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So Painting is Dead, Again?

The Politics of Painting

By Gregg Simpson

In the world of contemporary art during the past decade or more, one medium has unfortunately been singled out to bear the guilt of Eurocentric western culture. That medium is painting. The seemingly innocent practice of applying pigments to canvas, panel, or wall is, in terms of current critical thinking, almost a criminal act. To be relevant, artists must relinquish anything hopeful, celebratory, or sensuous in their work, and focus on one of the two dominant themes of contemporary art: guilt or grievance.

An artist who pursues a personal, poetic investigation that is not on the required agenda, will be viewed, at best, as a quaint craftsperson making pleasant pictures to decorate living rooms. The Toronto artist who was charged a while ago with obscenity stated that his canvases are not "just mere wall decoration." The notion that anything which pleases the eye must be a bourgeois plot is part of the stifling legacy of the deconstructionists who dictate the post-modern sensibility.

The distopia they have created has become the last refuge of pseudo-intellectuals who can only prosper in these abstruse regions they inhabit, if public input is kept at "arm's length". Likewise that other sacred principle of Canadian arts funding, "peer review", is simply an epithet for favouritism and cronysim. Painting, especially abstraction, is seen by most juries as merely decorative.

But all art, in both third world and western cultural traditions, has decorative qualities, including formal values of composition and colour. The Toronto artist's phrase "mere wall decoration" indicates a lack of understanding of the fact that some art which "decorates" can also inform us with metaphor and beauty. It is not only pain that can teach us something.

We can trace the use of pigments back at least 50,000 years to the cave art of Altamira and Lascaux, and the rock paintings of the Sahara. Those ancient shaman artists would undoubtedly be surprised to learn that their time honoured medium of mark making with pigments would be finally pronounced exhausted. They understood that mankind has an innate need to express itself by the direct creation of shapes and application of colours.

Andre Breton, the oft-quoted poet and founder of the Surrealist Movement, once stated that "the eye exists in a savage state." Perhaps the eye is actually hungry for sensation and stimulation, not unlike other organs of the body. Modern art feeds the eye a certain amount of pleasure; whereas theory-based art denies the eye that pleasure by delegating it to the role of mere conduit for analysing visual codes.

A rebellion by art-starved gallery audiences against this state of affairs may actually be starting to take place. Judging by the huge response to major shows of painting such as the Matisse, Degas, and Cezanne retrospectives, or the touring Barnes Collection, people are still hungry for painting and for beauty. However they seem to get angered when instead they are subjected to receptacles of used body fluids. Compare the long line-ups for the so called "blockbuster" exhibitions to the relatively small crowds attracted to what critic, Robert Hughes, calls the "thin gruel of conceptualism", defended by many of today's curators as the only valid art being made.

Public funding for the arts is proving to be a thing of the past in Canada. The sacrificing of visual art to the politically correct has all but lost the mainstream audience. In addition, few art establishment figures were able to defend the Newman and Rothko works purchased by the National Gallery. or to distinguish these purchases of major masters from that grant-fuelled dirge - the meat dress.

Beyond the National Gallery's damage control efforts, very little was heard from the professional art elite to explain colour field painters like Rothko to anyone. That is because they have consigned most current painting to a kind of critical limbo. Ironically, their inability to defend or explain painting's durability and its importance to expanding the public's support for the arts, has ended up backfiring on those who rely on public sector funding in the presentation of contemporary art.

These days, any would-be Marcel Duchamp, that precursor of all things post-Modern, will tell you with complete certainty that very little relevant painting is being made now and that the practice of painting has come to an end. The difference, however, between Duchamp and his politically correct progeny is that he was an original when he made his protest and could, at one time, paint a bit, before he ran out of ideas, as he confessed to Andre Derain in Paris, following World War 1. He also had a sense of humour, which he used to undermine the establishment's sense of reality. But one of him should have been enough.

Too bad today's iconoclasts couldn't heed what sculptor Henry Moore once said about a conflict raging between two schools of art in his day, the geometric abstractionists and the Surrealists. He wrote: "The violent quarrel between the abstractionists and the surrealists seems quite unnecessary. All good art has contained both abstract and surreal qualities, just as it contained both classical and romantic elements: order and surprise, intellect and imagination, conscious and unconscious. Both sides of the artist's personality must play their part." These days, however, the balance seems tipped all the way to the intellect.

The last time painting died was in the late 1960's, yet many artists, myself included, who pursued multi media, performance, video, and other technologies also continued to produce canvases at a considerable rate. Now there is another generation with the same erroneous idea that the practice of painting has ended. I can't buy it now any more than I did then.

As a final image, consider a clip from the film which pops up now and again on PBS networks about the propagandist art of 1930's Germany. In one scene, two lab-coated technicians approach a large Kandinsky abstract painting and remove it from a museum wall. Kandinsky, one of the pioneer abstractionists, made what the British art writer, Sir Herbert Read, referred to as "a spiritual art of inner necessity."

What a perfect metaphor this removal of "degenerate art" is for our times when, once again, those carrying out an officially sanctioned makeover of a nation's art find that lyrical, personal, abstract painting doesn't fit the political agenda. Whether it is the official art of the totalitarian states of the 1930's, or the officially sanctioned progenitors of today's politically correct art, the spectre of didactic, state-sponsored culture is chilling. Perhaps there aren't concentration camps for today's painters, but if the proponents of today's puritanical trends had their way, there probably would be.

It is not simply the existence of conceptual art that I, and many others, find objectionable, but rather the hegemony it enjoys in the publicly funded galleries. The result is a deliberate obscuring of the existence of contemporary styles other than those deemed worthy of exhibition by a self-appointed elite.

Gregg Simpson was born in Ottawa in 1947, then moved to the west coast with his family. He is one of two sons of pioneering Modernist architect, D.C. Simpson and concert soprano, Ferne Cairns. His career began during the 1960's when he was also involved in launching multi-media events and building his complementary career as a noted jazz drummer.

Simpson is published and exhibits internationally with both the neo-surrealists and the Paris-based PHASES Movement. Visit his site for more information. Gregg is a contributing editor to WetCanvas! and can be reached via email at [email protected].