20 April 2005

In defence of painting

In the late fifteenth century Leonardo da Vinci wrote what are now known as the paragone disputes, in which he argued painting’s overwhelming superiority over other art media, particularly sculpture. Of course, then as well as now, everybody realised that different media are better at different things rather than being better than each other. Each medium has intrinsic strengths and weaknesses that make it more suitable for some purposes than others. James Joyce’s Ulysses would make a terrible film.

There seems to be the idea about now, however, that painting is, if not a zombie-like corpse stumbling about not realising it’s dead, at the very least an inherently conservative and reactionary occupation. Painting is often explicitly contrasted with new visual art media such as installations and video, which are presented as being inherently experimental and progressive (see, for example, Daniel du Bern, 'Shock of the new-ish'). This is as absurd as saying painting is inherently superior to sculpture. It is as absurd as most generalisations.

In contrast to painting and sculpture’s 40,000-year history, installation and video art have only been around for about 40 years. They are so vibrant and new that they don’t even have a full set of words to refer to them yet. If you make paintings, you paint – and you are a painter. If you make installation art, you what? – and you are a what? No wonder painting seems boring in comparison.

Comparing classes of things doesn’t translate easily into comparing individual members of those classes. Men may be on average more aggressive than women, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the relative aggressiveness of any particular individual men and women. In the same way, even if visual art works in new media were on average better than works in traditional media (bypassing for the moment what constitutes better in this context), that would not tell you anything about the relative merits of individual works in those media.

Modernism has left us with many legacies, one of which is the idea that art should be experimental. This is the idea that in order for an art work to be judged good it must be innovative, i.e. that the presence or absence of innovation is one of the main criteria by which the artistic worth of a particular work is judged. It is arguable whether this idea is itself any good or not, but that’s another story. For the purposes of this argument, I am going to use the presence or absence of innovation as the sole criterion for judging something to be a good art work. Likewise, in the blue corner, representing traditional media, we have painting and in the red corner, representing new media, we have installation art.

So are installation art works on average more innovative than paintings? On the face of it, the answer seems a no-brainer: people have been making paintings for at least the last 40,000 years before, everything’s been done before, so it’s almost impossible to make an innovative painting; whereas installation art has only been around for about 40 years, only a small number of installation art works have been made, so it’s almost impossible not to make an innovative installation art work.

A moment’s reflection exposes the flaws in this answer. The first part assumes that painting’s long history has been a project consistently dedicated to finding all the possible innovations in painting, and that this project has been achieved. This is patently not the case. Innovation has only been part of the criteria for an art work to be good for brief periods in painting’s history; for most of that history, innovation has been actively discouraged. In some periods, painters have even been contractually obliged to paint certain specified subjects in a certain specified style using certain specified colours.

Painting has long suffered under the heavy hand of art theory. For 400 of the last 500 years, a painting had to meet the standards of the academy in order to be judged any good. These standards were derived directly from the rules given in Leon Battista Alberti’s On Painting, published in 1437 and the first known book of art theory written in the West. For most of the last 100 years painting has been in thrall to the views of a small number of formalist critics – those of Clement Greenberg in particular.

The second part of the answer above assumes that, because only a small number of installation art works have so far been made, new works are automatically innovative. This does not follow. Whether or not something is innovative depends not on the number of works preceding it but rather on whether or not the new work is derivative of those earlier works.

In fact, it seems reasonable to assume that the next few works after the first in a new medium are more, rather than less, likely to be derivative. This seems to be borne out in the case of photography. It took a while for photographs consciously made as art works to be anything other than idealised portraits. In a case where there are only a small number of works in a new medium, a new work needs to be substantially similar to those other works in order to be recognised.

This state of affairs has its benefits. Unlike painting, installation art is not practised by hobby artists. There aren’t cafés and gift shops full of bad installation art. Only serious artists make installation art, therefore if you make it you are a serious artist. Unfortunately, this is quite an incentive to complacency – you don't have to distinguish yourself from the hobbyists; all you need to do is throw some objects together in a white cube and you have an art work (it’s not as if it can be anything else) – which might explain why there’s so much boring installation art around.

For a work in a particular medium to be innovative, it can’t be completely derived from previous works, and it can’t just blindly follow the conventions of that medium. The latter stipulation is where the intrinsic strengths and weaknesses of a medium come into their own. By its very nature painting can represent anything real or imagined, or nothing but itself, in a huge variety of ways. This gives painting virtually limitless scope for innovation – a seemingly infinite set of possible paintings. Painting is like language – in any language a finite set of words combined with a finite set of rules can produce an infinite number of sentences.

By contrast, installation art is limited to actual objects in an actual space – and those objects are limited to representing themselves and/or functioning symbolically. Those limitations give installation art its interest, but they are not a good basis for an experimental art form. Other media are much more suitable for that purpose.


stephen said...

I'll buy that for a dollar. What a fantastic post. I've yet to find a flaw in your reason.

And, "Ulysses" did make a fairly bad film, though interesting in its own right.

stephen said...

Oh, and Daniel du Bern's an idiot of some notoriety (in case you didn't know).

visitors since 29 March 2004.