How to be an artist, by Howard Hodgkin

The William Townsend Memorial Lecture, given by Howard Hodgkin at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London, on 15 December 1981. An edited transcript from a tape recording was published in the Burlington Magazine, 7th September 1982

How to be an artist

I have often said, in the way one does, when asked the question, ‘When did you first want to be an artist?’ ‘Well, I’ve wanted to be a painter since the age of five.’ When thinking about what I was going to say, I wondered why I particularly chose that date, other than the fact that I told someone at the time. And I think it was because of the picture over the mantelpiece that I became aware, at a very early age – as I am sure did everybody in this room – of pictures as things like tables, chairs, cups and saucers and so on. That conviction about the nature of pictures has perhaps saved me, helped me and protected me since. But to revert to the title of this lecture for a moment, I should perhaps have added ‘How to be an artist in England’, because to be an artist in England is perhaps, even certainly, special – more difficult, more traumatic and probably more fraught with the absolute certainty of failure than in any other country.

I came from a fairly but not very wealthy middle-class background of the kind in which relatives help pay for your education; the picture over the mantelpiece in my parents’ house was in fact a doubtful water-colour by David Cox which was a wedding present from a judge. I was worried about the paid-for education (which thanks to the accident of war took place partly and at much greater expense in America) and every school that I was sent to, I eventually ran away from. When finally I was inevitably sent to a doctor because it was thought I must be disturbed having run away by that time from five schools, always giving the reason I had left that I wanted to be an artist, they said, ‘Clearly something wrong with the boy’, I was sent to a nice doctor. He was an extraordinary man and it is the only time I have been in a house filled with both original and imitation Frank Brangwyns. Thanks to him I got back to America and my real career as a painter began – by looking at pictures in New York.

But of course, coming back to England, I had to run the gauntlet of art school. Art school in England is different from art school anywhere else. To go to an English art school is like going into some kind of limbo, which is not like going to a monastery, not like going back to boarding school, but it is I think both totally destructive and the main reason why to be an artist in England is rather like being squeezed out of the wrong end of a tube of toothpaste. Once you cross the threshold of an art school, you are not in the real world but nor are you really of course in the academic world because nobody in an art school knows what to ask for in the way of instruction and nobody teaching knows quite what is expected of them to teach. There are no recognised skills that can be passed on and although this is obviously the grossest generalisation, for the most part it is true. There is no point of reference which has anything to do with the outside world at all. It was more than thirteen years of teaching in art schools before I realised quite what it was. I could never understand why the kind of pictures that people painted in art schools were not pictures. I could not understand why they had no edges, they had no scale, they had no proportion, they were not about anything. They were full of hope and aspiration perhaps, often they were imitations of art on the outside but they were extraordinarily unfulfilled in that role. I remember berating students: ‘Don’t you realise that scale and proportion, the relation to form and content is the most important part of all art, the one hardest to talk about but the one you should be thinking and feeling about?’ They would look at me very blankly and say, ‘Well, what should I do over here, or what do you think of this?’ and of course I couldn’t say because there was no context in which I could explain. In an art school, a picture is not a picture, there are no artists, there are no art teachers because the art teachers are pretending to be artists and the students are pretending to be artists, so there are no students, no teachers, no audience and no walls. You see a wall in an art school is not like a wall outside, it is an art school wall. An audience that looks at a picture or a piece of sculpture, within such an institution, is in a special position. The people who make these works, at least in France, call them life studies – academies – there is no word for the sort of things that people make in art schools here. But it is a real problem. Nobody knows what to do, so this awful kind of incestuous lock seems to occur between the students and the staff that sometimes results in a kind of bored copulation between middle-aged staff and some of the students but nothing more valuable or viable comes out of it.

Thus the students and the teachers are isolated from the world outside. The more radical students try to escape by taking rooms outside, as I did when I was a student and they work away but even so they know that they have a captive audience, they know that they have colleagues, they know that they are not alone and they know that the audience that they may not even want is actually paid to look at what they do. An amazing situation, so unlike the real world. But probably worse is the effect of art schools on the people who teach in them.

A very distinguished English artist said to me once: ‘I wonder what the art dealers of London would do if there were no art schools. They might have to support artists.’And on the whole artists are in fact supported by the art schools. They have a life style which comes from having a regular income; if they are really diligent and committed to their quasi-social role they will end up with a pension. But so many of them have said to me: ‘But really you see it’s my work, I can’t stop teaching because I’ve got to pay for my studio and then I wouldn’t be able to travel and so on’. So life goes on. And they become members of society, in a different sense. Now, it may sound like an attack on them but it is not intended in that particular way. I just wish, devoutly, as a painter that people who were art teachers would feel proud of the fact, would believe in being art teachers, as professors and teachers of other subjects believe in theirs. I wish they were not ashamed of it, that they could be like music teachers or dance teachers or drama coaches who do not feel that they have to pretend that they are also performing artists. Because artists are performers, they may be slowed up, they may have to cry on the night once every two years, or three years or five years but they hve to do it, they have to feel to order and they will have to feel to order in such a way that the audience will react and in the end that the audience will pay.

So to be an artist means a lot of things that I am sure a lot of people here already know but it means that you have to look after yourself in whatever way you can. We are lucky in some ways for I know that sculptors have all kinds of logistic problems that painters do not, but we have to look after ourselves, we have to build up a reservoir of feeling which is real but which can be tapped on demand. We have to criticise ourselves, we have to be our own audience and our own patrons until somebody else does that for us. This is perhaps becoming more autobiographical than I meant it to be but I remember that shock of total incomprehension when I was told by an art teacher, and I was very lucky in my art teachers, in fact I have been very lucky as an artist altogether, when I was about sixteen: ‘You know, when somebody buys a picture by Cézanne they don’t buy a picture of some apples, they don’t buy a picture of Mont Ste Victoire or Madame Cézanne or whatever, they buy a Cézanne. And I thought, how peculiar. It took me nearly twenty years to realise what that meant. And if for a minute anyone of you can imagine yourself in that position (at least Cézanne was dead when it happened ot him) it is not a very easy or very comfortable position to be in.

Now how does one make the transition from the protected world of an art school, which is a unique situation in England because we have more art schools per head than any other country, even now, from this extraordinarily protected environment, where you have colleagues, an audience even, little though it is, out into a world where nobody really wants what you do. And if you succeed at all, if after a while you manage to get your work shown, it will probably be to an audience which is for the most part indifferent unless it looks like something else, and if it looks like something else it will be dismissed as a poor example of that but at least it will be noticed which of course is what, as performing artists, we all long for, some little whisper back to keep you slogging along. It has got plenty of rewards. Lots of money, strictly limited. I have here a rubric of what to say, cynical advice on dealers, collectors and museums. Collectors should be loved, admired, nurtured, flattered and crept to. They are probably the only people in the art world worth really taking seriously; however ridiculous they may be personally, they are for real. They do not want to make money out of you, they actually in some curious obscure possibly even perverse way want to love you or at least want to love your work. People in museums beware of; it is a great mistake to think that the effect of museums on an artist’s life is more than transient unless you are the kind of artist who has a certain rhetorical view of yourself.

Public art in this country, like patronage, has not been a great success nor has, with obvious exceptions, political art. There are very sound reasons. Society abandoned visual art such a very long time ago in a very straight-forward manner. We are on our own and when suddenly people say: ‘Make us a poster for Oxfam, make us a something for this or that charity’, already the artist is in a slightly false position. People point so often, when one says this, to Guernicaand there are, in fact, many other less grand exceptions, but I do not think the exception proves the rule, unfortunately. Artists have to look after themselves and they have to make their audience themselves.

So what to do? How do you get this poor student, who has been isolated from society at public expense for several years, into the real world? How can anyone be so insane as to produce work that nobody wants and expect people to love them and admire them for doing it? It is no good saying that quality will out. Look at how much bad art is extremely successful. I think that the first half of the twentieth century has in fact been one of the great periods for visual art but you could leave out a few names and it could be made to look quite the opposite.

So I move on to inspiration. How does an artist, who is not required to paint still lifes, girlfriends, boyfriends, horses, flower pieces, religious subjects, expect to get started? He does not have to be an expressionist, he has to have a bolt of feeling hitting him on the side of his head or, depending on the kind of artist he is, some kind of moral enlightenment which would adjust him to his lonely role in society – the fact that nobody really wants to know.

The social position of artists at this period is vulnerable in two particular ways. One is vanity, which has always been a great help but now perhaps goes the other way because it has no answering vanity from the patron to keep it in check. The other is moral superiority, which I find much more unattractive. If you look around you there are a lot of artists, many of whom make quite a lot of money out of moral superiority and I think it’s hard on people hwo are kind and generous and buy our pictures, that they should be given a rather moth-eaten moral superiority for their money.

I would say that if you could somehow live a life where feeling, real human emotion that you might actually share with the person next to you in the outside world, is more important to you than either vanity or moral superiority, if you could somehow keep that alive you might just possibly have a chance of fuelling what you do. Because the further great problem of how to be an artist is how to go on being an artist.

Being an Englishman, I always think we have more hopeless cases of people who paint three great pictures and then fall into premature middle age. The history of British art in the twentieth century contains a dangerous number of artists who, I think, failed to be great artists because they suffered from some curious moral disease. I think the moral superiority in their heads concealed from them the moral failing in their hearts and so they went on churning it out. And you can find work by such artists that is perhaps the best you could possibly imagine at a certain date, but within a two year period they can have gone downhill never to be able to walk again.

Now I want to discuss what I really came here to talk to you about tonight, which has never failed to touch an audience. I want to talk to you about money. I was once asked to give a talk at the Royal College of Art and they thought I was going to show slides of my pictures, and when I got there, I said: ‘You know I told you why I was coming, I’ve come to talk about money.’ They raised the blinds a little bit and turned off the epidiascope and I stood there and I started talking about money. There was an extraordinary emanation from the audience. I kept trying to get further and further back against teh wall as I talked desperately about Michelangelo and money and Titian and money and Van Gogh and money, but it was still like an obscenity to these people. The next day I went to an opening at the Whitechapel Gallery and a very elegant young man came up to me and said, ‘You are Howard Hodgkin aren’t you?’ and I said: ‘Yes, I think so’ and he said, ‘You know until four o’clock yesterday afternoon, I thought you were one of the hopes of British art, I now think you are obscene.’ But I have tried to talk about money and art in various places, including both India and Australia and I think it is of supreme importance. Because if you are wondering how to be an artist the most important thing of all is that you should be paid for doing it. But never, whatever anyone does for you, feel grateful. The gratitude is all on the other side. Whatever you do, however unsuccessful, however creepy, mendacious, self-serving, aesthetically indefensible, morally wrong, however bad an artist you are in fact, never feel grateful when people buy you pictures, never feel grateful when people say nice things about them. Somebody once wrote something very nice about my pictures at a moment, one among many, when I was feeling very depressed about them and I thanked him for writing something so nice, and he quite rightly said: ‘Never thank a critic’. I think one of the problems of being an artist in England is that one is expected to be grateful, because it is not unreasonable on the part of the people who expect it because what we do is not required. So if by one’s own efforts and other peoples’ one grabs an audience, if one paints a picture that people actually want to look at, if you paint a picture people actually want to buy, you expect to be all Uriah Heepish: thank you, thank you, so pleased you like it, how kind and so on and so on – which takes me back to money.

Artists like actors, dancers and musicians are very greedy for money, they need it. To be an artist you have to feel, you have to have sensations, then you have to make them into something and then finally you need to be paid for doing it. If somebody buys what you do, they may be buying it for completely the wrong reasons but for the painter who is working away in isolation when someone actually buys what you do it is an affirmation, for you get very little applause. I used to be jealous of people who worked in the theatre, because they came and danced around and everyone clapped…wonderful! But of course they are very jealous of artists because they think artists get paid a lot more money and they are much freer and are not doing other people’s work for them. All the same, artists think of money as freedom – it means you can paint another picture or maybe three or four or you could go to the bad, in order to get inspired to paint several more – which is perhaps most important of all. But also it is admiration, it is applause. Picasso was a multi-millionaire when he remarked, ‘One thing that’s still got me by the throat,’ (I have forgotten how old he was, but he was in his seventies when he said this), ‘is money’. And that was not because he had all these children to keep or girlfriends or whatever. It was because he wanted something coming in to him from outside. He was not an English artist and he had not been isolated i an art school for the most formative period of his life and had not thought of love as something that took place in a building without walls, hung with pictures that were not pictures, in the company of people who were neither artists nor teachers, so he had a slight edge.

Now I have probably said too much, but still not enough about money: the great thing about money and art in England is that if you are old enough – it is always bad to be a middle-aged artist in England, which is why I am going to try and avoid it. To be an old artist is usually quite good. People do not look at what you do anymore but they do give you money for it. They even give you quite fat catalogues.

Now, the last thing I am going to talk about is inspiration. Have you got a vague picture of this already socially disadvantaged, lonely character, who is greedy for money and has all kinds of bad habits from being cut off from society? Well, how can somebody who is so socially disadvantaged become inspired in any way that will have meaning to the world outside him? A very difficult thing. There are several possibilities. One might be to make sure that you have lots of enemies as well as friends (anger is often very useful for people who work on their own). It is a way of connecting: neurosis is something to cultivate and mutual resentment is very useful if you are married. Finally it is very important, considering your circumstances, to make sure that you draw in somebody from outside and if you have been working away in your lonely room, that is not always very easy to do. Family life is to be avoided after a certain age: it is all right when you are young because it gives you necessary company, but once you reach a certain age it is probably more destructive than anything else.

I have written something down here which is extraordinarily trite but which I totally believe: ‘Art is never therapy except for the spectator.’ That includes of course critics, dealers and collectors.

And last of all is: ‘Artistically you always get what you want’. So be careful! So now you know not how to be an artist, but what it’s like.