Exploration

“To invent something totally new and different just because you want to do something new and different is in my opinion, the height of stupidity and hubris.” — Linus Torvalds

You frequently run across the assumption that the fundamental purpose of painting is to blaze new trails into undiscovered aesthetic country. In some circles this has become so widely accepted that no one bothers to question it any more. Which is too bad, because it is clearly wrong.

The elevation of formal innovation to the primary purpose of painting is actually quite recent, dating from the invention of photography. Photography forced a radical reinvention of the art of painting by taking over its basic representational function. From the middle of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, generations of painters laboured to re-establish painting in a niche that was undeniably its own. All the great movements of the modern period – Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Abstraction – represented an attempt to discover what was truly unique to painting. In the process of reinventing painting, painters opened up a lot of new ground, and (I would argue) succeeded admirably well in creating a place for painting in the era of photography. Unfortunately, in the process they (and their exegists) also created the misunderstanding that opening up new ground was what painting was about, end of story. In evaluating paintings, the appearance of newness became the only criteria that mattered.

All forms of expansion eventually reach their limits. Eventually, the radical innovators of the modern period came up against some pretty insurmountable boundaries; after all, there’s only so much you can do with patches of colour on canvas. After the 1950s, formal innovation & exploration slowed to a crawl. If the purpose of painting is exploration, and this is not happening, then painting must be over. QED.

However, the purpose of painting cannot be simply to innovate for the sake of innovation. Or to put it another way, if the purpose of painting or any other human activity is only to expand its territory, then it is not worth worrying about, because it’s completely trivial. Formal innovation is only a byproduct of painting’s fundamental purpose, which is the same as any other kind of human communication: to say something meaningful about something that matters. If what you want to say can be expressed within the range of available techniques, then formal innovation is unnecessary.

 

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