On the Britishness of Stuckism.

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A statue at the Beaux Arts in Paris

In 1999, Billy Childish and Charles Thomson founded the Stuckism art movement, named after a comment that Childish’ former girlfriend, Tracey Emin, had made on his works of art, stating “Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck! Stuck, stuck, stuck!”.

Born six years apart, Childish and Thomson (respectively born in 1959 and 1953) both attempted art studies which didn’t succeed. Indeed, Thomson failed the painting degree at Maidstone College of Art in 1975, and Childish was expelled from St Martin’s School of Art in 1980. They started working together in 1979, in a punk performance group called the Medway Poets. Sharing the same ideas on art and the art world. They wrote the Stuckist Manifesto in August 1999, and with eleven other artists started the Stuckist art group. Today, it has become an international art movement, with 233 groups in 52 countries.

 

To what extent can we say that the Stuckist philosophy is British?

The most well-known claim made by the movement is that “artists who don’t paint aren’t artists.” Indeed, at the beginning of the movement, painting was considered the best – and even the only – medium that could allow the artist to truly express himself and to truly be able to be honest with his feelings. The materiality of a medium cannot, to them, have as much importance as what is depicted by the artist, as written in the first manifesto : “the subjects depicted and the consciousness embodied are the primary concern”. Inspite of this preference for painting, the Stuckists also use other mediums, with Childish and Thomson both practicing photography as well as writing. It is interesting to see how those British artists were, and still are, attached to painting, a medium that was not really inscribed within the British culture before the 18th century and the rise of an english school of art. The movement embraces their influences from all over Europe, much like their predecessors who, in the 18th and 19th century would travel to the continent to broaden their education and inspiration. Painting being less of a tradition in England than in the rest of Europe, it is comprehensible that Thomson and Childish wrote in their first manifesto that the choice of painting as their chosen medium was not for the perpetuity of a tradition, but because “its flexibility has a potentially Shakespearian breadth, depth and subtlety”, poetry and writing in general being more traditionally British than pictorial art.

For the Stuckists, success, and especially material success is not, and should not be, the artist’s main preoccupation. One of the reasons why they are opposed to contemporary art, with the Young British Artists or the Turner Prize, is because they consider that what drives them is money and recognition. In his biography, That’s the Way I See It, David Hockney wrote that “people say Americans worship success while in England they hate it”. Indeed, an artist who still does his art despite his lack of success seems to receive more respect from the British audience. For instance, when Damien Hirst – one of the most criticized artist by the Stuckists – started to sell his works for millions of dollar, is when he started to have the most negative reviews from the public and from critics. In one of their manifestos, “Handy Hints”, Thomson and Childish made a list of “recommended study” with some artists that they respect and why. We can notice that most of them, like Munch and Van Gogh are described as under-rated by their contemporaries. They wrote that Gainsborough “pioneered landscape painting by painting landscapes when it was completely unfashionable and nobody bought them”. This rejection – more than hatred – of the pursuit of recognition and fame seems to be more shared by Childish than Thomson who presented himself to the 2001 British General Election which lead to the departure of Childish from the group, denouncing Thomson’s leadership. After that, Thomson founded and ran the Stuckism International Center and Gallery in London until 2005.

This Gallery allowed Stuckist artists to present their work, however going a little against one of the first Stuckist principles which was an opposition to “the sterility of the white wall gallery system”. Indeed, the group wanted to go back to a more homy atmosphere in which to experience art, even suggesting to share a cup of tea while enjoying the works. This way of appreciating art brings us back to England before museums, when art was part of the private sphere. However their idea was more to democratize art rather than privatizing it, broadening the audience by removing the artificiality and the formality of the museum viewing experience.

Indeed, one of the main aim of Stuckist artists is to go back to art as a mean to address spirituality, not in its religious definition, but in the sense of linking the spirit with the concrete. Art, to them, is a way to relive or broaden our experiences. Another reason why painting is a privileged medium is that with it, you cannot only see a scene that exists, but you can see a scene through the artist’s eyes, feelings and experiences, allowing the connection between the artist and the viewer. To Stuckists, postmodernism lacks this very spirituality that gives meaning to art, allowing, to them, useless and boring works of art such as the ready-made or other use of already existing and concrete objects. That is why they want to develop premodernism, or the anti anti art movement, praising honesty and authenticity. Sincerity in your work is the most important thing to them: “What you see is what you get”, reminding us of the landscape British painters of the 18th and 19th century, wether it be Richard Wilson, Constable or Turner who, success or not, painted what they saw. Spirituality, their minds, can be felt in their landscapes, the composition, the lights, with no superficiality, as praised by Childish and Thomson.

Art, for them, must renew itself, while staying true and close to nature. Stuckism is indeed against conceptual art and wants to go back to an art closer to the truth and which tries to explain the concrete rather than avoiding it. This naturalist-like apprehension of art is of British tradition, art being both a science for the earth and the mind. Art to understand nature, or art to seek the truth, is what seems to have driven painters of the British school of art, and it still drives the Stuckists today.

 

Though an international movement, Stuckism still seems to be embedded in a British way of seeing art, with authenticity, renewal by going back to the past and the spirituality, but also renewal by revolution and opposition, with the idea of a group of “Punk Victorians”, as they called themselves during an exhibition in 2004 and 2005.

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