Is Painting Dead?

January 02, 2015


This old idea keeps being replayed as the wave of contemporary art, installations, thought art, and other nebulous artistic trends sweep painting under the rug. Is painting dead? Put another way, is the new the enemy of the good?

A refined appreciation of painting (specifically) that includes its psychological effect as well as its craftsmanship is hard to find today. First of all, painting is utterly visual. Visual art in general has become devalued, except for photography and movies. A visual that can’t be viewed on a phone screen isn’t worth much, it seems. Painting has certainly become devalued as a form. Except for the oligarch’s darlings at the Friezes and Basels, good painting is cheaper than it’s ever been. You can hardly give the stuff away.

Few painters are making a decent living solely from their paintings. Between the gallery’s half share and the public’s disinterest, a gallery painter practically has to work in serial fashion, where a given (successful and tested) design is re-worked into a couple dozen similar, not quite identical paintings that require little or no investment in design but can fill up a gallery. In other words, lots of the same basic picture. How many versions of some stylized trees in a pasture with a sunset can you make? A lot. It’s that kind of painting that makes people think painting is dead. Those paintings ARE dead! Most paintings are dead.

But painting as a form is not dead. It is still pushing our visual field beyond what we had yesterday. It does have one advantage over most contemporary, uh, art – it does go on your wall. Will a ‘thought art piece’ consisting of varnished red maple leaves carefully placed, but looking randomly sprinkled, over a tin garbage can lid have the same longevity? It’s not really buyable, is it? What would you do with it? Most contemporary art, in my opinion, has ‘obsolete’ written all over it. Give it ten or twenty years…. then nada. Nobody will remember it. Or care. It is pure ephemera, in the sense of a weak, disappearing object, thought, or what have you. Or is that the idea? How much of it will have staying power, outside of possibly being created by some name artist where the name is everything?

Is the new the enemy of the good? Must painting constantly conform to some new trend? It’s been doing that forever, of course, but after WWI, painting in the US and Europe, at least, became largely trend-bound just as it was getting really interesting. That’s why outsider art is so refreshing; it’s independent of trends. It has a chance, at least, to get at the core. Critics and art writers tend to be trend creatures. Herd animals. No different than teenage girls. Except they chase the newest art, not the newest clothes or gadgets. Without a new trend to define what is good, art critics seem kinda useless, don’t they? They don’t seem to be able to see good in art unless it is part of a trend.

What was new/good last year, or last decade, is suddenly not good, replaced by the new good. Since painting is much more limited in form than installation or contemporary art, it has suffered by not being able to change quickly enough to suit the critics. David Hockney tried to update painting using an iPad to do some landscapes, but his efforts haven’t yielded much and the paintings (huge things) are basically ugly. Hockney still gets points for trying, for being creative, for wanting to move beyond brush and paint. He, at least, doesn’t think painting is dead.

Innovation is hard in painting. Somebody has usually been there before, at least stylistically. Generations of critics have worn out the red carpet for today’s anti-trend painters. So if we discount the ‘new’ and look for what is good, where does that take us? Nowhere, is where. Because as culture consumers we no longer can tell what is good in painting. Even so, everybody has their own sense of what is good. If going with the living room color scheme is the primary good, so be it. If a painting of a vineyard lifts you up, so be it. No harm, no foul.

But can’t we go deeper, to feel what a painting does to us? How it affects us? Does The Scream (by Edvard Munch) cut through your day-to-day crap and get to you? Yep. Too bad it’s so over-marketed on mugs and placemats and tee-shirts. But before we over-produced it, it succeeded as a painting because it simply got to you. You understood what Munch was getting at. You felt the scream! Was that painting dead? Did he have to buy into a trend to paint it? Munch struggled all his life to be a successful part of the Europainting mainstream, during a time of fast and dizzy trend switching. He painted around several psychological themes – love, separation, attraction, jealousy, anxiety, death, the human life cycle; Munch tried to cut through the thin, filmy screen separating him from his vision, to get at what he felt. If you get a chance to see them, you should. His painting was far from dead. In many ways, Munch was a true outsider artist. Perhaps that’s why The Scream is so popular and so universal.

Styles change, but to me, what matters in painting is how it affects me. Does it hack its way inside, regardless of style, and simply get to me? That’s what I want. That’s what Goya always seems to do, whether in his portraits (the Duke of Wellington in London’s National Gallery totally oozes nasty little shit) or his social works. He didn’t need to find a new style, a new trend. He was just being a painter, pushing the psychological limits of his artistic talent, giving you something you just can’t get elsewhere. A Goya is a GOYA! Did he worry over whether painting was dead? Hell no. If a Goya grabs you by the liver and won’t let go, it ain’t dead.

As I was writing this, The New Yorker and its art writer Peter Schjeldahl appeared with a timely piece on painting. Here is Mr. Schjeldahl: “But consider the signal plight of painting. The old, slow art of the eye and the hand, united in service to the imagination, is in crisis. It’s not that painting is “dead” again – no other medium can as yet so directly combine vision and touch to express what it’s like to have a particular mind…. But painting has lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information.”

Okay, I guess I can kind of agree with that. Yes, painting can have a good psychological connection to the viewer. ‘Lost symbolic force’? That’s been gone since the thirties, when surrealism foundered. Did minimalism ever have symbolic force? Did Ab-Ex? Did photorealism? Did _______: you name the painting school. Lamenting for lost symbolic force is a waste of time. Art trends never had symbolic force. Only individual artists have it. I might go further: only artists who avoid trends, who avoid categorization, can develop symbolic force. Does that mean only outsider artists? Maybe. Probably.

Schjeldahl goes on to say, “The ruling insight that [MOMA curator] Hoptman proposes and the artists confirm is that anything attempted in painting now can’t help but be a do-over of something from the past, unless it’s so nugatory that nobody before thought to bother with it. … Hoptman posits a post-Internet condition, in which “all eras seem to exist at once,” thus freeing artists, yet also leaving them no other choice but to adapt or, at best, reanimate familiar “styles, subjects, motifs, materials, strategies and ideas.” The show broadcasts the news that substantial newness in painting is obsolete.

“But even more arresting is the mere occurrence of the show at MOMA. Hoptman strives to shoehorn painting back into a museum culture that has come to favor installation, performance, and conceptual and digital work. The effort seems futile, at least in the short run. Painting can bleed now, but it cannot heal.”

New York art is all about new. Only about new. Most New York critics long ago lost their ability to actually see painting (and other art) for what it is. At its best, it’s a communication medium from one person’s unconscious to another. In their need to categorize, to convert to words, they fail to see. You need a translation app to even begin to understand them. Does that tell you anything? They are like lawyers: it’s been in their interest to create a legal system where you need a lawyer to understand the most basic language; ditto art. If something can’t be rendered into plain talk (well, maybe not math or physics or website development), doesn’t that give you a clue as to its usefulness?

And shouldn’t all art be “atemporal?” The MOMA show (The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal Worldis the show’s name) should revel in that. But MOMA makes ‘atemporalness’ an underhanded apology to painters: sorry you poor suckers, but you’re ATEMPORAL now. The Horror!

Is painting considered dead because it can’t sustain the relentlessness of the new? Because it’s Atemporal? Newness is about control. If art consumers require an artwork to fit into a new trend to believe it’s good, they are nothing more than a data set, something that can be controlled by the media/advertising industry. Most art writers that I read today are basically ad copy writers. They tell the herd what’s new. Good is assumed if it’s new. Media today is advertising. Political reporting is nothing but advertising for ideologies. Ditto economic reporting. Ditto art words. Advertising for the new art ideologies.

Americans are totally comfortable being sold to. We have little understanding of propaganda or manipulation. We are a society of believers, belief consumers. We need to believe things and the less logical the more we tend to believe them. In art, where there is so much money flying between the plutocrats, believing in the new, instead of seeking and understanding the good, is the prevailing herd mentality. Are plutocrats herd animals? In art they are. They are led around like declawed circus lions with rings through their noses, led into shiny pavilions where they can gorge on the new. See their beaming smiles?