Head vs. Heart: a Critique of the Stuckist Manifesto
I have sometimes thought that what the contemporary art world needs is a new art movement manifesto, to challenge and subvert the vacuous dominance of postmodernism in the late 20th / early 21st century. Something as brash and confrontational as the Futurist Manifesto or equivalent writings of movements such as Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, or CoBrA. Something which is written with a heart-felt passion capable of inspiring and rallying art world outsiders, dissenters, rebels, the neglected and disaffected.
Well now we've got it, in the form of Stuckism aka Remodernism, a contemporary art movement which holds a staunchly back-to-basics position on modern art. "Stuckism" is a self-bestowed name conveying an attitude of defiance: it is similar to those names of movements which, while at face value seem derogatory and ridiculous, become more widely known as praiseworthy (like Fauvism, Primitivism, Art Brut). Stuckism stands as much for what it opposes postmodern conceptual and installation art, etc. as for what it champions: a spiritual renewal in art, particularly painting, following the lead of its prime exemplar Van Gogh.
"Stuckism's objective is to bring about the death of Post Modernism, to undermine the inflated price structure of Brit Art and instigate a spiritual renaissance in art and society in general. This new epoch is called Remodernism. Work based on emptiness and cynicism, which was seen as great under the old paradigm, will have a very short shelf life under the new one."
The above quotation is one of the many uncompromising but often mutually contradictory statements issuing from various documents comprising the Stuckist manifesto, all accessible on the Stuckism web site (http://www.stuckism.com/). The history of the now international Stuckist movement, since its establishment in 1999 by British outsider artists Billy Childish (formerly Steven Hamper) and Charles Thomson, is well documented on this site and elsewhere, and it is not my intention to deal with that. Nor am I concerned with making value judgements about their actual artworks. Rather it is the Stuckist's ideas about art, as embodied in their manifesto, which are the focus of this article.
In their manifesto B. Childish (get it?) and C. Thomson have boldly asserted an alternative view of how contemporary art 'should' be. They are openly contemptuous of what passes for art in the hallowed circles of high and officially-approved art. They speak from the heart, or more aptly from the spleen: while what they say is refreshingly direct, I believe it should be subjected to some degree of rational analysis, so that is what I have attempted here. On the other hand, despite finding myself going down an increasingly critical path towards their manifesto, I can't deny feeling some empathy with Stuckism. It's that old 'head vs. heart' (or vice versa) dilemma bearing in mind that 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions', as the saying goes.
Artistic manifestoes are inherently political statements, thus potentially dangerous in the wrong hands. Not necessarily to the extent of Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto, Mao's Little Red Book, or Hitler's Mein Kampf, but art has always doubled as political propaganda. Remember that Hitler was himself a neglected and frustrated artist and would-be architect, whose rise to power enabled him to take revenge on the modern art he so despised. His ideological usurpation of Wagner's music and Nietzsche's philosophy, and his official patronage of 'truly Germanic' representational art, went hand-in-hand with his victimization of 'decadent non-Aryan' modernism.
But, one might object, isn't it a little extreme to mention the Nazi regime in the same breath with Stuckism? My rationale for doing so is that there is a fundamentalist intolerance in the Stuckist viewpoint, the sort of intolerance that often arises from being in a position of powerlessness. It begs the hypothetical question: what would happen if the outsiders who espouse this view happened to become powerful? Would they become oppressive and vengeful like the Taliban, who destroyed those invaluable and irreplaceable ancient Buddhist statues?
One can only hope not. However corrupt the contemporary art world may (or may not) be, at least most people in the West still have the freedom to make art as they choose, within reasonable social constraints, so long as no-one else is hurt in the process. Even being a completely neglected outsider artist has its advantages: the freedom to go one's own way regardless of pomo fashions and politically-correct bandwagons.
Stuckist pronouncements such as "artists who don't paint aren't artists" seem intended to be provocative, at least as much as taken seriously. Charles Thomson says that the manifesto is "very effective in getting up people's noses, particularly people who pride themselves that they are open to everything we have succeeded in finding the thing they are not open to." But one of the cardinal points of the Stuckists is their insistence on correct "naming of names", viz.: "The painting of pictures is the painting of pictures. People agree that a shoe is a shoe and a brick is a brick, not out of dogma or closed-mindedness but to avoid walking around with bricks strapped to their feet."
If they are so insistent on literalness, then surely it would follow that all their pronouncements are meant to be taken literally, even when they are mutually contradictory and inconsistent. It makes little sense to assert that "artists who don't paint aren't artists", on the one hand, yet that "remodernism respects the diverse artistic traditions of the world" on the other. Does it respect those artistic traditions that don't involve painting?
The following two statements don't sit comfortably together either: "We also understand a deeper paradox that limitation gives freedom and vice versa. We object to the oppression of 'everything is art'." Conceptual and minimal artists would agree that "limitation gives freedom"; but works such as Carl Andre's pile of bricks, and more recently Martin Creed's Lights Going On and Off, take limitation far beyond anything the Stuckists were thinking of, to the point of reductio ad absurdum. The Stuckists' own limited view of 'limitation' is their defining characteristic: to be constrained by limits, to be 'stuck' in a creative rut? at the bottom of the socio-economic pecking order? on Deadend Street? sounds more like being trapped than being free. But I take their point that the reality of being human means to be limited and flawed, and finding freedom in one's limitations may be the only genuine chance for freedom we get.
So what do the Stuckists mean by stating that non-painters aren't artists? Not, apparently, that 'all painting is worthwhile art'. Thomson says: "I certainly don't want Stuckism to be associated with 'modern traditional' academic painting of portraits and landscapes, a lot of which seems to insist on a bastardized Impressionism as the defining standard. However, artists in that school, with their insistence on modeling, tonal values and Renaissance drawing systems, usually regard Stuckist shows with horror as the worst kind of incompetent amateurism."
The Stuckists are faced with the theoretical problem of identifying art fundamentally with painting, yet with distinguishing their own kind of painting from popular traditional painting which has been around a lot longer and which is comparatively ubiquitous. Popular traditional painting seems to satisfy the objective Stuckist criteria for good art, by depicting real objects as they appear, so one would expect Childish and Thomson to embrace it with open arms. Yet even if traditional painters wanted to be included, which they don't, that would leave the Stuckists with nothing distinctive or different enough with which to demarcate their movement.
Their way out of this dilemma is to self-consciously, paradoxically, and ironically (despite their professed loathing of irony) revel in self-contradiction: "Stuckism is anti 'ism" and "embraces all that it denounces." "If it is the conceptualist's wish to always be clever, then it is the Stuckist's duty to always be wrong." They want to have it both ways: to assert their holier-than-thou superiority in castigating their adversaries, yet at the same time shoot themselves in the foot to somehow pre-empt any counter-attack. In adopting this rhetorical ploy they risk being ridiculed and dismissed from serious consideration, yet they do so calculatedly (it seems) not only to provoke but to mythologise themselves as paradoxically 'wise fools' or 'holy tricksters'.
The Stuckists disparage the adulation accorded to Joseph Beuys for his insight that all people are really artists, yet go on to state that the reason for doing art is "participation in the universal creative process". If the human creative process is indeed universal, then all people must participate in it, or at least be potentially capable of participation hence the Stuckists must fundamentally agree with Beuys after all. This is confirmed by their further essentialist statement: "Creativity is the most essential ingredient for a happy and healthy society and differentiates the human soul from that of a potato." But even conceptual artists are participating in this same universal creative process that they see themselves and all 'true' artists participating in.
In their document entitled Remodernism: Towards a New Spirituality in Art, the Stuckists state: "Remodernism is the rebirth of spiritual art", and: "Spiritual art does not often look very spiritual, it looks like everything else because spirituality includes everything." But if it includes everything, then it must include all the forms of art which the Stuckists find despicable, such as found objects which depend totally on being exhibited in art galleries for their status as 'art'. Therefore there can be no objective distinction between so-called 'spiritual art' and 'non-spiritual art', and no clear reason for claiming that Stuckist / Remodernist painting is any more (or less) spiritual than Duchamp's Fountain, Warhol's Brillo Boxes, Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, or any other conceptual or postmodern artwork.
In sum, from a rational perspective, the Stuckist manifesto does not cohere it comes 'unstuck' in too many crucial places. (It's tempting to conclude they've 'hoisted themselves with their own petard'.) The manifesto must have its own kind of logic to Childish, Thomson, and their followers, but it's a twisted and convoluted logic: the expression of more and more contradictory statements does not make any of them more sound or convincing.
Ok, perhaps I'm being overly pedantic but I can invoke no less than their own manifesto in my defence. Another of their documents, The Decrepitude of the Critic: the Stuckist's Critique of the Critics, includes the following unequivocal statement as its first point: "The critic's job is to see the true nature of what is placed before them [sic] with clarity, not to have less insight than a six year old or a greengrocer." I presume that this is meant to apply as much to art manifestoes as to artworks. Be that as it may, establishing the true nature of art is not such a simple matter, having already preoccupied philosophers of art for centuries.
The last point in The Decrepitude of the Critic would seem to bang the final nail into the Stuckist manifesto's coffin, rebounding (with fitting poetic justice) back on itself: "Today's critics, mindful that critics in the past have criticized the wrong thing and ended up looking ridiculous, think that they have outwitted the ironies of history by praising all manner of rubbish. But just because genius has been called rubbish it does not necessarily follow that rubbish is genius." If the implication is that critics should see everything in either black or white terms, never in shades of grey, then the Stuckists should rightly expect their manifesto to be critically condemned as "rubbish", and unconditionally so.
However and this is a big "however" does anyone really expect logical consistency from a couple of youthfully-exuberant outsider artists who are bold enough, believe in themselves enough, and care about art enough, to challenge the postmodern art world establishment? Isn't the spirit of their manifesto a whole lot more important? That's what Charles Thomson maintains in the opening paragraph of his more recent document Stuckism Interpretation (dated March 2002, presumably written after the departure of Childish from the movement): "No one has ever been expected to agree with all the points in the Stuckist manifesto including the people who wrote it but essentially to identify with the spirit of what is said."
Here then is the crux of Stuckism: either you intuitively identify with the spirit of the movement or you don't. If you do, then you're not likely to give a damn that the manifesto doesn't hold water when scrutinized from an objective point of view. Stuckism, for those who identify or empathise with it, is a long overdue breath of fresh air the first overt manifestation of the rising storm that will one day blow down the stale, empty house of postmodernism. Whether it works out that way or not, at least the Stuckists have had the guts to stand up for what they believe in. In my view that definitely counts in their favour.
Of course you don't have to join the Stuckists to make a stand. You
could join an art movement you like better (if you can find one),
or even start your own. But when it gets down to it, all you can ultimately
do is find your own direction and keep going in it: limited by your
limitations but free to keep searching for your individual freedom,
either within your limitations or despite or beyond them. It's your
choice. You might end up losing the world, but finding your soul.
Or vice versa.
This article originally appeared in *spark-online issue 32.0,
May 2002, at: