The Fine Art of Submission

" And there it was, hidden away in the back pages of an obscure publication, the call to arms, the cry for submission, like the plaintive howl of an abandoned child."

When the Alexander McAllister Memorial Award first appeared, it was thought to be just another of the artist's inspired pranks, orchestrated - as befitted his love of absurdity - from beyond the grave. Looking back now twenty years later, the truly subversive nature of McAllister's work is fully apparent, and his courageous championing of artistic failure evidence of one artist's ability to astound, intrigue and steer the very ship of Art itself in the direction of his choosing.

Little is known of the young McAllister. In the late 1970s, it was mainly art students whom he inspired, intrigued by his madcap interventions and conceptual antics. To the establishment of the time, he was a vaguely irritating, mercurial figure, haunting the fringes of the art world like a smirking spectre. There were rumours, of course; talk of his being the new artistic godfather of veracity, positioning himself, like a rocky island, amid the shoals of charlatans and scoundrels dispersing their puerile effluent through the art world's dross-laden seas.

To the contemporary art student, he is synonymous with various fatuous postgraduate courses that purport, in his name, to nurture the increasingly fashionable will to failure currently rampant among the professionally creative classes. Clotted warrens of futility, these courses are gaudy merry-go-rounds that mock McAllister's lifelong dream of subverting the bureaucratic superstructure, turning it on its head and making the act of submission itself both an act of rebellion and a Work of Art.

In the early years of his career, McAllister had noticed a curious phenomenon; every grant or award of note was invariably given to either the blandest, most insipid of submissions, or the decisions were based solely on the credentials of the winning applicant, a bucket load of whose garish creations had been brought into being by such finance as they were once again applying for. Rather than try to emulate the clichés of successful artists, he harnessed his outrage to his intellect, vowing to avenge those whose endeavours had been so casually dismissed. By condemning to anonymity anyone who didn't fit their banal definition of magnitude - branding mediocrity the height of attainment - they were, in McAllister's eyes, digging their own shallow graves.

He would aim higher than success, through their lucrative clouds to a new form of greatness, and in the process, turn his doomed submissions into epoch-making works of art. And he devoted the best years of his working life to creating a series of dazzlingly original, courageous and daring 'submits'. "Reject the context, submit the reject, context the submit," as he was want to say, and his ability to outwit officialdom, dodging their increasingly aggravated desire to grant him something, anything to stem the tide of his outrageous antics, was the stuff of legend.

Amid the growing critical hysteria surrounding McAllister's work, it is well to remember that his was a complex life scarred by sacrifice and surrender, full to the brim with obscurity and anonymity, but above all, failure. It is timely, therefore, that we look back, and remind ourselves just why he is now so respected; why it is to him that artist's turn when they feel the reins slip from their grip, see the craft of their creativity flounder in the mire.

They do so to renew their faith: in artistry, in artefact, but above all, in subversion; and to wrest from the clammy grip of commerce the seditious soul of creation. And what matter that he is still unheard of among the general public, and what better place for them to start than at the end, and a small public notice placed, some twenty odd years ago, in an obscure periodical. A notice for an Award, the last of five, to commemorate an artist whose untimely and tragic death left a cultural world upended and spinning, outraged and bewildered, yet forever in his debt.

The 1986 Alexander McAllister Memorial Award for Greatness

Call for Submissions

The Committee of the Alexander McAllister Memorial Award seeks submissions from suitably disqualified Artists for The 1986 Alexander McAllister Award For Greatness. The McAllister Award for Greatness is awarded on an annual basis to an Artist who, in the previous year, displayed the utmost fortitude, resilience, and audacity of vision in their desire to resist the forces of mediocrity, banality, and officialdom. The successful applicant will have showcased the highest level of passion and ferocity in respect of a creatively defiant submission, which they must have deliberately failed, in the previous year, to obtain. No material reward or financial gain attaches to the McAllister Award; it consists solely of affection and admiration bestowed in the spirit of its founder, the late Alexander McAllister.

Successful candidates will have resisted bravely the urge to succeed, borne their ensuing failure stoically, seeing in the failure to gain disingenuous offers of financial nourishment an opportunity to subvert the cultural hierarchy and elevate premeditated failure to the art form it is capable of being.

Submission Guidelines:

  1. The Award is made retrospectively and on an annual basis. It is open to all artists who, in the previous year, have failed in an attempt to obtain a major grant or award. Submitters are asked to familiarise themselves with previous Award holders and acquaint themselves with the high standards of failure expected in terms of originality, contempt for bureaucracy, and contribution to the field of artistic autonomy.

  2. Submissions can be in any style or format but must be combative in nature, degenerate in character, and sincerely made.

  3. All failures must be in respect of officially recognised grants or awards; unsuccessful submissions to unrecognised bodies will not be considered. Proof of application should be included with submissions. Shortlistings are accepted and encouraged as this further subverts official power structures.

  4. The Award holder's laurel wreath must be returned after a period of one year. Limited edition, plastic replicas are available to all submitters; a modest contribution to cover overheads is encouraged but not compulsory.

  5. Submitters may freely contact committee members to discuss proposals, receive tips and generally converse in a friendly and civilised manner.

  6. Deadline for submissions is 31 st December 1985. Send to: McAllister Memorial Award, Greatness House, 31 West Great George's Street, Dublin 1, Ireland.

Previous McAllister Award Winners

1982 - Amanda Pentuply for her loss of a 1981 grant of £750. The convoluted and at times dazzling array of interconnected references and recommendations in Bias impressed the Adjudicating Panel immensely. Defiantly titled, meticulously documented, this was a virtuoso display of partiality. Pentuply's in-depth exposition of pedagogy, her detailed elucidation of hierarchal fidelity in the polluted marriage of career advancement and capital capture laid down a marker for future failures.

1983 - The Award went to submissions stalwart Constance Slacklustre . Never short-listed for an official grant or award, probably never even considered, the Panel gave her the Award in recognition of the quality and longevity of her despair. In a decade and a half of failure, amounting to losses in the region of £10,000, she missed yet again, in 1982, an award of £1,000 and was cited by the committee "for her loyalty to loss...her commitment to all things redundant." Her many years toiling in the wilderness of bureaucracy were "a baroque music of repetition, an inspiring and unique voice in a deafening jungle of achievement...a poignant and unanswered counterpoint." Something she never failed to deliver, year after year, was her devotional mantra Routine bereavement.

1984 - In a bravura display of insolence, and a radical break with subversion formality, the Award went to Lenten Suturly for the utter contempt for authority he displayed in his stunning failure to obtain the massive £2,000 that was going a-begging in 1983. This was a complex, original work, delivered in audiotape, and packed with relevance and resonance. Layer upon layer of hard-earned uncertainty rising to a crescendo of expletives, Suturly's ear-splitting assault had the Panel mesmerised for hours. Suffused with static throughout - consisting mostly of feedback - Me whole was composed by Suturly himself. This was stark, acidic work that, simply put, defied victory. We refer, of course, to his iconic failure, Slip me in and play me, Baby.

1985 - When hot favourite Finnian Finescribe deliberately lost out on a much-sought-after 1984 grant of £5,000, he took the McAllister adjudicators by storm. The depth and bravery of his violent championing of the unfashionable was attack in its purest. An intricate knowledge of Marxist economics shone through his failure, as did, beneath an artful shroud of primitive ritual, the compassionate heart of a radical. The righteousness was palpable, the outrage profound, the accounting flawless. This sumptuous yet rigorously analytical work, pulsating with honesty, lyricism, and a timeless artistry, left the unanimous Panel gagging for more. His submission, hand-scribed in Gaelic on hand-reared, hand-culled velum parchment - long nights he spent with the calf, stroking the soft hide, imparting his purpose before the ritual slaughter (limited edition highlights available from Finescribe Productions Ltd.) - was a most worthy winner and a wonder to behold. The poetic, visionary, and heartfelt Ní mhairfidh mé i bhfad [I won't last long], set a new benchmark in submissions failure. Following his receipt of the Award for Greatness, the National Library of Ireland expressed an interest in purchasing the work in its entirety. Finescribe is, of course, anxious to destroy the work in its entirety.

... about Alexander McAllister (1949 - 1980)

Radical stickler, coy revolutionary, irascible perfectionist and petulant pen-pusher, Alexander McAllister was both a violent pedant and a practical outsider. This force in protest punctuation, master of the brief description, conjurer of the three referees, could never be accused of avoiding the paperwork. A lifetime of failure, of also-rans and close-but-no-cigars, with a list of shortlistings as long as your arm, his submissions were seminal twentieth-century monuments to integrity. With his love of a dead line, his insouciant and relentless applying and submitting, stamping his art out, addressing the world, he single-handedly created The Fine Art of Submission.

Alexander the Great once said, "Greatness is merely the persistence of failure." McAllister was one such failure who persisted, and on his own terms. Subversive to the last, he left us, proud to be falling short of the average life expectancy, knowing he'd failed all he could, his Memorial Award the fingers of an empty hand.

Encased in a coffin of block capitals, labelled clearly inside and out, he left this earth in the only way he knew how: an artist turning an atrophied art world on its complacent head.

Pathologically forthright, aggressively neat, deceptively garrulous, he'd paid his dues.

As the mourners followed his winding guidelines to the graveside, a mist of uncertainty descended, the bleak autumnal air full of grim expectation. McAllister's coffin, perched on the edge of pronouncement, was lowered through a hushed crowd of admirers, slipping away, down the cold stony slopes of his final shortlist.

© 1981 The Alexander McAllister Foundation

This advert first appeared on 1 st February 1985 in Inside Out magazine.

Reproduced with kind permission of Inside Out and the Alexander McAllister Estate.

Benjamin Robinson is a writer and visual artist.