‘Everyday Painting’ Literature Review

Art today is schizophrenic.  It is composed of so many disparate and warring elements and objectives that it is no wonder that it has been as difficult to define what art is, as it has been for the public to understand art outside the conventional ‘norms’.  What is strange, given the almost 100 years that have passed since Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), is that this struggle for definition is still ongoing. The idea of readymades, installation and conceptual art is hardly new, and yet these ideas are still nebulous to those outside the ‘art world’.

Within this debate is the discipline of painting, and here too there is no one guiding rule or manifesto to follow.  Painting has become, like art in general, everything.  Or, perhaps more accurately, it has been released to the possibility of anything. Schwabsky points out in his introduction to Vitamin P2 (2011) that contemporary artists are drawing from a multiplicity of visual languages, as well as contextual concerns, so it is becoming hard to really define what painting is in the art world today (p. 12). What is apparent is that painting is alive and well.  Despite the different extremes that art has aspired to, there are still artists who find painting eminently relevant and choose to communicate their ideas in paint.

Artists are finding their inspiration and creating their output in many and varied ways.  Painting is following not just one art movement, but all art movements, as well as none.  Painting is free.  Artists can focus on concerns that are political, poetic, formal, experimental, or conceptual. More than that, because art can be influenced by anything, it can also be influenced by anywhere. Whereas in the past the art world operated out of Paris or New York, now, thanks to the Internet, art is everywhere at once.   The decentralisation of the contemporary art world may just be breaking the Western stranglehold on art history. Art is becoming globalised: both influencing and influenced by the world.

Schwabsky goes on to talk about the dilemma of the contemporary artist, which is the question of making art and/or contributing to the art-historic discourse (2011, p. 15). While both are important, he feels that the emphasis must be on one or the other, either contextual dialogue or art making.  This sentiment has given me a lot of pause, and I don’t really know if I agree with it or not.  In some ways, yes, I can see how it is challenging to do both, and yet in art school we are expected to produce work and have a confident conceptual and contextual basis for that work.

He goes on to say:

…the ordinary art made by the ordinary artist is likely to be painting. It’s an art that meets the beholder on a plane of equality. It may be in this particular sort of ordinariness that the necessity and contemporaneity of painting now resides… (Schwabsky, 2011, p. 15).

I agree that painting is more accessible to the public.  It has such a long history that, in general, people seem to understand it or want to understand it without the resistance that is sometimes encountered with Installation art or Relational Aesthetics for instance. Painting is not so immediately challenging, because it is using a language that is recognised, therefore it has the advantage of not alienating the (non art-educated) viewer from the outset.

But is painting contemporary because it is ordinary?  I’m not sure.  In most of art history art has moved forward by pushing at the boundaries, by moving the goal posts, by being painfully unpopular, until it is not, and then working to become unpopular again (of course that is a little tongue-in-cheek, I don’t really think the goal of art has been to be unpopular so much as challenging).  However at this moment in time, when anything can be art, it seems to me that a return to more traditional methods has (in the art world) proven quite unpopular.  Is art irrelevant that seeks to communicate in known languages?  Can it be avant-garde if it is understood?  Or can traditional methods be used as a bridge to allow access to a wider audience and perhaps challenge them in other ways?  The language may be ordinary, but the message doesn’t have to be.


  1. Hi Justine,

    Some very nice observations here. And I particularly like your last sentence. One thing I would say is that I think installation practices are arguably just as “ordinary” as painting (as you rightly point out, it’s almost 100 years since Duchamp’s Fountain). So then we get down to the quesioin of whether these things need to be understandable beyond the art world – is it not enough that we have our own conversations, or should art actively try to reach wider audiences? The reason I mention this is not to put you on the spot, but because this seems to be at the heart of the current debates about art’s status. The conversation seems to be moving on from “what is art?” to “can art even continue to exist?”. The leading people writing about this at the moment are Claire Bishop, Pamela Lee and David Joselit. At the heart of their arguments are questions of the relationship between “art” and the “art world”, and from there, the “real world.” This raises all sorts of questions about art’s responsibilities – to its audience, to the broader culture, to politics. I think things like social media, the Arab Spring, and of course the recession are really shifting our perceptions of art practice. I’m excited about this, but I also think it’s becoming a real field of uncertainty. Because if art doesn’t exist, then can we call ourselves artists? And if we can’t then what do we call ourselves?

    I genuinely believe that painting can play an active role in this conversation – the key is not so much the newness of the technology as the freshness of the ideas – their engagement with the world around them, and their capacity to stop people in their tracks.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Anthony, you’ve given me a lot to mull over there!

      I can’t speak for the art world in general (obviously!) but for me I think the questions “what is art?” and “can art continue to exist” are eclipsed by the question “who is art for?” I think that is why I always jump into debates with a bias towards making art that is accessible, because I honestly believe that art should be for everyone. It seems to be a very unpopular viewpoint because the ‘art world’ seems to enjoy being elite and looking inwards; but as a student of art, and as a teacher I know that the journey of discovery is very exciting, and I want to share that with people. That isn’t to say that there is no room for high-brow work, but not at the expense of the kind of art that opens up this world to others. How can you properly share art if it is held in exclusivity to the art educated?

      In the first Visual Theory lesson Henry gives to the year one students he points out to them how privileged they are to be able to have an education, how rare that is even now in the world. I’ve heard that lecture many times now, but I am always glad for the reminder! Before my art education, I still enjoyed art. It might have been on more of an aesthetic level or a visceral level than an intellectual level, but are those understandings of art not relevant too?

      You ask whether art needs to be understood beyond the art world, and whether art should try to reach wider audiences… My understanding of art is as a type of communication, a type of language. What use is a language if does not reach out and connect people? I don’t think that people have to have the same level of understanding of art (I’m not sure if it is even possible), but to dismiss people outside of a select, educated group seems to me as though it would dampen some of the most interesting sides of those big debates (“what is art?” “can it continue to exist?”). Some of the most profound things I have learned have been inadvertently taught to me by students, because it is those first innocent questions that so often cut to the heart of things and really challenge so much of the accepted ideology.

      I think art is only truly dead when there are no more questions. There should always be more questions, and who better to ask them than those who do not know?

  2. Hi Justine,
    Excellent response to Anthony’s question. Also like to add that if Art is a type of language, we have a responsibility to uphold this language within a context to avoid extinction. Like language, art constantly evolves to absorb new meanings and artists become the translators. Wish I heard Henry’s first presentation of Visual Theory as it is relevant for all undergraduate and graduate students today.

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