An essay by
Stuckism has gained so much fame from its demonstrations and media campaigns that its real purpose is in some danger of being overshadowed. That purpose is perfectly obvious – to make art, and to have it seen and discussed without preconceptions, in a perfectly normal and rational fashion.
In one way this misunderstanding is the Stuckists own fault. Like the Gorilla Girls, the campaigning feminist art group founded in New York in the mid-1980s, the Stuckists have been extremely adept in gaining media attention. Their most recent, and perhaps most resounding triumph of this sort was their use of the Freedom of Information Act to garner details about the Tate’s purchase of an expensive work by one of its own trustees, Chris Ofili. As a result of this disclosure, the Tate found itself at serious odds with the Charity Commission, and its director, Sir Nicholas Serota, was forced into a groveling public apology.
Unlike the Gorilla Girls, however, the Stuckists have not been content to be an anonymous collective, wearing masks for their public appearances. Perhaps it would gave been better for them if they had – the most recent Venice Biennale, in a section organized by the fashionable Spanish curator Rosa Martinez, offered a display of six enormous Gorilla Girls posters – recognition that they had now become an accepted part of the current avant-garde consensus.
Basically what the Stuckists want is recognition as individual creative artists, who have chosen to make art by methods that are, to the layman’s eye at least, traditional – hence their collective name, which acknowledges the fact that their opponents see them as being ‘stuck’ in the past. It is in fact not unusual for radical art groups to acquire names that were originally coined by their detractors. Another case in point is the Fauves, denounced on their first appearance in the Salon des Indépendants as ‘wild beasts’ who were going to tear art apart.
Of course matters are not quite as simple as they may seem at first sight. At the beginning of the 20th century everyone knew, or thought they knew, what was traditional and what was experimental. That is not the case now. A century later the label ‘avant-garde’ survives, but now it has almost completely changed its meaning. Now it designates art that makes use of a wide range of new technical means – video, computer imaging, photography, and also installation using different materials, many of them guaranteed to be ephemeral – while neglecting or even specifically rejecting the long established material and technique associated with the history of painting and sculpture in the West. It also designates art that, far from being rejected by the establishment, owes much the larger portion of its support either to state institutions, or to the kind of cultural foundation that parallels and supports this kind of state activity. In other words, the tables have been turned – what is designated for convenience sake as ‘radical’ is at the same time official, and art using traditional means is seen as the work of outsiders.
However, there is something else that has to be taken into account. The fact that an artist uses traditional techniques does not mean that he or she takes a traditional approach to actual subject-matter. Many recent art movements have had a close alliance with popular music, and a number of major British rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Roxy Music, had their roots in art schools. There has also been, more recently, a close affiliation between punk rock and art school culture. Billy Childish, one of the founders of Stuckism (though he has now severed any formal connection with the movement) was and is a well-known punk rocker.
One of the characteristics of punk, agreed by supporters and opponents alike, is its rawness, its distaste both for artifi?ciality and for artifi?ce. That is a characteristic shared by many of the paintings shown in this exhibition. They aim to go very directly to the point, without making concession to any preconceptions the audience may have about what is ‘pretty’ or even, in a more complex sense, beautiful.
Punk rock also tends to be rooted in populist ideas. It has a suspicion, some people might even call it a paranoia, about, high culture. This also surfaces in Stuckist painting, which has a terror of seeming pretentious. One useful comparison is to look from Stuckism to Pop Art, as both often seem to use the same primary material – things seen in the street, things taken from advertising and popular entertainment. Despite this, the final result is very different – Stuckism does not distance itself from its subject-matter, in the way that Pop so often does. It has none of Pop’s cool analysis of commercial media, or the mechanisms of stardom.
In this sense, Stuckism reverts psychologically to certain pre-Modern attitudes. Its conviction that anyone can make viable art, if their need to express themselves is both strong enough and sincere enough, is a conviction inherited from Romanticism, but modified by Marxist and Anarchist ideas. In this sense, one of the ancestors of the Stuckists is Courbet. Another is Van Gogh, especially the Van Gogh of The Potato Eaters, before he came into contact with the Parisian art world.
Art history teaches us that artists who are celebrated in their own lifetimes can very suddenly fall from grace. Who now remembers Edwin Long (1829-1891), whose huge ambitious painting The Babylonian Marriage Market, shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1875, once held the record as the most expensive painting by a living British artist? On the other hand, most people know a little about William Blake, who, in his own lifetime, was known to a very small circle. Most of his admirers, even if they acknowledged the visionary force of his work, were troubled by what they thought of as its technical deficiencies– many of which actually seem like virtues today. The strong card of the artists linked to Stuckism is not, in the end, their embrace of a particular set of techniques, but their pursuit of emotional authenticity, and their conviction that what they do has to be an authentic expression of themselves as individuals, inhabiting a particular sort of modern society.