XWRITINGS / IS PAINTING DEAD?X
The following essay is from 'Parti Pris de Peindre' which was an exhibition and symposium at Galerie de l'UQAM in 1993. I did not have any work in the exhibition but was asked along with a number of others, both in the exhibition and not, to provide my thoughts on the question: Is Painting Dead?
II me fait plaisir de participer
When asked to respond to the question 'Is Painting Dead? my immediate reaction is to say that the question is a false one, and that it provokes comment rather on that which gives rise to such a questioning.
The notion that painting is dead must be taken in the context in which it is put forward. What is the context? I will assume that in this case it is Western art history, art theory, art criticism and curatorial practice in contemporary art. As long as we're dealing with categorical statements like 'painting is dead', I feel comfortable lumping historians, theoreticians, critics and curators together as the 'academy'. So it is in this particular context that painting as an art practice may be seen to be non-viable. But what is viable or not is actually a function of what those engaged in critical analysis and theory can be persuaded to bring their attention to.
On our planet we have people who live in stone age conditions co-existing with others who aspire to live in an entirely cybernetic universe of virtual reality. There are countless hybrid levels of social and intellectual development, fax-equipped mud-men in New Guinea, Turkomen shepherds in Asia Minor listening to Prince on boomboxes. Our largest metropolises harbor semi-literates who are thriving alongside college-educated people rendered homeless by their inability to cope with sweeping economic changes. The idea that any position represents the leading edge of cultural consciousness in any absolute sense is a bit of a conceit.
There is a process in any society by which it is determined what artwork will be valued, and ultimately which artists will receive the level of support and reward needed to continue to make artwork. We could call this the 'authorization process'. How it works varies greatly from society to society, from one historical period to the next, and even within societies and periods. But by one means or another some artists find support, through sales, patronage, religious sanction, subsidy, official approval, election, etc., while others languish.
To say 'painting is dead' is simply a disavowal of one practice by one particular group in one particular social setting in one particular period. Whether it will be accepted as true depends on the power of the group making the assertion to affect the 'authorization process' in a given time and place.
Let us assume that functioning academies with such a critical discourse as is necessary to propose that 'painting is dead' are more or less limited to advanced Western democracies, the G-7 nations plus a few others. In most of these countries it has been assumed that fostering and subsidising cultural activity is a public good, and cultural agencies are maintained for that purpose. These cultural agencies are, ultimately, creatures of the state or are, to the extent of their subsidisation, responsible to the state.
Canada and Quebec have such a subsidised art system. Indeed Canada has been at the forefront of state activity in the arts. The public sector has taken a larger part here, proportionally, than in other countries, and it began this process earlier. I don't mean to imply that this is in all respects negative. Support of all types for as many artists as possible is good. But we should recognize that even support constitutes intervention and that intervention has consequences.
In order to determine which artists, among those who involve themselves in this system, should get the support offered, the state resorts to a method of evaluation. This 'authorization process' takes a form which its bureaucracies can readily assimilate. This puts an onus on artists, as a condition of support, to produce documents, to verbalise, to supply the things which a bureaucracy requires to justify its expenditures. Because the 'academy' lives by the word, that is by documentation, verbalisation and the production of things in a form generally congenial to bureaucracies, it has found an increasingly important role to play in furnishing the 'authorization process'.
This has coincided with the advent of currents in philosophy and critical theory which ascribe to critical thought privileged access to systems of signs and cultural codes said to underlie all consciousness. These systems and codes are sometimes even held to be the basis of an 'objective' or 'scientific' discipline. This elementarism has also given rise to the justification of a posture of realpolitik in the struggle for recognition on the part of the adherents of these movements; indeed their formulations require not only recognition but primacy.
The dubious application of these techniques of analysis to art has exacerbated professional competition in the field of art theory and has at times lent a new cloak to the exclusivism and elitism to which the art scene is always prone. We all recognize some truth in satires of those who jockey for the position of being the leading critical molecule on the absolute cutting edge of the trend of the moment.
The values of realpolitik have also begun to figure in discussions of the role of the critic and the curator in the promotion of artwork. Issues of control of access to critical and public attention and the record of history have surfaced. There is a new realisation on the part of many in the art milieu that as the structure of the 'authorization process' has become more rationalized and as it has learned to use the products of the 'academy', the power of the 'academy' to affect it has increased. So far there has been little substantial discussion of issues of concomitant responsibilities. No ethic has been proposed. In fact a notable reluctance is manifest on the part of the 'academy' to acknowledge such responsibility.
Yet the 'authorization process' has come to rely almost exclusively on the products of the 'academy' in its judgements. Meanwhile the 'academy' pursues its own interests to such an extent that artists cannot expect to get its attention if their work doesn't 'engage the current discourse', a discourse which has its roots not in art practice but in philosophy and critical 'theory'. It is clear whose interests are being served in this critical environment.
Artists must recognize that the 'academy', historians, theoreticians, critics and curators, has its own interests and that these may not necessarily coincide with or be benign to the interests of artists in the practice of their art. While this has always been true, in the absence or weakness of alternative means of establishing the worth and worthiness of their work, when other means are disdained and discounted, it becomes an issue that artists must address. The 'academy' and our 'authorization process' is manifestly unable to provide a true 'authorization', one that confirms a place for our artists in our society. Our artists must appeal to the higher court of external (foreign) judgement for a validation of their activities, one that implies more than a token level of support. Otherwise artists here must accept sacrifice and status as a disposable part of a collective entity called 'the artist' which can be dealt with conceptually in relation to 'society' on a theoretical level.
It is in this context that theory can arrogate the authority to pronounce painting dead. And painting is dead, yet again. Painting, it seems, is always dying or is at least subject to falling into a dead faint. Painting was also pronounced dead in the 1970's. But neo-expressionism revived it, or was its resurrection (provided you accept that neo-expressionism ever really existed at all, at least on the critical plane). The 'academy' failed to anticipate the resurrection that time. I don't want to be impolite, but the number of times that painting has died might be pointed out. It was dead in the late Renaissance, and there wasn't even any installation/performance back then. This all begins to sound either like theology or a Dracula movie. If someone can just drive a stake through painting's heart while it lays still, then maybe we can put an end to this debate.
There is something in painting that notions of cognition, ideas of symbol formation, categorisations of noumena or what-have-you cannot account for. Taken apart from the content of representation, the application of pigment suspended in a medium onto a surface is so basic and direct an activity that people will always find a reason to come back to it. It is its own form of thinking, sometimes purely visual, even purely tactile, in any event as pure and unmediated as it gets. It is a way to re-experience a state free of encumbrance by the many layers of construct which have supplanted it. It is the 'middle C of creativity.
I would be happy to have any comments you care to offer about this essay
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Parti pris de peindre - Committed to Painting
At La Galerie de l'UQAM.
A Day of Reflection: Committed to Painting