Coming Unstuck (Tract 2 – 2004)
Surrealism has a straightforward attitude to so-called “Britart”, the fashionable artistic trend that Julian Stallabrass has so aptly dubbed “high art lite”, it is an attitude of absolute and undisguised contempt. The prime movers of “high art lite” – whether as Tory millionaires, dealers masquerading as collectors, minor celebrities, or exploitative proprietors of small businesses – have positioned themselves in opposition to the Surrealist project of liberating humanity and the human imagination. They stand squarely among our enemies.
The Stuckists share our opposition to this trend within the art world; but we do not share the more general Stuckist hostility to conceptual art. Conceptual art is a strategy that significantly predates the crystallisation of “high art lite”, and is far from exhausted. In fact, we do not consider the Stuckists as allies or fellow-travellers in any sense. The reason for this is plain, Stuckism is the bastard child of the conservative art establishment. The Stuckists are incapable of presenting any genuine alternative to the shallow mediocrity of the Hirsts and Emins; nor to the wheeler-dealering masquerading as patronage of Saatchi and his kind. They are merely another gang of artists competing for a share of the commercial cake. The self-proclaimed status of Stuckism as an “art movement” gives the game away; nothing but empty posturing with a paintbrush.
The Stuckists fetishise the act of painting and enshrine the product as if it is a sacred idol. The Stuckist painting has a tin halo, a smugly self-righteous expression, and a fat belly filled with self-absorption. It is a childish kicking against modernity that fails, pathetically, to challenge the underlying realities of capitalism, of the capitalist art market, of material, psychological, psychic and spiritual repression. Vague notions of “spirituality”, and some feeble dabbling on the tamer edges of the occult, are not enough.
The rebel image of Stuckism is no more than a conjuring trick, an affair of smoke and mirages, an outright fake. Its thin radical gloss is created by expressing alienation alongside its innate conservatism, a confused and confusing stance that shares far more with Céline’s dismal path towards eventual fascism than with the revolutionary intransigence of Surrealism. Even at its occasional best, Stuckism can only be the expression of alienation, and a transmission belt for despair and defeat that serves to defuse the spirit of revolt. The cynicism and misanthropy so rife among the Stuckists are a form of abstention from any truly radical engagement with bourgeois society. The limits of their apolitical “rebellion” are so soon encountered that one can only conclude that it is no rebellion at all.
Stuckism remains the mirror image of “high art lite”. The relationship between the two tendencies is a symbiotic one. At the same time as the Stuckists condemn Tracey Emin, they promote their link with her, attempting to ride her coat-tails to art world success. But even this association is largely illusory, given that it merely consists of a long-dead relationship. Britart, of course, was never radical, nor were its attempts at shock-tactics more than feeble. In fact, the “great moment” of Britart was the Sensation exhibition, held at the Royal Academy. It is worth remembering that William Blake said of that establishment that it consisted of “men hired to depress art”, and nothing about it has changed in two hundred years. To allow oneself to be drawn into the Royal Academy is to refute all radical pretensions, to accept the status quo in a spirit of cynical self-advancement, exactly as the Britart pack have done. Do the Stuckists oppose this? Not at all. On the contrary, one of the founders of the movement, Charles Thomson, is very proud of having shown at the Academy. His art is actually quite typical of the dreary fare served up at the Summer Show.
If, for this moment, we take the Stuckists seriously, it is not because they represent a threat or a real critique, but rather because they reveal themselves as a symptom. Their only virtue would seem to be that they have driven Nicholas Serota, the curiously desiccated director of the Tate, to absolute fury. This, at any rate, is praiseworthy and should immediately be made a national sport. But, ultimately, the Stuckists’ complaint against the art world is not its monumental dishonesty, its reduction of art to a commodity, and certainly not its vacuous and slavish acceptance of capitalism and the status quo. They only express an envy that would evaporate if Saatchi bought their work. So that it is not the case that Britart and Stuckism are genuinely opposites pitted one against the other, they simply pose the question: Coke or Pepsi?
For Surrealism, art has always been one means among many, never an end in itself. The great ambition of Surrealism, the transformation of life itself, could never be contained within art. It is from a very different terrain that we view this squabble. Stuckism, on the other hand, remains a parasite on the back of a more successful “art movement”, sucking its blood for all it is worth. As such, it will no doubt accompany its host to the same historical dustbin.
London Surrealist Group