Michael Paraskos, FRSA (born 1969, Leeds, Yorkshire) is a writer on art, the son of the Cypriot artist Stass Paraskos. As well as reviewing exhibitions for BBC Radio 4, he has written several books, essays and articles on art, literature and politics, for various publications including Art Review, The Epoch Times and The Spectator magazine. He has taught in universities and colleges and curated several exhibitions. He is one of the world's leading authorities on the British modernist art critic Herbert Read, and he is also known for his wider theories connecting anarchism and modern art.
Education and employment
After leaving school Paraskos became a trainee butcher at a Keymarkets supermarket, but after six months of handling fresh meat left, becoming a lifelong vegetarian in the process, left to continue his formal education. He went on to attend the University of Leeds and University of Nottingham, studying at Nottingham with Fintan Cullen to gain his doctorate on the aesthetic theories of Herbert Read in 2005. In 1991 he established with Ben Read the New Leeds Arts Club, an art society in Leeds based on the original Leeds Arts Club (1903–1923), and became a committee member of the Leeds Art Collections Fund. After teaching at various colleges and universities, and for the WEA, Paraskos became head of Art History for Fine Art at the University of Hull from 1994 to 2000.
In 2000 he became Director of the Cornaro Institute in Larnaca, Cyprus, part of the Cyprus College of Art. There he oversaw the first accreditation of various art education programmes at the Institute, and helped to create a significant arts, education and cultural centre in Larnaca. However, following the financial crisis in Cyprus in 2013 the Cornaro Institute was no longer financially viable and it closed in May 2014, resulting in Paraskos refocusing his work on his activities in London.
In London Paraskos works as a writer and lecturer. He was art correspondent for the London edition of the Epoch Times newspaper until March 2012 when he stopped writing for the newspaper in protest at its new policy of only covering "traditional art". He has also appeared on the BBC Radio programme Front Row as a reviewer of art exhibitions. He was Henry Moore Fellow in Sculpture Studies at the Henry Moore Foundation in 2007–08. In 2009 he was asked to join the judging panel for the Marsh Award for Public Sculpture, an annual award organised by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) for the best public sculpture of the year in Britain or Ireland. He is also Research Fellow for Harlow Art Trust. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2011. In 2014 he became a Programme Officer in the Department of Archaeology and Art History at SOAS, University of London, and he also lectures on art history at City and Guilds of London Art School, Morley College and Imperial College London.
Paraskos's theory of art is based on a belief that the starting point for art lies in an artist's physical engagement with the world. In this the artwork is seen as an aesthetic object, rather than the illustration of an idea, and this stance has resulted in several skirmishes with proponents of Conceptual Art. Indeed, Paraskos's critical stance is often aggressively opposed to Conceptualism, particularly in his newspaper reviews. Working with the artist Clive Head, Paraskos has given his approach the name The New Aesthetics.
Speaking to students of Goldsmiths' College (University of London) in December 2009 Paraskos argued that conceptualism in its present form lacked the intellectual and political rigour of conceptualism in the 1970s and should instead be called 'concept illustration'. The problem with concept illustration, he suggested, is that it shows a 'lack of faith in art' as a sensual, or aesthetic, medium, particularly as a visual medium, and because of that lack of faith many artists and critics try to make art act like other human activities. He illustrated this by suggesting that because artists lacked faith in art as a visual medium they try to turn it into visual politics, or visual sociology, or visual philosophy. For Paraskos, however, art is particularly bad at conveying the type of specific messages demanded by politics, sociology or philosophy, resulting in bad art and bad politics, sociology and philosophy. This inability of visual art to convey such specific messages is why so many art exhibitions are accompanied by large amounts of text explaining what the art is about.
Instead of this, Paraskos suggested that a new aesthetics of art is needed to understand and explain art as an aesthetic form, rather than as a semiotic or narrative form. In this Paraskos takes the word aesthetics back to its origins in Greek, arguing that it meant 'to feel or experience through the senses'. This, he has claimed, makes aesthetics not an issue of beauty or one of how viewers respond to works of art, but a question of the sensual and material aspects of how artists make art. Taking his cue from the theories of Herbert Read, for Paraskos art becomes a material manifestation of the physical engagement between the artist and the world around them (called by Paraskos 'actuality').
Although this can be compared to the formalism of earlier writers such as Clement Greenberg and Roger Fry, Paraskos is clear that formalism is insufficient in itself to justify art's existence. Writing on the realist painter Clive Head, Paraskos suggests that the material engagement with actuality by the artist results in an art work when a transformation takes place, by which he means the artwork is no longer a material object in actuality but a material object that creates its own world. This is most easily explained in terms of a painting, which Paraskos does not see as a picture in actuality, but as a window on to another reality fabricated by the artist. In Paraskos's theory, the reality of the painting is as real as our reality, it simply operates to a different set of parameters. Paraskos is clear that this theory owes a debt to theories in the Greek Orthodox Church relating to icon painting, where an image of a saint or of Christ is not seen as a picture of the saint or Christ, but as a window into heaven where you can see the saint or Christ. Paraskos has effectively stripped the concept of its explicitly religious connotations and argues that all art works in this way, and he even uses an Orthodox religious term to describe the transformation of the physical into the metaphysical, calling it Metastoicheiosis, with correlates in the Catholic Church to transubstantiation. Only when this transformation takes place does the aesthetic experience become a work of art.
While this theory seems to work well with paintings, which can resemble windows, in recent writings Paraskos has begun to try to establish a similar principle for three-dimensional art, particularly sculpture, by suggesting that even sculpture exists in its own reality. This means that whilst a three-dimensional sculpture might sit in our world, it exists within what Paraskos calls a 'bubble of space' of its own. This he describes as being like a three-dimensional picture plane surrounding the sculpture and excluding the viewer.
This approach has been linked by the Italian writer Pierluigi Sacco, writing in Flash Art magazine to what Sacco calls the transition from 'Culture 2.0' to 'Culture 3.0' in which 'collaborative platforms open, [and] the wave of innovation creates powerful new modes of production and distribution of content outside of the radius of share of the market.' In this context, Sacco suggests, Paraskos's writings represent a new kind of avant-gardism. In this Sacco singles out the uncompromising opposition of Paraskos to mainstream conceptualist art with its insistence on the primacy of the everyday world, which is set against Paraskos's desire for art to fabricate its own world, or rather its own existence independent from the everyday world even if that means terrorising the existing art world.
Although he has never formally declared himself to be an anarchist, Paraskos's work has intellectual connections to anarchist ideas, and he has personal connections with anarchist circles.
In 2006 Paraskos wrote an article for the Cypriot art newspaper ArtCyprus entitled 'Portrait of the Artist as a Terrorist' in which he used the theories of Francesco de Sanctis to argue that art creates new realities by destroying old ones. Although de Sanctis was not an anarchist, in Paraskos this statement, equating the creation of a new reality through the artistic destruction of an old one, seems to have sparked a particular interest in the relationship between anarchism and art. This was further developed in 2007 when Paraskos published an essay on his father, the artist Stass Paraskos and the painter Stelios Votsis, in which he argued that their series of collaborative paintings, begun when both artists had reached their 70s, represented a kind of 'anarchist commune' on the canvas. Notably Paraskos ended this essay, written in Greek and English, with the slogan, 'Ζήτω η αναρχική επανάσταση!' or 'Long live the anarchist revolution!'
In 2008 Paraskos also edited a book of essays on the British anarchist art theorist Herbert Read for the anarchist publishing house the Freedom Press, and he has spoken at anarchist studies conferences in the UK. As this suggests, Paraskos's route into anarchism might have its origins in his earlier academic studies into Herbert Read, but in Paraskos's own work this interest has evolved into a theory of art in which a direct parallel is made between the anarchist desire to free the individual from society and what Paraskos claims is the artists' desire to be free from existing culture.
In effect Paraskos argues that a key strand of anarchist theory is that it is differentiated from other radical political doctrines in the way it rejects all forms of social or cultural conditioning. According to Paraskos, in the same way political anarchism tries to liberate the individual from the state, so art seeks to liberate the individual from culture. In this theory, culture is seen as something imposed on people, undermining their individuality, whereas art is an expression of that individuality emerging from a direct engagement by a particular person at a particular time with the world as a physical and material entity.
Consequently for Paraskos the notion of artistic transcendence which seems to underpin his earlier understanding of art is also a transcendence of culture, in the same way that a political anarchist seeks to transcend imposed society, or the state. Indeed, speaking at the Anarchist Studies Conference at the University of Loughborough in September 2012 Paraskos described culture as a form of the state. Using an analogy of society and culture being like a bus he argued that whilst most political doctrines, including Marxism, only want to change the driver of the bus, only anarchism wants to help the passengers to get off the bus. This new development in what has been called the New Aesthetics movement, is also evident in the writings of Paraskos's long term collaborator, the artist Clive Head, who has begun to write of art's ability to "terrorise culture". Its most recent expression by Paraskos was in an article for the British art magazine The Jackdaw, entitled 'Anarchy in the UK' in 2013.
Books by Michael Paraskos
- The Anarchists/Οι Αναρχικοί (Nicosia: Εν Τύποις, Βουλα Κοκκινου Λτδ, 2007)
- Steve Whitehead (London: Orage Press, 2007)
- Re-Reading Read: New Views on Herbert Read [editor] (London: Freedom Press, 2007)
- The Aphorisms of Irsee [with Clive Head]) (London: Orage Press, 2008)
- The Table Top Schools of Art (London: Orage Press, 2008)
- Is Your Artwork Really Necessary? (London: Orage Press, 2008)
- Clive Head (London: Lund Humphries, 2010)
- Regeneration (London: Orage Press, 2010)
- Herbert Read: Art and Idealism (London: Orage Press, 2014)
Books including chapters by Michael Paraskos
- New introduction to Herbert Read, To Hell with Culture (London, Routledge 2002)
- 'Herbert Read' in Chris Murray (ed.), Key Thinkers on Art (London, Routledge, 2002)
- New introduction to Herbert Read, Naked Warriors (London, Imperial War Museum Publications, 2003)
- Various entries for Antonia Bostrom (ed.), The Encyclopaedia of Sculpture (London, Routledge, 2003)
- 'The Prick of Conscience Leatherette Sofa', in Pippa Hale (ed.), Pipa Hale at the Patrick Studios, Leeds (Leeds: ESA, 2005)
- 'The Curse of King Bomba: Or How Marxism Stole Modernism,' in Hana Babayradova and Jiri Havilcek (eds.), Spiritualita (Brno: Masaryk University Press, 2006)
- 'Herbert Read and Ford Madox Ford', in Paul Skinner (ed.) International Ford Madox Ford Studies vol. 6 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007)
- 'ME THN EYKAIPIA', in Ludmila Fidlerova and Barbora Svatkova (eds.), Mimochodem (By the Way), (Brno: Masaryk University Press, 2009)
- Various entries for Ingrid Roscoe (ed.), The Biographical Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660–1851 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009)
- 'Bringing into being: vivifying sculpture through touch' in Peter Dent (ed.) Sculpture and Touch (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014)
Reviews and discussion of work by Michael Paraskos
- James Ker-Lindsay, Hubert Faustmann, The Government and Politics of Cyprus (New York: Peter Lang, 2008) p.40, n.19
- Carissa Honeywell, A British Anarchist Tradition: Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Colin Ward (London: Continuum Publishing, 2011) p. 49f
- David Goodway, Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow (London: PM Press, 2012) p. 350f
- Pierluigi Sacco, review of Is Your Artwork Really Necessary? in Flash Art (Italian art magazine), no. 303, June 2012
- End of an Epoch: Why I no longer write for the Epoch Times by Michael Paraskos
- See The Table Top Schools of Art (London: Orage Press, 2009), passim
- A summary of this was published as 'The Death of Conceptualism', in The Epoch Times, 16 December 2009.
- See Michael Paraskos, The Table Top Schools of Art (London: Orage Press, 2008) 11f
- Michael Paraskos, Clive Head (London: Lund Humphries) 9f and passim
- Michael Paraskos, 'Bubbles in Space', in The Epoch Times, 3 May 2010.
- Pierluigi Sacco, 'Money for Nothing', in Flash Art (Italia), June 2012.
- Michael Paraskos, 'Portrait of the Artist as a Terrorist', in ArtCyprus, No. 1, Spring 2006, p.3
- Michael ParaskosThe Anarchists/Οι Αναρχικοί (Nicosia: Βουλα Κοκκινου Λτδ, 2007)
- Michael Paraskos, 'What would an anarchist Rembrandt look like', paper delivered to the Anarchist Studies Network Conference, University of Loughborough, September 2012, reproduced in English and Turkish translation in Sanat Dunyamiz (Turkish art magazine) no. 131, 2012, p.22f
- Clive Head, From Victoria to Arcadia (London: Marlborough Fine Art, 2012)
- Michael Paraskos, 'Anarchy in the UK', in The Jackdaw January/February 2013, also online at "Anarchy in the UK"