Brit Art's foundation figure

February 6, 1998

From Julian Opie to Damien Hirst, Michael Craig-Martin (above) has turned out 25 years' worth of brilliant British artists. Kam Patel explores the secrets of his success.

Michael Craig-Martin sits in the living room of his spare, minimalist London home, in front of a series of his own abstract paintings. Casually dressed, his laid-back manner belies the steely determination that has helped lay the foundations for the phenomenon of the Young British Artist. Damien Hirst, Julian Opie, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas, Fiona Rae, Ian Davenport are just a few of Craig-Martin's former students who have, in recent years, taken the art world by storm.

Arguably the most influential postwar figure in art education, for the past 25 years Craig-Martin has taught at Goldsmiths College, London where he laid down what is, in effect, a manifesto for art education. So, to what does he attribute his students' amazing success?

Craig-Martin pauses a moment. He is, he says, very much a creature of the 1960s - a period when all forms of authority were under question and institutions under attack. These attitudes spilt over into the early 1970s at Goldsmiths, when the foundation for today's achievements were being laid: "There was this incredible freedom of thought. You were left alone to figure things out without constraints, and act on them to see if they worked. That, basically, is what we did at Goldsmiths," he says. The objective was to create a framework for art education that made sense, first and foremost, to artists.

For Craig-Martin and his colleagues were disillusioned with the kind of education they themselves had received as students. (He studied fine art at Yale University). Much of it seemed inappropriate, old fashioned, misguided, irrelevant. "We wanted to find a way of teaching that was consistent with our sense of ourselves. Because what I felt was that I was the same person when I was (teaching) at Goldsmiths as I was when (working) in my studio ... that I should not try, as a teacher, to be something I was not."

The work of many of his ex-students has been labelled "conceptualist" but Craig-Martin takes issue with this categorisation. Conceptualism's heyday was in the late 1960s/early 1970s, although it has underpinned all subsequent art: "The students' work is not easy to classify but in a way I see that as a fulfilment of Goldsmiths' agenda," he says. "Goldsmiths' idea was to see what happens when you take away the boundaries between painting, sculpture, printmaking and so on within the school and just say to students: 'It is all art. You can make it any way you want, use the materials you want and see what you come up with'."

Categorising students working in film as "filmmakers", for instance, seems to Craig-Martin, a professor of fine art, to make less sense than saying that one of them is closer to painting or installation. Or that another has more in common with performance art: "The dividing line is not necessarily according to the medium but according to how the medium has been developed. The tradition of Goldsmiths is very much resplendence in diversity - that is its greatest strength. It upsets me when people try to describe Goldsmiths as having a narrow agenda because if it did, that would be fatal."

For Craig-Martin, the essential difference between Goldsmiths and other art schools is that at Goldsmiths the teaching is student-led, whereas most other schools present a programme which the students adjust to. He is surprised that more art schools have not adopted Goldsmiths' dissolution of the distinctions between different media. "At Goldsmiths students can change direction completely several times within the course ... to me it simply makes sense. "

What is it like teaching students who go on to become more successful than him in his own field? Does he feel envious? "I don't feel I have done so badly myself," he says easily. "It has never occurred to me to feel anything but pleased for them. I have gained a great deal of pleasure from their success. As a group, they have been very generous. And the effect is that they have a created a world in which they are all thriving. And I cannot say it has not been good for me too," he adds, laughing. His own art deals with questions about the nature of art; representation, authorship and the role of the viewer, explored through commonplace objects. His best known works include "An oak tree" which depicts a glass of water balanced on a shelf.

There has been wide debate recently about whether painting is in its death throes. But, as Craig-Martin points out, half of the best known Goldsmiths alumni, Gary Hume, Fiona Rae, Ian Davenport among them, paint. In fact, he believes that it is a kind of sculpture, sculpture as the exploration of material, rather than painting, that is in crisis. "Almost no Goldsmiths student is working in this way ... it's not that they are not dealing with the material but the idea of the material itself as the source of expression is not the way they operate. Instead, young artists tend to start from the premise of certain ideas about content, things they want the work to address and the material form follows that." Asked to name the dominant media being used at Goldsmiths now, he cites painting and film and video.

But he has been around long enough to know that what disappears in one period has a knack of coming back a decade or two later, rediscovered by the young who reinvent it for their own time. He is always surprised by how critical people are about the idea of fashionable art. Nevertheless he agrees that the dynamics of fashion, with its emphasis on ever-faster change, is squeezing the lifespan of art. "At Goldsmiths we are seeing the pace quickening in relation to student needs and demands," he says. Ironically, the most visible sign of this acceleration in the art world was Sensation, the recent exhibition of work of about 40 young British artists at the Royal Academy. Quite a lot of their work looked out of date.Damien Hirst's shark, for instance, suspended in a glass tank, looked distinctly tired.

What does the future hold for the Sensation brigade? Craig-Martin says:

"Some of the people will continue to be successful, others will not. Some will be displaced and they are not going to like it but that is fine, that is the way the (art world) operates. It seems entirely proper." Hirst, the front man for the new art scene, in particular, gives the impression of being at the end of a phase in his work. Pressures of public expectation weigh heavy upon him but Craig-Martin says he would be very surprised if Hirst, a "powerhouse of work and ideas", were not capable of maintaining interest.

At the heart of the phenomenon of young British artists is the extraordinary Charles Saatchi from whose gargantuan collection Sensation emerged. As such Sensation was effectively a single person's view of British art. But there is no doubt the scale of Saatchi's dealings in art have distorted the market. An important feature of the advertising mogul's modus operandi is that he buys works from young artists just starting their careers. Traditionally this has not been the case. Craig-Martin points out that the reputation of artists like Richard Long and Gilbert and George a generation or two ago was made by collectors outside Britain. Saatchi has created what is essentially a market for new British artists virtually single handedly. But is it healthy for someone to exercise so much control? "Obviously in any monopoly situation there are things which make one uncomfortable," says Craig Martin. "If one looks at Sensation it is clear that there are certain things that interest him and others that do not. He is not all that interested in collecting video works - there are very few despite the huge of amount of activity in the area, similarly with installation and photography. He is mainly interested in painting and sculpture."

Craig-Martin is at a loss to explain the psychology of Saatchi's collecting except to say that "many true collectors are very obsessive and he is exceptionally obsessive". Certainly, Saatchi cannot be doing it to make money. Ninety per cent of what he buys will never be worth more than what he paid, says Craig-Martin, and if he did not buy it nobody would - the market is not big enough. "There are some things he has purchased for very little which are now worth a lot of money, but in proportion to the volume of works he has bought he cannot possibly think all this other stuff is going to be worth something. He knows the limitations. He is too knowledgeable not to." What Saatchi's activities have meant though, says Craig-Martin, is that money has been channelled into the system, giving more young artists a chance to thrive.

The collision of circumstances has led to what he regards as a "great phenomenon" of the late 20th century: the democratisation of art. "Suddenly you have a much bigger, young, popular audience. It expects to go to exhibitions and be entertained. Young people want to like art, to be shown a variety of things and not be lectured at. I think that is great. Because these people are seeing more, they are becoming more knowledgeable." The queues outside the Royal Academy suggest he may be right. What did they see when they got inside? Well, quite a lot of stuff dealing with sex and death which took even Craig-Martin aback: "I can understand them being obsessed with sex, they are young people after all, but it is surprising that they are obsessed with notions of death. Twenty years ago you could have gone to a contemporary exhibition and it might have been radical but you could be damned sure it did not deal with sex and death." He believes there has been a liberation of content in art over the past 10 to 15 years.Certain kinds of content might have been seen as corny, cliched, sentimental, mundane, vulgar or banal in the past. But now, many young artists have little time for such a view - it's boring.

For Craig-Martin, Sensation marks the end of an era. The whole system is gearing up for the new millennium. As far he is concerned, the transformation that has taken place in British art over the past 10 to 15 years is not because of Charles Saatchi, Goldsmiths or any other single institution or figure. Rather, it is due to Britain's complex infrastructure for the arts, covering galleries, institutions, art colleges and studio space built up over the past 50 years. "All of this has created an incredible grassroots structure, a base, which has enabled an enormous number of people to try a creative life. It is very important that it is not killed off because if you damage the base, the whole thing will collapse no matter what is happening to the funding and politics at the top. The reason it is happening here and not in Paris is that Paris has no base. The French are in a cultural crisis because of that. The reason New York has been so dominant in the art world for much of the late 20th century is because it has had that base for a long time.

"Now, everybody automatically talks about the British as a creative people but the truth of the matter is that we have had 40 years of art schools, produced thousands of art graduates and there has been a cycle of them going into schools to teach. This is now the third generation of that phenomenon. That is how it has happened."

WHAT THE FORMER PUPILS SAY

Julian Opie: "Michael tells me that my interview for Goldsmiths in 1981 was a disaster but that he took me because instead of copying one person I was methodically copying everyone. He saw possibilities in this.

He had no doctrine, just common sense, clarity and infectious enthusiasm. After a tutorial I couldn't wait to get working. Michael was a glamorous figure, well dressed, bemused and slightly shocking. 'It's got to look good,' he said. No one else admitted this was even an issue. 'It's too creative,' he might complain. He told me there was an art world out there, but never pushed. 'You have to want it.' I did and he made it accessible."

Ian Davenport: "It is maybe because he is very successful as an artist himself that his impact at Goldsmiths has been so dramatic, always inspiring students to break their own boundaries."

Lisa Milroy: "Michael has a way of making you feel as if what you think is the most terrifying or dangerous thing to undertake is of course the most obvious thing to do."

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