David Lister: The Week in Arts

Naked ambition has harmed the Stuckists
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The Independent Online

The Stuckists are one of the more provocative art movements. They exist to fight for the return of painting to the centre of artistic endeavour and debate, and to expose the alleged stranglehold on the art world by a group of powerful champions of conceptualism led by the Tate chief Sir Nicholas Serota.

The Stuckists took their name from an insult flung at one of their number, Billy Childish, by his then girlfriend Tracey Emin, who shouted at him: "You're stuck, stuck, stuck!"

In their first major central London exhibition, the Stuckists feature paintings by one of their leading lights, Charles Thomson. The paintings are of his ex-wife, the artist Stella Vine. This pair also parted acrimoniously.

Mr Thomson's explicit paintings of Ms Vine are notable because she has nothing on in them. She did not sit for these paintings, I should add. Mr Thomson has clearly done them from memory. She has certainly not given permission for them to be exhibited. I have seen them and would describe them, to use a term which may or may not be a technical, art-historical description, as semi-pornographic.

So, is Mr Thomson a cad getting some sort of revenge on his former wife in a most unpleasant way? He argues that the matter ismore complex than that. Firstly, he says, accurately, that Ms Vine was, before she became a celebrated artist, a stripper. Indeed, one of the paintings is entitled Strip Club. I would dismiss this as any sort of justification. There is a huge difference between a woman choosing to earn extra money by performing in a strip club and having a representation of her naked, exhibited without her permission.

He gives a second justification, which is a little more difficult to dismiss. Ms Vine, he rightly says, has made her name with painful depictions of public and semi-public figures. One was of Princess Diana with blood coming out of her mouth. Another was of Rachel Whitear, a girl who died from a heroin overdose and was briefly in the news. Ms Vine's painting of her upset Ms Whitear's parents.

So, Mr Thomson asserts, this is a taste of her own medicine. He explains that his ex didn't worry about the reactions of Diana's children or the heroin casualty's parents.

Well, it is a superficially attractive debating point. But there is a world of difference between a work of art that tries to make a bigger point about the cultural significance of an event surrounding a public or semi-public figure, and showing your ex sitting open-legged and naked.

While Diana was undoubtedly a public figure, there is a debate to be had on whether artists can with a clear conscience depict young people who recently died in tragic circumstances without a thought for the parents' reaction. I think the artistic arguments will outweigh the temporary hurt caused to the family, but it wouldn't harm for artists to at least think about it.

The bigger point about Mr Thomson's ex-wife-baiting is where it leaves the Stuckists. For all their sometimes silly posturings, there was a need for a group to challenge the ruling orthodoxy in the visual arts. Not because the Tate hasn't made a massive contribution to contemporary culture, but because all ruling orthodoxies should be challenged.

How seriously, though, can we take a movement of artists, which offers in a flagship exhibition one of its leaders trying to humiliate publicly, and in a depressingly sexist fashion, his ex-wife? I suspect the Stuckists may have been dealt a death blow.

Don't count your chickens...

I mean no disrespect to the very fine actor and artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, Sam West, right, when I say that he should not count his chickens on the matter of eternal fame.

Mr West has been chosen by Sean Doran, the former head of the English National Opera now turned theatre impresario, for a unique experiment.

Mr Doran is producing a version of Samuel Beckett's play Krapp's Last Tape, which will not be seen for 30 years. In the play, Krapp is heard reflecting on his life at the age of 39 and 69. Mr Doran wanted a 39-year-old actor to record the first part of the piece now, and the second part of the piece in 30 years, when it will finally be staged.

It's an intriguing venture, but a risky one. Sam West is a golden boy in the arts now; but golden boys don't always last 30 years. It might be salutary for Mr Doran and Mr West to look back at theatre cast lists for 1976 to see how many names are still going strong.

* One of the characters in the English National Opera's new rap offering, Gaddafi: A Living Myth, is a journalist filing stories from Libya to copytakers in Britain before and after Gaddafi's rise to power. I think the writers of the libretto should have done some more research.

First off, we journalists don't say "over and out" when we finish a piece. We just say the rather more prosaic "ends". Copytakers aren't great fans of jollity. Also, we tend not to show surprise as we file. The opera character expresses amazement that "some young signals officer called Gaddafi" is being mentioned as a possible head of state. We file in a monotone. Copytakers aren't great fans of tone variation either.

Lastly, no self-respecting foreign correspondent would write "some young signals officer called Gaddafi." For the sake of job security, he would pretend he knew all about the background of a possible head of state.