CAPTAIN STUCKIST - AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES THOMSON
"I spent 20 years feeling that there was something that should be happening in my life, and accepting that it would do so when the time was right. Always that sense that it hadn't happened yet and yet the sense that it would was always there, until, ironically, I eventually decided in 1997 that I was obviously wrong, that there was no major thing going to happen of the sort that I had felt would, and that I must be mistaken. I resolved therefore to accept that my lot would be the humbler, but nevertheless still worthwhile and rewarding path of the children's poet. Nothing else had appeared. Three weeks or so after that resolution, something erupted inside me -- galvanised by an art article I read -- a fever for art, which I had considered to be safely dead and buried in my life."
Max Podstolski interviews Charles Thomson
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
MP: I read an interesting article recently about Billy Childish, based on an interview, which you must have read. It was good because it revealed a lot about his own background and inner life, from his point of view. By comparison -- so it seems from my outsider perspective -- you seem to be less well known, although you're the one who's stayed at the helm of the Stuckist movement. Have there been any similar articles about you?
CT: There isn't an equivalent on me to Billy's Observer piece. He already had more of a profile than me before Stuckism, although it has been boosted through it -- and his past relationship with Tracey Emin generated a lot of attention also. I was one of this country's leading children's poets, but that's not quite as sexy...
Life Is Great
Stuckism was my coinage and also my idea to form the group: I suggested to Billy that we co-found it, although recently he told me I was the founder. It was my coinage, but it would never have happened had Billy not quoted Tracey's 'stuck' remarks in a poem, which he quoted to me on more than one occasion. I have been the driving force throughout for specific shows and also the co-ordination. Billy was the driving force for the co-written manifestos. I also consulted with him over projects and ideas, but I guess as time went on I was putting more into it and he less so, till his departure.
MP: Does that mean he basically wrote the manifestos and you approved them and co-signed them, or what?
CT: I just mean he put the energy into making sure that they actually got written and published, whereas I wouldn't have bothered to that extent. I was driving on other areas. But we totally CO-wrote them. Everything went back and forth between us as many times as necessary till we both felt it was OK. Most of it was discussion over the phone. Words, phrases and sentences were proposed, modified, deleted, reinstated etc to the point where it would be impossible to separate whose was whose, and impossible to have achieved them without the dynamic between us. Sometimes my influence was greater for a particular section, sometimes his, but there was always mutual creation.
MP: And could you explain why he opted out of the movement?
CT: Billy said more or less from the outset that he wanted to leave, because he didn't like most of the work (even though he had chosen half the artists). He agreed with me on principles but wasn't happy with my way of manifesting them, which he considered vulgar. He is probably right.
MP: How long (and how well) had you known Billy before you founded Stuckism together?
CT: Since 1979, when we met at a poetry reading. Then we were in the Medway Poets, but there was friction between us, especially when he started heckling my poetry reading and I threatened to ban him from a forthcoming TV documentary. We saw increasingly less of each other over the eighties, and hardly anything through the nineties, until 1998, when there was discussion of a Medway Poets anthology. I thought we would have diverged completely, but the opposite was the case, and, remarkably, we had converged to the same point, even thinking/speaking the same words and phrases on occasion. Through the honesty of confronting experience, we had both deepened to a spiritual understanding of the world, as well as a strong opposition to the artistic status quo.
MP: Billy is/was also a musician -- were you ever involved in playing music yourself and is music important to you?
CT: I have used it in a rudimentary way with my poetry, and was in a poetry band called Heads on Springs, which did some good gigs for a short period. I have listened to it a lot. It has empowered me creatively, e.g. underground bands in the sixties, and punk music when I was at college -- my work became 'punk' and I painted on corrugated carboard.
MP: Is the literary bent still there, same as Billy's novels etc? Or was the Stuckism thing a complete change of direction?
CT: Both things have always gone in tandem, along with everything else such as publishing, promoting, performing, broadcasting etc. However I did a really intense stint at the poetry (and gave up art for 15 years altogether, until autumn 1997) so I am mainly giving the poetry a rest, although I still write a little when time and energy permits.
Going back to visual art, painting to be specific, was a complete change of the direction I was in at the time, but not an innovation as such in my life. I took up where I had left off in 1982, but obviously with a different psychological perspective. I realised also it wasn't just a question of doing the art: I would also have to take on the prevailing art orthodoxy to get anywhere.
MP: Can you expand on the "different psychological perspective" between your attitude to art in 1997 vs. 1982? Was there something more to it than simply the greater maturity that comes with age?
CT: Yes, it was a lot of fucking hard work! On myself, my psyche, my soul, my emotions, my thoughts. A lot of emotional trauma which forced me to explore very deeply to resolve it. I don't like suffering, believe it or not.
MP: Was "taking on the prevailing art orthodoxy" a calculated strategy to 'get somewhere' artistically, in the art world itself?
CT: Yes, but I wouldn't have 'taken it on' unless I thought it needed 'taking on'. If it hadn't, then I would have adopted an alternative 'calculated strategy', like sending pics of my work to galleries, for example, knowing that the art world had an open-minded encouraging attitude to art and wished to encourage creativity (ha!).
MP: Do you want recognition from the art world, or do you hold it in complete contempt?
CT: I wouldn't say no, but I can live without it. I try not to hold anything in complete contempt actually.
MP: Do you ever wake up in dread, in the middle of the night, and feel that you've created this Frankenstein's monster -- called Stuckism -- which is controlling you rather than vice versa? And that it could well be the ruin of you, but it's your baby and only you can look after it properly, so you can't let go?
CT: Nope. Never. Not over Stuckism at any rate, and certainly not for that reason. I don't control it; it doesn't control me. There is a descent of the spirit, as it were, manifesting ideas, bringing about change. I spent 20 years feeling that there was something that should be happening in my life, and accepting that it would do so when the time was right. Always that sense that it hadn't happened yet and yet the sense that it would was always there, until, ironically, I eventually decided in 1997 that I was obviously wrong, that there was no major thing going to happen of the sort that I had felt would, and that I must be mistaken.
I resolved therefore to accept that my lot would be the humbler, but nevertheless still worthwhile and rewarding path of the children's poet. Nothing else had appeared. Three weeks or so after that resolution, something erupted inside me -- galvanised by an art article I read -- a fever for art, which I had considered to be safely dead and buried in my life.
MP: Can you remember the article specifically -- what it was called and who wrote it?
CT: A friend phoned me and said Tracey Emin (whom I had not seen for about ten years and of whose subsequent career I knew nothing, as I had ignored the art world) was on the front cover of the Observer colour supplement. It was written by Miranda Sawyer. I was very pleased that someone from our coterie in Medway and North Kent had 'made it'. The core of the Stuckists were in a group in 1980 called The Medway Poets. This was myself, Billy Childish, Bill Lewis and Sexton Ming (and two others not now in the Stuckists). Sanchia Lewis and Sheila Clark were also on the scene then. Tracey (then spelt Traci) Emin was a young student at the time and got a lot of encouragement from people in the group. She was Billy's girlfriend. She talked about her writing to me -- it was mediocre. Bill Lewis spent time going through it with her and editing it. I always regarded her as the least talented member of the entourage, although she did have charisma.
The Medway Poets were a pressure cooker for our talents to boil up in. The performances were dynamic, punk and over the top, but powerful. Somehow we never got the full recognition that I, as well as objective sympathisers in the literary world, felt we deserved. There almost seemed to be a jinx. Suddenly Tracey had broken that jinx, and was getting the exposure. I thought that was fantastic and it re-opened possibilities which, as I mentioned, I had finally abandoned only about three weeks before.
What was peculiar about reading the article was how familiar in it everything was, as it was all the stuff the group in general, and Billy Childish in particular, had been doing since 1980, except everywhere I expected to see Billy's name, the article had Tracey's name. She had changed from the restrained even coy writing she used to do, and seemed to have transformed herself into a variant of Billy.
The Medway Poets (1985).
Charles Thomson, third from left, standing next to Tracey Emin.
It was another 15 months till Stuckism was founded, and six months after that till it emerged into the public domain, via the Evening Standard in London, and then nationally in The Sunday Times. I felt I was home at last and the previous two decades fell into place immediately. Everything I had learned and experienced pointed to this venture.
That learning, including study of the Kabbalah, shaped me, so that I feel at ease with my current position. I am not saying there are not difficulties and worries, but not about the substance of it all and my role. I didn't create it, any more than a parent 'creates' a child, but there is obviously a strong participation in the development! The real creation is at a higher level. It was happening anyway all over the globe, as I soon discovered when I received emails from people who were practising Stuckism already (as the main London Stuckists had indeed been doing for the last 20 years or so), but obviously not calling themselves that.
I provided an identity for this phenomenon, a label, though of course drawing from a Childish/Emin interaction to do so with the name. I'm also quite an organiser and promoter, so these were essential abilities to ease its happening. On the other hand, I had applied equal energy in the past, but that had not resulted in the achievement hoped for. Now the time was different, and the time was right.
For your information, I write quite quickly and with very little deletion. It is something I developed about twenty years ago -- I apply it to creative work, but am a bit more inhibited about applying it to social and personal relationships, but I am getting there. It was prompted initially by Jung's idea that the unconscious was not a well of chaos, but a source of deeper order, more meaningful and knowledgeable essentially than our tiny conscious view, although the latter is obviously an essential component of the whole. So the idea is to hold oneself at the meeting point of conscious and unconscious, trusting feeling yet integrating it with thought also. In other words to be uninhibited in an engagement and opening up to the truth, whatever it might be.
I found it worked fantastically well with poetry, which simply wrote itself on many occasions and surprised me often with its content. I pioneered it for myself when writing my college thesis for Maidstone College of Art -- and ended up with the highest marks in the college and a commendation for the third-year thesis, whilst simultaneously clocking up (or down) what I think are probably the lowest marks ever given for my main subject (painting).
MP: How did that make you feel at the time?
CT: Bit shocked and pissed off, bit disorientated and isolated and fearful, because I had been accepted for PGCE course (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) and would not now be able to take it up. Ironic that my work had been accepted for a higher level course, and failed at the lower level. However, I felt it was an injustice, and embarked with determination on an appeals process (despite being informed by the college that there was no such process). Initially this was to the governors. The Principal said in the meeting, "Do you mean to say that you as a student think you know better than tutors with many years of experience?" I said, "No, certainly not. I have consulted several tutors, including my former personal tutor, who have told me they think I should have passed and that I should appeal, so I am following their advice." Well, he didn't have much of a comeback on that.
Then I appealed to the examining body, the CNAA (Council for National Academic Awards). I sent in a comprehensive dossier, including around ten testimonials on my behalf from tutors of various departments, including Head of Illustration, who said I would have passed if I had been in his department (we were encouraged to be multi-disciplinary), and Head of General Studies who alleged malpractice in the Painting Department, in as much as my extraordinarily low mark indicated that they had deliberately marked me down so that my aggregate mark would be below a fail. Nevertheless, my aggregate was still above the fail mark, but a fail in main subject meant overall fail anyway.
Another tutor, also a painter, said my show was the most memorable for years and I should have got a first. I also reported that the Head of Painting said I should get more feedback from tutors. I asked one tutor for a tutorial and she said she was too busy. Ten minutes later I overheard her talking to two other tutors in the corridor and complaining to them that there were never any students in the studios and there was nothing for her to do. I informed the Head of Painting about this, and he said that tutors would not talk to me because they didn't like my work.
MP: What was it about your art which the Maidstone tutors didn't like, as far as you could tell? What set your work apart from what all the other students were doing?
CT: I refused to subscribe to their prevailing ethos, which was art in a vacuum, up its own arse. I wanted art that engaged psychologically, had meaning and communicated clearly. They considered what I was doing illustrative. It wasn't proper Fine Art. Mark making was a buzz word at the time. Material manipulation for its own sake seemed to be what was required. The materials, not the content, not the meaning, not the communication.
The college was meant to return a report but did nothing, so I went to the local paper, the Kent Messenger and ended up with a story on the front page, plus radio coverage, all of which sent the Vice Principal (and doubtless others) into apoplexy. I felt I should make a stand against these petty power-mongers and overblown egos, who felt they could do what they liked and get away with it. As it happened, the Department was already under review by the CNAA, and the degree status was withdrawn, I understand, about three years later.
MP: When was this?
MP: Did it turn you against the way art is taught and the art world status quo, and eventually feed into your founding of Stuckism?
CT: The course had already done that. College was a microcosm of the art world. What is surprising is how little has changed in twenty years. Yes, it did feed into it, but in a minor way. What fed into it was that the macrocosm was the same -- well, actually even worse by then.
MP: It must have taken a heck of a lot of guts on your part.
CT: Yes, I found myself. Beginning of third year I was aware I was in a jeopardous position re the degree, and I had this moment of illumination, almost a sense of tangible light. I thought, I can do what I want and no one can stop me. Once I was on that path, there was no turning back.
MP: I guess too that you must have been feeling extremely disturbed by the treatment meted out to you to take it to the local paper. Or was it the Stuckist mentality in operation even at that early stage?
CT: Certainly. At an even earlier stage, as it happens. When I was 16 (1969) I hired a local council hall in Romford to stage a multi media event. We had poetry, music, film, performance, happenings etc. The caretaker was freaked out and the council cancelled my next hall booking. I saw the lettings manager who alleged we had had a sex orgy basically. I went straight to the local paper, The Havering Express, and next week's front page headline was "SEX ORGY TALE GROUP BANNED". There was a lot of local controversy, and eventually we won, and regained our booking.
MP: Much as I didn't want to dwell on Tracey Emin, because she is always brought up in relation to the Stuckists, I don't see now how she can be left out. Whichever way you look at it, Billy and you have created an institutionalised resentment of her (in terms of the Stuckist collective mythology).
The Morning After Sex
CT: Less so than you might think, at least on a personal level, as opposed to a media level. There are various aspects:
- She has made herself, at least in this country, representative of a kind of art which we oppose. That is nothing to do with the past connection.
- She gained a lot from her time associating with Medway Poets personnel, who helped and encouraged her and from whom she gained significant ideas -- some of them filtered through Billy, some directly. This has been airbrushed out of her story, despite her avowed confessionalism and honesty.
- Her use of Billy's specific works has been considerable in its presence in her work, to his current disadvantage, but this has hardly been recognised.
- Her current status has obviously been a major advantage as far as media interest in the Stuckists.
- As a group we worked together in the eighties and there was a sense of rivalry but nevertheless a sense of respect, integrity and honesty. No one was going to rip off the others. I consider Tracey violated this, took the most and ironically contributed the least. She was happy to be helped, but didn't return that by helping back when she had the chance. Not only that, but she disadvantaged those people even helping themselves by pre-empting them with their own ideas. I was quite capable of promoting myself and already doing so, but other artists e.g. Philip Absolon, Bill Lewis, were left out in the cold.
- I feel Tracey owed a debt to these people which she had no intention of repaying. This alone for me justifies whatever help the group got through her current status.
MP: As an outsider I can't really begin to get to grips with it, considering that Billy and Tracey were together for, what, 10 years?
CT: A lot less than that. More like a couple of years with a bit of an extension, although they were friends and close for longer (until December 1999).
MP: There seems to be a huge emotional component and sense of betrayal -- sort of like your shared inner world which, because of Billy's and Tracey's compulsive need to reveal everything, has now become completely exposed and trivialised in the public domain.
CT: I don't think I can exempt myself from that either, nor some of the others. Artists and poets do reveal, do they not? I don't agree that everything in the public domain and media is trivialised, which you seem to take for granted!
MP: Could Tracey be the third founder of Stuckism not just for her immortalised ad nauseam words ("Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!"), but for the fact that Stuckists need to keep resenting her as part of the movement's raison d'Ítre?
CT: That would be ridiculous and completely confuses the roles and the actual relationships. Tracey has featured increasingly less, as time goes on. If she became an overnight obscurity and any connection with her rendered meaningless, it would pose no problem. Our first show quoted the three Stucks as a title, but the second one was "The Resignation of Sir Nicholas Serota" (then toured to three other venues). The next show was The REAL Turner Prize Show 2000. This was followed by "VOTE STUCKIST", based on the General Election in which I was standing against Chris Smith, Culture Minister. At that time we demonstrated in Trafalgar Square against Rachel Whiteread's plinth.
We didn't do a demo at the Tate when Tracey did her bed in it, but the following two years we did Clown demos against the Turner Prize policy and the work of other artists, e.g. flashing torches outside with reference to Martin Creed. We also did a "REAL Turner Prize Show 2001". We have 'attacked' Sir Nicholas Serota and Charles Saatchi specifically more than Emin. On the Channel 4 website there is a whole critical essay on Damien Hirst; there is no equivalent to this by us on Emin. In fact we have said she has redeeming features in her work that other Brit Artists lack (but then we know where those features originated, ho hum). In interviews, e.g. BBC Radio 4 Today programme 1999, it was pickled sheep that were highlighted. So, bearing all this in mind, I find it interesting how other people focus all the emphasis on Emin.
MP: Of course your resentment has a much wider focus in the art world orthodoxy and postmodernism, but Emin provides you with the convenient personification of all that. She's become a kind of scapegoat for everything that Billy and the Stuckists hate about the art world.
CT: Not just for us -- she has chosen to make herself a convenient (and highly profitable) personification for the nation. If Hirst or some such artist were currently in pole position, then they would be the one to address. That is an entirely separate issue to other ones, and should not be confused with them. I don't confuse it with them. The Stuckists have been in existence since 1980 at least, in one form or another (at one time as The Medway Poets) for the same reasons as now (and nothing whatsoever to do with Emin). We merely adapted to current times.
MP: Don't you also resent her because of 'sour grapes'? If you and/or Billy had been as 'successful' as her -- and I'm not suggesting you didn't deserve to be -- then would the Stuckists have ever come into existence?
CT: I think we will be a lot more 'successful' than her. What she is offering and promoting is herself, which is a very limited option. What we want to promote is a global issue, involving profound ideas and an international movement, which has already come into being. We have a different agenda entirely. We have different values. For her the bottom line is fame and fortune. For us it is the integrity of our work and a spiritual connection. I am aware that I had the option of either, and know what I want to do with my life, which is not a vacuous round of celebrity parties sustained by alcohol and cocaine addiction. I don't need to get to know everyone 'famous' to feel worthwhile; the people I value I already have.
MP: Have you done anything comparable to what Billy and Tracey revealed about themselves, e.g. Tracey's tent piece with the names of all the people she'd slept with?
CT: Yes, except I don't happen to think that's particularly important necessarily. I think the most important thing is that the person experiencing it can get something from it themselves. I would say my core stance is to find and express the truth.
Stuckists with coffin 'The Death of Conceptual Art' which was carried to White Cube Gallery in July 2002. Left to right: Maria, Charles Thomson, Mary Lewenhagen (German Stuckists), Joe Crompton (Co-Director Stuckism Gallery), Alex Pollock, Gina Bold.
A lot of the poetry is explicit intimate naked revelation about myself. Billy recently told me that he got the idea of that from my poems, because I was doing it first in the Medway Poets group. Tracey got the idea from Billy. I simply haven't promoted it as much since then. This is mainly because I was experiencing, dealing with and writing about it too much to ever get round to promoting it.
Billy has actually had a much more stable and untroubled life than I have, which has given him the opportunity to apply himself much more to production, publishing, etc.
MP: Are you referring simply to what happened at art school?
CT: No, I mean ever since. Not continually, but certainly for significant periods, which have been very disruptive. It's only very recently that I feel something has lifted and there is more integration and balance overall.
MP: What was the nature of these disruptions? Can you be more specific?
CT: The major disruptions were a series of relationships over a twenty year period, which were deeply traumatic emotionally for me and meant that I was functioning at a very reduced level in other areas of my life. It was impossible to maintain other projects during these periods. I did produce a lot of poetry, but most of it is still in notebooks.
The positive side of this was greater self-knowledge and a series of renewals and subsequent periods of dynamism. In retrospect, this time of two decades seems like a necessary preparation for what I am doing now. I am also in a stable relationship for the first time since 1983.
I have been forced into emotional, psychological and spiritual explorations that would never have occurred otherwise. It was one might say a maturing process. The end result was a bigger perspective on life and myself, the benefits of which I am able to use now for a project which has a lot of responsibility to others.
The traumas were not to do with art college, although my first marriage broke up in my last year at college, so it did intensify that time. My 'career' as such is a secondary issue, relative to my emotional happiness.
In between relationship traumas were periods of self-sufficient calm when I did concentrate on my creative direction. The inception of Stuckism is one example of this. Previously I launched a career as a full-time poet.
I consider I have deep emotions and am needy in this respect in a relationship, although, out of one, I can be quite self-sufficient on my own. I guess my emotional needs are then fulfilled through creativity. I don't think someone would embark on such a demanding solo creative life were it not for such needs.
MP: What about your relationship with your parents / family?
CT: My parents have been married for 50 years and are still alive. They are very conventional people (my father was an insurance broker, and my mother a full-time housewife, happily so). I had to find my own direction outside the family and with a lot of opposition and criticism over the direction my life has taken. It has not been something that has deterred me, and, if anything, gave me early experience of relying on myself, so one could say it was actually a good thing.
MP: What do you think Stuckism's chances are - seriously rather than polemically - for achieving its objectives of "bringing about the death of Postmodernism and instigating a spiritual renaissance in art and society in general"? Do you really BELIEVE it's likely to happen like that?
CT: I think that is a historic inevitability, in the way that the Renaissance followed the Medieval era, for example. Stuckism is one of the vehicles which will effect this. Things are always happening. This is just one of them at the moment. Look at the whole scan of history. Something's got to happen. This IS happening!
MP: Could Postmodernism be dying, or already dead, of its own accord and Stuckism largely irrelevant one way or the other?
CT: Of course. That is exactly what makes Stuckism so relevant and vital at the moment.
MP: Donald Kuspit has some interesting things to say about the psychology of modern art. His notion of "creative illness" is illuminating, I think, regarding your negative experiences at art school and how that turned you completely against the art establishment.
CT: I am not completely against the art establishment, but I am against some major facets of it.
MP: The idea of Stuckism could not have taken root if you hadn't had those unsettling experiences in the first place, the "creative illness". He writes: "It is as though the illness broke the hold of preconceptions and stereotypes, conventional logic and prescribed rules of thinking, allowing for the emergence of an unconventional idea.... To be modern means to make a break with tradition, and every modern artist must make his break with tradition, even if tradition goes no deeper than yesterday's prominent art. He must declare his difference, optimally a radical difference."4
CT: I think that's the wrong emphasis completely for us. We are not breaking with something for the sake of it. Our starting point is not what is wrong, but what is right, what we want to do and are doing. We then become aware of how that relates to the cultural context.
MP: The art tradition nowadays = postmodernism, that's where it's brought us to, though generally we think of art tradition as lying somewhere in the past, as being exemplified by art society landscapists, portraitists, etc. Kuspit goes on: "The break with tradition has to make the modern artist romantically ill, for tradition is the parent of us all, so that to rebel against tradition is to break the taboo against parricide. Certainly the anti-traditionalism that has become a staple of avant-gardism is perverse, if perversion means 'to make a mockery of the law by turning it upside down' ..."
CT: I think Postmodernism has made a mockery of the law. We are seeking to reinstate the law. We are asserting the importance of pater (and mater) not ciding them. Postmodernism is the perversity - and most of Modernism.
MP: "Perverse" is a most apt term to sum up the Stuckists, don't you reckon, as in "wayward, contrary, obstinate", etc. Billy's notorious techniques, the ones that turned Tracey into an art star, are 'childishly' perverse by normal adult standards, aren't they? Wasn't coining the name "Stuckism" itself an exercise in perverted obstinacy par excellence?
CT: I don't reckon so. Not in real terms. No doubt integrationists in an apartheid society were called perverse. Stuckism is the mainstream of asserting real values. Seen from the viewpoint of falsity, the real is perverse and contrary. Thank God then if we are obstinate about it - or committed, depending on your view point.
MP: Do you ever doubt yourself, or are you one of those people who believes that self-doubt is only for weak and inferior beings?
CT: I think we are all weak and inferior beings, who also have strength and transcendence. The more one experiences oneself as fully human, the better. Of course I doubt myself, but my self doesn't doubt me.
MP: Your art school experience of finding yourself, and "no-one being able to stop you", does seem to fit what Kuspit says about "creative illness giving rise to an unconventional idea".
CT: Unconventional when it happens, but later it becomes established. The person doesn't have it because it is unconventional; they have it because it is true. The convention is the limitation, the barrier to growth and also of course the security. Kuspit is the onlooker who grasps something but misses the essence. Poor sad Kuspit. Continually wanking and scared of sex with a real woman, as it were.
If you want the truth of the matter, then I do not see it as an illness, creative or not. A breakthrough in consciousness would be more like it. Kuspit can waffle on in his academic way if he wants, but he seems to be on the outside looking in, rather than getting in there and doing it. Playing safe, trying to be superior to the experience and more knowing about it than someone who has it, without ever being able to get his toes wet.
MP: Reading about you and Billy deciding on which artists to include in the Stuckist pantheon reminds me of Andre Breton and the Surrealists. Breton was the ultimate arbiter of who was allowed to be 'in' the Surrealist movement, and who was 'out'. There was an authoritarian streak in him, and I suspect there is in you.
CT: He was definitive, we are suggestive. None of our named artists are 'in'. You may note that they have all merely been proposed as Honorary Stuckists. Our writing is actually more accurate, sophisticated and self-aware (and humorous) than we normally get credit for. And, furthermore, proposed to the Bureau of Enquiry. I mean, come on, how earnestly are you really going to take that? Surely it shows our deflating of such authoritarianism immediately.
There's lots of streaks in me, and in everyone else, and in you too. There is also a difference between power for its own sake, and power because you do have to have people in charge for things to work properly. It's a poor ship with no captain.
MP: To what extent is Stuckism opposed to individual artistic freedom?
CT: Stuckism advocates that artists are free to do what they want, and that everyone must accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions, and that people are also free to voice a point of view.
MP: Since you've stated such vociferous opposition to conceptual art, Britart, etc. how can Stuckists be free to make that kind of art i.e. without turning it into a parody?
CT: I thought conceptual art was based on parody and irony. We have never opposed people doing installations and videos etc. What we oppose is the mistaken significance given to the unremarkable. It isn't actually worth dignifying with the title of art in the first place. Just because someone's ego decides something is important, doesn't actually make it important. It only becomes important if it is the communication of real meaning because the artist has experienced that real meaning. Silly little fashionable games are not real meaning.
So Stuckists are free to do that kind of thing, but as it is pretty meaningless and trivial, I doubt if it would hold much interest for them. They have got better things to do on the whole. Or if they do do it, then I am sure they will see it for what it is and not get egotistically pretentious about it.
I sometimes do things that could easily be claimed to be art in the conceptual arena. In fact the English Proto-mu group actually gave me their award for conceptual art (on the steps of Tate Britain) because they saw the whole Stuckist thing and our clown demonstrations as an outstanding and ground-breaking piece of conceptual art. In fact it is a bit irksome to me on occasion that I am not able to gain the benefits that could accrue if I were prepared to claim my miscellaneous activities as art.
MP: What about your manifesto statement: "artists who don't paint aren't artists"?
CT: I think the meaning of that is clear enough on immediate reading, which I am quite happy for people to take, i.e. that only painters are artists. There is also another meaning if it is analysed more logically, which is that it is an illogical statement. I take this as ridiculing the whole thing that it is so important to have these words and definitions in the first place, rather than the experience of what is produced.
MP: Isn't it more realistic to simply accept that there are countless different ways of making art, and your way is different from what conceptual artists do?
CT: That is surely our whole point - that there aren't countless ways of making art, and that some people are doing something which isn't art and calling it art erroneously. They are actually doing something else - social commentary, shock, cabinet of curiosities or whatever.
MP: Since you as a Stuckist say you want to destroy postmodernism, etc., that's not a tolerant approach, is it?
CT: No problem with anyone's right to do what they want. We're not stopping anyone doing anything or trying to censor it. On the contrary, we are being censored for doing what we are doing and saying what we want to say. I think our goal is to replace postmodernism with a new cultural epoch of remodernism, actually, with more profound and human values.
MP: Can you expand on how you're being censored and by whom? Some examples?
CT: We are being censored in the way that everyone who is outside the current circles of the establishment is being 'censored'. Ivan Massow forced to resign as Chairman of the ICA for challenging conceptual art. S.P. Howarth failed in his assessments at Camberwell College of Art because his paintings weren't counted as work, because they weren't about ideas. Other students told they are jeopardising their degree if they include paintings in it. The head of an art department in a London college who visited the gallery, said he supported Stuckism, but asked for this to be kept secret for career reasons. A journalist making a film about Charles Saatchi who was told that their career prospects would be ruined.
There is a climate of fear, with people afraid to speak out, or if they do, being cold-shouldered by the art world. Freedom of speech, challenge and debate have no place in this self-serving, commercial art world.
We have been completely ignored by the art critics of the national press (with the exception of the Financial Times). We have not been reviewed; our existence has not even been acknowledged. The same goes for the art monthlies (with sole exception of Art Review).
An art critic explained to me yesterday that this was to 'starve us of oxygen' because we didn't fit in.
We know of at least one article in a major newspaper that was spiked on political grounds, and suspect there were others. It is of course rather difficult to ascertain because we are not usually privy to behind the scenes information. It is only thanks to the general news journalists that we have got the coverage that we have: by by-passing the arts world altogether.
One extra thing regarding (attempted) censorship - a rare blatant example. Last summer when I was standing in the General Election here, a journalist from the Jornal do Brasil wanted to do an article on me, and phoned up the British Council (whose job it is to promote British culture abroad - it is part government funded). He spoke to Brett Rogers, the Head of Visual Arts, enquired about Stuckism and was told he should not be writing about us at all because we were an aberration in the art world.
MP: Congratulations on being an "aberration" - an extra incentive for that journalist to have done the article!
CT: Yes, it was a bloody good article. Whole page. I think he was astonished that the British Council should be dissing British artists, whom they are meant to be promoting.
By the way, Time Out who have not listed anything we have done for two and a half years, have finally lost patience with our provocations and put the boot in with a quarter page review. This is the excerpt in the listings section: "these vociferous opportunists are revealed to be nothing more than a bunch of Bayswater Road-style daubers, without an original idea between them. Typical of the laughably bad work are Ella Guru's cats, ducks and swans and crude portraits of drag queens." (Sarah Kent, Art Editor)
I should point out that Sarah Kent is a major champion of Tracey Emin, who is, whatever else, never a vociferous opportunist! Ditto Damien Hirst.
We have previously got a story in the Evening Standard Diary page saying that she was in league with Charles Saatchi - she gets paid (presumably) by him and Jay Jopling for catalogue compilation and essays - and that this was why our shows were never mentioned in Time Out.
Rosie Millard (BBC arts correspondent) in her book the Tastemakers, comments we were "blackballed by Time Out". I guess the policy of ignoring us somewhat backfired when we used it to gain more publicity, so now it's going for the jugular time instead...
MP: I find it interesting that you were a children's poet, and wonder if you have a similar feeling about the way you paint. How do you relate to the interest in the childlike and primitive of artists like Klee, Miro, Dubuffet, CoBrA? A long-ish way, perhaps, from Van Gogh, so does that mean they're thereby excluded from Stuckism's list of officially-approved forebears?
CT: Well, we're not children; we're adults. Stuckism has a tenet of the holistic, so I seek integration of adult and child, sophisticated and primitive, each taking their appropriate place in the process. The four you mentioned, as a generalisation, I would say do not do this. I would say van Gogh did do it. His work is so much more powerful than theirs in all ways, though they fall short in different ways.
MP: Why do you think Van Gogh's work is "so much more powerful" than the work of the artists I mentioned?
CT: More all-encompassing, more integrated, more holistic, a more real communication with the soul.
MP: Isn't the most important thing to be integrated in the whole of life? I believe that as art is only one part of life, life must take precedence over art.
CT: This is precisely our point. It is an ongoing process of growth, of dealing with aspects of the psyche that aren't integrated and working on them. Art is a meditative device, as it were, so if you focus on completely imbalanced/superficial art, you are not going to find anything very helpful to assimilate.
MP: Yet Van Gogh killed himself, because however brilliant he was as an artist, his life was not holistically integrated. On the other hand an artist such as Miro, whom you regard as Van Gogh's distinct inferior, lived to a ripe and fulfilled old age, in the process bringing great joy to countless people through his art.
CT: I'm not saying Van Gogh is a perfect example of humanity. He had a lot of the right ingredients but still got some things wrong in a bad way, obviously. But what he got right was tremendous. All the more important to study and learn from him. If you are going on a polar expedition, you're going to get more information from the life of Scott (who of course failed) than a ten year old camping in the back garden.
There are plenty of artists who are Van Gogh's distinct inferiors who have lived a long life. Plenty of holiday campers who lived longer than Scott as well. I'm sure wedding cake makers have brought great joy to countless people, but they stop short of addressing certain issues, which are more important, urgent and difficult. Van Gogh's great example (and Scott's) is that he had the courage and vision to tackle deeper reality.
Stuckism International Centre, Hoxton, London
Jung said you find the light by transforming the darkness. Remodernism emphasises the basis of the spiritual path is honesty. Van Gogh had the courage and honesty to face his life and emotions. He didn't opt for an easy evasive path. One may find anguish and angst, but also a tremendous containment and mastery. He has tied himself to the mast whilst the storm rages or the sirens call. I think it is also a mistake to define him in terms of anguish and angst only. That is to not look clearly at all his work, but to just take the easy route to categorising him. There is huge compassion and love, a transcendent appreciation of the power of nature, intensity of life and the human-ness of being human, e.g. Postman Roulin.
MP: You have written somewhat contemptuously of the "bastardized Impressionism of modern traditional academic painting". But aren't you practising and encouraging something very similar, a kind of "bastardized Post-Impressionism or Expressionism", in emulating Van Gogh et al.?
CT: Stuckism doesn't have a prescribed style. There are Stuckists working in all styles. We wish to emulate the stance of courage, honesty, communication and humanity.
MP: How would you describe your own art and what you're trying to achieve personally as an artist? From what I've seen of it, it has more of a cartoonish and jokey look, very far removed indeed from the emotionally expressive intensity of Van Gogh or expressionist artists.
CT: I think that is a superficial appraisal. It uses an idiom for a different purpose. I see my lineage directly from Japanese woodblocks, via Van Gogh and German Expressionists. For me it is a synthesis of material, emotional and spiritual reality.
MP: The difficulty I find with your work is that you speak extremely seriously of integrity, of emotional and spiritual reality, etc., and yet the paintings of yours that I've seen give an entirely different impression: of playing a game with the art world by being most concerned to create a parody of it. Billy appears not to give a damn about the art world, but you seem to be caught up in it - "stuck" in it to use the obvious pun.
CT: Comment on the art world occupies only a small proportion of my work. The art world is part of the world and I wish to comment on my experiences in the world. Parody can give insight.
MP: In your publication The Stuckists: the first Remodernist art group you say you think it's "time we had a bit more satirical painting." Works like Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision, with its very pointed dig at Emin as well as Serota, and Damien Takes a More Friendly Approach, are obviously satirical and seem to me to be in the spirit of pop art and postmodernism.
CT: I see them more in the spirit of Hogarth, Pope, Swift etc., because their basis is a belief in positive values. Pop and PM trade in devaluation of belief.
MP: I find it hard to see the spiritual and emotional content in them. Are you saying that my reaction is superficial, because there really is a more profound level to these works?
CT: Yes, but that is understandable in the present climate. Take Sir N, for example. It is not just about him and TE. It is about me, it is about all of us and our delusions and values. I didn't show him as a brainless vicious monster, but as a human being with enthusiasm, pleasure, satisfaction and yet nevertheless delusion (in my opinion), or maybe he is laughing at us, or maybe the genuine Emin really is worth the money. I think I present an observation to stimulate a decision, rather than impose one, although everyone assumes it means just one thing.
MP: By contrast, Billy's two works in The Stuckists book are definitely in the tradition of European Expressionism, and the expressive use of paint (as contrasted with your flat, unemotive and hard-edged use of paint) conveys strong emotional and possibly spiritual resonance. In his works there is no discernible sense of tongue-in-cheek irony, he appears to be absolutely sincere and of one integrated mind. His works look just as one would expect from reading the interview with him. That comes across as entirely consisent.
CT: It is not my use of paint that is emotive and conveys a spiritual resonance. It is the colours and shapes themselves that do this. There is more than one way to skin a cat. It is a simplistic view to think that visible brush marks and painterliness automatically equal emotion. Also there is confusion between passion and emotion: still waters run deep.
MP: From what I can make of it, your work would look totally at home in the postmodern context, in a Britart or YBA exhibition. In my view, the best of modernism was about expressing an internal view of reality, something that the artist believed in with real integrity and the dedication necessary to keep developing that vision. Your "Remodernism", I would have thought, would be concerned to recapture that dedicated, perhaps visionary intensity that postmodernism has trivialised and trashed. That's why I'm puzzled by the way your paintings look just as emotionally empty, soulless and 'ironic' as the Britart you castigate.
CT: If it were put in that context it would bring out what I consider to be the least important aspects of it. In the context of Stuckist shows it brings out what it has in common with those artists, which I consider to be the more important aspects. I work on multi-levels simultaneously. You can see it on a simple superficial level, or you can feel and experience it more deeply. It is work you can trust to take you to somewhere worthwhile in yourself. It is not going to lead you up a blind alley. It enhances experience of life, because it has a transcendent quality as well as an immediate and observational quality.
MP: How are works like Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision going to do that?
CT: By showing a situation clearly and memorably, to cut through the bullshit and delusion.
MP: Your manifesto includes a lot about spiritual renewal, so I'm interested in whether you have any particular religious beliefs or affiliations. Can you explain how studying the Kabbalah has influenced your philosophy and art?
CT: I think there should be a sense of spiritual renewal in any complete appreciation of being alive. I don't affiliate to a religion as such. The Kabbalah has given me a very sound and comprehensive understanding and structure with many ideas for practical application. The notion of honesty as a key is one of them. The idea of balance between opposites also. It is a path of experience and knowledge.
MP: Do you see a parallel between Kandinsky's Concerning the spiritual in art (1912) and your stated ambition to instigate a spiritual renaissance in art and society? To me, his view of the early 20th century doesn't seem that far removed from your own view of decadent postmodernism. His conclusion similarly heralds a spiritual renaissance: "We have before us an age of conscious creation, and this new spirit in painting is going hand in hand with thought towards an epoch of great spirituality."5
CT: Some of the words are of course very similar, but it might surprise you that nevertheless I shy away from Kandinsky and mistrust him. Our basic postulation was that the development of twentieth century Modernism was one of increasing fragmentation, with each school staking a claim to a part of the whole and advocating it as the whole. We are advocating a holism which integrates and balances opposites. Kandinsky is part of the fragmentation process. He advocates the spiritual as opposed to the material. To my mind this is just the same as advocating the material as opposed to the spiritual.
The material is part of reality, as is the spiritual. They work together. They both have a place, and to be a balanced individual one must be able to relate them comfortably, and eventually to know there is no absolute difference between them. The dualism of attempting to separate the spiritual results in at best a constantly frustrated person, and at worst to madness and even suicide. Rothko is another case in point.
This dualism also results in abstract art, because the world around gains no respect from the dualist. Our mundane lives are negated in favour of the beyond. This is why I do not exhibit abstract art. Nor for that matter do I exhibit art which is purely observational, as in e.g. photo-realism.
MP: Kandinsky was primarily an abstract painter, which of course doesn't endear you to him. But despite that superficial difference, would you agree with him to any extent that what really matters as an artist is to be true to oneself, as in the following:
"The artist is not only justified in using, but is under a moral obligation to use, only those forms which fulfill his own need. Absolute freedom from anatomy or anything else of the kind must be given to the artist in his choice of means. Such spiritual freedom is as necessary in art as it is in life."6
The Death of Conceptual Art
In a nutshell, do you agree with Kandinsky that the spiritual in art flows from the internal necessity of the soul? If not, then what do you mean by "spiritual renaissance" in the context of Stuckism and Remodernism?
CT: Very cautiously I would agree with the nutshell. The problem is that the West is somewhat primitive in its ability to deal with the inner world. Therefore there is a problem of terminology. I suspect he means by soul 'spirit as opposed to material'. I would see the soul as the intermediary between spirit and material, thereby encompassing and balancing both.
See some of Charles Thomson's paintings here and there. Listen to an interview with Charles Thomson on Radio Netherlands.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Charles Thomson is a happy Aquarian and was born in Romford, Essex in 1953. He went to Brentwood School with Douglas 'Hitchhiker' Adams, distributed OZ magazine round London and in 1979 was awarded the FFIAD by Maidstone College of Art Painting Department (First Fail in A Decade). He was a founder-member of the Medway Poets with Childish, Lewis and Ming. He worked for seven years part-time on the switchboard of KCOAH (Kent County Ophthalmic and Aural Hospital). In 1987 he became a full-time poet, performing his work in over 700 schools and represented in over 80 anthologies from major publishers. In 1999 he met up again with Billy Childish and suggested they join forces to start a painting group called Stuckism based on a Tracey Emin comment in one of Billy's poems.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Max Podstolski (b. 1952) is a New Zealand primitivist painter who first exhibited in 1976. Shows include "Sign Signature Significance" (Christchurch, 1988), "Revealing, Concealing" (Christchurch, 1996), and "Max Podstolski Strips" (Perth, W.A., 2001). His formative influences were modernists with an affinity for 'primitive', 'outsider' and children's art, such as Klee, Miro, the CoBrA Group and Dubuffet. Max could thus be considered a kind of 're-modernist': at heart he is simply an individualist who follows Voltaire's dictum to 'cultivate one's own garden'. He currently exhibits as part of the Primitive Bird Group, and from 1999-2002 contributed articles on art to spark-online. To support his painting habit (and family) he works as Fine Arts & Humanities Information Librarian at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch.