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.