The end of the end of painting, part two

Back in 2013 when I started this blog I led off with a post that concluded that painting had not died, as many art pundits thought it would. Rather it was the “death of painting” as an idea whose time had come and gone.

Turns out I wasn’t the first one to make that observation. Recently I came across an article from Canadian Art back in 2008 that covers much the same ground, but goes into a bit more detail than I did about what it was like being a painter in Vancouver back in the 80s and early 90s, when being a painter meant you really weren’t Serious. Back then, if you weren’t showing very big photographs and reading a lot of Critical Theory, you might as well resign yourself to obscurity, or worse.

“For artists who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, painting had not only been knocked from its centuries old pedestal but had become a very nearly leprous form, replaced by conceptual and—particularly in Vancouver—photo-based art.”

Yeah, I can attest that was pretty much how it was. A “leprous form” indeed. And I suspect we lost most of a generation of painters because of the generally low esteem in which painting was held. It was rough on many of the older generation too. The kind of disrepect they had to endure is pretty toxic, day after day. So I have to say that it was balm to my spirit when the author described Douglas Crimp’s “End of Painting” article as “wrong-headed,” and quotes Neil Campbell as saying that the younger crowd doesn’t see much excitement in photoconceptualism, and “It’s a very conservative gesture for a young person to latch on to that train at this point.” Ha! Take that, you old photoconceptual fogies! How do you like being passé?

And yet … There’s a thought that troubles me. I imagine a young art student who has just discovered photoconceptualism for the first time, and is all fired up with enthusiasm, the same kind of enthusiasm I felt when I first saw the paintings of, say, Horacio Torres. Sure, the student is a bit late to the party, but this is the kind of work she loves, and this is the kind of work she wants to make. And so she heads off to art school, where she’s told over and over that photoconceptualism just isn’t done any more, that it’s over, it’s old hat and other variations on the same theme. And eventually she gets discouraged, gives it up, and goes off and does something else with her life. And somehow that strikes me as wrong.

I think it’s time we stopped paying so much lip service to fashionable media and schools of thought and paid more attention to individual works instead. Maybe we could even learn from history for once, how over and over we’ve seen that how fashionable something is has very little bearing on whether ultimately it’s any good. And while we’re at it, perhaps we could acknowledge that, just because we happen to like a particular thing, doesn’t mean it’s wrong for other people to like something else.

There’s another aspect to that article I’d like to discuss, having to do with the relentless identification of painting with the more affective sides of human experience, and conceptual art with the rigorously intellectual. That identification seems to hold true for boosters and detractors on both sides, but I can’t say that I agree with it. Probably a topic for a follow-up post.

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