Painting and dumb ideas

“Soon I am engaged in a ritual of communion with the ETERNAL and the outcome is the work of ART.” – Alan Davie, 1966

Intellectual fashions are funny things. You’d think ideas would be more permanent than the width of your collar, but often it’s not so. The quote above is a case in point. It’s hard to imagine any painter, nowadays, describing what they do as a ritual of communion with the eternal, at least not with a straight face. Yet it was a widespread meme in the 50s and 60s and motivated whole schools of painting, particularly the abstract expressionists, who regularly claimed to be channelling cosmic forces in their work. Even into the 80s you could still find people who bought into to the “artist as shaman” idea. Often they were the same ones still wearing bell-bottoms.

But I’m not writing just to mock an idea whose time has passed, no matter how richly it might deserve it. And in quoting Alan Davie in a negative way, I hope I’m not being disrespectful of a man whose work I greatly admire. Because that’s the thing: his paintings are terrific, even if the ideas that motivated them have become a bit shopworn.

And that, to me, is interesting. How can the paintings be any good, if the ideas behind them were silly (or seem so, to us)?

It makes me wonder we put so much effort into developing the theories and ideas that inform our practice. Ultimately, when we no longer believe that the artist is some kind of shaman, or that the work will point the way to some kind of grand and ill-defined utopia, all that’s left is are the paintings. And some of them, like Davie’s, don’t seem to need the prop of ideas to hold them up, and can stand on their own when the scaffolding of theory has been kicked away. Why is that?

 

Technique

Technique is divisive. There are painters who worship it, and those who fear it. In the latter camp sit, of course, legions of art students only too willing to believe that anything resembling technical study represents a mortal threat to their inborn genius. Yet there are also very technically accomplished painters who regard technique with suspicion. In the opposite camp we find the Academiciens, and their present-day successors, the Classical Realists.

I was educated largely by artists who were suspicious of technique. You might occasionally pick up something technical in one of their classes, but it never really amounted to a consistent educational program since none of them were doing the same things. You wound up with a smattering of this and that, and if you wanted a coherent result, you needed to put it together yourself. There is in fact something to be said for this approach, in that is built around an ideal that links art-making to individual choice and effort. There is also something to be said against this approach: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is really hard to do, and it tends to work against establishing communities of interest, a thing of great value when you’re learning the ropes. Consequently a great deal of the resulting output tends to be amateurish and ill-conceived.

I can’t of course speak authoritatively about learning under the atelier system, as I never experienced it. I do think it’s great that it has made a big comeback over the past 15 years or so, and I suspect its resurgence is in no small part due to the limitations of the more scattershot approach described above. The upside of course is that because what it teaches is a coherent discipline, students of even average ability can come away with a set of real skills. The downside, judging from much of the resulting work, is that in addition to technique this method also appears to impart a somewhat hokey aesthetic. Although there are exceptions, the world of the Classical Realists seems on the whole not to extend beyond the 19th century, not just in the manner of its depiction, but also in the matter depicted. That’s kind of a serious limitation, and it may justify some of the suspicion regarding technique: that, taken to the extreme, it can lead to the production of derivative or mannered works, as though it were the technique that were producing the paintings, not the painter.

Giorgio de Chirico tends to be a bit of a touchstone for me in this regard. As everybody knows, between 1909 and 1919 de Chirico painted some of the most amazing and influential paintings of the 20th century. And then he had some sort of breakdown, and decided to dedicate the rest of his career to the revival of the painter’s traditional craft. There is no question that his subsequent work is, technically, somewhat better than what preceded it. And there is also little question that little he produced during the last sixty years of his career (1919-1978) was in absolute terms as good as the work from the first ten. It seems to me that during his first period, his technical ability and his expression were aligned: it was right that his figures, landscapes and buildings looked like cardboard cutouts within the classical wasteland he was depicting. “Improving” the technique caused his images to pull in different ways, ultimately resulting in lesser work.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter which camp you’re in, pro or con, since both camps produce work of widely varying quality, from excellent to awful, although they do tend to succeed and fail in different ways. Ideally I suppose one would diligently acquire technique as a member of the first group, and then having done so, move quietly into the opposite camp, thus hopefully gaining the benefit of a coherent education and a community, while ultimately avoiding the slide into mannerism.

Painting and Photography

Daguerréotype – Remplacera la peinture
Flaubert, Dictionnaire des idées reçues [1870s]

There is no question that photography has had a profound impact on painting. It almost eliminated an entire industry of painters, namely painters of portraits, and in general precipitated a radical reinvention of the art. Photography is probably the main reason a lot of painting moved away from naturalistic representation in the decades after its invention. Much has been made of how photography will make painting obsolete (see Flaubert, above), but I think that’s a bit overstated.

Although it may be unacceptable to adherents of progress (or novelty) in the arts, I believe the reinvention of painting in the face of photography had already succeeded by the latter half of the 19th century.

The simplest justification for this is the obvious absurdity of the question: why didn’t Van Gogh just take a photograph of the sunflowers? The answer, if you need one, is: a photograph would not have said the same thing. It would have been a different work. The continuing reinvention of painting that happened after Van Gogh had its roots in many things: fashion, the joy of exploration, a desire for publicity, unsettled times – but from the limited point of view of staking out turf that painting could legitimately call its own, all that happened after Van Gogh was unnecessary.

In an essay in October [The End of Painting, v16, n2, p69, 1981] Douglas Crimp asserted that painting had been in retreat from photography for over a hundred years. It is interesting to note that in terms of the technological transformations that have occurred over the past century, this one is apparently taking a very long time: much longer than it took for the automobile to replace the horse as a means of urban transportation, for example. It raises the question: if photography can completely replace painting, why has it not already done so?

The fact is that new media seldom completely replace older media, although they may take over some of their territory. For example, movies did not replace theatre, although they did do away with vaudeville. TV and video did not replace the movies, although the movies did become more spectacular in their effort to compete. TV didn’t replace radio either, although it’s probably responsible for the demise of the radio drama. And neither microfiche nor computers have replaced printed books and magazines, although many thought they would. What tends to happen instead is that new media and old media jockey for position. The old media usually loses some ground, but not all of it, and redefines itself accordingly. Typically, the old media lose ground in areas where they somewhat inadequate to begin with. Computer media did not replace paperback novels (yet) or coffee-table art books, but they did replace bound periodical indexes.

Picasso said, “Painting is only possible now [in the age of photography], because now we know at least everything painting isn’t.”

There is no question that painting is no longer the dominant form of visual representation. In the present day, photo-based media obviously dominate visual discourse. This is sometimes brought forward as evidence that painting is no longer relevant. But interestingly, this fact may also help to establish the ongoing relevance of painting. If painting is no longer dominant, then it provides an alternative to that which is dominant. Alternative modes of communication are almost by definition a good thing, in that they highlight the limitations of the dominant mode, and enable us to represent familiar objects in different ways. Far from being an argument against the continuance of painting, this may in fact be the central argument in favour of the persistence of painting in the 21st century.

The End of the End of Painting

When I first started painting back in the 80s, there was a fairly widespread notion that painting was Over as a meaningful cultural activity. This was expressed as the “End of Painting”, or possibly even the “Death of Painting”, presumably depending on the degree of finality one wished to communicate.

I was more impressionable in those days, and probably ascribed more importance to this particular meme than I should have. It bothered me so much, in fact, that I wrote a first draft of what was to be a definitive counter-argument. I took apart at all of the various arguments I could dredge up, from the obvious (photography) through various critical arguments (Greenberg, Kosuth) and even references in literature (Kundera, Immortality). It got to be fairly lengthy, but ultimately I lost interest and never finished it.

When I was thinking about what to write about in this blog, it occurred to me that I could perhaps repurpose that earlier effort as a series of posts. However, when I went back to re-read what I had written, I couldn’t help feeling that most of it wasn’t terribly relevant any more, although I still agree with much of what I wrote back then.

The reason, simply, is that some time in the past ten or fifteen years we lived through another cultural shift, in which it was the End of Painting, not painting itself, that passed into the realm of intellectual history. There has been too much good painting in the recent past for any but the most ideologically motivated believer to give much credence to the notion that painting’s time has ended.

Or to put it another way, the best possible counter arguments to the End of Painting, and really the only arguments that matter, are the works of Thomas Nozkowski, or Antonio López García, or Elizabeth Murray, or [insert name of favourite contemporary painter here].

Of course, that’s a painter’s response to the “end of painting” concept: Let’s shut down the discussion as fast as possible, so we can get on with what really matters, which is painting …