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A New Internationalism

At the recent London art fair, Andrew Renton, Karsten Schubert and Michael Craig-Martin discussed the possibilities of new British art being taken up internationally.

Andrew Renton: Michael. What did you see happening during the 80s? You were a teacher, and therefore seeing a lot of things coming through, as well as an artist making work ... What changed? Did anything change? Was it always the same?

Michael Craig-Martin: I don't think anything changed in a way that you could identify. But there's always a problem in Britain, and it's right at the heart of the subject. Many people don't understand that art is an international phenomenon, and that it's part of an international intellectual life. Artists either participate in this or they don't. If you are a participant, there will be interest in what you do, and your work will probably arise from some kind of contact with those issues which are around at that time. It's nearly always younger artists who are at the centre of these issues, because they're the ones who are either introducing things or taking things further. What's different about this group of artists is that as students they were extremely interested in other art. They saw the most important and interesting art going on in London and they saw international art, so they could see themselves in terms of a context. Foreigners can instantly recognise that they can be seen in terms of that context. So when foreigners came, they could see the relevance of this art. This obviously helps in terms of trying to gain interest abroad.

AR: It seems that in the late 80s young British art was first taken up by those foreigners. It couldn't be absorbed by the critical media nor, indeed, by the galleries in this country. Is that a fair assessment? Karsten Schubert: I think it always happens that way. Young British art is always taken up abroad first, and when it has received recognition abroad, it is taken up locally. I think that made it always very difficult for young artists – how can you catch that international attention without having having that local support first? And nothing's changed. It's still a big problem. When you look at most of the artists that are included in your book, they organised their own shows here in London, were taken up by a handful of galleries, and then immediately went abroad. They were shown in Cologne, New York, they started being shown in inter nation group shows, and only now, probably in 1992, will they start being shows with British institutions. That has always been the case, and it's just one of those weird things about England, that there is not enough confidence and support locally to give those young artists a hand and say, 'Ok, we'll go along with it and fight it out with you.' They have to go abroad first.

AR: It's intriguing. You're a gallery owner, you're German, you've chosen to work in London. Two of the other major young galleries are also outsiders. Laure Genillard is Swiss, Maureen Paley is American. Is there a need for the outsider to come in, and start again? Can't we see it?

KS: I think the British fundamentally don't like contemporary art. (Laughter.) So it takes foreigners to take it on, push it through, make it successful, make it recognised, and then they will join you later on. But there's very little local support when you need it most. You feel very lonely.

AR: So what are you doing here?

KS: Being a bit perverse and enjoying it. It is great fun to do it against that resistance, because coming from Germany where contemporary art is very much part of everyone's life, you feel that there's very little resistance against it. Having that resistance is a huge challenge.

AR: Does it shape the work?

KS: It makes the work a lot more aggressive and direct than the work you see coming out of Cologne, for example. There's a sort of generic type of contemporary art being made in New York and Cologne now, while something very special is happening in Britain. This makes it very interesting for New York and Cologne.

AR: So there's a system in New York than can absorb a large number of young artists, there's a system in Cologne that can do the same. What we;ve got here, maybe, is a perverse educational system.

MC-M: One of the things about the notion of art in Britain that's difficult for students is that there's a very ambivalent idea about how the individual student making work relates to some larger question, some larger thing about what art is. Because one is in a position of being able to do what one wishes – basically you can do anything you want – that is sometimes misunderstood as meaning 'anything goes'. It doesn't actually work like that. There are larger issues that people become involved with. Each of those things has a history, and it's a question of relating, somehow, into that history. The young artists that have had some success were very fortunate in that there were three or four galleries in the 80s, like Karsten's gallery, Maureen Paley and Laure Genillard, that were looking for new art on international terms. So the people who were doing that work were the people who were able to be taken up. If you're not doing the kind of work that can be seen in those terms, no-one will be interested.

AR: When we talk about generations of artists, we're talking about one year after the next being very different. The graduates of 1990 are looking at the graduates of 1989. This cycle is moving faster and faster.

KS: What happened over the last three years was a real exception. It's not as if every year you have a certain number of students who can be taken up and shown internationally. What happened in 1988-9 in London was basically a repeat of what happened in the 60s at St. Martin's. Suddenly there was this coincidence of 10-15 people who had a similar agenda they wanted to push through and discuss, and there was a network, which you don't have every year.

MC-M: I think the thing that's important about this group of people is that they are all very familiar with each other's work. They follow each other's work, and what's unusual about the situation at the present time is that these people are working off each other. They are creating a kind of internal competition, they each want to outdo each other, and they follow each other's work and ideas, so that it has a kind of internal momentum of its own, which is very unusual. I've seen it happen in Britain only about two or three times. In the late 60s it happened at St. Martin's with the conceptual generation of Gilbert & George and Richard Long. If you go back to the early 60s there was the Pop generation at the Royal College. They all knew each other and worked off of each other, right from the time when they were students.

AR: Putting the book, Technique Anglaise, together was a symptom of exactly what Michael has described, because there were 26 artists who really did know each other and they pushed each other, saying 'What are you going to do in this book?'. We've asked the artists to contribute six pages each to work on a project. When the book has been published, I'll absolve myself of all responsibility because I'll say, 'It was them, they got together in a conspiracy against me!' The role of editor, when the ball is rolling as fast as it is, is really just to stop things falling off the cliff a bit too quickly, and what we've got here is a slice of the action which will probably be out of date in six months time. But I don't think any of the artists would be ashamed of that. Maybe that's something that goes against an older notion of what 'art' might be. That brings us into the realm of the commercial. These artists emerged in a boom time, when money was available, when space was available to do independent shows. There were Docklands warehouses up for grabs. They made great shows that couldn't possibly have been done without the backing go a major museum under normal circumstances. Suddenly there were very sophisticated looking shows emerging from people who were in their early twenties. Then you realise that it's not about paying your dues. It's about going out and grabbing what you want. I don't know what will happen now, in the 90s, when there's a struggle to sell art.

KS: What I'm trying to do with my artists now, while money is really scarce in Britain, is to get them abroad as quickly as possible. Three of the people I represent will have shows in New York within the next 12 months.

AR: Even so, no one's selling work in New York.

KS: You can still sell young art. I think it's the only thing you can sell in this climate, because it's comparatively cheap, and very little risk is involved, because so little is at stake. People are still looking and want to be involved. It's not that people lose interest just because there's no money any more. You just have to be a little more inventive.

AR: But if there;s no money, there are fewer catalogues, there are fewer extravagant exhibitions...

KS: But you're talking about making art on one side and the culture industry on the other, and they are not the same thing. Great art will be made under any circumstances. People who are really engaged will find a way of surviving even under these rather strenuous circumstances. In an way, I would lose confidence in any artist who came to me now and said, 'I can't do what I want because I don't have the money'.

MC-M: As an artist, I have to say that one of the wonderful things about money is that it is an enabler. There is no doubt that a great number of things were done by young people here in the last few years that could not have happened in an economically depressed time. I don't think this climate will stop good art being made, but it does definitely have an effect on the possibility of such a widespread number of people doing things that demand to be taken seriously.

AR: So what's good art? What's happening here that's good? Can we talk formally about good art any more? Can we describe what makes a good artwork? How do you judge it?

KS: I would say anything that makes me feel uncomfortable at first, and makes me worry that I'm getting too old and I can't quite handle it any more. I think that's good art. Michael Landy makes sculptures out of market stands and bread crates that we see on the streets everyday. I'm not an art historian, I just watch how people react to them, and I'm quite pleased by the response we get, because it's one of extreme disbelief and aggression. And a lot of resistance. That's where I get my kicks from. Deep down I know, and I can't verbalise it, that this incredibly important work that he is doing. And I will fight that through, until everybody realises stacks are incredibly beautiful and that everybody should have one.

MC-M: This question of quality is a very important one, and it seems to me you can only compare like with like. It's obvious that there is a vast amount of art in the world today, some of it which interests me, most of which doesn't. If somebody does something to a certain level where within its own terms it can be evaluated, where you can actually say this one is better than that one, that's when something starts to interest me.

AR: Ok – So which bread crate stack is better than the next?

MC-M: Well, this is a very easy question because all the bread crate stacks are exactly the same. But everything always goes back to the question of how you contextualise things. When I see anyone do anything, whether as an artist or a teacher, the first thing I try to do is ask where does it fit in? What is it like? Where does it come from? What does it relate to that I've already seen? Then I try to find out if that is actually where it is related ...

AR: So it's always based within a system of art.

MC-M: You never see anything that's truly new. What you do is see something that gives you a slightly different focus on something that gives you a slightly different focus on something that you're already familiar with. After all, Michael Landy works with found objects, and artists have worked with found objects for nearly a century. But what he has done with them is very peculiarly his. It's up to him to make it credible. A.R. How does he do that in this context? Does he have to justify it verbally? Does it depend on Karsten showing it?

MC-M: He never has to justify it verbally. The work depends on the artist to do it. Somebody like Karsten knows how to create a context in which the work can be understood correctly.

KS: Evaluating contemporary art is actually a very arrogant activity. Because you try to guess how history will be written. All great art of the past is a stepping stone in history, and all we are trying to do is say, 'This is the next stepping stone'.

AR: So is it promotion or is it futures trading? If you push it hard enough, will it work?

KS:It's neither. It's about making your choices and sticking with the decisions you've made. And hopefully the decisions retrospectively turn out to be the right ones.

MC-M: You can see it's a very risky business.

KS: My ambition is that in some future book of art history, I'd like to be the footnote to the Michael Landy chapter.

FRIEZE: I've been looking at a lot of conceptual art recently. In the Festival Hall at the moment, there's a violin with a windscreen wiper. I spent a long time in front of that, getting a few ideas, and finally I found a statement by the artist that helped me with the work. But usually, there's no such statement. I'm prepared to read all about recent art, but I need a context. I just don't want there to be a secret agenda.

KS: There is no secret agenda.

MC-M: There is no secret agenda.

KS:There is no secret agenda. There is no conspiracy, there is no secret agenda, you just have to know the history of art quite well. And that's that.

AR: I think we're all agreed that there is no secret agenda here. The conspiracy theory has got to be quashed. It's like learning a language. The more words you have, the more you can get on. I think the more that you see, the more that you can understand.

MC-M: The more you look at art, the more you find the areas that interest you. The more you find the areas that interest you, the more you realise it's all interconnected. And that's how depth of understanding is developed.

FRIEZE: Do you think that after this work there will be a return to the aesthetic?

AR: History does seem to regenerate itself every 10-20 years. In the early 80s we had a very interesting phenomenon that was called the New Spirit in painting. There were a couple of shows that really set an agenda that proclaimed, 'Painting is back in fashion'. I could go out on a limb and say that I think it was all a big conspiracy. I don't think everyone would agree with me, but I think a lot of that work was absolute tosh. Some of it has lasted and some of it hasn't. You can't keep things packaged, you can't say, 'Now we're back to aesthetics'. We;re never away from aesthetics.

FRIEZE: Who is it that says what art is good and what is bad? Surely it's the critics?

AR: I will concur with you that there is a possibility that the critic can manufacture something for a temporary period of time. For example, when you select a group of artists, you can select an ideology or an idea or a form that might hang together momentarily. It won't last. It's the art that lasts, quite independently. It may set up new contexts for itself, or it may fade into quaint artefact.

FRIEZE: But aren't these artists just a flash in the pan? Look at what happened to the Lisson sculptors of the 80s. They were such a big deal and now no one's talking about them.

AR: Everything has its own level, and all these strata keep moving along. It doesn't invalidate anything, but there's a lesson there for the next generation, and of most past the next generation will reject what they've just seen. It's in their nature to be perverse.

FRIEZE: Earlier you were talking about a new agenda that interests this small group of artists. i'd be interested, as an art student, for you to expand on this new agenda that is being addressed.

AR: I think the word agenda is immediately a problem because it implies that everybody is sitting down saying that we're all going to make things that look like each other. We have to discount that. But I think it's like saying, ' I really don't care what you think, because I'm going to fight for what I want, and I'm sure I'm going to get it.' For me the interesting thing that's happened recently is the simple thing, what I would like to call Minimal Diligence. That's to say the least you could possibly do for the most possible effect. It's not minimalism, because that's very different. What I'm talking about is being put together in the simplest, dumbest way to create, paradoxically, a very articulate piece of work.

MC-M: There's certainly been a return to certain notions that come from conceptual art. But the conceptual art that came out of the late 60s and 70s was quite austere and puritanical. One of the characteristics of the present art is that it is certainly not that. It's aggressive, and can be very vulgar, and much less guilt-ridden, which is also one of the characteristics that makes it very un-English.

FRIEZE: Can we talk about how you can buy this work? Can you buy the idea?

AR: Yes. It's not a new idea, but conceptual art, for example, that may only have existed as words on the wall, still exists when you've whitewashed the wall, because you can never destroy a work of art. So you present the purchaser with a series of instructions or, in the case of Dan Flavin, who uses fluorescent tubes, a certificate of authenticity. In the case of Michael Landy, the purchaser has to sign a piece of paper promising that the bread crates will never be used as bread crates. They must remain works of art. Now there's an interesting flip. It's not even the artist or the dealer determining the status of the piece.

FRIEZE: You say you can never destroy a work of art. but of course you can destroy a painting.

AR: No. All art of any consequence is always documented.

MC-M: But there is a difference between documentation and works of art. A painting that burns is gone. Period.

AR: It was made.

MC-M: It's gone.

AR: It was made.

MC-M: I don't agree. A work of art needs to be physical. Lawrence Weiner attempts to make a thought as a physical thing rather than a thought as we're thinking it right now. I don't really believe in art that doesn't have a physical aspect.

AR: But a piece can be taken apart and remade at another time. The status of a work of art that is not on display is dubious, but I still believe that the work exists. Just as there are thousands of paintings on ice in the basement of the Tate that we're not looking at. I don't think there's much of a difference.

MC-M: I always have an idea that there is a difference. I always think that at night, in the National Gallery, all the paintings go on living exactly as they are when there's nobody there, but when they turn out the lights at the Tate at night, the Carl Andre is just metal plates.

Issue 0

First published in Issue 0

May 1991
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