"To be an artist means making a life primarily of doing the work that you yourself decide to do. It isn't possible to sustain the engagement this requires unless the doing of it gives you pleasure. I don't mean fun, and making art can be both boring and depressing, but in essence it is a pleasure," Michael Craig-Martin contended a week before Damien Hirst's history-making auction at Sotheby's. One of Craig-Martin's achievements is to relate this kind of pleasure to his students at The University of London's Goldsmiths College, encouraging them to recognize and value the aspects of their work that gives them pleasure. Hirst, his most famous student, has certainly taken this to heart. He acknowledges this debt in his painting Michael with Diamond Skull, 2008, the last lot, Nr. 287, the ultimate parting shot of the Hirst blockbuster. Who has the cheekier smile-the skull or the teacher?
Craig-Martin is best known for three things - his early conceptual art, including An Oak Tree (1973), which was stopped by the Australian customs despite being physically constructed out of nothing more than a glass of water; his invention in 1978 of a style of drawing even more impersonal than that of Warhol, Caulfield, and Lichtenstein; and finally as the teacher at Goldsmiths from 1974-88 that launched the Young British Artists (among many others, he taught Angus Fairhurst, Mat Collishaw, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas, and Simon Patterson). He came back to Goldsmiths in 1993 as the Millard Professor of Fine Art. His success has been built on a reputation for clinical thought, and yet he attributes it to the pleasure principle. His first teaching job was in 1966 at the Bath Academy, located at the time at Corsham on England's southern shore. Although born in Ireland, he had grown up and studied in affluent America, which he left for swinging but comparatively poor Britain-and so suddenly "I was poorer than anyone I'd ever met," he remembered in an interview with myartspace.com's American art critic Brian Sherwin. He discovered that "Corsham was an exceptionally good art school, in fact the whole developing system of British art education was excellent, but I found many of the teachers, British artists, had been deeply disappointed with their own art education. They were strongly motivated to create a new form of education that would give young artists the experience they themselves had missed. […] In contrast, I felt my own education at Yale had been extremely helpful-I arrived there when the legacy of Josef Albers was still strong. It had given me a positive sense of what art education could be, and that stayed with me."
In an earlier interview, Craig-Martin explained that, "My most helpful teachers were Al Held, Alex Katz, Jack Tworkov, and Neil Welliver. Among my fellow students were Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Richard Serra, Jon Borofsky, Jennifer Bartlett, Victor Burgin. I think one's fellow students are at least as important, if not more so, than one's teachers." This lesson, this recognition and encouragement of student power, have proved vital. "The only time you, as an artist, are in a socially vibrant creative situation is when you are at art school. Too many students become secretive and self-protective, and of course you have the rest of your life to be like that. I tried to encourage communication between students. I told students if you see something you like by another student, stop and tell them."
Craig-Martin was only one teacher among many at Goldsmiths in the '70s and '80s. He gives the main credit to his head of department, Jon Thompson, who recruited him in the first place. Much of the myth of Craig-Martin as the teacher of the YBAs revolves around his neat reduction of concepts. He says, however, that contrary to myth he never discussed with students how to get on in the art world. "Until the early '90s there was virtually no art world for young artists in Britain. That's why Frieze was so important. The only real key to success as an artist is making good work, and at Goldsmiths we tried to help students make good work." If anything, Craig-Martin is prone to that fabled sense of British understatement. Without a doubt, the artist is nothing less than a perfectionist, not only in his teaching, but also in his work. His eye for details hints to a great deal of pleasure in the execution of his exacting drawing style. But Craig-Martin prefers talking about "good work" instead, about the birth of ideas and the communication between artists.
Craig-Martin talks of "times of special chemistry," such as his student years at Yale University in the early 1960s. Also, as he says, it was "extraordinary in the late '80s at Goldsmiths that there were so many talented students in touch with each other and aware of the challenge each of them presented to the others. This brought the best kind of competitiveness-if for example Gary Hume did a particularly good painting, the others would take it up as a challenge, and gradually everyone's standards and self-expectation rose. I believe that was why so many in the group achieved such success."
An important part of being a teacher is the recognition of potential. This came naturally to Craig-Martin. "Everyone has creative potential. I found it best to treat students as much as possible as artists. By the time people go to art school, most of the ingredients of character and capacity are already in place. What they have to discover is a language of expression that works for them. For you as a teacher, it is a question of bringing out the potential they have as already interesting artists. I tried to encourage things, but you cannot make things happen-there is no formula."
Teaching artists and being an artist oneself often seem like two sides of one coin. When one talks with Craig-Martin about bringing out the artistic potential in his students, one is reminded of Joseph Beuys' claim that "To be a teacher is my greatest work of art." But isn't it well-known that teaching can also damage an artist's output? Though Craig-Martin acknowledges paying a price for teaching, it is no coincidence that his later style evolved a few years after his arrival at Goldsmiths. "There is no doubt when you are teaching that it's a good idea to listen to yourself-what you are saying to students is often what you would have liked someone to say to you. My teaching had a very big impact on my work. I started drawing individual objects in 1978. I drew one thing after another. I used tape, as I wanted the drawings to have the same impersonal character as the objects; I wanted to make drawings that had no style, but ironically that has come to be seen as my style." He went for the most common things-shoes, tables, chairs, and sunglasses-things below the radar of importance. In an aside about Warhol, Craig-Martin exclaims, "I wanted something even more universal than Marilyn Monroe!"
It is easy to see links between Warhol, Craig-Martin, and Hirst, but Craig-Martin is adamant that he never wanted his students to make work like him. "That would be a terrible insult, an admission that you had failed. It's the way they think that is important." He is fascinated by Hirst's evolution. "Warhol called his studio the 'Factory' in order to be provocative and ironic. Damien has created studios that are genuinely like factories and has made the mechanics a vital part of the work." Here, the processes of producing and marketing the work have become "part of the meaning of the work." Hirst's success gives Craig-Martin pleasure, but he admits artists are always looking "for virgin territory." "I found pleasure in making a certain kind of drawing, that's what I have wished to do. No one forced me to do it. To sustain engagement, you have to find new areas." As the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan pointed out, the twin sister of pleasure is death. It is the repressed kernel of every act of pleasure, its end result and the fantasy of the pleasure-seeking subject. Death has been one of Hirst's prevalent subject matters. He attributes this to Francis Bacon, who famously said he thought of death every time he woke. It comes as no surprise, however, that Michael with Diamond Skull acknowledges that the naked ambition to confront death also came from his teacher at Goldsmith's-his teacher of pleasure.
Works by Michael Craig-Martin and Damien Hirst from the Deutsche Bank Collection are included in a small exhibition in Deutsche Bank's VIP Lounge at Frieze Art Fair highlighting the relationship between teachers and pupils. Both artists have also kindly donated works to an auction for the charity Teenage Cancer Trust (TCT) that will be held at 5 pm on Friday, October 17 in the same lounge.