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"This House Believes that conceptual art just isn't Art"
Debate at the Oxford Union, 5 November 2009

In proposition: Alice Thomas (Oxford student), David Armitage (abstract painter), Mark Leckey (2008 Turner Prize winner), and Charles Thomson (Co-founder, The Stuckists).
In opposition: Dr Stephen Deuchar (Director of Tate Britain), Miroslaw Balka (conceptual artist), Adrian Searle (art critic, The Guardian), and Matthew Collings (broadcaster and critic).

The motion was defeated by approx 200 to 60 votes.

Charles Thomson's speech, summing up for the proposition.
Video Footage Courtesy of Rick Friend

Matthew Collings' speech (part 1), summing up for the opposition.
Video Footage Courtesy of Rick Friend

Matthew Collings' speech (part 2), summing up for the opposition.
Video Footage Courtesy of Rick Friend


Announcement by the Oxford Union (on webcitation)
Charles Thomson quoted on Mark Leckey in The Guardian 5.11.09 (para 5)
Adrian Searle in The Guardian 9.11.09 (scroll down)
Matthew Collings on the Saatchi Gallery site 13.11.09
Nick Christos blogs 13.11.09

Leo Goatley reports

I enjoyed the Oxford Union debate. It was a thoroughly engaging and entertaining session, which took place in a setting where custom, convention, historical connection and continuity were imperative. Even the photographs from 1992 were in black and white and achieved a decayed elegance that made them look respectably nineteenth century. I did wonder (given the wealthy endowments of the University) whether central heating might be considered.

Alice Thomas spoke with great eloquence and sensitivity to set the scene for the honest appreciation of good art, which underpinned the argument for the motion.

I thought Dr Stephen Deuchar lost the argument when he high-jacked Picasso, Rembrandt and Holbein to emphasise his point about conceptualism, arguing, somehow, that conceptualism embraced any art that history has shown to have enduring value. Prior to becoming an art establishment careerist, he had dedicated his studies to eighteenth century art: his concern that we should be caught in the past and be a Munnings seemed like a fear of his own. His attempt at an historical assessment, while striving for objectivity, lacked the sincerity of those speakers who spoke subjectively and from the heart.

David Armitage's jovial speed babble was difficult to comprehend even from a few paces, and I think backfired. Perhaps this is a consequence of being secure with ones place in the world. His story about the lady incessantly championing conceptualism at a dinner party, the tedium of which was only alleviated when a fish bone got caught in her throat, may not, in the circumstances, have been lost on those present in the debating chamber. Evidently David arrived as an artist a long time ago. His reputation, it appears, gives him first call on the gallery space in his Sussex locality. On a positive note, his argument on the casual arbitrariness of conceptual art was well exemplified with his imagining of an installation comprising one hundred wheelie bins in different colours and permutations, suspended from a ceiling, perhaps aligned to offer a vacuous context to demonstrate the mathematical symbol Pi. It certainly emphasised conceptual art's boundless potential for banality.

It took some lughole straining to understand what Miroslaw Balka was saying, but it was worth the effort. Beneath the seriousness, which resonated with all the fun of a cold rainy day in a gulag, his artistic odyssey was poetic, although it is perhaps unfortunate that his journey has taken him where it has

In the category of subjective speakers from the heart, I would include Mark Lecky, although I did worry that he was waivering across the floor. He nevertheless provided a colourful and intelligent counterpoint to the debate. It is a pity that the constraints of the business did not give his essay the time it deserved.

Adrian Searle's camp cynicism might have impressed some people, but I did not find it particularly memorable. He was of course singing from the same hymn sheet as Deuchar (and later Collings), emphasising the need to peel back the layers to get to the meaning of the thing, even if the thing was not itself art, but may actually have been, for example, six self-induced abortions. In a way I feel sorry for Searle, God knows what it must be like to live in such a convoluted world. At least he remembered what he had to say.

Charles Thomson did a first class job in presenting his argument for the motion. It was a transparently genuine heartfelt appeal that impressed. He was as commanding and convincing as any leading counsel I have instructed. Perhaps he should now have QC after his name? And by the way Charles, make sure you pronounce Miroslaw's name correctly next time. I did detect a slight frisson of melodrama, as he shouted after you (without first asking the President's permission), "I am Balka" - not Balak.

Matthew Collings' opening salvo, condemning an "innocent" view of art, was revealing. Surely great art can be appreciated quite validly all levels, by all people, as an inspiring and uplifting experience, evoking an emotional response that does not require instant cerebral overdrive. He digressed to the portraiture hanging on the walls, namely the slightly "kitsch" Benazir Bhutto and the more subtle shades of some notable scholar opposite. These were, he said, examples of art performing some simple, perfunctory purpose, but nevertheless lacking the essential work ethic demanded of the observer by conceptual art. To appreciate good art we have to peel back all the layers, sort out the puzzle, and read the artist's mind. He made interesting points, but relied on Gauguin and Van Gogh, and did at least acknowledge that conceptual art was something distinct and separate from painting and sculpture.

Leo Goatley is a solicitor and founder of The Gloucester Stuckists

Stuckist display in Oxford Union library
There was a Stuckist display in the Oxford Union library of paintings and placards from Turner Prize demonstrations with Edgeworth Johnstone (dressed as a clown) and Shelley Lee handing out leaflets and badges.

Paintings - Mark D: Stella Vine: Go Fuck Yourself. Charles Thomson: Woman in Black Hat with Outstretched Arm and Woman in Cowboy Hat with Yellow Mug. Paul Harvey: Two Girls with Giotto Tree and Gina (after a painting by Gina Bold).

Edgeworth Johnstone

Charles Thomson

Prints of Charles Thomson: Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision and Is My Shoe Art?

Turner Prize demo placards. Painting by Ella Guru:
Lotus Poison

Turner Prize demo placards. Paintings by Ella Guru:
The Forcibly Bewitched
. Joe Machine: Sailor and Woman