Further Impossibilities

by cjdown

Why might painting be deemed impossible? Thierry de Duve proposes that painting is out of step with the economic and technological imperatives of contemporary industrial societies,  being “artisanal”, “objectively useless”, “obsolete”. This is a rehearsal of standard “death of painting” narratives that have been around since at least the advent of photography in the nineteenth century.

On the face of it, there is very little to argue with here. Painting has been widely displaced as an image-making technology, first by photography and more recently by digital imaging. However, dis-placed is not the same as re-placed.

The passage cited in the post “Impossibilities” elegantly compresses three themes that underwrite “death of painting” narratives:

1) The invention of photography displaced painting as the preferred method of mimetic representation. Because photography is a mechanical and chemical (i.e. technological) process its pictures of the world were seen as more realistic, objective and true. The corollary of this belief is that photography set painting “free” to explore abstraction.

2) Painting is technologically obsolete. Related to the first point, the technology of photography replaces painting in a manner similar to automobiles replacing horse-drawn wagons. This in turn draws support from multiple discourses:

a) “new and improved” is the motto for every type of commodity in capitalist society. Our economic system depends on an endless cycle of production and consumption in order to continue. Products are designed to become obsolete and new products are designed to replace old ones. If painting is seen as just another commodity then it can and should be replaced by a newer, improved commodity.

b) This view is in turn supported by an even wider cultural tendency which defines modernity in terms of “progress”. This is the idea that the world tends to evolve towards higher levels of existence, for example that civilization evolves towards more freedom the more rationally that our scientific breakthroughs are applied to society. In this view painting has served its purpose as representation and has been replaced by more keenly adapted technology such as photography, cinema or digital imaging.

3) The importance in modernist art of an avant-garde, a small, elite group of artists which uses unorthodox or experimental methods in order to advance art, and in turn the cutting edge of culture. The avant-garde has been characterized by a radical rejection of dominant cultural values which are seen as conservative. Theories of avant-garde art have tended to deal with painting in one of two ways; first, through an attempt to paint the “last painting”, for example Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Colour, Pure Blue Colour, 1921.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Colour, Pure Blue Colour, oil on canvas, 1921

This thread can be seen through an ongoing attempt in modern painting to reduce painting to its base components, in this case, three monochrome panels of  primary colours. A more thorough account of this tendency can be found in Yve-Alain Bois’s Painting as Model, MIT Press, 1991.

Second, the connection of painting to conservative, middle-class, or bourgeois values was seen as a taint on the avant-garde possibilities of the medium, especially in places like revolutionary Russia or Weimar Germany, where industrialization was having a strong impact on art-making and art theory. For forward looking, utopian avant-garde movements painting’s relationship to the “artisanal past” represented a retrograde dependence on the art of museums and official culture.

Ironically, painting obtained avant-garde status in the mid-twentieth century through the criticism of Clement Greenberg, particularly in essays such as “Avant-garde and Kitsch”, 1939 “‘American-Type’ Painting”, 1955 and “Modernist Painting”, 1960. According to Greenberg the role of the avant-garde was to keep culture moving forward in the face of mass culture, a telling inversion of earlier avant-garde values. Modernist painting (particularly abstract painting) was the medium best suited to this task because of its capacity for self-criticism, that is, it made reference only to its own formal properties, not to wider literary or cultural sources. This self-critical aspect conferred a quasi-scientific, and therefore “advanced”, quality to painting.

By the 1960’s, the preeminence of Greenberg’s theory of modernist painting led to its eventual irrelevance as an avant-garde position, i.e. it was no longer a critique of conservative culture, it had become absorbed into it. As artists and critics began to reject modernist values the “death of painting” once again became a major theme in art discourse. Because painting had held such a privileged position in Greenberg’s theory, rejection of the theory was often synonymous with the rejection of painting as a possibility.

These factors are among the many that condition the understanding of contemporary painting and which make the use of the medium a very specific kind of choice. The practice of painting is very often involved with a dialogue or wrestling with these questions of the value of painting.

A few small points may be offered by way of opening discussion. In regards to painting and photography as representational practices, I consider them to be loosely analogous to the idea of translation. If a text is translated into French and Spanish, we have two separate translations each made according to its own rules of grammar, syntax, and so on, not opposing translations which are inherently better or worse. Similarly, painting and photography offer separate and different translations of the world.

In terms of technological obsolescence, there is no question that applying coloured dirt to a surface using a hairy stick is an outdated image-making technology. If painting were merely a commodity, this would be a problem, since its value would be inextricably linked to its “up-to-datedness”. I would assert, however, that painting is not primarily about image-making, but instead about meaning-making, and this meaning-making activity is achieved through a set of practices that are materially specific, bodily, and cognitive in addition to being signifying. It therefore doesn’t require technologically advanced means, only adequate ones.

Finally, in terms of avant-garde credentials, I doubt that this is actually relevant outside of attempting to score points in theoretical debate, or according to specious art world politics. Every discourse that wants to establish itself as new needs to demonstrate how it is different from what is traditional or old. Radical practices require an “other” in order to establish their difference and hence their radicality (see also Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture, Yale University Press, 1998). There is nothing in art that is older, more traditional or conservative than painting. Luckily, the value of painting doesn’t depend on its radicality, but rather on its capacity to affect the person looking at it.