Reflections from Richard Wentworth

  • Richard Wentworth

RCA head of sculpture Richard Wentworth and Sarah Douglas (RCA Painting 2005, an artist and FuelRCA events manager) got together at the University of the Arts London's inaugural Futurising event in 2010 to talk about how the idea of a career might relate – or not relate – to art practice. We'll be uploading the video of their fascinating and useful conversation some time in the next few weeks, but until then, here are some extracts from the first part of the interview. Richard Wentworth covered a lot of ground as he reflected on careers, life and artistic practice, from the point of view of his own role as an acclaimed artist and educator.

On the word ‘career’ 
I think the word ‘career’ probably didn’t exist for this group of people [artists and designers] until 15 years ago. When do things become orthodox? Were Braque and Picasso chatting about their career in 1905? I don’t think so. Or even a more bourgeois artist, Matisse? I doubt it. It’s something to do with the kind of society we live in and how we relate to each other and how society is regulated – and by society I really mean, the rich west, but the rich west of course includes the rich east – so all these descriptions are quite complicated and I think I would be very wary of the word 'career'. 

On teaching
When I first had a teaching job, I was often no more than a year older than the students. I don’t know if that was an act of irresponsibility on the part of the person who invited me or if that was wise. In fact, you may know an artist called Eileen Cooper – she was my first tutee. I certainly never talked to Eileen about her career but she’s got one. 

On not being able to predict the future
I think it’s interesting to know little bits of historical stuff and see that they sit side by side and they’re at work – we’re all socially located, I bet there’s not a person in this room who doesn’t have a mobile phone. Five years ago, there’d have been three who didn’t have one, 10 years ago half the audience wouldn’t have had a mobile phone, and 15 years ago you’d have thought it was for fat cats in the city holding their bricks. As far as I know none of us chose that. This all frames our behaviour and then that peels off into how we live our lives, and often it doesn’t peel off into how we [name] things. To use a word like 'career', I think it’s worth thinking a lot about what on earth is that. My wife is a very well organised person who has said to me several times in my life, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and I just laugh at her, I haven’t the foggiest. I’m not wired to do that, I never was. It might be that I was moderately privileged when I was young, but I bet there are lots of you who can’t do that – it’s an emotional, hardwired thing.

On the advice he’d give to himself as a young graduate
Forty years ago I was infinitely less emotionally mature than any of you. I might have been a little bit younger than quite a lot of you, but I think everybody was less emotionally mature. The LP had existed for about six years, the colour supplement had only existed as a piece of cultural space for seven years, the 747 had only just taken off for the first time. The culture was profoundly patrician – people talked like me but more so, and you felt intimidated by them. My father wore a bowler hat until 1974. If you were in Liverpool Street in 1970 there’d have been a sea of bowler hats, just people working in the City, as a badge of class, or subscription to a class. What else? The abortion act had only just been passed, homosexuality had only just been made legit. What I’m describing is a set of conditions which make me ridiculous – the very idea of us meeting in a [converted warehouse] and having this conversation doesn’t correspond. My advice to that person would be, work harder than I actually did, stop falling in love so much and making such a mess of all the relationships, which is why I mentioned maturity, and mostly the rest of the advice would actually be emotional. I don’t think people are as wretched now as a lot of us were then – I mean, we’re all wretched, we’re human, but now… Again, that isn’t discussed very much, one’s sense of that laughable thing, one's sense of oneself and one’s confidence to be oneself – well, it’s a life’s work, to become yourself. But then there are things I did which I’m proud of or I’ve become proud of. Does anyone know a place called Dilston Grove? That was my studio in 1969 and the reason it exists is because I took it as a studio with five other people. Its just been refurbished with proper money. So, that’s a nice thing as you get older, you can say, “I did that.”