A conceptual artist takes on his critics

Artist and teacher Michael Craig-Martin’s insightful and entertaining memoir provides sage advice to younger artists

by Ben Luke  |  17 June 2015
A conceptual artist takes on his critics
Towards the end of On Being an Artist, Michael Craig-Martin composes two lists. One consists of criticism of him, the other of criticism of his work. He is everything from “narrow-minded” to “the most hated man in British art”; his work veers from “cold” to “decorative” and “pseudo-intellectual”. Little applause accompanies the brickbats.

The lists are presented deadpan, with no embellishment and no defence offered. This objective and amusing way of summarising the criticisms hurled at him reflects much of what makes this memoir of sorts such a compelling read. Craig-Martin, as both an artist and an educator, is a great observer of the culture and the context around his art and life; passionately engaged yet critically detached when necessary.

The book is a collection of articles written by Craig-Martin over many years, some for publication and others simply to get thoughts down on the page. They range from a few lines to short essays, and take the form of a broadly chronological sweep of his life and career, with tangents that explore particular artists and ideas. 

The general idea is that the book serves as advice to young people who aspire to be artists. But it is much more than that: it documents an extraordinary period in contemporary art and enormous shifts in the art world. And it does so very readably. “I dislike jargon intensely,” Craig-Martin writes, “and cannot stand people who think that complex ideas need to be expressed in a way that is obscure or rarefied.”

The better-known aspects of his art and his teaching over the past 50 years in the UK (he grew up in the US) inevitably dominate the book. He writes of “witnessing and participating in the profound cultural and social changes that have occurred in Britain since the 1960s”, and he unpacks them in fascinating autobiographical detail and in ruminative pauses, where he considers the emergence and effects of these cultural shifts. 

Craig-Martin describes his experiments with conceptual art and his best-known work, An Oak Tree (1973), while also reflecting on the nature and misunderstandings of conceptualism. He describes first witnessing Charles and Doris Saatchi’s collection of contemporary American art at its peak in the 1980s, but also explores the dearth of an art scene in London at the time. He writes of the “uncompromising, high-risk, nothing-to-lose attitude” of Damien Hirst and his contemporaries when he taught them at Goldsmiths in the 1980s, but also discusses in detail the art-school conditions that allowed for the emergence of the Young British Artists, and his concerns for the future of art education.

Just as interesting is Craig-Martin’s earlier life in the US, particularly his time at Yale University in the 1960s and its huge influence on everything that followed. He was at Yale when its art school was still under the powerful influence of its former principal, the Bauhaus veteran Josef Albers. Craig-Martin writes brilliantly and clearly about Albers’s teaching and its influence, particularly the perceptive mindset it gave him. You see this when Craig-Martin writes about Marcel Duchamp, for example, addressing the anti-art caricature that Duchamp has become in the minds of his detractors (and some of his devotees) and arguing for Duchamp’s profound visual, as well as conceptual, intelligence. 

Only when he moves closer to authentic autobiography—in sections where he writes about family and friends, for instance—does the sharp focus give way to sentimentality. But overall, this is a coherent, absorbing book about what Craig-Martin calls “the passionate, inexplicable desire to make art”. To his list of critical assessments of him and his work, he can add: perceptive, thoughtful writer.

• Thanks to the Goss-Michael Foundation, Craig-Martin is showing across ten venues in Dallas this summer. The Royal Academician has also co-ordinated the hang of the Summer Exhibition (until 16 August) at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. On Being an Artist by Michael Craig-Martin is published by Art / Books, £22.50 hardback

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