Michael Craig-Martin: On being an artist

Art Books Publishing, 2015
304 pages
Hardback £22.50

The author is a major British artist in his own right, but probably even better known as the godfather of the Young British Artists, many of whom studied under him at Goldsmiths College in the 1980s. In a series of short sections - some only a paragraph, others lasting for several pages - he looks back over his 50-year career, interspersing autobiography with general reflection on art and the business of being an artist.

The book is wonderfully readable. Craig-Martin is engagingly modest about his own achievements, and generous to others. And he writes as he paints, with a crisp, simple style that is, presumably, the end-product of a long and difficult process of reworking and clarification. There are plenty of fascinating insights, such as his account of studying under Josef Albers at Yale; the development of the art course at Goldsmiths; and the evolution of plans for Tate Modern, which Craig-Martin witnessed from the inside as one of the Tate’s Trustees. There are also some great stories about the author’s interactions with other well-known figures, his unusual odyssey at the age of 20 in search of Ingmar Bergman, and his short-term employment by a newspaper to stalk Christine Keeler.

But given his pivotal role in the developments that reinvigorated British art and put it back on the cultural map of the world, it is his insights into the ideas, beliefs and motivations behind this movement that make the book important - and at the same time left me frustrated and disappointed.

Craig-Martin provides many penetrating insights into the art of the last half-century, with helpful analysis of the characteristics of Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art. But just as he is clear that his own art is about appearances and immediate experience, and only seeks to understand the world as it is and not as one might like it to be, so there is in his writing a lack of depth and of self-questioning that, I fear, characterises much BritArt and the culture it reflects.

The title of each section begins, like the book title, with the word ‘On…’ This echoes the style of classical authors who would write ‘On architecture’ or ‘On painting’ because they knew they could not exhaust their subject-matter. But in this case the choice seems to reflect not just the author’s obvious modesty, but also the postmodern sensibility that there is no metanarrative and the author is not going to even attempt to connect the dots. On the contrary, he celebrates contradictions, of which the book contains its fair share.

He repeatedly refers to values and meaning in art without exploring or explaining what these might be, and how they may be established. I had to read over 100 pages before I came to what I felt was an overt value judgement – and intriguingly this was an enthusiastic endorsement of Minimalism and its ability to work with banal ideas. The author is not averse to expressing strong opinions, but these usually lack supporting evidence or examples. His sweeping statement that the Bible and the Koran are works of poetry makes one wonder just how many pages he read.

It was the absence of even an attempt to establish a bedrock for a worldview that I found most disturbing about this book. For with it comes an absence of self-awareness about the paucity of its thinking, and an obliviousness to the yawning gulf of nihilism that stands before the author. He claims to be able to distinguish between good and bad in art, but wants to do this while specifically denying any solid basis for such judgements. He refers frequently to ‘artists’ as a distinct category, but the best definition of an artist he musters is ‘someone who makes art’. His definition of art as ‘the sum of all those things done in its name’ is, he writes, clear and easily identifiable but also highly elusive and abstract. His classic work An oak tree consists of a glass of water on a shelf and a text, in the form of an interview, explaining why the glass of water is an oak tree. Through this he comes to the conclusion that the distinguishing feature of a work of art is that the artist really believes in it, and the viewer shares that belief.

In an intriguing section on Catholicism, he remarks on the way many people who, like himself, were brought up in that church but then rejected it, spent their lives looking for an alternative comprehensive belief system. Many found it in Communism, but he, he says, found it in art. Art, or more particularly a passion for creativity, seems to be way he fills the hole of meaning and purpose.

And yet, almost willing himself into the abyss, one his enduring enthusiasms, bolstered by Duchamp, is for pushing the boundaries of what counts as art, and minimizing the distinction between a work of art and any other quotidian object. If Hans Rookmaaker was right that the Western tradition of Fine Art is intrinsically Christian, it is interesting that the non-Christian trend in society feels uncomfortable with the clarity of his categorization. Christianity, rooted in the Triune God, is the only world faith that is truly comfortable with difference. Postmodernism likes Fine Art as a vehicle for exploring meaning, but seems to be trending back towards monism, where there is no meaning, just stuff.

I would highly recommend this very accessible book to anyone wanting a better understanding of the art and culture of our times – but be prepared to find it frustrating.

[This review was first published in Third Way magazine]

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