ARTS / The most hated man in British art: Michael Craig-Martin would be bad enough on his own; but what they'll never forgive him for is inflicting his evil progeny upon the art world. Iain Gale met the guru of Goldsmiths'

Iain Gale
Friday 10 December 1993 00:02

Michael Craig-Martin is the most hated man in British art. In the press and in public debate he is attacked as 'narrow-minded' and 'manipulative', while in private his critics favour more emotive words: 'sinister', 'perverse', 'evil'.

What has he done to deserve this? From 1973 to 1988 Craig-Martin taught at Goldsmiths' College. As a teacher he nurtured the talents of a generation of enfants terribles now at the forefront of British art: Damien Hirst, Ian Davenport, Fiona Rae and Julian Opie. As an artist he gave us, in 1973, Oak Tree, a glass of water with an accompanying text in which he claimed to have 'changed' it into an oak tree. 'Outrage' screamed the critics, and they've been screaming ever since. Lock up your children. Don't let this man near them.

But is Craig-Martin really the devil incarnate? Does he want to pervert our minds? Who is he and what is he about? Sitting in the gallery at Waddington's which he recently transformed into a walk-in painting, he presents the case for his defence.

'The one thing I really hate about the way my ideas are challenged is that in some way I'm in favour of closing down what's possible. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm not in any way against figurative painting or sculpture. Art is not entirely about ideas, it's a visual experience, but the view I've taken opens up the possibilities of many other things. In the 1960s there was an explosion of recognition that works of art were not defined by their materials. A thing was not a work of art because it was made of bronze or paint, but defined by something else. With this came the opportunity to use all the materials in the world. That doesn't mean that everything in the world is art - just that those things are available. That's a crucial thing to understand. There's no going back on it.

'Those critics who attack me are too late for that argument. It's over and there's nothing they can do to reverse it. It's Brian Sewell and Giles Auty (see quotations, right) who are trying to close things down. They dismiss whole areas of art by category. Hilton Kramer is unhappy with me because he thinks I betrayed Modernism, but even he thinks Sewell and Auty are retrograde. They take such a generalised condemning view and are without the ability to make qualitative judgements within the area they dismiss, within which there is the full range of art, from great to appalling.'

Born in Dublin in 1941 and educated in America, Craig-Martin arrived in England in 1966 on an invitation to teach at the celebrated Bath Academy of Art at Corsham, where he took on the tutorial mantle of Peter Lanyon, Howard Hodgkin and Gillian Ayres. Students were able to experiment within a range of styles in an atmosphere which was, at that time, unique. 'In England then there was a tradition of hating your school because that was the only way to be a good artist. Corsham was different. It was adventurous, international and outgoing.' It suited the 25-year-old fresh out of Yale School of Art, who brought with him the high Modernism of his own teacher, Bauhaus disciple Joseph Albers and his avowed aim to 'open eyes'.

'I never wanted to impose American values on British artists, but to allow them to realise their capabilities. The British were never happy with and never understood Modernism. It was taken on by certain British artists in the Fifties and Greenberg was very well thought of here, but he tried to prescribe a route for art to take. Anyone who tries to do that, as Auty and Sewell do, runs into serious problems. Art doesn't operate like that.'

According to Craig-Martin, his critics are the victims of classic British failings. As a foreigner, he recognises in us a tendency to characterise ourselves as anti-intellectual and our obsession with 'craft'. 'The art that really upsets the British - Duchamp, Andre's bricks, my Oak Tree - is that in which the artist has assumed a position to deliberately undermine the notion that craft is at the centre of art. I'm not saying there's no craft in art, but it's not its defining feature.' And, of course, there's nostalgia. 'This country is overrun with it.'

It even finds its way into Craig-Martin's own recent work: in dealing with everyday objects he implies the pathos and nostalgia of association. 'Of course there's nostalgia in my work. It upsets me if people look at it as though they were intellectual machines with no feeling. This exhibition tries to confront that.'

On huge dayglo walls the artist has 'drawn' household objects in black tape. This, he believes, evinces a 'new sensuality' and, while it may not be 'shocking', he still considers it innovative. 'I see myself as a radical artist. There's no reason why you can't be radical within conventional means. Many of the students I've taught are painters. Others, like Julian Opie, are more radical. He's the most interesting, but he doesn't allow the things the British need as points of entry. So he's had terrible reviews. It's extremely damaging culturally for a country to do that to its own people. It's never the desire of an artist to make work that's obscure, elitist or unintelligible.

'Goldsmiths' attracts very questioning, intelligent people and the reason they often have more success is because they understand the international dialogue of the Nineties. To characterise that as a conspiracy, as Auty does, is laughable. It's not some backyard thing we're talking about. It's the international culture of our time. Contemporary art is not understood in most countries, but it's not treated with the level of fear and contempt it is here. It's timidity - a fear of the imagination.'

The word 'timidity' recalls the famous warning of Nikolaus Pevsner that English art is constantly endangered by 'timidity, inertia and unquestioning faith in the majority vote'. The reference strikes home with Craig-Martin.

'Art is never going to be popular, but Rachel Whiteread's House had an effect on many people, some of whom knew nothing about art but were deeply touched by it. The exhibitions of those young artists ridiculed in the press are always filled with people. And they're under 35. I really believe and hope there's been a change in the understanding of art over the last 10 years and I think I can bring a different perspective to the British idea of the world. I only hope that's of some use.'

'Craig-Martin says that the debate about what is and isn't art is closed. That's absurd. His narrowness is very damaging. If you only water part of the garden the rest will die. The art system in this country is almost totalitarian and Craig-Martin is bang slap in there. Don't be fooled by that smooth exterior. He's a card-carrying hatchet-man.'

Giles Auty, critic, The Spectator

'Craig-Martin maintains that the 30 years since Andy Warhol is one of the greatest periods in the history of art. If you believe that you'll believe anything. He's part of the 'cutting edge' 'mind-set' of the entire museum profession. There he sits, an allegedly 'Post-Modernist' artist, on the Trustees of the Tate. You can't be more establishment than that.'

Hilton Kramer, critic, New York Observer

'Craig-Martin maintains that art can be found anywhere and made of anything . . . By his tokens, art can be made by anybody, and if he regrets and resents 'the destruction of art education' . . . then he has only himself and other teachers of his ilk to blame for the Government's hostility to art. In my view as an artist he deserves only derision.'

Brian Sewell, critic, Evening Standard

Michael Craig-Martin's show continues at Waddington Gallery, Cork St, W1, to 18 Dec

(Photograph omitted)

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