own art now?
CT: A mini-renaissance. Finally after about three decades, I am painting the way I have always wanted to, which marries the opposites of free expression and disciplined definition.
Why does art matter in the 21st century?
CT: It is an aspect of human experience that is valuable and cannot be accessed through other means in quite the same way.
If someone is concerned about the state of the culture, what should they do?
CT: I guess that depends on what they are concerned about exactly. From my perspective, they should support Stuckism and seek to understand what is really driving it, not what its media reputation is.
Studio 3 Gallery, Jarman Building, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7UG
1 October – 11 December 2015
Artists include: Philip Absolon, Floyd Anthony Alsbach, Virginia Andow, Richard Bledsoe, Godfrey Blow, John Bourne, Nick Christos, Jonathon Coudrille, Adam Crosland, Mark D, Elsa Dax, Hamed Dehnavi, Artista Eli, Eamon Everall, Black Francis, Andrew Galbraith, Ella Guru, Paul Harvey, Jiri Hauschka, Wolf Howard, Edgeworth Johnstone, Jacqueline Jones, Jane Kelly, Shelley Li, Joe Machine, Terry Marks, Peter Murphy, Bill Lewis, Persita, Justin Piperger, Emma Pugmire, Farsam Sangini, Frank Schroeder, Jasmine Surreal, Charles Thomson, Marketa Urbanova, Yaroslav Valecka, Charles Williams, Odysseus Yakoumakis, Chris Yates, Annie Zamero.