My title, and therefore in effect my brief was proposed by the editors of NAE. My response is to paraphrase George Orwell’s essay on this subject, ‘Why I Write’ (1947). It involves autobiographical accounts followed by a politics of writing – a useful model and a place to begin. Orwell cites four motivations for a writer: sheer egoism or the desire of a writer to define their own life, aesthetic enthusiasm – the pleasure of the use of words, historical impulse – the need to record the times in which he or she lives, and political purpose – the experience of the Spanish Civil War and of Burma consolidated his political motivation as a writer. In Burma Orwell understood Imperialism and in Spain his position was against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism. His direct experience of poverty, he says, made him appreciate working class life. ‘That art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position’. In conclusion however, he emphasises that it is not possible to understand a writer’s motives without knowledge of their early development and he re-asserts that the feeling of loneliness and of being undervalued as a child persisted as a presence in all his writing.
We live in a different historical era now, clearly-defined political causes such as the Spanish Civil War have been replaced by values which are a lot less easy to identify. We live in a time that is overdetermined, at the ‘end of History’ in which all forms and meanings are at a point of saturation. That said, I’ll examine the impact of my autobiographical motivation first. Orwell’s motivational descriptors weave in and out of this material.
I grew up in the elegant town Cheltenham Spa in the UK, architecturally an 1820 Neoclassical idyll, a dream city surrounded by hills, where Handel conducted concerts and the King and his entourage visited to taste the waters or take the cure. Gustav Holst, Bomber Harris, and Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones were all residents during different eras of the town. My grandparents were Irish servants to a retired colonel from the British Raj in India. They lived above the stables behind the colonel’s elegant Cheltenham house. On the other side, my dad’s family ran barges from Camden Lock in London back and forth to the North of England at the turn of the century. The lifestyle is visualised in Monet’s painting, Les dechargeurs de charbon,1875. Trench warfare wiped out the male population except grandad Ted. The family were evacuated to Cheltenham during the Blitz where they lived in a post-war pre-fab, a ‘little palace’, a bit like Levittown in the US. When working, Ted was a dustbin man, as we say in art jargon, a rag-picker of culture. Here are his Orwell-inflected, Cockney accented words of resistance to Imperialism: ‘Bloody rawlty, bloody rawlty got all the bloody manney and all the bloody powah’, all said while unemployed, sipping tea from his saucer, in a cheap Salvation Army suit with his pyjamas worn beneath. When I write, I recall Ted’s words.
At family gatherings, we discussed socialism and literature with my uncle who was a self- educated union organiser, whereupon I ceased my prolonged adolescent obsession with war comics and football and was inspired to read novels. At school I took the basic English exam seven times. Grammar, syntax and spelling remain an up-hill task. When I write today, I am motivated by my early fascination with literature.
So then why do I write art criticism? The act of writing greatly helps when thinking about my own artistic practice, and writing criticism in particular really helps to focus one’s thoughts on how to judge what exactly is going on in the art world. It is not my intention to provide PR for the culture industry. I write as a critically-engaged artist. I have learned from Derek Guthrie that an artist must define his or her own work. If an artist’s work is left open to multiple readings, then it is also open to multiple mis-readings. A corporate-style art school charging $50,000 a year, a burgeoning art market and an art magazine that costs ‘tuppence’ yet can endorse an artist’s practice or otherwise is bound to be a power play. Particularly when the ability to endorse derives from the quality of the magazine’s independent voice, for which an unavoidable historical precedent is the eighteenth-century academy in Paris and its relation to its public and pamphleteers, a relationship which remains in place today. Arguably, to be taken seriously an artist must be or have a committed independent wordsmith; this cannot be a con, a false validation engineered by an institution’s in-house stooge.
The NAE advised me to look at back issues of the magazine and re-assess these against my experiences as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to understand why I write. What comes across from reading is that the ‘Hairy Who’, Chicago Imagists were in a position akin to the family silver. An article comparing them to Seurat’s La Grande Jatte,1884, simply took them out and polished them a bit. James Yood and Alice Thorson reflecting on their 1985 editorship in the anthology The Essential NAE, 2011, expressed their allegiance to the dynamic of Neo-Expressionism while touching on the emergence of ‘a new group of Conceptual artists’.
At the SAIC I gained further Orwellian insights into the political purpose and machinations of the art world. On the one hand a particularly well-informed advisor helped me to contextualise further a direction that I had already partially understood, ‘The Museum as Studio’. Some tutors were wholeheartedly supportive, whereas others used methods that in my opinion are similar to Donald Trump’s mafia-inflected tactics: put-down, cultural slur, confusion, demand for allegiance, coercion. The central issue of contention was I think my interest in taste and the beautiful. I was developing an aesthetic rationale, a sociology of taste: I liked all the nice things the middle-class folks have, and I thought my socio-economic class should have them too. I didn’t go to art school to make redundant conceptual pastiche, nor to be a liberal missionary conducting social sculpture or ‘Beuysspeak’, to borrow a term from Terry Atkinson. My central interest as an artist, to understand the beautiful in the context of conceptualism as critique, was beginning to form; I wanted to at least be able to continue to define myself as an artist. We left the city.
I had previously studied at Leeds Polytechnic in England and had attended a seminar where we read Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment and discussed it. One of the members of the Art & Language group attended the seminar. Conceptualism was a radical critique of high Modernism as connoisseurship, epitomised by the American-style painting of Jackson Pollock, Morris Lewis, etcetera. Conceptualism was not conceived as style, it was a critique. Discussion was its significant format: exemplified by the Art Theory course at Coventry School of Art, 1970-73 and The Indexing, 1971, an Art & Language cross-referencing index of textual conversations about art, and a conceptual artwork to boot. Again, why do I write art criticism? Because I consider critical thinking through writing to be the most significant legacy of Conceptualism.
To cut a long story short, the ease with which Conceptualism transformed into an administered style, a logo and branding, was flagged up by Terry Atkinson in 1973: ‘ … Conceptualism had become a name, to put it obviously, which far from exhausted theory’. The Indexing The World War 1 Moves and the Ruins of Conceptualism, 1992. Charles Harrison, in Looking Back, 2009, says, in conversation with Elena Crippa, ‘It was pretty clear that from 1975/76 Conceptual art was really over. It could only be kept going as a kind of logo’. This problem was reiterated and consolidated later in Benjamin Buchloh’s 1990 essay (published in October magazine), ‘Conceptual Art 1962–1969: from the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’. Making reference to Adorno’s, ‘totally administered world’, he states, ‘Paradoxically, then, it would appear that Conceptual Art truly became the most significant paradigmatic change of post-war artistic production at the very moment that it mimed the operating logic of late capitalism’.
How does this discussion pan out today, in November, 2018? I recently took a trip into town, London. First on my ‘must see’ list, the Whitechapel Art Gallery where Elmgreen and Dragset’s, This is How We Bite Our Tongue, 2018, exposes remnants of institutional critique in the initially startling form of a life-size reconstruction of the old Whitechapel Municipal Swimming Pool. The detail of the rusty, stained leaking roof in the base of the pool testifies to its dereliction and convincing scale. The work is implicitly critical of the gentrification process taking place in the East End of London. The site of the dispossessed pool, just down the road, will become a swish hotel and spa.
Ominously, in 1984, when we resided in London, my wife and I and baby son lived across the river in Rotherhithe squats. The squatters were a politicised protest group attempting to prevent the Thatcher government’s policy of removing the community of social housing council flats, to make way for gentrification. We often crossed the river to the old Whitechapel Public Library, which was known as ‘the University of the Ghetto’, next door to the Whitechapel Gallery. My wife had a book out on loan from the library, Memoirs of Anna Dostoyevskaya, 1925. The politics between the squatters and the authorities became a stalemate and we left for Chicago. When we returned, many years later, the library had been stolen through gentrification, it had become the suave café and increased exhibition space of the Whitechapel Gallery. Its library function had been subsumed further down the street as a disco called the ‘Ideas Store’. The Anna Dostoyevskaya book remains on extended revolutionary loan, while the aesthetics of administration and conceptual branding currently hold court with the operating logic of late capitalism at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
The ‘University of the Ghetto’, was founded in 1892 by the social reformers Samuel Barnett and John Passmore Edwards. In 1884 Barnett and his wife Henrietta established the settlement house Toynbee Hall, just around the corner from the gallery and still in active socialist deployment today. Its left-wing programs had a lasting impact on life in Britain. Clement Atlee, Labour Prime Minister from 1945 – 1951, worked at the hall, likewise William Beveridge, an architect of the Welfare State. This settlement house encouraged the philosopher Jane Addams to initiate Hull House settlement in Chicago. It is the pragmatic principles of Hull House which inform the philosophy of New Art Examiner magazine. I write for the magazine NAE, ‘The Independent Voice of the Visual Arts’, because there is a significant connection in terms of approach and ‘political purpose’ between my own beliefs and values, and that of the magazine.
Volume 33 no 3 January / February 2019 pp14-16
Stephen Lee is an artist and a writer.