Since the 1970’s, painting has been declared dead, defunct and irrelevant. This blog explores the reasons for antipathy to art with a focus on distrust of and distaste for painting and in particular, for painterly aesthetics.
In an attempt to re-establish painting as relevant, in 2017 the Vancouver Art Gallery mounted an exhibition called Entangled: Two Views on Contemporary Canadian Painting. One review enthused that “Entangled shows contemporary Canadian painting is alive and well” and the reviewer felt the painters shown “found ingenious and sometimes revisionist ways of revitalizing the object and justifying their medium”. But on the whole, the paintings, such as the following, rejected the notion that beauty has any role to play in art. If this show represents the cutting edge of contemporary painting, why is it so clearly adverse to aesthetics?
While the above review agrees that painting is considered a dead art form he describes the painters of Entangled as not entirely convinced of its demise. “Human beings, after all, had been applying pigment to receptive surfaces for tens of thousands of years.”
Why do painters continue to paint if the medium has been declared “dead, defunct, or worse, irrelevant”? One good reason was given by Gamlin, the maker of oil paints who described painting as the most complicated, all-encompassing, and rewarding experience “because painting requires us to see, think, feel, and perform complicated physical tasks all at the same time, striving for something meaningful, striving to make order out of the very raw material that is oil colors” and because painting makes the painter “feel so good to be so alive.”
Clearly other art forms offer the same experience which is why artists persist despite a general lack of pecuniary benefits and worldly disinterest. In his book, The Blue Guitar, John Banville’s goal is not narrative but “linguistic beauty …pursued as an end in itself “. In one passage, he describes what happens to the painter protagonist as he “…sank steadily deeper into the depths of the painted surface, the world’s prattle would retreat like an ebbing tide, leaving me at the centre of a great hollow stillness…In it I would seem suspended at once entranced and quick with awareness, alive to the faintest nuance, the subtlest play of pigment, line and form”. Banville hints that in much of writing or painting this state of hyper-awareness eludes us. “How treacherous language is, more slippery even than paint.”
So why was there so little attention to the visual beauty …pursued as an end in itself, in the Entangled show? No artist wants their work to be irrelevant, so the works shown were largely concerned with challenging modernist ideas of aesthetics rather than breaking new painterly ground ,with the possible exception of a few works such as this one:
The primary goal of most of the exhibition’s painters appeared to be to challenge the idea of paintings as objects of beauty, value or egotism. While clever and in some cases original, many, if not most, paid no attention to visual beauty …pursued as an end in itself.
Some, like the piece above (attribution to follow) are a replay of ideas that have been done many times over the last half-century. Such works reflect the dominant art paradigm in which emotions or any feelings other than amused irony are part of an outdated modernist sensibility and strictly renounced.
So why has visual beauty, pursued as an end in itself, become an unacceptable pursuit for a self-respecting contemporary artist? And is the Anti-Art movement a logical culmination of the antipathy to aesthetics? The following investigates a number of very good reasons why aesthetics and art itself have become suspect.
Six Arguments Against Painterly Aesthetics and the Arts
1) Looks Good Over the Couch
The most obvious reason for disavowing aesthetics in painting is its use as decoration. Paintings are generally chosen not for their technical skill or visual discoveries but because they complement the decor. Painters at the beginning of their careers often strive for stereotypically beautiful paintings of landscapes, bunches of flowers, nubile nudes etc.
Those who persevere realize that beauty is a snare and a delusion – the more a painter strives for beauty in a familiar form that has been portrayed by other artists and recognized as such, the farther s/he gets from it. Those who make a profession of creating “beautiful” paintings that look good over the couch never set out on the life-long journey to scale painting’s insurmountable cliffs, at the top of which is another insurmountable cliff and so on.
2) Real Estate and Artworks
The second most obvious reason is that paintings exemplify the commodification of art. As in this article in the Huffington Post the wealthy looking for safe investments are advised to buy real estate and artworks, especially paintings.
“The art market rebounded quickly after the last recession, faster than traditional investments. High net worth individuals (HNWI) with a portfolio diversified into art assets were not as greatly affected. Additionally, rather than investing in stocks or bonds, art provides investors with an alternative, tangible opportunity.”
They are not, of course, buying paintings they like, but works attached to a highly valued brand (aka artist). Artists have always had to deal with the philistinism of the market, but there has likely never been a period in history when the art market, with its focus solely on profit, has so dominated artistic production and public understanding of the value of art.
3) Art & Big Egos
In the contemporary visual art world there is the belief is that artists who create large, grand or durable artworks are egotists. To avoid this damning charge, a generation of artists has been careful to ensure that their works are small, self-effacing, unserious and/or constructed of waste products.
Large paintings are viewed as a throwback to the modernist era when gigantic artistic egos created giant canvases.
In an attempt to democratize art, especially painting, the post-modernists discarded distinctions between “high” and “low” art. Into this aesthetic vacuum stepped the phenomenon of the artist as personality and the unprecedented importance placed by the market on the personality of the artist rather than the artworks themselves.
Artists such as Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami, whose work is opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery are not so much artists as brands marketed on the strength of name recognition.
An offshoot of identity politics has been a revival of the relativist philosophy that Socrates opposed. Socrates believed that virtue was something that should be aspired to and is immutable, permanent and unchanging – a moral absolute.
His antagonists, the Sophists, did “not offer true knowledge, but only an opinion of things” and held a relativistic view on cognition and knowledge. In a relativist universe where there is no right and wrong or standards of excellence, every person can only act in their own interests and neo-liberalism is the modern version of this thinking.
The implication of relativism for the arts has been that, since Clement Greenberg, no one feels they can say whether an artwork is good or bad, or even if an object can rightly be called art. Who can judge excellence in a world without right or wrong, good or bad? So for contemporary artists it is safer not produce something that clearly strives for excellence but to produce works that abjure technical skill and aesthetics .
5) Truth is Beauty & Beauty Truth
Our culture and its tools have changed more in the past 30 years than in the previous 1900 so that it is no longer a changing culture but a culture of change. It is a culture where change has attained a god-like status of inevitability and determinism.
In this philosophical climate, if there is no potential for art to reveal truths as there can be no absolutes, what is the point of art? If painting is not metaphysical or about making money or beautiful objects to please the bourgeoisie, it can only be an in-your-face repudiation of all pretentious, presumptuous, egotistical aims and a reminder of all that is wrong with society. Thus contemporary artists produce works that eschew aesthetics.
6) Art & Gentrification
A new argument against aesthetics, art & culture has surfaced that goes a long way toward explaining the hostility to art and the rise of an anti-art sensibility. This argument appeared in an article by Dorothy Woodend in the online journal The Tyee.
The article states, “Beauty doesn’t need any help. How about we fight for ugly?” This statement is odd because, after 30 years of exploitative, poorly planned, free-for-all growth, beauty in Vancouver has been effectively expunged. However, Woodend was referring to a PR campaign by one of the more neighbourhood-unfriendly developers in the city. They are running a marketing bonanza under the guise of an art exhibition featuring giant pink billboards, transit ads, posters and pink cars emblazoned with the words “Fight for Beauty” that are currently everywhere.
This PR campaign highlights a debate about art & culture that is gaining momentum in all cities where housing is an international commodity, locals are displaced and artists who remain are forced to scramble for studio space and affordable housing. The displacement is a result of gentrification where local governments allow the demolition of affordable dwellings and their replacement with unaffordable condos. In the cities where this is taking place, activists rightly term it class war as the less wealthy are replaced by higher-income earners.
One of the tools local governments and developers use to create acceptance of this process has been termed art washing. The Vancouver Mural Festival amply demonstrated this approach. In the same way that condominium marketing campaigns re-purpose words like “community” and “regeneration” to sell boxes of air, art is used to divert attention away from the gentrification and displacement taking place. As Woodend says, “..it is difficult not to lose respect for the very idea of art itself”.
All those pretty murals, full of blandishments like “The Present is a Gift” were a quick way for the city to run with a branding scheme for neighbourhoods in a way that ultimately served the interests of developers, realtors, and property owners – stakeholders the ruling municipal party, Vision Vancouver is beholden to more than working class residents who live in these areas.
Ironically, given Vancouver Mural Festival’s message of improving neighbourhoods and communities, their flagship mural, titled “The Present is a Gift,” adorns The Belvedere and its painting was the catalyst that began the renoviction process of the dozens of artists who lived in the building some for over the last 30 years.
The reasons above provide convincing arguments for contemporary painters to eschew painterly aesthetics . And the connection between art & gentrification overshadows all other concerns about the arts as it is a scourge in every major city in the world. This issue warrants further exploration and research.
However, the nagging question remains – why art? The commercialized consumer culture touches every aspect of contemporary society from food to games, so why have visual artists felt their disciplines must not search for visual beauty, “pursued as an end in itself “? Clearly this question deserves further study outside the received wisdom of the art establishment.