Interview with Matt Hawthorn, Head of Art and Design at York St John University and Aesthetica Art Prize Speaker

Matt Hawthorn is Head of Art and Design at York St John University. His research and practice concerns the social imagination, its construction and articulation through culture, technology, politics and creative practice. Hawthorn joins the group of speakers taking part in this year’s free lunchtime talks at the Aesthetica Art Prize exhibition, York St Mary’s, on 30 April to discuss the identity and importance of performance art. We speak to Hawthorn about his research into this dynamic mode of communication.

A: How does performance generate dialogues between the artist, audience and environment?
MH: Whilst there has been a formal development in the early 21st century about thinking about artwork as dialogic, the meaning of any artwork is generated through its discourse. The mean of the work is established through the telling and re-telling of the work through different times and spaces. Two people discussing a painting in the National Gallery or indeed a church hall are performing the discourse of that work.

Performance by definition is centred on bodies in space communicating through the medium of space itself. Where live performance differs from the reception of a plastic art work is the subliminal communication of bodies through the limbic system as well as the nervous system. Bodies communicate through a whole set of emotions, hormones and pheromones adding an additional level of empathy and urgency to that telling and re-telling.

A: Artists today experiment across a wide range of mediums. Why are interdisciplinary practices important?
MH: Disciplines and media are relatively recent phenomena, and in fact practices have always been interdisciplinary. It has been the hierarchical systems of institutions which have represented artwork within limited frameworks.

A: In your opinion, what are the key differences between public and private works?
MH: Space is always politicised and institutionalised whether public or private; the family is as much an institution as the state. So the private/ public split is an artifice, there is an infinity of spaces and contexts which the artwork has to address.

A: The Aesthetica Art Prize supports both emerging and established artists. How do awards and prizes assist practitioners at either end of the spectrum?
MH: The value of the art prize is less about the prize and more about the audience exposure and the critical community that this can engender, that’s essential at every stage of your career.

A: You are Head of Art and Design at York St John University. What advice can you offer graduates leaving art school and entering the wider art scene?
MH: I would advise emerging artists to understand the value of their work both in terms of its product but also their value as a creative practitioner. They should also be clear about what they exchange this value for. There is a very important debate, led by A-N amongst others, about the importance of paying artists.

I would encourage all emerging artists to negotiate for the value they want in return from the transaction, which might not be financial. If I had insisted on being paid for everything, I would have made very little and would have missed out on some great experiences. Have integrity, be the art you want to see in the world.

Matt Hawthorn Talk, (free admission) from 12.30pm 30 April, York St Mary’s, Castlegate, York, YO1 9RN. For more information and the full list of talks visit and

Follow us on Twitter @AestheticaMag for the latest news in contemporary art and culture.

1. Aesthetica Art Prize Exhibition, York St Mary’s, York Museums Trust. Copyright Jim Poyner.