ASSESSING THE ART STRIKE
There are many ways in which it's possible to deal with the Art Strike. For instance, it's been explained as a conceptual art piece consisting of all the propaganda calling on cultural workers to stop making or discussing their work from January 1st 1990 to January 1st 1993 - along with the various responses with which this demand has been met. It will become clear during the course of this talk that I don't concur with this view because in my opinion, the Art Strike would not have generated so much publicity or confusion if it had been produced as an art work.
Early in 1989, a year before the Art Strike began, I wrote that 'the time for theorising the Art Strike will be after it has taken place.' This statement was one of a number grouped under the heading 'No Theoretical Summing Up'. Like the Art Strike, at first glance these words appear to be little more than a flat refusal to engage in a discourse that might be of value to the culture industry. However, both this statement - and the Art Strike in general - work on more than one level. In the case of the fourteen words I've chosen to cite, taken in context, they also point towards a rather unoriginal view of history as something created after the fact by academics sitting amongst dusty piles of books - rather than by the Napoleons and Bismarcks who are familiar to us from dimly remembered school lessons. I'm digressing, and that's highly appropriate considering that I've stated on more than one occasion that the Art Strike was located in opposition to closure.
You've probably gathered by now that I'm unwilling to nail the Art Strike down. I've no wish to provide some monolithic theoretical justification for the Art Strike now that it's taken place. There's no simple explanation of what the Art Strike was about because it was simultaneously a hammer blow delivered to the heart of the cultural establishment and a very clever career move. After looking through the boxes of Art Strike material that have been gathering dust in my flat, I know that it's impossible to do justice to the omnidirectional nature of the Art Strike in the time it will take to deliver this lecture.
In an attempt to trace the genesis of the Art Strike, I'm going to backtrack to 1982. I was twenty years old and wanted to put life back into the corpse of the revolutionary avant garde. I was determined to create a Frankenstein's monster that would destroy the humourless cliques I used to run into who talked about Surrealism as 'unfinished business' and the Situationist International as having produced 'the ultimate anti-capitalist critique'.
Fortunately, I'd already hit upon plagiarism as a technique with which to antagonise my adversaries. I didn't need any ideas of my own, all I had to do was plunder the past. The first thing I came up with had a pedigree that goes back at least as far as the Berlin Dadaists - who'd declared that anyone who paid them fifty marks could be Jesus Christ. A more recent twist on the same theme is found in Julian Temple's film The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, which features a scene that sets out to prove that 'anybody can be a Sex Pistol'. I decided to enter the fray by issuing a series of leaflets which simultaneously demanded that all rock bands call themselves White Colours and that plagiarism should be adopted as a creative technique.
Two years later, I ran into various members of the Neoist Network and discovered that back in 1977, David Zack had issued a call for interested parties to assume the identity of an 'open pop star' named Monty Cantsin. Zack figured that if enough people used the name, this fictitious character would quickly develop a huge following and anybody who wanted a ready-made audience for their music would be able find one simply by billing themselves as Monty Cantsin. Since I'd been working along similar lines, I decided to throw in my lot with the Neoists. The younger members of the group were very receptive to 'my' ideas about plagiarism. Older Neoists such as Pete Horobin and tentatively a convenience were more interested in inventing some new universal language. However, only R. U. Sevol and Istvan Kantor were openly hostile. Kantor soon changed his tune but the first time I met him, he ranted and raved about a statement I'd made claiming Lautreamont as a plagiarist when he considered it self-evident that the author of Maldoror was 'an original'.
Neoism was rooted in Fluxus, Mail Art and Punk. I was able to transform the movement by grafting on a direct link to the Situationist tradition. Much of this simply consisted of providing a 'radical' theoretical underpinning to the group's post-Fluxus activities (by blatantly plagiarising situationist texts) - alongside a vigorous use of plagiarism and the Monty Cantsin identity. Teenagers coming into the movement, such as John Berndt and Graf Haufen, took up these ideas and as a result, Neoism entered the final of it's four phases. Critics have often treated this final period as if it was characteristic of the entire history of Neoism - in fact, there are vast differences between the early period in Portland when Zack and Al Ackerman invented the movement, the activist phase of the Montreal group in 1979/80, the movement that then spread across the Western World and it's final transformation in my hands in 1984.
By April 1985 I was feeling frustrated. Neoism was a dead end. As a vehicle for 'my' ideas, this particular movement had taken them as far as they'd go in Neo-Dadaist clothing. This led me to make two important decisions - to end my involvement with Neoism and to plagiarise Gustav Metzger's 1974 proposal for an Art Strike. These two decisions were closely related. The Neoist movement had acquired so much historical baggage during the course of its development that the issues raised by the Art Strike would have been ignored by virtually everyone outside the group if this moratorium on the production of culture had been proclaimed under the aegis of Neoism. Although it was the last thing Dave Zack, Al Ackerman and Maris Kundzin intended when they founded the group, Neoism had become a self-consciously avant-garde movement and its intolerant attitude towards less rigorous sections of the cultural underground resulted in many individuals rejecting Neoist activities without actually giving them any serious consideration. Meanwhile, the Art Strike tied in very neatly with the interest I'd retained in plagiarism and collective pseudonyms - providing me with an opportunity to develop all three concepts. In fact, they quickly became so intertwined that it's become very difficult to talk about any one of them without referring to the other two - hence the need that will be encountered at various points in this talk for digressions on these intimately related subjects.
It's been suggested by a number of people that the Art Strike was simply a career move and/or a publicity stunt on my part. To treat the Art Strike like this is ludicrous because as a cultural phenomena it was anything but stable and static. In fact, the Art Strike went through several periods of uneven but dynamic development. One of the initial attractions the Art Strike held for me was that it placed a strict time limit on my post-Neoist activities. By propagating the interlinked concepts of plagiarism, multiple names and Art Strike (as a means of questioning Western notions of individuality, value and truth) I was able to resurrect the corpse of the revolutionary avant-garde - and then kill it off again after four and a half years.
The earliest propaganda I produced to promote the 1990 Art Strike was a straight plagiarism of Gustav Metzger's 1974 proposal with the dates changed from 1977-80 to 1990-93. However, since the 1977 Art Strike had been a complete flop, it was clear to me that I'd have to be more energetic than Metzger in promoting the concept. I began talking about the Art Strike as a 'refusal of creativity' and an act of class war carried on within the cultural sphere, as well as linking it to my use of plagiarism and multiple names. One of the major outlets for this propaganda was Smile, a magazine I'd founded in February 1984. Prior to making contact with the Neoists, I'd already been demanding that all magazines be called Smile. The early issues were produced with a typewriter. After my break with Neoism, the magazine became much smarter looking, with a glossy two colour cover and the text properly typeset.
At first I made little headway with the Art Strike, only John Berndt and Tony Lowes seemed interested in the idea. Perhaps the difficulties I encountered were partly due to the fact that despite the break I'd made, many people still associated my activities with Neoism. More important still, was the collage structure of Smile, which tended to overshadow its content. Thus the number of individuals producing periodicals with that title multiplied because the cold, aggressive and apparently logical structure of my journal was undoubtedly impressive - but dazzled by the magazine's sense of style, the majority of readers either failed to take in or misunderstood what I was saying. I should perhaps at this point admit that this state of affairs was largely planned and had, in fact, become an integral part of my activities. As the style magazine Blitz commented in October 1986 'literary penetrability has never been high up Smile's list of priorities'.
The mere existence of Smile enabled me to develop the multiple name concept but had the simultaneous effect of overshadowing my plagiarism and Art Strike projects. To rectify this situation, I set about organising a Festival of Plagiarism in London. Rather than simply participate in the event I'd organised, various individuals in the States decided to set up festivals of their own. Thus, in January 1988, there were simultaneous Festivals of Plagiarism in London, San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin. These were followed up with further events in Braunschweig (West Germany) and Glasgow (Scotland). As a result, the underground of Europe and the United States was flooded with plagiarist propaganda.
The various Festivals of Plagiarism were radically different from any of the Neoist Apartment Festivals and established to the satisfaction of most of those active in the cultural underground that I'd made a complete break with Neoism. More importantly, the organisers of the San Francisco Festival of Plagiarism were so pleased with the success of their event, that they decided to focus on the Art Strike as their next major project. Thus they organised an Art Strike Mobilization Week at the ATA Gallery in January 1989 and formed the first Art Strike Action Committee. Further Action Committees were quickly set up in London, Eire and Baltimore (USA).
During the summer of 1989, the underground was awash with Art Strike propaganda. By the end of the year, the Art Strike was receiving some mainstream media coverage - in the press, on tv and radio. I'd succeeded in making a reasonably large number of people reflect on the political implications of cultural production and infuriated a good many reactionaries who believed that rather than being a dull sham, art gave expression to so called spiritual values. In the process of doing this, I'd also made a name for myself, and going 'on strike' at the beginning of 1990 represented a far greater sacrifice than when I'd first announced this moratorium on cultural production.
It was this change in my circumstances that transformed what had initially been a ludic proposal into something more akin to a career move. Although very few of the fifty or so individuals who'd been most active in propagating the Art Strike took the proposal very seriously, I was determined to see the project through to its conclusion - and actually struck! As a result, I now appear to be the major force behind the Art Strike. Obviously, this obscures the fact that it took the collaboration of numerous other individuals to generate the interest and debate around the 1990 Art Strike that has not only validated a number of my own activities but also rescued Gustav Metzger's 1974 proposal from the complete oblivion which might otherwise have been its fate.
Given the number of scabs who ignored the 1990-93 moratorium on cultural production, it's perhaps extraordinary that I can report the Art Strike in the same triumphal fashion as the Situationist International wrote about the events of May 68. After the boom years of the late eighties, many galleries shut down long before the deep surgery of the years without art had resulted in the plug being pulled on the patient's life-support system. In an article entitled 'The Sinking of Cork Street', The Guardian reported on 29 May 1992 that: 'In the past two years one in four of the major galleries in the West End have closed... due to a shrinking market', and that there had been 'a reported 60 per cent drop in art sales'.
The news that the art world was collapsing shouldn't have escaped any regular reader of the press, some other morale-boosting headlines included 'Dealers feel pinch as slump hits Art World' (Guardian 5/7/91) and 'You are invited to an Art World wake' (Independent 10/10/92) - while the 1993 New Year issue of Time Out reported the following gallery closures in its review of the previous twelve months: Anne Berthoud, Albemarle, Nicola Jacobs, Fabian Carlsson, Odette Gilbert, Maureen Paley, Milch and Nigel Greenwood. Obviously, the recession played a role in creating this pleasant state of affairs - but that needn't prevent me from claiming that the psychological impact of the Art Strike was largely responsible for this cultural crisis. Art Strike propaganda made it clear that simply challenging the implicit assumptions of serious culture would go a long way towards destroying its hegemony.
The three year period of the Art Strike also saw the world of serious fiction decimated, with a Times headline of 6 February 1992 announcing the 'Burial Rites of the Hardback'. Likewise, in his Independent On Sunday books review of the year 1992, Blake Morrison bemoaned the fact that unlike a decade ago, it was no longer possible to make a list of the best twenty young British novelists - he could only think of four and failed to add that the bozos he picked will soon have been forgotten. Other good news from the publishing industry included the suicide of literary hack Richard Burns, who hanged himself on 31 August 1992. Ian Katz in an article entitled 'Chronicle of a death foretold' (Guardian 14/12/92) quotes Robert Winder, literary editor of the Independent, as saying 'He had a new book about to come out. I wonder whether he sat down and read it and suddenly thought... I'm not Saul Bellow'. One assumes such a realisation would be a cause for celebration - and so it seems likely that Burns topped himself because the Art Strike shattered the hegemony of his elitist world view. The factor Winder highlights simply isn't credible - at least not to anyone whose not a member of that mythical society, the literary mafia.
It hardly needs stating that 1992 was by far and away the best year of the Art Strike, as the obituary columns of the international press listed the deaths of numerous proponents of serious culture - including, Francis Bacon, John Cage, George MacBeth and John Piper. Although not quite so directly related to my Art Strike campaign, I was equally pleased to hear that Friedrich von Hayek and David Widgery had snuffed it. Of course, it's impossible to measure the impact of Art Strike propaganda on those who are now dead - but hopefully it hammered a few nails into the coffins of these hacks.
However, the Art Strike was more than simply an attack on high culture and at the beginning of the three year moratorium on cultural production, I not only ceased writing, producing graphics, organising events and playing the guitar - I also stopped promoting the Art Strike. As it turned out, there were other individuals - such as Lloyd Dunn in Iowa - who were very active in keeping the Art Strike alive as an issue of debate within the underground. Likewise, old Art Strike materials were still in circulation and thousands of people were exposed to them for the first time long after they'd passed out of my hands. In itself, this illustrates the long delays involved in the distribution of cultural products and ideas - and since I'd decided to allow all the materials I'd created prior to January 1st 1990 to circulate during the Art Strike, I'm now able to provide still further models of this process.
For example, on 12 December 1989, I finished work on a novel entitled Defiant Pose. However, the book wasn't published until June 1991, eighteen months after it was completed and nearly a year and three quarters since I'd first started work on it. The fact that Defiant Pose made the books of the year lists in The Face and Gay Times of December 1991, and the best of the worst in the Sunday Times review of the literary year, amply reflects the fact that none of the works chosen were written during the twelve months in question. Therefore, the Art Strike can be read as my way of giving critics a chance to catch up with what I'd been doing during the eighties. And not only critics! The Art Strike also gave cultural administrators the opportunity to get to grips with my work. The last time I gave a public lecture was in December 1989, like this talk that one was also on the Art Strike - but my speech of three years ago was given at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, whereas today I've been booked into the more prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum. Individual reputations very rarely stand still in the cultural world and the Art Strike proves that doing nothing is often more productive than desperately seeking fame and fortune.
At this point, I'd like to backtrack to my books. My first novel, Pure Mania, was originally scheduled for publication in May 1989 - but due to various disputes between the imprint I was dealing with and their parent company, it didn't actually see the light of day until December 1989. Although I did some publicity for the book, once I hit my January 1st deadline, I refused to do any more interviews. The offers I turned down included the opportunity to appear on the Jonathan Ross Show - which should be an indication of how seriously I took the Art Strike. Accepting these invitations would have done a lot more for my career than being one of two participants in a three year Art Strike. After the journal Square Peg ran a competition in which readers had to submit fake interviews with me, I thought I should respond to this challenge - and so when my second novel was published in June 1991, I sent other people along to do interviews for me. This didn't work out very well, since all the journalists concerned realised they were being duped - and in the end, I returned to flatly refusing to do interviews or personal appearances.
There was a ludic quality to turning down publicity opportunities and remunerative offers of work - the disbelief with which my refusals were met more than compensated me for the fact that I was passing up the possibility of fame and fortune. For a time, it even seemed likely that I'd become famous without actually producing any further work of my own - because a number of individuals were issuing texts supposedly written by Stewart Home, in an attempt to discredit the Art Strike. The industrial rock band Academy 23 did this most successfully by producing a magazine entitled Smile, allegedly in collaboration with me. Unfortunately, they cocked up by admitting in a 1992 interview that they hadn't seen me since 1985 and had no idea where I was living. Other individuals - such as Mark Bloch with his Last Word pamphlet - tried and failed to bait me into print by publishing blatant lies about certain of my activities during the eighties.
As I've already said, I'm not interested in theorising the Art Strike. I'll leave it to my critics to sort out the mess I created with the help of some friends. And there's an awful lot that requires elucidation - from the various ways in which I plundered the past, through to the influence of my activities on the KLF rock band and Michael Bogdanov founder of the English Shakespeare Company, who the Independent On Sunday of 3 January 1993 reported as calling for a 20 year moratorium on the production of plays by the bard. As Sadie Plant wrote in her book The Most Radical Gesture (Routledge, London and New York 1992): 'Carrying a provocative ambiguity which incited confusion, the Art Strike reintroduced a whole range of issues centred around questions of strategy, recuperation, and the relation between culture and politics'.
The quote from Plant's book should help clarify a statement I made at the beginning of 1989, to the effect that the Art Strike 'should be understood in terms of social psychology, as intuitive mental pictures, rather than actions which have been rationally theorised'. Somewhat like Sorel's conception of the General Strike, the Art Strike should be viewed as a myth that drove (wo)men to (in)action. The Art Strike was an organised myth that took hold of individual artists and encircled them, sapping the will and creating a sensation of helplessness. As was observed in some Art Strike propaganda, most artists appear to be nervous about what they do and feel anxious as to whether they perform a socially useful function. What the Art Strike made clear, is that artistic activities have no social value whatsoever and in fact are extremely wasteful. The recent collapse of Cork Street indicates that the number of individuals immobilised by the Art Strike was even greater than those who felt severely threatened by it and reacted with violent denunciation. We can therefore conclude that as propaganda and myth, the Art Strike was a great success.
Notes for lecture at Victoria and Albert Museum 30 January 1993
The Art Strike Papers
Art Strike Biennial
Stewart Home tells it like it is, regardless of whether he has his kit on or off...
These lecture notes were first published in the book "Neoism, Plagiarism & Praxis" by Stewart Home.
"The Art Strike Papers" edited by James Mannox gives some idea of how different people reacted to the art strike.