Earlier this year, TVO's current affairs program, Agenda, presented a discussion entitled, “Who Needs Art?” It occurred to me the subject might be of interest to many of the people on my mailing list, and a day before the program aired, I sent out a notice. I was taken aback, however, when throughout the entire thirty-minute piece, not one of the five guests made a single reference to painting.
The Toronto Arts Council was represented, as was Ryerson University's faculty of Communication and Design, but their focus, like the others, was stage and music. These are, without a doubt, the most 'visible' art forms in this part of the world, but the omission of painting was not one I could ignore. In response to this perceived oversight, I did a little digging and wrote the first part of an extended article for the May update on my website.
The reality is not one that painters, and in particular painters of realism, will want to hear. Writer Phillip Ball summed it up best when he stated. “Painting, today, is an outmoded art form.” He then went on to say that, “If one wants to be taken seriously as an artist, it is advisable to become a sculptor or an installation artist. Any student that majors in painting today risks receiving lower grades.”
This goes a long way in explaining the move from painting to installation and, most recently, to performance art. These, however, are only symptoms, the reasons for the transition to go much deeper. Fashions generally – though often quite meaningless in themselves – do still say something about the prevailing ideological undercurrent.
The only reference to painting that might be inferred from the Agenda discussion was in a video clip of the American artist, Hennessy Youngman, who proposed the idea that talent was no longer essential when creating art.
This caught my eye, partly because the reference was ambiguous enough to relate to painting, but mostly because I had made a passing mention in an earlier update to the Fluxus movement. The essential principle of which is that 'practiced' art is not real art at all. It is craft.
The idea of questioning the definition of art is something that began with Marcel Duchamp's 1917 piece Fountain, a urinal with a few letters scrawled on it. Sadly, this questioning seems to have become a preoccupation in the world of highbrow art. Though Duchamp was one of the founding members of Fluxus, this movement is not among the more well known in art history. Nevertheless, from this conceptual experiment, three key ideas have endured: the accidental, art as an interactive process, and art as performance.
In a world where the traditional forms have been stripped of their original values, completely deconstructed and then cast aside in favor of found objects, installations, and performance art, what is left?
How minimalism and deconstruction lead to the marginalization of painting is a long and convoluted journey, yet these forces are still at work. MoMA recently hosted an event in which an artist sat for hours at a time staring blankly across an empty table. Visitors were invited to sit across from her and stare back. Little happened, of course. What is interesting though is how that penchant for minimalism has now even stripped the 'performance' out of performance art. Ninety-three years after Duchamp's urinal piece, the MoMA website still poses the question: 'Is this art?' A half-hour TV program wishing to make a case for the arts would steer well clear of anything this obscure, but painting is arguably the oldest form of artistic expression, and I believe it still has a role to play.