Kenneth Armitage on Britain's changing approach to art

As part of our Creative Matters Spotlight series we’re rerunning a collection of articles that first appeared in Student Magazine. In this latest instalment we hear from British sculptor Kenneth Armitage.

Student Magazine, launched in 1968, was Richard Branson’s first business venture upon leaving school and adopted a creative approach to tackling tough issues. Student was an alternative to the stale publications of the day, covering everything from mental and sexual health to the Vietnam and Biafra wars. In the first edition of the magazine Richard and the Student team commissioned a series of articles by top British artists, in order to gain a greater understanding of the impact of their work on wider society. Here Kenneth Armitage explains why he struggles to find meaning in his art and how a country's economy will dictate the nation's approach to art.

Kenneth Armitage: 'I can find no point in my art'

It’s dreadful! Many artists have had to go to America before being accepted in England. Britain’s always late. And, although New York, Paris and London are said to be the three big art markets, the buying public in England is very few. In a way there is something immature about London in the art world. But it is getting better. We have been backward for a long time with very little outlet, very few critics and very few artists.

Before the war things were particularly difficult. At Leeds art school there were very few books, and one had not even heard of Picasso, or anyone like that – and when you think what had been done since 1990! Because of this isolation, people like Augustus John and Sir William Orpen were stuffed down our throats. In those days it was thought that nothing could be done better than the Greeks had done it. Also, the Egyptians.

David Hockney on art as a medium of communication

After countless thousands of years they had developed great beauty in graphics and designs – it was rather desolate for everybody to try do better than them in only one lifetime! This had a curious effect: a lot of sculptors would put a kind of old-fashioned patina on things – a greeny colour that would make it look older. I don’t think one was really conscious of it at the time. One did it because it really was making it romantic and dug up looking in the same way that things had no legs and arms and were sort of hacked about like bits of torsos from Greek ruins. It was a nightmare trying to get a scholarship, and this was essential because it was difficult then to get any kind of job.

Kenneth Armitage, left

Things are so different now - art is really quite respectable and if you go to art school, or have some talent, it is almost sure that something will happen. In the thirties, on the other hand, when I was at school, it was a period of great depression, and the idea of anyone doing art at all was considered nonsensical. It was difficult to keep alive. Thus, there was a great resistance to this.

Michael Ayrton on art as celebration and exorcism

All that has gone, and I think this is very good. I think it is marvellous time now in art. Who says that anything has to be as it is? Who says that there have to be art schools or magazines on art? Why galleries, why collectors? Why should there have to be a thing called sculpture of painting? It’s very odd that there should be this particular crystallization into a definite pattern, a very tight patter now.

I can find no point in my art. It is certainly not any kind of religious thing. When I was nine my mother took up something which filled me with such shame! It was Christian Science, where they believe in curing by prayer. Like all these things there is something in it… mind over matter. However, apart from the horror of my own experience - such as, if I had measles it meant that I had sinned, and would have to read and pray to overcome this sin - I had was put off religion.

Henry Moore on why humans need art

And when, in my early teens, I discovered a book by Nietzsche, which said ‘God is dead’, I rejoiced, and kept it in my pocket for weeks on end, becoming a sort of cranky atheist for a long time. But now I don’t know, I really don’t know. I always wonder about art’s reason. Maybe it is better not to know - for once having found art, there’d be no point in working any more - yet it would be nice to succeed in doing that.

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