M .V. Okay, so, Conrad, if you could start by telling me a little bit about how you first trained or became interested in the idea of art and being an artist.
C.A. Oh, in art, oh well, my first experience of art and politics was with my grandfather in 1945, and I’m not sure why but we were painting a silver hammer and sickle on a red flag and hanging it out of our council house window in Cleator Moor, and I think it was partly because, well my grandfather was a Socialist, and it was partly because Leningrad had been relieved or something. So that was my first hint of art, and I remember trying to get the point right on the sickle and I couldn’t because I had a bent brush. So that was my first experience but the first really significant thing was when I was about twelve or thirteen. I won a national prize for a book cover and I went to London and it took me as long to get to London from Cleator Moor as it now takes me to get from California to London, and it was wartime London, or post wartime 1952, so that was the thing. Then I went to Carlisle College of Art, and you know, was good at drawing when I was a kid, and then like Henry Moore my parents made me go and do a teaching degree. Which I did at Liverpool College of Art in 1960 to ‘61, when we all had guitars under our arms and some of us became the most famous people in the world and probably still are the most famous people in the world. So I was at Liverpool at that particularly interesting time for a year then I got taken into the Royal Academy Schools and that’s how I started basically.
M.V. And at that point, the politics had always been in your family?
C.A. Yes, but you also have to remember that there was a small kind of escape hatch for working class kids, mostly male, into further education between the mid 50s and 60s but it was really a very middle class environment at art school, even then, in terms of the fine art departments rather than the applied art departments. I mean it’s changed since then into other names but basically there were very few working class kids. There’d be maybe two or three, and they were all from London art schools, at the Royal Academy when I got there, and the Academy was particularly good because it didn’t charge fees.
M.V But presumably, I imagine the Academy to be even more middle class than say Liverpool School of Art.
C.A. Oh yeah, but you know, at that particular time, if you wanted to be a professional painter, you would automatically after four years at Carlisle and one year at Liverpool, you’d automatically try for the Royal College or The Slade or the Academy schools. There was really no other alternative post-grad or graduate schools as they were called in those days.
M.V. And how much, so you had actually, a very good, strong academic art training?
C.A. You’re talking to Augustus John! Yes.
M.V. Did you feel at that time that this was, you know, what you really wanted to do, or were you feeling all the time “Oh my goodness they’re teaching us all this stuff that….?”
C.A. Well, for the four years at Carlisle, you had to, at the end of that, you had to produce a life drawing, a life painting and a figurative composition, which you sent to London to be judged, to pass your National Diploma. That’s all changed since then, and then at the Royal Academy, for the first year you did life-drawing every single day. Five days a week, eight hours a day, and I was aware that you know, I was very. I was quite a bright kid and I was aware of Picasso, I was aware of current stuff and actually when I went down to get my book prize, I saw the first Guggenheim show in the Tate Gallery of Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists. So I was clued up but when I went to Art College it had to be figurative and I knew I couldn’t drop out. There’s nowhere else to go, and so I knew I needed all those bits of paper. Otherwise I had no social mobility at that particular time. So although, and after the second year in the Academy, I moved into what’s called the ‘back school’ where the dissidents are, and you know, produced things which at that time were thought to be slightly adventurous, abstract painting, and in fact got, I think it’s, oh, I got honours in my final show at the Academy, but it was one of the very first. I think it was the first honours for an abstract painter.
M.V. Yes, yes, them being very broadminded.
C.A. We’re talking 1965 you know. We’re not talking….
M.V. Yes, so looking back, well you were obviously in Liverpool at a very significant moment, and it would probably have seemed even more significant by 1965 or, or not?
C.A. No, no it didn’t, no. I mean the key moment for my generation was Elvis Presley singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ in 1956 when I was 16, and for a while, for working class kids that was an incredibly liberating moment because, I mean, if you listen to the words. They’re quite banal but if you look at the way in which he did that and sang that and the way in which he allowed black culture to penetrate white culture in a way that Picasso had done quite deliberately. Allowed African images to penetrate the hegemony of Western culture, you know. I don’t think it’s an appropriation in a kind of imperialist way, as some people would argue. I think it actually, I think it enfranchised our generation, what Elvis did, in a different way than anything else comparable at our level, a working-class level. Although it might, and I’ve said this in lectures, I mean, I gave a lecture at Georgetown University last year, and I said “Although this might not be true for young, white, working-class women” but a couple of people, a couple of women came up to me afterwards and said, “No, it did actually liberate us because… .“, and there was a woman who gave a talk afterwards which basically said that Elvis brought out what we now call the feminine side but also brought sex back into Christianity. You know, after St. Paul had kind of removed it and changed the thing. So, it could well be argued that the masculinisation of history of the last 2 to 3000 years was at its turning point there. As well as many other places of course, but that was one of the key moments in one sense and the movement and the easy access to emotion. All that stuff that had previously been thought of as feminine. So that was the key moment for my generation because I was sixteen in 1956 and the word ‘teenager’ was just beginning to be developed, and the other thing was that at Liverpool you know, as you mentioned. What was very interesting about Liverpool and that experience was all of a sudden we found we could write or paint about things around us, Penny Lane or Eleanor Rigby or my generation. We didn’t have to go to Hollywood. We didn’t have to have Nelson Riddle. We actually made our own thing there and it’s only later that it gets appropriated, you know, and commercialised and so on, and so, and that grew out of because we did it with very cheap instruments and….
M.V. What about the Royal College? What was going on at the Royal College in the ‘60s and Pop Art or Richard Hamilton?
C.A. Well, no, Richard Hamilton was always kind of a little bit of an outsider because he was considered to be a graphic designer, although they were discussing stuff at the ICA. The old ICA in Dover Street, and there are still kind of debates as to who invented Pop Art and of course neither of them did, neither Paolozzi nor Hamilton. So he was a little bit of an outsider and he was at Newcastle and they wouldn’t allow him into the Fine Art areas. So you know, although Pop Art was affecting a few people at Liverpool, for example, we hadn’t heard of Warhol ‘till maybe ‘62 or ‘63. I mean the key exhibitions at that particular time were Rauschenberg and Johns at the Whitechapel and then another big influence at that particular time was Francis Bacon, because he had a show at the Tate then. So there was all that going on, there was a kind of, not snobbery, as much as a kind of rivalry between the three schools. The Slade was thought to be the realist Edwardian emphasis on life drawing. The Academy was the 18th century emphasis on craft skills and all of that, and the Royal College was thought to be a bit flash. A bit graphic designery and you know. The Academy was a place where abstract painting was being practised I guess. Although there was still, obviously some at the Royal College but we probably thought David Hockney a talented illustrator with a great talent for publicity. I still think that, I like him but that’s how I think of David.
M.V. So when you left the Royal Academy, how did you imagine your life as an artist? You clearly had a notion that you were going to be an artist.
M.V. Quite a strong identity in that. How did you imagine that you were going to….?
C.A. Well, I was lucky, in my second year at the Academy I was invited to show in Bond Street, and of course, because our generation was such a kind of motivated one, in every area. When I was invited to this gallery they said that, because it was first of all a mixed exhibition, they said, “We want to put you up right away, which ones shall we take down, the Picassos or the Klees?”. So I said, the Picassos because they were big and I’d get more space! But you know, that’s what we thought it would be, the old guys would disappear and we’d go on forever, and so I was very snooty, like you are when you are a kid. So it was quite good for me and I made a reasonable living as a painter until 1968, which was the year in which we began to question cultural values. The Art and Language people were at The Slade the same time as I was in the Academy. We were almost exact contemporaries, and so ‘68 was very important. I was in the LSE debates and I was in Hornsea and then all those cultural debates about, “Who is art for?” and the whole notion of art as a consumer object, because it had been a heroic kind of task of Jackson Pollock and that group. Their great achievement was that apparently a painting became an object. I mean it’s an old thing, but it’s a concrete art constructivism movement but painting as a discreet object was thought to be the great achievement of Abstract Expressionism ten to fifteen years previously, but by 1968 we were beginning to be very dubious about the ‘Art Object’ and adding more objects to a world which was already full of consumer objects, and becoming submerged and contextualised by the notion of these high prices and stuff like that. So that was a big changing point. Also in 1966 there was a ‘Destruction in Art Symposium’ which was organised by me as a very small part of it, but by Gustave Metzer and John Latham, and I remember, one of the first meetings was at Dover street at the ICA, and I remember sitting in there with Gustave waiting for people to flock in to our meeting on destruction in art. We waited half an hour chatting and first of all, this small American man came in with black glasses and said, “Oh hi, I’m Man Ray, where’s the meeting?” and we said “This is the meeting, hi, we know your work” and so we all started chatting and talking about things and then about half an hour later, a Japanese woman came and popped her head round the door and said, “Is this where the meeting is?” and we said, “Yeah, yeah, come in, because there’s only three of us” and we said, “Who are you?” and she said, “My name is Yoko Ono” and then she said, “I do performances in New York” because I’d never heard of her. So you know, it was building up towards the end of the ‘60s. It was clear you were either gonna make one choice or another choice.
M.V. So when you were making that choice, to say you didn’t want to be that kind of artist that you thought or even were. How did you see your future at that point?
C.A. I didn’t see one! In 1971, I was invited by David Thompson, really on the strength of my work as a painter, to do a show at the ICA and I said, “There’s nothing I want to do. I don’t think I’m gonna go on” and David said, “Oh, come on that’s crazy” so I said, “Look, the only thing I’m interested in right now is the strike in the North of England in my home village” he said, “Well, would you do something about that?” I said, “Yeah, okay, I’ll do that but it won’t be paintings”, and so I went back to my home village. I mean, it’s like going back to your roots, the ‘70s was eventually about identity and politics. So I went back there, and I met the strikers. I interviewed them. I had this massive video camera and all that equipment that it was then. It took us ages. In the mean time we were founding the Artists’ Union, so there were huge meetings, we were getting two hundred people at these union meetings. The women’s workshop was starting. I was going to four meetings a night and so I did that, and the strike was basically by women workers and it wasn’t about money, and then there was the question of the employer saying, “They’re only working for pin money anyway”, but we were beginning to realise that they weren’t and so the interviews with them and the photographs of them and the documentation of them and little stories and anecdotes, of course the great crime in the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was a painter was to have words on your pictures, despite what Paul Klee or what anybody else had done in the past. That was, to have words on was outrageous because the dumber you were as a painter, the better the painter you were supposed to be, and I just thought, “Well look our tradition, the British tradition, is one of documentary. It’s one of story telling and it’s a literary one and it’s silly for me to pretend that I’m Rauschenberg or Johns and have their kind of visual history”. So I was looking at Shelley. I was looking at William Morris. I was looking at Hogarth. I was looking at Cruikshank.
M.V. So much earlier. I thought you might be going to say 1930s.
C.A. No, because we had to find the long English tradition. There was nobody I could think of in the ‘30’s. I mean Stanley Spencer. I liked Stanley Spencer but that was again too close to the Academy, and I couldn’t kind of work it out, and the other thing was that performance and installation was kind of. I mean they were called happenings but that’s what it was, and so I filled the gallery with it. We had the local MPs in because it was it was near the Houses of Parliament. We had the strikers down. We got money for the strikers to come down to the ICA which was kind of like a little breakthrough. Half-way through the Arts’ Council wrote to us and said, “We now think video is an art form” because I’d applied for a grant and Peter Bird who was the arts’ officer said, “We don’t think video is an art form”, but half-way through they wrote and said, ” We think video’s an art form” I don’t think they’d been to the exhibition, and the other thing I did was I got roasted by the critics for being political etc. “This isn’t art, this is social comment.” So I pinned all their stuff up on the wall, and I hadn’t invited them. That’s the other thing that really pissed them off. I said, “I don’t want them invited. I want the TUC invited“. I was mad, so I pinned their crits up on the wall and I wrote replies to them in the gallery, which they were outraged by. The only one who acted decently was Richard Cork and he’d actually slaughtered me in print. I mean the headline was, “Clumsy Atkinson fucks up” then he wrote a letter to me saying, ”I suppose I’m the last person you would ever want to meet, but I’d really like to meet you and talk to you” and I said, “Okay” and there was this prickly meeting and he invited me into a show in 1973 at Tooths Gallery. In the meantime I’d been to Cuba and America. America on the Churchill fellowship.
M.V. Oh yes, the Churchill fellowship was in 1972.
C.A. ‘72, you’ve got a good memory.
M.V. So that was a good opportunity to get somewhere.
C.A. That was wonderful because, I mean it was nice because I went to the October Celebrations in Cuba and headed straight after that to LA. I was there a month, then I went straight to LA for the Nixon/McGovern election. Which I fell right in the middle of, and just seeing a contrast between the two societies was wonderful. I mean I had reservations about Cuba and I had reservations about America but, you know, there were certain good things I learnt in Cuba because the Vietnam war was on then and to actually bring home the Vietnam war, they’d brought into the museums there crashed American aeroplanes, those sandals that the people made out of rubber tyres, bicycles showing how the Vietcong carried stuff. They were trying to give you some notion of the reality of the thing and that was quite impressive. Although it never really got through to the painters in Cuba you know, because they were frozen in 1958 basically and they still thought that Abstract Expressionism was going on.
M.V. I’m quite surprised. I’d imagined the Churchill fellowship to be quite, you know, right wing. I’m surprised that they thought, that they let somebody at that point go to Cuba.
C.A. They were wonderful. They were just, “Why are you interested Conrad?” and I said, “Well, this, this, this and this”, and they said, ”Oh, that’s really interesting yeah, okay”. I mean they were pre-Thatcherite conservative if you like, in that they had this curiosity and sense of duty. They were mostly, kind of moving at a very high level of British society and they were the best of that thing, of that historic thing. So they were great, yeah.
M.V. So did you actually make works, in Cuba, I mean? How long were you there for?
C.A. I was there for about a month I think, a month and a half and yeah, I made works in Cuba. I made drawings and things, but mostly I was talking to people and I was trying to work out. I mean, in the meantime we were trying to form the Artists’ Union in England so I was getting mail about all of that and, “How do we do workshops etc.” and then I was talking to people in America and I was beginning to get known a little bit. I mean, one of the interesting things about ‘Strike’ which I’d thought, “They’re never gonna let me back in the art world, ever“, one of the interesting about ‘Strike’ was I got letters. I’d never had letters from people for painting shows. So one of the good things was these letters and I got a letter from people in Australia saying “We’ve read about your exhibition and we’ve heard it from people, and would you mind if we worked a bit like this. If we went to strikes and things”. Of course I wrote back and said “No, no, I wouldn’t mind at all.” So all of this was just a good period for me. A mad period as well.
M.V. So, how did you exist at that point then? I mean, how were you being funded?
C.A. Well, you’ve got to remember, that this whole notion of single issue shows was very new. I mean, before that in order to get any grants or funding, you had to have an exhibition scheduled with a gallery, usually a private gallery and I had actually never had any problems selling work because it just kind of, grew from the Academy, drawings would be sold. I mean, we weren’t rich but that was still trickling on a little bit.
M.V. So you had a kind of backlog of that as well.
C.A. Yeah, and then the Tooths exhibition just about finished that because what I exhibited there was. They’d just sold at Sotheby’s or Christies, the Velasquez, Diego painting and that was kind of a special size; it was 18.5in by 24.5in, for I think £1,750,000 and it was a bit obscene, I mean we were all a bit po-faced about it. We were trying to fit in how you could be an artist when people were starving and all that stuff, and trying to resolve those conflicts. So I made a set of stretchers that exact size and covered it with polythene so that you could just see the stretchers, but on the stretcher bars was ‘Wage differential’ and the price in the catalogue was £1,750,000. Of course someone said, the dealer said, “We’ve got a buyer for it, how much do you want for it?” and I said, “£1,750,000” bloody idiot you know, but no, that was part of the piece of course and they said, “You can’t be serious” and I said, “Look the piece doesn’t exist if it doesn’t go for “£1,750,000” or whatever it was, and they kind of threw their hands up. So then I was into it you know, and I was getting letters and invitations from Northern Ireland and so on.
M.V. So there were all sorts of other ways of being supported really?
C.A. Yeah, yeah.
M.V. So, now, we’re now coming up to the end of the ‘70s and we’re getting into the Thatcherite period but also the GLC and that sort of bit. So tell me about that.
C.A. Well, okay, two key exhibitions in the late ‘70s were ‘Art for Whom’ and then ‘Art for Society’. ‘Art for Whom‘ I did ‘Asbestos’ which was subsequently shown at the Hirshorn in Washington. A group of artists said it was the most important work of the decade! I did those Trade Union banners; I did the compensation for miners. I was teaching at the Slade at that particular time and of course I made the Thalidomide print.
M.V. So you did begin to teach at some point?
C.A. I started to teach in the mid ‘70s. For three years I taught, because I perceived a split starting to happen, and there was a lot of criticism for me showing in New York galleries and being the kind of artist and person I was, but I realised that what was happening was the work was being hidden. In other words, students didn’t know what was going on in alternative practices. So I was beginning to argue that you had to be visible both in the ruling hegemony and try and create alternative venues. I mean, a nightmare kind of scenario, but I tried and also, try and be involved in the structure, the political structures which were affecting this stuff. But the key moment there was the Thalidomide print, which, when I was teaching at the Slade we were invited to do a print for the Queen Mother who was our chancellor and it was the 150th anniversary of the Slade and all the faculty there were invited to do a print for presentation to her in a Perspex box, and so, they were all laughing and saying, “What are you going to do Conrad, socialist artist?“ and everyone was saying, “ Come on Conrad, are you going to do something for the Queen?” and I said, “Well, it all depends on what it says” and they suddenly realised, “Shit, what’s he gonna do?”. So I did this piece about Thalidomide and the fact that after something like seventeen years, they still hadn’t compensated eighty two Thalidomide kids; and despite the fact that they were insured, that they got tax write offs from the treasury and de da de da de da. I just documented the whole story. That Distillers still hadn’t paid one penny in compensation to these kids, and that furthermore, when an all-party group of MPs went to the Royal Family to ask them to withdraw the Royal warrant from Distillers’ booze products, the Royal Family or their advisors refused. So I said, “Well look, this is just community art. I’m just talking to the Queen Mother about things she’s been involved in” and so I documented the full story. Across the top was “From the people who brought you Thalidomide”. The booze and stuff like that, and it was hand coloured and I’d montaged in a little of the first adverts for Thalidomide which was called Distaval, and what it was selling it as was: there was a little kid who’d climbed up onto a stool and was taking Thalidomide tablets out of a medicine chest and it basically was saying, “Your kid is perfectly safe if he eats a whole bottle, he’ll just go to sleep for a little bit”, and that was perfectly true. They were perfectly harmless, unless you were pregnant. So you know, it was a whole cover-up. So anyway, then we were in the faculty meeting about how these were to be presented to the Queen and Lawrence Gowing was going to go there and explain the first few prints you see, and they said, “Yeah, but what order will they be in?” and they decided in alphabetical order from the top – ha ha! So she never got the portfolio at all…I can’t imagine why.
C.A. And what happened was, a year later it was shown in the Serpentine Gallery and the Arts Council took it out of the show and there was a huge row about censorship. There was questions in the House of Commons, questions in the House of Lords. There was campaigns and so on and so forth and I sued the Arts’ Council and won, and it changed the Arts’ Council, and then of course, being England, they invited me onto the Arts’ Council three years later.
M.V. So, was that the point where you began to be almost into the establishment in a sort of way?
C.A. In a way, except that Northern Ireland fucked that up again, and what happened with Northern Ireland was that the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1979 showed the Northern Ireland stuff in ‘Un Certaine Art Anglaise’. I think it was, and the British ambassador, Nicholas Henderson walked in and he went absolutely spare when he saw what I’d done in this room, he wrote a letter to the Foreign Office, and the Foreign Office wrote a letter to the Treasury, and the Treasury wrote a letter to the British Council saying, “If you support this artist again we’ll withdraw all your funds”, and somebody leaked all the correspondence. So Sandy Nairn and Caroline Tisdale printed it, and there was all hell on. So I was blacklisted for ten years and I think when I came off the blacklist was 1989 when I was invited to Buckingham Palace.
M.V. As, I meant, what….?
C.A. Nobody knows! I phoned round everybody I knew in the Art world and said, “Look you know, am I being invited for the GLC, Greater London Arts?“ I was on the Labour party Cultural Committee. I was on the TUC committee. I was on every committee you can think of.
M.V. Yes, so you were doing a great deal of public work.
C.A. Yeah, but the other people on those committees, you know, weren’t invited and there were no other artists. So we just couldn’t figure out why, you know.
M.V. Can I leap on to how you actually work?
C.A. I’m sorry, I’m taking up too much time.
M.V. How you actually work nowadays or I mean, when did you start to work with other people doing a lot of the actual work?
C.K. Oh always, always.
M.V. Always, right from the time you were doing video?
C.A. Yeah we asked the people in the village to write about the strike and we had letters and we had their wage packets and so on, things like that, up on the wall, and then Northern Ireland we put up a wall and we put green paper and orange paper and white paper up for people to write their opinions on and so the Republicans wrote on the green, and we had to take that down because they just filled the whole place, and then there was one letter that started of, and it was in white, and it said, “We want no part of this Godforsaken country” signed, “An Englishwoman”. Then an Orangeman had replied, and then a Republican had replied to this Orangeman and then the UVF replied and then the Belfast brigade of the IRA responded to that one, and they were starting to arrange a meet to fight somewhere. So we had to take it down. So I’d always done that.
M.V. Yes, so could I kind of leap into the situation now, that you find yourself in, with a bunch of potters even, some of them. It must be a very different scene to one you’re usually in.
C.A. It’s very strange. I mean, I’m very happy. They’ve treated me very well and helped me a lot, because, obviously I know nothing, but over the past ten years I’ve started to use a lot of different media, for example in Halifax at the Henry Moore Centre, which was an old carpet factory. We made carpets about migration and immigration and all of that in terms of relating it to ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Emily Brontë who was the first generation daughter of a fundamentalist immigrant preacher. So it’s about the hegemony of painting. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about the hegemony of forms and why certain forms are privileged over others. In the 14th century, embroidery by aristocratic women like the beautiful Burrel collection was the major art form. So, so, that’s what that’s partly about, but it’s also partly about being quite confident about the skills, and it’s also that other thing of saying, “Basically in the world now, almost anything can be done”. I mean, the Sydney Opera House was done on the back of an envelope. The guy didn’t know how to build it. He didn’t know how to do it. In fact the builders worked out how to build the thing. He had the notion. It’s also the Duchamp idea of the ‘Ready-made’, and ‘if I say it’s art, it’s art’. So it’s all those complicated things coming together. I mean, to get to your point I suppose. The first time I made anything ceramic or was involved with ceramics was with the Carlisle exhibition which Paul Scott helped me, and he got someone else to model the bomb. We didn’t take a cast of a bomb for various reasons to do with size and things, and he basically did them more or less. I mean I put the images on and painted them and that, but he just took me through the process. He fired them and all that stuff and then, all artists get this, but you know, like, I got it with the Thalidomide print but with the bombs I was then invited to be the artist for the The United States Campaign to Ban Land Mines.
M.V. Now, that was last year was it?
C.A. That was two years ago I guess. Just before they got the Nobel Prize, because millions of people were involved in the land mine campaign all over the world. Yes, so it was just about a month, I think, before they got the Nobel and that was very flattering and it was because, I think they’d seen the works in the Feldman Gallery, New York. Everybody wants me to make bombs wherever I go and it’s one of those things that I’m almost at the end of. Although I’m very excited about doing it in Liverpool next year with the Chinese community which is the oldest ethnic Chinese community in Europe. So we’ll do Chinese bombs there and we’ll do the First International Biennial and the Walker and all the other cultural institutions that’ll let us in including Liverpool Football Club.
M.V. So, I was interested in the V&A. How did that come about?
C.A. The V&A didn’t happen. I should have gone on to explain that but it was so short. The Tate, two curators in the Tate wanted to do it, right, and a curator in the V&A and everybody thought this was a wonderful idea, but not in my room, okay. So, what you’re coming up against is the curatorial world. They don’t want, I mean, I think they would probably have liked it if they’d met me and if it had been their idea, but it was somebody else, a colleague. So I think they’re a little wary to it, and they’re the same in the States. Although Atlanta Museum, I can’t remember its name, they put several pieces in the museum. Just one in the popular culture rooms. I mean, the whole project is called ‘Mining Culture’ which is a nice kind of double-edged meaning, but it’s very difficult. It’s not easy to get stuff into museums without attributions and labels. That slide is the one I showed.
M.V. Yes there’s a picture in there of one of them. Well, it looks like it’s in a museum.
C.A. Is there? Oh yes, I think that’s Tullie House Museum.
M.V. Oh, that is Tullie House?
C.A. That one?
M.V. No, it wasn’t that one, it was with ceramic…
C.A. Yeah, that’s Tullie House.
M.V. Oh right, so you created that but…
C.A. Yeah, they had a very valuable collection of ceramics so we put one in that cupboard. Looked great, that’s an excellent example.
M.V. So, can you relate all this to notions of craftwork? The value of craftwork?
C.A. No, no. I’m saying that glibly but you have to remember that I was trained in a craft, painting. Without being modest, I became very skilled at it, because you would, anybody would, and you can find a quote in the ‘Sunday Times’ by me in 1972 saying that, “In terms of craft, I’m not very interested”. I mean, what I am interested in. The integrity in my work is not that I go from squares to circles over fifty years or you know, get deeply involved in the earth or whatever, the integrity in my work is, it’s about production of meaning. Who produces meaning and who controls meaning? I mean, we live in a blizzard of meanings and the meanings that are being constructed for us, by advertising, by the media, by all these things, by MacDonald’s you know, are not our meanings but the meanings in the multi national corporations, they’re not our meanings. I’m concerned about trying to find the meaning, the correct meaning for something like the meaning for ‘Wuthering Heights’ for example.
M.V. I mean, I’m interested when you say “Correct meaning”.
C.A. Well, the correct one for me, you know. I’m not talking about politically correct now.
M.V. But it does sound like you’re talking about a single interpretation.
C.A. No, no, that’s too simple. I suppose what I’m saying is “Look, I became an artist because I can’t see anything, and I’m trying to see things” you know, and one of the great artists I admire is Joseph Beuys, but I think he’s wrong and I’ve said this to him. I didn’t know him very well but I did say this to him, he says, “I catch a man when he is free, when he is etc.” and I said “Look, you’re never free, you know, because inside your head there are all these conflicting meanings coming at you from all kinds of places you know. You’re telling me something about art history. Somebody’s telling me about ceramics. Then the Daily Mirror’s telling me something else, MacDonald’s and so on. So there are all these things, and trying to see clearly what, say, let’s takes ‘Wuthering Heights’. What’s going on there? Do I have to take the professor of English Literature’s interpretation of it? Well, no I don’t, and I want to try and find out that meaning and if it relates to me in some way, and try and explain it.
M.V. But it seems to me that there you are, recreating or creating in some way, a new meaning that gives it a new value on your terms.
C.A. Yes, yes, hopefully, you’re revealing something that nobody else has, when I’m arguing basically.
M.V. It has some potential for meaning that….
C.A. Yes, yes, right.
M.V. And you’ve developed it or made it? Revealed it perhaps?
C.A. Yes. What I’m arguing is that all societies freeze the meanings of things because they have dangers in them to those societies. I think that, for example, if we took ‘Wuthering Heights’, it’s got a very dangerous message in it. You know, it’s not a love story. If you were to be asked, “What are the ten greatest English novels?” surely ‘Wuthering Heights’ would be among them. Yet it was written by an immigrant and it’s about other things than so-called ‘English values’. What I’m saying is that nothing has a fixed meaning, I suppose, and what is happening is various powers are trying to grab the meaning for themselves, in order to use it in their own way.
M.V. And as you create these new meanings? Do you hope to change people, change society?
C.A.I used to. I used to, you know, I wanted to change society, but that’s an albatross for artists to make a material change but it was one of the arguments of the Left after ‘Strike’. What ‘Strike’ did was to unionise the factory in South London, so what the Left were saying was, “Look, here’s a wonderful, working class artist who’s managed to make a material action out of a conceptual idea or a cultural idea“, whatever you like. Culture isn’t politics by other means, okay, but culture isn’t without its politics. So then of course when I went to Northern Ireland the right wing critics were saying, “All right, Conrad’s gone to Northern Ireland. If he doesn’t solve the problem there then his art is no good”, but you can’t hang that round an artist’s neck you know. It’s difficult enough for an act of Parliament to change anything and that’s the whole nation presumably debating and creating something. So to expect one exhibition, one painting to change the world. It doesn’t work like that. I don’t think it does. I think it’s, history’s rewritten so that ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ changed the world but it doesn’t. It’s a whole bunch of forces, cultural, political, ideological and in the last instance economic. So no, but you’ve got to approach the exhibitions so that there are a number of possibilities opened up, and you’ve got to do it in such a way that nobody’s excluded, and you’ve got to do it in such a way you can as to be sensitive to the problems of other people. In other words, when I do a piece of work I’m thinking, “What do people from my parents’ class think about it? What do women think about it? What do minorities think?” you know, and obviously you can’t do a census and ask them what they want, but you can be sensitive to other people’s problems. So that, I mean, the people I want to offend. I will offend. If I want to offend the Queen’s advisors I can do that. Most people I don’t want to offend. I just want to open up the possibilities…and that sometimes offends.
M.V. Do you think that sometimes your work is sometimes, almost, its effect is precisely in the offence it causes? In the publicity it gets, which then other people, debate it whether they actually agree with you or not, but at very least they debate it.
C.A. Well yeah, yeah, the Guardian piece, when I did the page for the Guardian you know, a well known art historian said “We’ve just had a debate at dinner, a dinner party last night, as to whether you’ve sold out to the establishment or not” and I said, “My god, you know I can’t afford…. I have to live”. Artists are material beings okay, that’s why we created the Artists’ Union. We didn’t create the Artists’ Union to promote a political ideal. We created the Artists’ Union because we wanted to improve the conditions for artists in terms of applications, grants, all that stuff. So artists are material beings and have to earn a living and I don’t blame any artist for trying to do that and I’ll try to support them all the time. I forget what the question is. So do you…
M.V. Yes tell me about America and that change in going to America. I mean obviously you’ve had lots of contact over the years with American culture but…
C.A. Well, I’ve shown in New York for 20 years.
M.V. And you’ve found it an exciting place presumably?
C.A. I love American culture. I don’t sneer at American culture and I think it’s incredibly subversive in many ways and talk about that in, I think in, for example, the ‘Wizard of Oz’. How it’s subversive in a number of ways, so, but one of the material reasons I went to USA was because, as you know I was involved in the GLC. I did the visual arts advising. I did the Labour Party’s visual arts’ policy, percent for art, and all that stuff, which is again about material conditions for artists. Even though I don’t particularly want to do public works of art myself. When Neil Kinnock didn’t win the election, I just thought, “Well a lot of the GLC groups had been hanging on by the skin of their teeth hoping that the Labour Party would get in and a lot of their cultural workers were trying” and I just couldn’t face this. I couldn’t hold it together any more and I just thought, “I’ve got to go”, and I had two offers from America on my desk and had done for a couple of years. So I just phoned them up and said, “Look I think I’m gonna come” so it was partly material, you know that kind of pressure, despair really, after that long of Thatcher and then John Major. It just wasn’t….
M.V. When you got to Davis. It’s a very privileged position in some ways but are you having to do a lot of administration?
C.A. No. I did when I first went because I took the chair of the department. I chaired the department and that was very heavy for two years, but because I had exhibitions lined up it didn’t stop the flow of production. I don’t know how but it didn’t, and then when I’d really, when I’d really done what I thought I should as chair, you know implemented various things then. I’m just a professor so that’s great. That’s forty days a year. Forty days teaching a year.
M.V. And you can be around the world.
C.A. And you know, I’m expected to do my research and do, you know. I’ve got to have a good exhibition record.
M.V. So you’re finding it productive?
C.A. Oh yeah, incredibly supportive and very positive too. I mean, it has its problems. Obviously in California you can’t avoid looking at Hollywood so that’s kind of a new strand. I’ve never looked at popular culture in that way before. So it’s from ‘Wuthering Heights’ to the ‘Wizard of Oz’ in three difficult lessons.