The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Category: History / Criticism


Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937

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.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2009

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.


Artist and Critic

Fairfield Porter, Forsythia and Pear in Bloom, 1968

I have recently been reading Art in its Own Terms: selected criticism 1936 – 1975, by Fairfield Porter. It is refreshing to read criticism which derives from a practitioner’s perspective. The bulk of the book takes the form of reviews and short essays written for various periodicals and is edited and introduced by painter, Rackstraw Downes.

What I have found most interesting is the way that ideas are elaborated over the course of several pieces, so that the sense of his pressing concerns comes through without being imposed on his subjects arbitrarily. Notable entries are a letter to the Partisan Review, on Clement Greenberg’s essay “‘American-type’ Painting” as well as a letter to the Kenyon Review lambasting Wyndham Lewis’ essay on Picasso. In both of these letters he takes issue with the way that art is treated through the language of the critic and also with the implicit assumption that the critic is somehow in a position to tell artists what they ought to be concerned with. An example:

Greenberg seems to think that the artist today must give up the figure: the figure has been done and nothing new remains. It was also done by the Greeks, but the success of the ancients was imitated, not shunned, during the Renaissance. American painters have not been supreme in figure painting; perhaps from shyness they have felt more at ease in landscape. There is now figure painting being done by Americans, but Greenberg doubts its validity, telling them in effect to stick to their old provincialism; and this misunderstanding of value is also provincial … as a war is not won by brilliant retreats, so creativeness is not advanced by imposed limitations.  (p. 235-6)

and on Wyndham Lewis:

Your article on Picasso by Wyndham Lewis was very bad. I think that like many literary people you have an indirect understanding of the visual arts, and that since Lewis is both a painter and a writer you thought he must be an art critic.

The criticism shows about Lewis, first, that he looks at paintings through the spectacles of words, and without these spectacles would be blind. He does not know the difference between the pictures and his talk about them, and his talk is about many things that are quite true and relate to the pictures, but are non-essential … Second, the article shows that Lewis paints from a written program, concocted in advance. He is a manifesto painter. In the end of his article he compares Picasso with his manifesto, and finds Picasso lacking. Picasso is not a manifesto painter, and the end of the article shows that what is at issue is the manifesto by Lewis, nothing else. It serves as an advertisement for the work Lewis is planning to do. (p. 239)

Although I don’t necessarily agree with Porter’s evaluations of the work he reviews,  what I admire most is his commitment to an independent point of view, as well as his terse impatience for the critical platitudes of his time. Part of his impatience comes from a desire to encounter art, as the title states, in its own terms, as artistic experience, not through an extrinsic theoretical platform:

Art can be known best in its own terms, artistically. The experience of art is inhibited if it is considered something to be “understood”, something, like juvenile delinquency, that resists social control, but whose prevalence requires a sympathetic and tolerant attitude in order that society or individuals may manipulate it for social benefit or private ends. (p. 146)

His opposition to Greenberg is distinct from postmodern critique. It doesn’t seek to replace the work that Greenberg champions with a more theoretically correct version. Instead it seeks to give the work at hand a closer and more sensitive hearing, trying to determine what it proposes about the world rather than how it might fit into a conceptual schema. There is no attempt to generalize into an idealized theory of history, just attentiveness to his own experience.

Downes sums up this position in his introduction:

In the critical disputes of his time his was one of the sharp minds, and this is where independence became an issue. It was not that Porter liked contention: he loved art, and felt it was deeply important that critics, who mediate between art and its public, should represent it truthfully. Mainly he was at odds with a criticism which, ignoring the evidence that actually surrounded it, purported to deduce art’s future from its immediate past; and so control it, as Porter put it, by imitating ‘the technique of a totalitarian party on the way to power.’ (p. 19-20)

A useful and timely model for artists and critics alike.

Further Impossibilities

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.

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