Thursday, March 11, 2010

The figurative rebels: The Stuckists Manifesto

By today, everyone and their mothers know about the Young British Artists. At the highest stage of that manic episode called Cool Britannia, these kids came to terrorise the world of arts as we knew it: Tracy Emin with her crafts, her honesty and her soiled sheets; Damien Hirst, like his animals in formaldehyde, drowned in spirituality; Chris Ofili, talking about the black identity and its stereotypes with the aid of poo; Jenny Saville and her monumental paintings of monumental women; Sarah Lucas playing with food and comparing it to sex organs; and so on. We are also quite familiar with Charles Saatchi (collector in love with the movement) and the Turner Prize (which has been awarded to several YBAs through the years). They are a group against the classical notions of art. They are – or at least were during the 90s – a revolutionary combo. It’s impossible to be against the revolution, isn’t it? Against counter-culture? What would that be? Counter-counter-culture? Quite hard to pronounce, but it exists.

The Stuckists battle anything the YBAs represent. They think conceptual art is a joke. They’ve reported Saatchi to the Office of Fair Trading to complain about his excessive power in the art world. They may protest outside Tate Britain dressed as clowns, but they take themselves seriously.

One of his founders, Billy Childish, used to date Tracey Emin in the 80s. She once told him he had no future as an artist; and that his poetry, paintings, and self, were “Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!.” In 1999, Billy took this insult and shoved it up her arse.

Along Charles Thomson, he released a manifesto “against conceptualism, hedonism and the cult of the ego-artist”. Through 20 statements, they try to explain who they are, what do they aim for, and why are they so upset with contemporary British Art.

The first statement says that “Stuckism is the quest for authenticity”. Painting is their medium of choice, a way to self-discovery trough “a process of action, emotion, thought and vision”. Their model of art is holistic, a way the conscious and the unconscious can meet, without resorting to the “egocentric lie” of modern abstraction. More bluntly, they assume that “artists who don’t paint aren’t artists”, that “art that has to be in a gallery to be art isn’t art”, “the Stuckist paints pictures because pictures is [sic] what matters” and that “[i]f it is the conceptualist’s wish to always be clever, then it is the Stuckist’s duty to always be wrong”.

The Stuckists don’t care about prizes. To them, success is getting out of bed in the morning and paint. Their duty is to explore their neurosis and innocence through painting and display. Not as career artist, but rather as amateurs, unafraid to fail.
To them, “painting is mysterious. It creates worlds within worlds”; and gives us access to our unseen, inner reality, in ways that existing objects from a material world never will.

They don’t consider themselves a movement, but an international non-movement. They don’t see themselves as an ‘ism’ because they are stuck. They talk about the failure of Post Modernism, which now “has given way to trite cleverness for commercial exploitation”. Brit Art, with its powerful political and social sponsors, is not as subversive or avant-garde as it claims.

They replace the white cube in favour of musty museums and comfy homes. They swear they don’t play games of “novelty, shock and gimmick”; and give emphasis to “process over cleverness, realism over abstraction, content over void, humour over wittiness and painting over smugness”. They are also against elitism in universities, and demand that all college buildings offer adult education and recreational use to those who live in the community they are guest in.

You can agree or disagree with them, but I have this little doubt: if they swear they are not into “novelty, shock and gimmick”, why do we remember them for their protests rather than for their artwork? Maybe it’s because most humans pay more attention to sensationalism than work. We can easily recall pieces by YBAs because they are sensationalists themselves. I mean, showing off the list of people you have slept with could be fresh tabloid material. This isn’t new: everyone knows about that self-portrait where Vincent van Gogh has his ear bandaged. Why? Because he chopped it off! What about La Giocconda, by Da Vinci? What’s NOT about her! She’s surrounded by more rumours than facts! And I could go on for hours with hot gossip about “masterpieces” and “great artists”, but my name is not Giorgio Vasari.

Anyway, shall we believe this people that they are honestly all about painting and not fooling around? I just don’t know. Publishing a manifesto is an act of attention seeking itself. It’s not bad, of course. We all love our two or three seconds in the spotlight. :)