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Michael Madden

Michael Madden

Michael Madden: thoughts on visual art, politics and the planet (4)

Michael Madden: painter, sculptor, restorer, environmental campaigner and Hastings resident, talks with HOT’s Chandra Masoliver about art – the last in a series of four interviews.

Hello again Michael. You often use your artworks to comment on politics, society and the environment. Please tell me about your thoughts on visual art in this final interview.

MM: OK, let’s start with 4 quotes:

Almighty cheeseburger with fries

The Almighty Cheeseburger with Fries – carved oak – 2001/2

1. “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” George Orwell

2. “The name of artist is reserved to him who has the skill to make something and does actually make it” Eric Gill

3. “Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” Pablo Picasso

4. “… the word ‘art’… has been so discredited. So I want to get rid of it. There is an unnecessary adoration of ‘art’ today.” Marcel Duchamp

Orwell knew many people thought art and politics shouldn’t mix. But that also meant they thought that artists shouldn’t challenge established ideas. Visual art is a political issue for several reasons, like the fact that the most valuable works of art are only affordable to very few. Also, ‘Fine Art’ has never been a good career choice. Great painters like Botticelli, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Cezanne and Van Gogh died broke, but now their paintings are worth a fortune. I was friends with the excellent Hastings’ painter, Roland Jarvis, who sold hardly a picture. Gus Cummins is another excellent local painter, who says that art is a loss-making enterprise.

The people who make most profit from visual art are not the makers themselves, but the middle-men. I’ve not exhibited here for seven years. A gallery owner said she was ‘well-connected’, so I put £850 into a show and made around £250 profit. She took 40% of that. That’s the way it is – even worse in London.

I also agree with Gill’s quote. Visual artists should make their own work, unless they’ve personally trained apprentices. Having an idea and managing it is not being a visual artist. Using a machine is a form of cheating. Great modellers like Rodin wouldn’t have paid others to do his sculpting. It’s odd that anyone can say “I’m an artist”, but they can’t say “I’m a doctor” unless they had been thoroughly trained. Also, sight is one of our most important senses, yet kids in state schools have practically no visual education – just in public schools.

The Picasso quote may seem odd, but it’s a fact. A painting is a flat rectangular surface with paint applied. The mastery of an artist can fool viewers into believing they’re looking at nature or a real person, but of course they’re not.
I also agree with Duchamp, that ‘art’ has been put on a pedestal, a replacement for religion: a capitalist sublime, if you like – the priceless object, more prized than gold. He was labelled as ‘anti-art’, but I think he was actually anti-establishment. He made a strong political point by putting an upturned urinal into a gallery, thereby showing that anything placed in a gallery can be called ‘art’, but that doesn’t mean he approved. A urinal is a factory-made object. His original ‘ready-made’ is lost, but a potter made a replica, which is worth millions – madness! Duchamp gave the art world what it deserved – a kick up the arse – but the art world absorbed it and made more money out of conceptual art.

CM: Would you like to get rid of the word ‘art’ too?

MM: I think it needs to be redefined and reunited with everyday work. Only that can get rid of the snobbery of the art world. At present, the art world is pretty much controlled by billionaires and International corporations:

Have a Nice Doom

Have a nice Doom – painting – 2011

It’s also a question of definition. Skill and creativity make many things apart from what is called ‘art’ – like architecture. To me, a skilled house builder is as much an artist as a canvas painter. I’ve met brilliant traditional builders while working on old buildings. The White Rock Pavilion was collectively made by many different tradespeople in the 1920s. It’s not the greatest building ever but it’s worth restoring and modifying, and that would also be Greener.

But it’s not listed, so the council will probably knock it down. Tradesmen today wouldn’t be given enough time to create anything better. So whatever replaces it is bound to be inferior, even if it’s bigger. Apparently it will be in a style called “Black Box”. I think that means it’ll look like a black box.


CM: How would you go about reuniting art and work?

MM: With high-quality apprenticeships. I’ve spent around seven or eight years researching the subject for a book, for which I’m still trying to find a publisher. It explains how, just two centuries ago, Britain was full of artisans, and in the Middle Ages, around 40% of male workers, if you include skilled farmers, were trained by direct transmission through high-quality apprenticeships. The apprenticeship system ended in 1814 as a result of laissez-faire economic ideals. And yet great artists like Leonardo learned in that way, and it is the best way to learn. Teaching art academically splits theory from practise, and art from labour.

However, doing it would require a political change, because only governments have a mandate. The NHS still teaches directly through teaching hospitals, and nationalised utilities used to provide good apprenticeships. Outside of those areas, I think we need smaller work-units like the Germans have. E.F. Schumacher said this. He also said that communist AND capitalist regimes both see technology as good, without seeing its drawbacks. The state communist idea that art is ‘bourgeois’ has led to artists being murdered, post-revolution, or put into gulags with other ‘intellectuals’. That’s because art was seen as useless to the state but also as dangerous.

CM: How did your own work develop?

MM: I’ve always called myself a tradesman, because I was apprentice-trained as a specialist decorator, not as what people call an artist. I learned about colour and design and natural rhythms but had to teach myself drawing and painting. While restoring historic works of art, I learned how to mimic the styles of medieval or early Renaissance masters. I’m not religious, but I love early religious art for its attention to natural detail and its feeling of a different spiritual order. I’ve tried to understand how old masters worked, and tried to copy them. But I also liked to make jokes or social comments. So, I tend to work “in the style of”, but change the use.

CM: Do you think modern communication technology is helping to endanger traditional art skills?

Yes. They’re magical screens, like canvases, but more dangerous, because they reduce the direct experience of the real world. As Debord said, we’ve become slaves to spectacle. We spend more art on make-believe than on the real world. Look at the beautifully-made period dramas on TV, the appearance of the past so brilliantly recreated by visual artists: set builders, stylists, directors, wardrobe mistresses etc. But we don’t take such care when we build or transform the world we actually live in.

The lack of regulation of the Internet has also allowed far more dangerous lies than the harmless lies of great painters and sculptors. As Himmler said: if you keep telling big lies, people will eventually believe you. The UK is 33rd out of 180 countries on the World Press freedom index and many people get their opinions on social media anyway. Companies like the American Robert Mercer’s ‘Cambridge Analytica’ deliberately influenced the Vote Leave campaign via the Internet. And he’s free to do it again in the coming election. Mercer and his daughter donated large sums to climate denial science: and to the Trump election campaign. These people own priceless works of art. So does Charles Koch (one of the richest oil-men in the world). It’s the same old 1% again. Democracy has never been more fragile.

'Master' model for the ENO, 2004

‘Master’ model for the ENO, 2004

CM: What political system do you think would be better?

MM: A high quality, bottom-up, democracy. The way to create one is to return to a high-quality apprenticeship system under more diverse and less tribal system of representative democracy. We need masters of skill at all levels to rise up through the ranks.

But first, we need to change our definition of art. Here’s a last quote, from William Morris, nearly a century and a half ago:

“I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art, to take in not only paintings and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and highways of all kinds; in a word to extend it to the aspect of all the externals of our life.” From Art Under Plutocracy, 1883
Morris’s definition of art is as clear and relevant as ever.

CM: Will you ever stop making art?

MM: I don’t know. My memory and eyesight are worse, but I have more time. I also teach drawing to a group of stroke survivors. And I would really like to contribute to an exhibition about climate change, where a percentage of the profits go to a Green cause.


Conference – bronze – 1993

CM: Thank you for doing these interviews with me, Michael.

MM: Thanks for persuading me, Chandra. I’d recommend any local person with time and something to say to approach the HOT – it’s a great community resource.




All illustrated artworks are by Michael Madden. See also his website.

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Posted 15:48 Monday, Nov 25, 2019 In: Hastings People


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  1. D Bergen

    Mick Madden again makes important points, and supplies great quotes to boot. His description of the craftsmanship expended on TV productions compared to the often sterile environments offered to everyday living in the real world is sadly apt. And his discussion of the success of The Big Lie applies to recent events on both sides of the Pond.
    DC Bergen

    Comment by D Bergen — Thursday, Nov 28, 2019 @ 21:41

  2. Simon Marshall

    Yes, a fitting culmination to this series of thought provoking and highly perceptive interviews. I am with you all the way regarding apprenticeships and skills, knowledge and expertise being passed on.
    I fear that post-modernism has played a decisive and destructive role in demonising anything that might be construed as a hierarchy. The fatuous equation that “hierarchy = power structure =oppression” has much to answer for. Art and artists are not the result of spontaneous combustion. Both art and craft are dependent upon learning and practice. Both these are garnered through direct experience and tutorship from those with , yes, greater levels of expertise. This is a healthy and productive lineage. The word “apprentice” derived from the French verb “aprendre” (to learn). There seems to be an abundance “craftless art” around, much vaunted by commercial hype but of little qualitative value.So Mick, is right, we need to take a step “back” and revive the apprenticeship model in order to move forwards

    Comment by Simon Marshall — Thursday, Nov 28, 2019 @ 00:30

  3. Francis Sheppard

    Another exhilarating and enlightening piece by Mr. Michael Madden. The department for education and skills would do well to engage with him. His understanding of what is needed to create skills and his historical experience of how real apprenticeships worked and devolved is very thorough and factual. Having seen transcripts of his proposed book can absolutely concur that any one who is involved in training, educational development or apprenticeships would benefit greatly from having a conversation with him. Publishers also get him on your contacts list.
    One disappointment is that these interviews have ended they have been very enjoyable and informative and given great pause for thought. I for one hope he will be invited back to delight us with his unique way of delivering his chosen subject. As a non resident of Hastings I will be regularly logging on to Hastings news to see what is going on locally and when his next subject is out there. Well done all connected with this initiative.

    Comment by Francis Sheppard — Tuesday, Nov 26, 2019 @ 09:59

  4. Michael Madden

    Hi Eadweard,

    I think a link to my website will soon be added to this article. But meanwhile, it’s – contact details can be found there. I’d be happy to hear from you.

    Thanks also to Mrs Doubtfire.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Tuesday, Nov 26, 2019 @ 08:53

  5. Eadweard

    I am inspired by the fine craftsmanship as much as by the philosophy behind it displayed by the words and images in this article. Well done and said Michael Madden. May we continue to train by apprenticeships in arts and crafts. Where can we see and buy works by this master craftsman artist and philosopher?

    Comment by Eadweard — Tuesday, Nov 26, 2019 @ 04:54

  6. Ms.Doubtfire

    This is be best of four Michael – and I particularly like your reference to William Morris. His famous quote ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful…..’ is well worth thinking about.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Monday, Nov 25, 2019 @ 16:29

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