First published in The Other Muswell Hill Stuckist newspaper, December 2012.
Charles Thomson (Stuckism co-founder) and Edgeworth Johnstone (of The Other Muswell Hill Stuckists) discuss Billy Childish and Art Hate.
CT: The curious thing about Billy Childish, because some people say ‘Why did he leave?’ and I say ‘You’re asking the wrong question.’ The real question is ‘Why did he join?’. Because he’s so much like a solo player. How come he ended up in this group situation. Or if he is in a group, it’s like a group he started, which he essentially guides. So how come he was in this situation? And I think it happened at a particular time in his life, when there was an opening for something. Partly, I think because he was in between relationships, and there was kind of a gap, and I think he valued the interaction. Almost like a partnership one might say. And I think it was meant to happen. He was very influential and important in launching Stuckism with me. We worked together on it, and I learnt from him, and he’s learnt from me. Particularly with writing the manifesto, we came from completely different directions. His was like flamboyant, wild and rhetorical, and mine was kind of analytical, precise and logical. And by putting the two together, we came up with something that we wouldn’t have been able to do individually. And I’ve learnt those things from him, and I think he’s learnt some of those things from me as well. But the strain began to tell, on the different approaches. And I am someone that works with a group, Billy is someone that works solo. Because it’s his best approach. There’s a lot of stuff he doesn’t like, and I’m more broad-minded in terms of seeing what other people are doing. Whereas I think he ploughs his own furrow very strongly and very determinedly. It’s very difficult for him to see beyond that sometimes.
EJ: I think I heard that his first, kind of, ‘I want to leave.’ was after he saw the first show. Is that right?
CT: Yeah, probably.
EJ: I suppose having wrote the manifesto, he might have had an idea of what the work was going to be. And then he sees all these kind of different, totally different stylistically, and maybe in his eyes, quality-wise as well, different works.and probably thought, ‘No, this isn’t for me anymore.’ …But he stuck with it.
CT: Yeah, for a couple of years, till the middle of 2001. And he left at the end of a show we had called ‘Vote Stuckist’. I’ve got that on video, I interviewed him at the time, and said ‘Why are you leaving?’ But I think it was a good thing.
EJ: You think it’s good that he left?
CT: Yeah, because the tensions would have increased. He would have become increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated because work was being shown and promoted that he didn’t agree with. Also, probably the way I was doing things in the media. Some of those he didn’t like at all.
EJ: What, the Turner Prize clowns and stuff?
CT: I’m not exactly sure, as he said he was going to turn up that, and the only reason he didn’t was because he got gastroenteritis. And actually, he and I did a private kind of demo before the first official Stuckist demo, because we were invited to a Channel 4, well he was, invited to a Channel 4 launch party of some kind. Which he and I ended up getting ejected from. Because we were giving people leaflets. Mind you, they were asking for leaflets, but apparently you’re not allowed to give people something they ask for, if it’s critical. But there are other things. It’s difficult to put your finger on it. Oh, he thinks I’m vulgar in my approach to things apparently.
EJ: What, publicity-wise?
CT: Yeah, which is not entirely untrue.
EJ: Well, I wouldn’t call it vulgar. I would say effective.
CT: Yeah, well sometimes they’re the same thing. I think basically, it’s a question of control. It’s a question of style. It’s not really a question of content. Not really a question of essence. Because he’s quite happy to do things in the media. You know, wear silly hats and silly clothes. It’s just that he wants his silly hats, not my silly hats as it were.
EJ: But he’s always defended the manifesto. He always seems to say the manifesto at least, he’s very happy with. And Remodernism as well…
CT: Absolutely, he believes in what’s in the manifesto. In the Stuckist manifesto. He just thinks that most Stuckist artists aren’t a manifestation of what’s in the manifesto, where I think they are. So I think he probably feels that he is the only true Stuckist, and all the rest aren’t.
EJ: Well, what about yourself?
CT: Well, I’m probably not either. I don’t know. Apart from writing the manifesto, so he would agree with me on the ideas, but not on how they are manifested.
EJ: But he’s doing Art Hate now, which seems to have quite a few parallels with Stuckism, from what I can see.
EJ: Do you reckon that’s him, sort of saying ‘Well, I wasn’t happy with Stuckism. This is me.’
CT: Yeah, I think it’s a real step backwards from Stuckism. Because Stuckism was proposing values, and Art Hate is such a kind of convoluted in-joke. You know, what does it mean? It just seems to be totally built on irony.
EJ: It seems visually to be quite Dada influenced to me.
EJ: Would that explain the kind of difficulty pinning down what it is? The kind of nonsense side of it, because you had that with Dada as well.
CT: To a certain extent. I mean, I think it’s a game. It’s a bit like a schoolyard game. I don’t feel very comfortable with it. As I say, I think it’s a step back. It’s almost like a defense mechanism because no-one can fault you, because there’s nothing there to fault. It’s not got anything that it’s putting up, which it believes in. It’s quite the opposite, unless you actually going to believe in Art Hate. Or unless you say it’ s all ironic, in which case, why not say what you mean? So as far as I can see, as soon as you start questioning it, it starts to contradict itself or not have substance. It’s just clever.
CT: But didn’t you take part in Art Hate? Do you hate art?
EJ: I like the posters.
CT: Well as I say, they’re clever. They’re funny. They’re good graphics.
EJ: And I like filling my time with stuff that’s fun. I was out distributing Art Hate leaflets and Billy Childish books. Really just to …I like promoting Billy Childish because I think he’s a very good artist. So that’s always good. I enjoy doing it, and I just get a sense of excitement being part of it. Well, not part of it. I’m not part of it obviously. But I get a sense of excitement being near things that are happening, that Billy Childish and L-13 are doing. I visit the gallery, and I like Billy’s work, but I wouldn’t say I’m not particularly close to Art Hate, like I am with Stuckism for example.But it’s just a different thing for me.
CT: It’s quite interesting, how for most Stuckist artists, it’s kind of made no impression. Because they tend to pick up on things, and talk about them, and point them out if there are things that they think are worthwhile.
EJ: Well, we’ve already got Stuckism. That’s the thing, I mean we’re already taken care of, in any respect that I think…Maybe without Stuckism people would be more interested in, maybe stuff like that. But I think Stuckism hits the nail on the head for a lot people, and we’re very comfortable in this group, and with this kind of representation of our artwork, and as ourselves as artists. I think there’s a lot of people thinking, well that’s me. I don’t need anything. It’s like getting married. You can stop looking once you’re married.