The mythologies of growth, progress and power: an interview with Artist Support Pledge Founder, Matthew Burrows
Do you not stop to look at the view?
Matthew Burrows was a long way from an easel or paintbrush when he says he had the “epiphany” moment that helped unlock his current approach to making art. Rather than being in his studio in East Sussex, Burrows was in the Lake District, on an ultra marathon race across the mountains when a chance encounter helped shift his perspective:
“I was at about the 30 mile mark” Burrows explains, “and I was pretty tired. I’d been through hell – wind, rain and hail – across I don’t know how many mountains. I was pretty knackered. I was coming down into one of the villages and there was somebody standing at the edge of the footpath and as I ran past they said, ‘Do you not stop to look at the view?’ I was too tired to respond, but I remember thinking, ‘If you knew what I’d just done, you wouldn’t say that to me.’ Not because I was thinking, ‘I’m better than you’. It was simply that I’d realised at that point that looking at the view was meaningless… the real reality that we have with anything is when we move in and through it.”
The encounter was brief and unexpected – the artist jarred by a throwaway comment while in the full flight of a race. Nonetheless, it opened a door to the ideas and ethos that are now integral to both Burrows’ own artistic practice and the Artist Support Pledge, the lockdown phenomenon he initiated and which may now offer a longterm baseline for artists trying to make a living around the world.
Up until that epiphany moment, Burrows had been struggling with his approach to landscape as a subject matter for his paintings. “Every time I tried to understand the idea of landscape through the lens of art” he says, “it always came back to this problem of the view – you look at something, you view it.” Through endurance running, however, a deeper connection began to form. “I was spending a lot of time moving in the landscape” Burrows adds, “and realising that when you spend that amount of time, in it and with it, becoming familiar, in a kind of embodied sense, it’s not that you look at it as a view, you physically draw from it.”
His connection to the landscape had been pushed to extremes a few months earlier when, during another race in the Lake District, Burrows had been caught in a storm and developed hyperthermia. “It was the nearest I’d come in my life” he says, “to thinking I might die, thinking: ‘this is actually not very pleasant, I’m in the middle of nowhere, It’s the worst storm I’ve ever experienced and I’m on my own.’” So, by the time the bystander happened to ask their question, “my relationship” Burrows notes, “had become something completely different, it was nothing to do with the view.”
The moment of epiphany helped crystallise a way of understanding landscape that had been developing for some time. “I realised” Burrows explains, “that it wasn’t about trying to paint a picture of it, but rather, trying to paint my relationship to it, through an embodiment of place – it’s phenomenon, its micro-climates, its geology, its strata. Through the fact, in a way, that it doesn’t really care for you.” For Burrows, moving beyond a view-based perspective relates to something fundamental about the intersection between the traditional approach to landscape in art history and our relationship with nature. “The thing that has always made me uncomfortable with the tradition of landscape painting’ the artist notes, “is that it’s a product of power – a product of industrialisation: if we frame it we control it, we can use it, it’s a resource, we’ve tamed it by framing it.”
Instead of this power driven approach of control and exploitation, Burrows has embraced a more holistic relationship, finding inspiration in “pre-historical societies” from the distant past who, when they made art, “didn’t ever frame anything because art was never put in a frame or on a surface you pick up and carry round with you.” For Burrows, such societies, had “a much more accommodating, hospitable and environmentally sustainable understanding of our relationship to nature, and also a much more intrinsically connected one in an artistic sense – they were living within nature.” He adds that while it took time to find a way to incorporate this way of thinking into his practice, it has now become central to his work:
“I’ve started to really understand that everything about the way I am in the landscape is important – so my heartbeat, the rhythm of my feet, the sensations of the climate, of the wind and the rain, the storms, the heat, the smoothness and softness, the relationship of it to me, and me being part of it. For me, it all became intrinsically linked: painting, colour, rhythm, structure, line, all those things are weighted with that sense of connectedness with the environment.”
Rooted in a sense or “joining” with the landscape, Burrows see a close connection between his “predilection for endurance running” and the way he now makes art. “I talk about painting” he says, “as a mystical experience and I think running is the same. I don’t mean that in the sense that it takes you into a dream world with weird monsters or anything like that, I mean that it actually takes you as far as you can go into reality: it takes you to the nub of who you really are, in relation to what is actually there.”
Burrows is not necessarily consciously thinking about these overarching concepts while he is working. “The way I make art” he acknowledges, “is not that dissimilar to the way anyone in history has made art. I draw. I go out drawing, I make drawings in the studio and I try to make something from those.” Likewise, when he begins to paint, primarily he is thinking about “things like colour and line and layering and structure.” What’s important for Burrows, though, is that underlying this is a “contextual shift” that means all of those elements are ultimately embodied in his “sense of space, place and environment.”
As well as necessitating a deeper personal relationship with landscape, the way Burrows thinks about these things extends to a societal level where, he believes, a reassessment of our priorities is long overdue:
“You can’t have a society and a culture based on the mythologies of growth, progress and power that does not destroy the environment. It’s impossible. People in the past wouldn’t think it was acceptable to damage the balance of nature – to them, that would be the same as killing themselves. It’s only through agrarian, industrialised society that we’ve been able to get to the point where we’re so removed from that natural experience that we actually don’t live on it in our minds, we live on stuff that comes from shops or from store rooms. Because that relationship is so intrinsic, I think it’s the most important thing we can deal with now. All of the things that are wrong, all the things that aren’t functioning properly in our society and culture – whether that’s equality, whether that’s the environment – they all stem from that same problem.”
Burrows is not arguing that we should go back to living in caves, but by introducing the Artist Support Pledge he has shown how alternative economic models have the potential to thrive. Launched in March when the harsh reality of lockdown made Burrows feel something was needed to help financially support artists – “Right now, today. Not tomorrow or in a week, today” – the initiative calls on artists to advertise their work for sale on Instagram using the #artistsupportpledge, up to a maximum of £200 per piece. Every time an artist has completed five sales, they ‘pledge’ to buy £200 worth of work by one or more other artists: so for every £1000 accumulated, £200 goes back into the community. Other than these simple rules, anyone can buy the work, and artists do not need permission or an invitation to take part. Though Burrows had no idea how successful the Pledge would become when he published his first post, the initiative has been one of the major cultural success stories during the Covid-19 crisis, acquiring truly global significance. With participation quickly accelerating into the thousands, around £9m worth of sales were thought to have been realised in the first week alone.
Built around notions such as community and sustainability, as well as humility, empathy and generosity, Burrows hopes the Pledge can be a “sort of stepping stone. I don’t think overnight we’re going to suddenly change the way the world operates. I think what it has proved is that you can have more than one model.”
While the Pledge has had incredible and rapid success as an alternative model within the art world, the values it promotes – as well as those it stands in opposition to – are by no means industry specific. As Burrows says:
“I work in the mainstream art world, that’s where I make my living. I’m lucky to be represented by a supportive London gallery.
“There are many things that make me uncomfortable with how value is currently created in the arts, particularly the tendency to focus on celebrity and wealth. It can distort our relationship with nature, society and art. In my view, that’s not the best way of being an artist, nor does it allow for art to fully play an active part in our community.”
The Pledge is Burrows’ attempt to challenge the established values of power. “The formula” he suggests, “is just a convenient formula, it worked. The thing that really makes it work is that it sits within a culture and the economic formula replicates the nature of the culture – so it’s an egalitarian culture of support. The economic model replicates that cultural model. The way Instagram works replicates that too, because it’s a community structure and forum. So you’ve got a culture, a community and an economy that all replicate one another.”
Making all that happen did not require huge resources in an economic sense, but it did place a strain on Burrows’ personal time, energy and emotions: throughout lockdown he was spending around fourteen hours a day managing the Pledge, an experience he describes as the most “exhausting” of his life. Burrows now has a small, expert team in place to help oversee the initiative and its future development, but the artist and the values he promotes remain central. “Like anything” he says, “like building a house, you’ve got to maintain it. You’ve got to look after it. And that’s kind of what I’m doing, I’m looking after it, I’m maintaining its integrity and its values, I’m maintaining that, in effect, for the good of the community.”
Just as artists who teach often do not see a separation between teaching and their own practice, the Pledge is now intimately connected to who Burrows is as an artist:
“Doing the Pledge – inventing it, developing it and managing it – it’s almost like what I’ve done is to create a context of values that my art sits more comfortably in.”