For me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times is not an art of the past: perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was. (Pablo Picasso, quoted in Picasso: Style and Meaning, Elizabeth Cowling, p. 392)
Painting allows for a kind of generous relationship to tradition. When I go to a major centre to see art, I often find that historical collections provide as much or more sustenance for my thinking than whatever is hot or current.
It is possible that I am just weary of a continual push for the “new”, or that as I get older my taste is becoming more and more conservative, less open, moribund. I find myself thinking about concepts like “quality”, “depth”, “emotion”, “clarity”, terms that would have made me shudder a few years ago.
It is also possible that as my own practice unfolds I get less and less from my contemporaries because the work demands its own contexts. As my painting becomes less involved in contemporary obsessions with media images and strategies like found imagery, montage and cultural critique, the more I feel like I have to turn to work from other times to find relevant exemplars.
The quote above by Picasso suggests two things to me: first, that art which is too closely tied to myopic current trends will not have lasting value, it will fail to “live always in the present”; second, that temporal distance is not a determining factor for whether a work continues to have resonance.
This in turn suggests that it is a mistake to regard art history as primarily a succession of styles, each displacing the one before it. Instead, it is a continuum where specific instances may be just as valid now as they ever were. Further, it suggests that the canon is not usefully understood as timeless and static, but as contingent and shifting.
The avant-garde emphasis on rupture and opposition finds its culmination in the postmodernist denial of meta-narratives like the art historical canon. Ironically, insofar as the avant-garde has become part of the canon of modern art it is also undercut. The cultural authority of the canon is problematized by revisionist histories that critique the basis of value judgments on which it is formed – the dead white male thesis.
To my mind, this presents a serious obstacle to the legitimacy of painting as a practice. The meaning of a painting, as Kerry James Marshall says, depends on the question “What function does the painting perform in the context of other things that are like it?” In other words, how does it work in relation to the discursive field of the canon? If that field is imagined primarily as a calcified extension of cultural dominance, then painting can only ever be in the service of power.
I think that certain versions of the canon are maintained by dominant institutions for the gratification of those institutions. However, I also think that there are counter versions, formed by concrete, specific examples rather than monolithic structures. The needs of individual artists determine this field, the boundaries of which may shift according to those needs.
All of this may be wishful thinking, and starting with a quote by the canonical dead white male artist, Picasso, may seem perverse or misguided. Nevertheless, I recognized his words as an expression of both a love of art and a resistance to the entombment of its traditions by cultural managers. For me those sentiments seem more relevant today than ever.