Gilbert Prousch and George Passmore have been living and working together for 50 years. EDWIN GILSON met them at their major Brighton exhibition

SITTING with George Passmore and Gilbert Prousch in an exhibition room at Brighton Museum, the duo’s vibrant art all around us, I stumble into their core philosophy almost accidentally.

It happens when I refer to some of their earlier work, in which they turned themselves into moving, singing models, as “performance art”. Big mistake.

“We never did performance, we never used that word,” says 76 year-old George, immaculately turned out in his trademark suit.

“We think performance art alienates people. Nobody wants to take their mother to see performance art.”

Gilbert, dressed just as smartly as his life and artistic partner of 50 years, takes over to explain that they have always strived to be “living sculptures”.

“Living sculptures means just being human, being alive day and night,” says the Italian-born artist. “You don’t have to turn it off. Even when we are on the bus we are living sculptures. If you want to be original you have to confront life.”

This is a point the pair come back to a few times over the course of our interview, in which they are animated and frequently funny. They stress the importance of honesty in creation, of projecting oneself onto the art. “We like to be humans, not Gods,” says Gilbert, with a smile.

The walls around us are adorned with Gilbert and George’s work created over about three decades. Many of the pieces fall under the category of “The Pictures”, the large-scale mural-like photo works that have come to be known as the duo’s signature aesthetic.

Gilbert and George studied sculpture at Central Saint Martins art school in London in the late 1960s, which, as George points out, didn’t exactly give them a grounding in traditional painting.

“We didn’t run straight from the art college to buy brushes and canvases,” he says. “It was three years before we discovered the colour red [Gilbert and George’s earliest work was black and white]. We didn’t come from a picture-making background. Even children have a box of crayons. We didn’t have that.”

Another way in which the duo differed from their fellow students and teachers at Saint Martins – as well as their contemporaries in the 60s art scene – was in their emphasis on meaning and themes over form. At least, that’s according to George.

“When we were baby artists, the main concern at our school were colours, shapes weight and balance. We believed in sex, religion, love, death, hope – all the things that are inside us.”

“We are trying to be human beings like everyone else,” adds Gilbert. “Happiness, unhappiness, politics, religion – that is what everybody is confronting.”

Ah yes, religion. The pair have repeatedly attacked structured faith in their work. When an exhibition of their Scapegoating Pictures opened in Belfast earlier this year it was met with strong opposition.

Retired Free Presbyterian Minister David McIlveen led the protests, saying some of Gilbert and George’s pieces constituted “hate speech”. The pair had a playful, provocative response to his words.

“We had a brainwave – our enemies would call it a divine inspiration”, says George. “We went on radio and TV and said, does Reverend McIlveen realise that if you take the “G” from Gilbert and the “O” from George and the “D” from and, you have God?”

This baiting aside, George voices sympathy for those who grew up in “the troubles” in Ulster. “They’ve had a horrible history,” he says. “Imagine being brought up on in Northern Ireland on one side or the other, what a nightmare.”

Another of Gilbert and George’s fundamental beliefs is that artists have enlightened society while others, especially religious people, “are always trying to move the clock backwards”.

“We think we’re forming our tomorrows, trying to make it different,” says George. “The world has changed so much since 1967 and that’s because of the artists and the musicians, not because of the vicars or policeman.”

“Or the pope,” adds Gilbert. “We believe we can reach Utopia in some way.”

Gilbert brings up religion again when I ask about the duo’s reputation as shock-merchants, mischievous miscreants looking to rub certain people up the wrong way.

“Shocking is an interesting word because I think a lot of shocking ideas were started by religion,” he says.

“We always say we try to de-shock, if anything,” adds George. “We always say we’re trying to bring out the liberal from inside the bigot and the reverse.”

Perhaps because of their art’s focus on humanity, perhaps because of the way they dress, perhaps because they still live in the East End of London, Gilbert and George have always struck a chord with the average person who may not usually visit galleries.

In fact, the duo themselves insist they never visit galleries. “You never go to your neighbour’s house,” says Gilbert. “We move away from other artists. You have to be an outsider.”

George believes the cockneys who share their patch of East London think Gilbert and George are “on their side”.

“Those people are fond of us because we are in their world,” says George, before reiterating the pair’s anti-elitist approach.

“The students at Central Saint Martins thought that anybody outside their campus was stupid, but they didn’t understand. It’s not true. Everybody is amazing, whatever they did or didn’t do.”

Gilbert adds that the “taxi drivers all like us because of our image”, and George tells an anecdote that sums up their everyman appeal.

“We always remember the magic moment a big truck came to a halt near us on a commercial street and the driver said, ‘oi, Gilbert and George, like’s a ******* moment and your art is an eternity’. He got it.

“The public don’t understand all of modern art but they understanding meaning and inner truth, beauty and chance.”

In an age when many people feel a sense of despair and futility about the state of the world, and artists seek to capture the uncertain mood, Gilbert and George are notable for their positive outlook.

“People are pessimistic about the the bomb, the war, America or Europe, but that’s nonsense,” says George. “We have incredible freedom – it’s an extraordinary success story.”

“And if you think about sexuality, can you imagine 30 years ago?” adds Gilbert. “In a lot of places you would be imprisoned.”

Gilbert and George have been witness to huge changes in society and politics over the last half-century but their art has been a constant.

While they insist they are not trying to reflect their surroundings in their work, it is safe to say they are intrinsically linked to British social history in the 21st century.

The duo take pride in having carved out their own niche in the art world.

“We were able to be inventive and make something entirely new,” says Gilbert. “That kind of art didn’t exist before us. We were able to create a language that is ours and we can speak with it.

“We are still speaking with it after 50 years.”

Artists Rooms: Gilbert and George is at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery until Sept 2. Visit