During these 40 years in the wilderness, I seem to have accrued something I can only describe as my 10 Commandments of Art. Not that I can remember climbing a mountain and coming down with two tablets of stone. Mind you, I do recall a golden calf that had to be smashed, or slaughtered, or something. Or was it a dead sheep? I have a tendency to get my biblical analogies in a twist. Next thing you know I’ll be telling you about me wearing a crown of oak leaves, festooned with acorns.
Earlier this year, I embarked on a 12-year world tour. The title of the tour is The 25 Paintings. The tour began under Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction, with me making my ceremonial entrance along the Grand Union canal on a raft made from my bed. On board with me were 400 bunches of daffodils. The tour will take in a different city across the world every year and will end where it began under Spaghetti Junction on 28 April 2025, the day before I turn 72. If the Reaper does not sink my raft first.
In each city I will be having an exhibition, the one constant of which will be my 25 text paintings. The texts on them act as markers, adverts or signposts for what I’m working on, and each time a new aspect of what I do evolves, one of the paintings gets overpainted with a new text.
But the real work will be what I’m doing out and about across these cities – stuff that could never be hung on a gallery wall or even be bought and sold as art. In Birmingham I have just completed a three-month exhibition at the artist-run gallery Eastside Projects in the Digbeth area of the city. But I still have plenty of work to get done across the city before 31 December. Then I set sail on my raft again and head for Berlin. Maybe before I do I will actually chisel my commandments into two tablets of stone.
1 Don’t make art for rich people
This was the first and its strength comes from its naivety. In early 1973, at the age of 19, all I wanted to be was a great painter. My heroes were Rembrandt, Turner, Degas, Monet and Rothko – all great men of the brush. I was studying at the Liverpool School of Art, putting all the hours I could in the life-drawing class. I was learning to see and not just look. But then it struck me that if I actually became a great painter, I would just be making work for rich people. This went against everything my youthful idealism stood for. So I put down my paintbrush, walked out of the art school and into the big wide world. I would like to say that the waters of the Mersey parted, but instead I just took the ferry to Birkenhead.
2 Make art for everyone
I wanted to make art for all the people: art that could be mass-produced, like pop music and paperbacks could be mass-produced. Or even television programmes. As I was already too old to start making pop music and I loathed everything about television, I decided to write paperback books. For the next few years I tried to experience everything life could throw at me so I would have the material to put in these paperback books. My heroes were Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey. On the way to attempting to achieve this, I ended up making pop music and appearing on television. Secretly, I knew the urge to make paintings was never truly thwarted.
3 Don’t stand on the outside looking in, stand on the outside looking further out
In our more insecure moments we imagine the party is happening elsewhere. The movers and shakers are doing it without you. We have a tendency to stare through the window at those having a good time. Forget them and head for the horizon where everything is unknown, where there is no security, no rules, no safety blanket, and make things happen. Be prepared to fail. A couple of weeks ago I “created”Birmingham Dead Oak Ring – 16 dead oak trees around the city. I’ve taken the liberty of proclaiming that they will protect Birmingham from outside forces, and the rest of the world from the power of Birmingham. I’m giving away one million shares to residents of Birmingham for free.
4 Don’t make punk rock
May 1977, I was back in Liverpool forming a band called Big in Japan. At that time, punk rock was at its most potent. But as we struggled to write songs for our new band, I became aware that punk rock was already a formula. If I used certain chords, in a certain order, with a certain attitude, one could mimic the sound of punk rock. But as soon as I did, it sounded rubbish. The instant a music can be defined as a genre and thus copied, it’s dead. Only make music when you don’t know what it is that you’re doing or even trying to do. Apply this commandment to all artforms and remember: don’t join the dots.
5 Don’t make art bigger than yourself
In 1999 I was driving up to Newcastle and saw The Angel of the North. It was spectacular, stunning, amazing – big, very big. But then some niggling doubts started to creep in. Was this just jealousy on my part? These doubts wanted to have their say. They claimed that the only thing impressive about The Angel of the North was its size. The doubts beseeched me to imagine the statue no bigger than myself. I did as the doubts requested, and to my eyes what I saw was not a great work of art. It was then I decided not to make work bigger than myself. That nothing I do should have its worth or influence based on its scale – its ability to bully. All of my paintings used in The 25 Paintings tour are half an inch shorter than my height. The thing is, I cheat. If you had come to my exhibition at Eastside Projects, you would have seen I had stacked up The 25 Paintings into a very impressive house of cards about six metres high.
6 Don’t come the rebel
The rebel is often presented to us as the hero. The rebel sets out to kick the shins of the establishment, but in so doing only acknowledges the supremacy of the one he or she is kicking. And often ends up just strengthening the establishment. It is always best to ignore the establishment and use your energy to get on with what you are trying to do.
And so often the rebel, as a character in music or film, is sold to us by the establishment to make a profit out of you. The same goes for politics – do not define yourself by who you hate. Or think you hate. So often the rebel is just jealous of those with the power. One of my projects in Birmingham has been a Knit & Natter group. We’re making a Million Stitch Blanket. In no way can knitting be seen as rebellious, but it is habit forming, thus feeds the addictive side of my character.
7 The Lost Commandment
I don’t know when it was lost. I’m still searching for it. I almost found it once.
8 Let your Lone Ranger ride
Even though art is often sold as the product of a selfless lifestyle, we instinctively know the making of art is a selfish process. So we try to justify it with theories about how it’s good for society. We may even term our art as “political art”. This usually implies it is art of the left we are making. I may have been guilty of this. Be suspicious of anything labelled “political art”.
Last month I painted over a Ukip billboard in Birmingham with my own paint shade (Drummond’s International Grey). It was done in a moment of weakness. With hindsight, I probably did little more than entrench opinions. The Lone Ranger in me saw a wrong that needed to be righted. But sometime you just have to let your Lone Ranger ride.
9 Riot now, pay later
Take risks. Don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t ask permission. But be prepared to suffer the consequences of your actions. Don’t blame others. Don’t expect success – not even after you’re dead. Remember, to get one good artist you need to have at least a thousand others struggling in their garrets. If you or I are one of those struggling ones, we’re still doing our jobs.
10 Burn the Bridge
In 1986, I wrote and recorded a song called The King of Joy. It was released on an album that was supposed to be my farewell to music. The song included the line “Burn the Bridge”. From then on, that line has been an open-ended commandment of mine. New lines are continually added to it. Many of those lines directly relate to much of what I have been doing in Birmingham and will be doing on the rest of the world tour: Make the Soup, Shine the Shoes, Climb the Tree, Bake the Cake, Walk the Mile, Fly the Flag, Build the Bed, Sail the Raft, Vandalise the Billboards. But Burn the Bridge is where it starts because once the bridge is burnt you can never go back.
11 Accept the contradictions
This is my get-out clause. One that I’ve been using since Jimmy Cauty and I were first working together [in the KLF] back in 1987. Any time someone points out the flaws in my arguments about art and how it should be made, I trot this one out. I have no rationale to back it up but it always leads to the next interesting unknown.
As you will note, there are 11 commandments here and not the proclaimed 10. Please feel free to delete one of your choosing. I like choice.