On the Death of Painting

Painting is dead! This is a grand claim which rings with a certain kind of journalistic urgency and existential authority. In art discourse it assumes the level of mythological significance and grandeur, the kind which philosophers ascribe to Nietzsche's now famous "God is Dead" which first appeared in print in 1884. Barely 25 years passed before the Dadaists in Zurich (in 1916) exclaimed that "Art is dead!"

It does not require much imagination or scholarly knowledge to see how closely related these statements are. Statements like these once challenged the status quo; and they definitely were intended to. They served as the battle-cries of enlightened and progressive thinkers. Both have their origins in nineteenth century Romantic consciousness. And the "Painting is Dead" epitaph is a direct appropriation from Nietzsche; consciously or otherwise. How and why?

Nietzsche's writing reflects the intellectual brilliance and zeitgeist of the period better than most. His beautiful, yet terrifying image of the tightrope walker entertaining the townsfolk in the public square in Also Sprach Zarathustra remains, for me, one of the most eloquent metaphors for the Romantic Age. It speaks of the contradictory nature of things, the paradox or conflict that was so central to Romanticism and the early Avant-garde. It is no coincidence that this was the period that produced the modern concept of the artistic anti-hero, the artist as outsider, the artist as cultural provocateur, or even the artist as ideological terrorist/activist.

The history of Avant-gardism is densely woven with assumptions about who said what first and who did what first. And given the progressive strategies of the Avant-garde it is not surprising that its artistic proponents continuously argue about the true origins of the movement, with countless claims and counter-claims about the founding heroes and geniuses, not unlike some fundamentalist religious movement that becomes divided by disputes over the authorship and true meaning of the founding myths. This kind of ideological hysteria always makes for a great story with high entertainment value – especially in intellectual circles.

Nevertheless, the Avant-garde was, and remains, the driving force behind a great deal of modern and contemporary culture. Its legacy and influence are immeasurable. Much of the most exciting art of our time can be described as pure hardcore Avant-gardism. So what does all of this have to do with our original question about the meaning of the statement: "Painting is dead!"?

We live in a culture that is driven, and to a large extent defined by, the media. There is a phenomenon that I call journalistic bathos, a kind of pseudo-apocalyptic language that sells newspapers, that promises its reader an informed glimpse into great events that are defining history and the world. CNN and Time Magazine have perfected this language. They speak with apparent authority and urgency, telling us from minute to minute, how the world is moving inexorably towards the next great event. If there is any doubt, we are assured that the world’s most influential men watch CNN to see how the great narrative is playing out. It is precisely this kind of bathos that is central to all journalism, from the most exclusive subscription-only publications to the so-called bottom-end British tabloids that are dismissed as trashy by most, and yet read by many.

I’m often amused at the ironical similarities between this brand of myth-making and the apocalyptic psychology that underlies all of the great religious texts. There is always this sense that we have come from a distant, dark and unknown genesis and are progressing towards some great revelation, and if we are alert enough, we’ll see the signs along the way. And this is exactly where I see the problem with statements like "Painting is dead!" When examined in its historical and cultural context, it is an example of the kind of intellectual hype and sabre-rattling that made so many of the early Avant-garde manifestos seem shockingly relevant in their day. Now, more or less a hundred years later, they seem naïve and even amusing. Nobody takes them seriously, except as records of a bygone era.

Speaking as a painter, I have never believed that painting comes with an expiry date. I vividly recall, years ago, as a student, questioning this whole controversy. Logic suggested that if I took something as simple as a game of chess, with a finite combination of two opposing sets of sixteen chess pieces, with six possible movement combinations (King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook and Pawn) working with 64 diagonally configured black and white squares on a chessboard, and calculated every possible outcome of the game, played within a reasonable period of time, without breaking the rules, the possible number of outcomes is incomprehensible. If a simple game of chess, within its tightly defined set of rules, is capable of yielding mathematically infinite outcomes, then I am convinced that something like painting, with its notoriously imprecise rules (if any), is not likely to be "used up" within the foreseeable millennia. But beyond this Cartesian logic there is another, much more relevant question which brings us back to business of art and particularly that of painting.

The assumption that our culture is driven by scientific and technological progress is profoundly important. Anyone who doubts this fact is delusional. The harnessing of fire came before the domestication of crops and animals. The development of early pistons and crankshafts for pumping water in Persia preceded the internal combustion engine for obvious reasons, and so on. There’s an irreversible and progressive logic that has driven us from Palaeolithic Stone Age beginnings to this modern culture that splits atoms, clones genes and communicates via satellites.

The relationship between painting and technology is not a simplistic one.

When the great technology of photography first appeared in mid-nineteenth century France, two profound things happened:

  • The average academic painter, who regarded painting merely as a mode of pictorial mimesis (i.e. imitating the world of obviously recognisable images) immediately felt threatened with extinction. This genre of painting, which for centuries had faithfully recorded people, events and things, became redundant instantly. With the easy click of a camera shutter, the photographer could record much more visual data, with far greater optical accuracy, and much less fuss, than any of these 'painting mimics' could ever dream of achieving. For these painters painting had died – and had been replaced by an infinitely superior mode of image-capturing, namely that of photography.
  • For the serious and creatively intelligent painter quite the opposite applied. Photography was embraced by the leading French painters of the time with an excitement that cannot be exaggerated. Eugene Delacroix, the great French Romantic painter, not only became an enthusiastic proponent of this new technology, but was actually a main founder-member of the world’s oldest photographic society, the Heliographic Society (later to become the Photographic Society of France) in 1851. Edgar Degas employed the new visual aesthetics of the camera in his work to produce some of the greatest Modernist paintings. For these painters photography was good news.

Juxtapositioning painting against photography, like two competing and mutually exclusive technologies, is pointless and actually defeats the significance of both. As a technology, painting is completely prehistoric. From a technological point of view: to rub coloured pigments ground in oil onto a flat surface using a wooden stick (with hairs protruding out of the one end; otherwise known as a paintbrush) is indeed pre-historic. But since when has painting ever claimed to be "technology"? If we look at the defining moments in the history of painting, from before 80 000BC until now, they are not distinguished by anything that could remotely be called technological. The fact that painting is technologically irrelevant does not translate into the fact that painting is artistically or culturally irrelevant.

Personally, whether I consider the "Painting is dead!" statement from a Modernist point of view, remembering that it was originally a Modernist claim, or from a Postmodernist point of view, it reads like pseudo-religious tabloid headline. I suspect it may have been the brilliant eighteenth century German art historian and aesthete Johann Winckelmann who first suggested that painting was dead. Oscar Wilde’s famous dictum which stated that "All art is completely useless" came nearly 200 years later. More than 2000 years ago Plato unequivocally condemned the validity of painting. Trying to find out who said it first or who said it most eloquently or most convincingly will not alter the art historical or cultural ramifications.

No matter which way I look at the various hypotheses according to which painting is dead, I come to the same conclusion: Painting is not dead.

For more than 80 000 years painting has remained one of the most direct and yet infinitely personal incarnations of visual/creative intelligence. I am convinced that painting does not exist in some kind qualitative/hierarchical order that can be measured and compared against other similar or different processes. I cannot imagine that as a species, we’ll ever outgrow the need to paint. And until we do, statements like "Painting is dead" are funky, sensationalist, trivial and devoid of significance. 

Vivian, Stellenbosch, January 2000