The Socialist Unity Network

Stuckism: progressive or reactionary?

Rupert Mallin


'Billy, you're work is Stuck! Stuck! Stuck.' With these words of Tracey Emin to her former lover Billy Childish (poet and painter) Stuckism was launched in 1999 by a once mutual friend to each, Charles Thomson.  Back in the 1980s all three had been friends out of Maidstone School of Art and variously connected to the Medway Poets. Until the late 1990s Thomson was a very amusing poet, who avoided 'rant' and 'rap,' conveying skip-along, punked up rhyming couplets - a Sir John Betjeman on speed - hilariously accompanied by props, sounds, music.


Emin, one of the newer Brit Pop artists, gained notoriety for her 1999 Turner Prize nomination - her own unmade bed. That Childish's ex-lover and previous collaborator had gained more notoriety than he was bad enough, but for the two poets, she had crossed over into 'old and retrogressive' conceptual art, turning her back on the 'real' thing.


Thus Thomson, with Childish's support, launched Stuckism: "to restore values of authenticity, content, meaning and communication in art." Press statements, a manifesto and cobbled together amateur exhibitions of Stuckists' paintings quickly ensued. What began as a reaction to Emin's insult, quickly became fixed in the notion that a painting should be a painting, a film should be a film, a poem should be a poem, etc. That is, different art forms could co-exist but must not 'cross-over;' they must acknowledge the traditions of their forms, be pure to the their medium and unsullied by conceptualism.


Thomson is recently quoted as saying that Stuckist painters "use all different styles, but what we insist on is that the artist is honest about their experiences, themselves, their emotions - and that they paint a picture that is clear to understand. There is so much hype and pretentiousness that real values have been lost from what makes art worthwhile to bother with in the first place."


Head of Tate Modern, Sir Nicholas Serota, is the Stuckists' principle target. Yet, the numbers flocking into Tate Modern, where conceptual art is centre stage, calls into question - what are 'real values' in art? In society? If the multitude are being denied those 'real values,' why not undermine the Establishment through promoting amateurism? Indeed, Childish has claimed that he is an 'amateur' and has since left the Stuckists. From the joy of the 'amateur' the Stuckists have now made a break through into the Establishment and will take part in the Liverpool Biennial, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, where 280 Stuckist paintings by 37 artists "from across the world" will be exhibited later this year.


As a poet I can understand both the pursuit of the 'amateur' and the desire to 'make it,' or at least survive through ones practice. However, if Stuckism is about 'honesty,' 'real values', against 'hype and pretentiousness,' what of Stuckist art itself? Many of the paintings are comic strip, copyart, pastiche, busy work - without asides and depth - jokes in place of irony...


Thomson is an excellent self publicist. Back in 1999 he invited me to join a regional group of Stuckists. I was to phone a leading sponsor of the project "but don't talk politics to him." The contact in question was the Tory party agent in Ipswich! I didn't phone. Then I heard Thomson had verbal backing, if not sponsorship, from ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Norman Lamont, met drumming up support in clubs across London. Thomson even stood in the 2001 General Election against the then Culture Minister Chris Smith. Despite a full page article in the Guardian, Thomson received just 125 votes (but for every 25 votes he received a bottle of champagne...)


Emin's work can be criticised for its trivial yet self-obsessed qualities, but her work is entirely explorative and unashamedly full of contradictions. Some of the Stuckists' utterances against Postmodernism and the Establishment I can stomach but I feel they fail in their own terms: the language of painting and the artist's concern to push the exploration further, rather than reworking the past in the present. The Stuckists work and writings are on the web here.


Whether painting or poetry, the rise of Stuckism raises important questions as to progression or regression in art in the new millennium. What do you think?



September 2004


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