May 30, 2008

Abstraction, Genius and the Decline of Painting

Filed under: Abstraction,History,Painting,Photography,Society — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 10:14 am

This text is an extension of the post entitled “The Beginning of the End of Painting“, attempting to go deeper into the historical roots of the decline of painting. The notion of the “end” of painting possesses almost mythic significance due to the fact that for centuries painting was the principal defining feature of fine art. It was during the 1960s that painting lost its centuries-old lead, falling into the background, surpassed by new forms of art that could not even be defined firmly as sculpture, although they sometimes possessed a family resemblance to that medium.

Georg Baselitz, Kopfkissen (Pillow), 1987.

It was not until the 1980s that painting attempted to confront its demise with a major movement: neo-Expressionism, or what the Italian critic and curator Archille Bonito Oliva called the “transavantgarde” (1982; 1987). But neo-Expressionism failed to come to the fore; centre stage was occupied, instead, by the evolution of conceptual photography into the appropriationist movement (e.g. Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, Imants Tillers) that dominated art of the 1980s. This evolution of conceptual art into appropriationism was further bolstered by a concerted application of Frankfurt School, structuralist and poststructuralist theory to aesthetics. In other words the attempt at a comeback for painting was overshadowed by developments there were theorised as being more profound and more relevant to the late 20th century. Neo-Expressionism, with its acknowledgment of postmodern irony, was implicitly or explicitly an admission of failure of the discourse of heroic artistic genius that fuelled early modernism

Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum, We look at each other…, 2002. Acrylic on canvas, 200 x 250cm.

During the course of the 1960s the focus was firmly upon deconstructing traditional modes of art making: namely painting and sculpture. In the 1970s and 1980s the dominant form belonged to photographic modes of fine art. And during the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s the most dominant forms of fine art have been installation and video art. Today painting is an extremely important facet of artistic production but it is no longer considered to be the highest form of visual art.

Although painting is no longer the main object of aesthetic research, it remains the bread and butter of a commercial gallery system. It would be a very brave dealer who decided not to include some painters in his or her stable of artists. Painting is still, by far, the most saleable artistic commodity. It does not need to be plugged in, neither does it take a great deal of space, and it usually possesses good archival characteristics. But perhaps the most significant quality of painting is that it bears the actual marks made by the hand of the artist. Considering these valuable features one wonders why painting drifted into the background.

Yves Klein, IKB 124, 1960. (sold for over one million dollars 3, April 2007)

If we examine the beginning of the demise of painting which took place in the 1950s we can see that one symptom of its extinction was the emergence of the minimalistic monochrome (Robert Rauchenberg’s White Paintings, Yves Klein’s IKB monochromes, the work of Ad Reinhardt) which signifies the logical end of the road of the discourse abstraction. And so it may be informative to go back to the roots of abstraction in order to ascertain what might be the seeds of painting’s destruction. One theory is that painters began to turn towards abstraction in the second half of the 19th century in response to the advent of photography. But the causes of abstraction are more complex; although it can also be added that the advent of photography is also a more complex cultural occurrence than it may seem to be at first sight (see Benjamin 1973 orig. 1936).

Certainly the threat that photography posed when it emerged in the first half of the 19th century was very real in the sense that it was photography not painting that became the heir to the classical Renaissance tradition of faithful representation. Indeed we can trace a line of technological development from the technology of perspective invented by Brunelleschi c. 1415, through the drawing machines devised by artists the 16th-18th centuries, to the invention of a practicable mode of photography in 1839.  Moreover, it can be observed that the vanishing point of geometric perspective echoes the focusing effect of lenses. Indeed as lenses became more widespread, it is entirely possible that they were used in camera lucida drawing aids. Historians have suspected that the photographic-like perfection of Vermeer’s paintings were assisted by such a device, and the Hockney-Falco thesis takes this notion further. But when chemical materials were invented that could replace the hand in the “drawing machine”, that was a step too far.

But why should we consider photography to be such a significant historical event? After all early photography merely captured ordinary, everyday life. Apart from exceptions such as Breugel and 17th-century Dutch painting most art in the Renaissance tradition did not represent everyday life but rather something considered higher: religious figures, great people, historic events. Yet, although traditional, representational painting had considerably more visual potency than 19th century photography—in terms of colour, size and the capacity for manipulation — representation ultimately fell to the wayside.

We can certainly point to a causative factor in the total collapse of a tradition under the force of the industrial revolution and the emergence of a materialistic, bourgeois ruling class. The major painterly genres art in the Renaissance tradition were determined by the powers that employed artists: the Church and the court. And both these powers lost their grip upon society in the 19th century. In the absence of any established patronage, what was there to represent? One genre still standing was landscape and that was pursued vigorously via Impressionism.

Gustave Caillebotte: La Place de l’Europe, temps de pluie, 1877.

The other obvious topic was everyday life in the emerging modern world, but there was surprisingly little enthusiasm for this. There was the nineteenth century realist movement of course (Gustave Courbet, Jean Bastien-Lepage, Gustave Caillebotte, Edouard Manet) but that was always running beside photography (Manet had an especially close but surreptitious relationship to that medium). Nothing can record everyday life better than photography, and nothing can capture the moment better than photography—not even Impressionism.

Nevertheless, painting still possessed more expressive power via colour and size, texture and a capacity for stylisation. But rather than focusing these powers on everyday life we see post-impressionist artists in the second half of the nineteenth century turning towards the spiritual rather than towards the everyday—an avenue that led ultimately to abstraction.

Although photography may have played some causative role there is also another major factor that must be taken into consideration  which is the rise of materialism and the demise of God. An awareness of this particular direction in modern culture began with the romantic artists in the second half of the 18th century. And during the 19th century the romantic vision of a culture in spiritual decline and in need of artistic sustenance was substantially reinforced. Karl Marx painted a portrait of an emerging modern society held together not by religious values and beliefs but by economic rationalism. In addition, the industrialisation of society also led to an effect Marx referred to as alienation. This is an extremely fertile concept that conveys the crisis of  human identity intrinsic to modern materialistic culture.

At a philosophical level it is also possible to point to a certain resonance between the advent of photography and the announcement of the death of God in the form of Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859). In one fell swoop photography  took away a facility—faithful representation — that had been one of the defining factors of  European art since the Renaissance. Similarly, the theory of evolution reinforced, in the most forceful and profound manner conceivable, the de-spiritualisation of society.

The increasing  capacity of photography to record everyday life, the spiritual crisis at the heart of modernity that confirmed the romantics’ worst fears, and the historical role of the European artist as one who represents spiritual values all served as very good reasons why post-impressionist artists forsook the representation of everyday life in  favour of something “higher”, something more  spiritual.

Tommaso Minardi, Self-portrait, 1807. Canvas, 37 x 33 cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Photo: Mansell Collection.

It is not surprising, therefore, that we see the rise of the symbolist movement in the second half of the 19th century. This was a very major movement that crossed all the arts. What is often referred to as “post-impressionism” is really more logically related to symbolism which  might be better labelled as “late romanticism” (it is important not to hypostatise art historical labelling). And with symbolism we shift from the ordinariness of everyday life—which in the context of early modernism can reflect the materialism of the bourgeoisie—towards the domain of the spiritual which putatively places artists on a higher plane than the bourgeoisie. At the core of the romanticism that informed symbolism was something able to take the dead God’s place: the concept of genius.  If God was dead then long live genius. And, of course, in the same way that the Judaeo-Christian God  is gendered, we are speaking here about a fundamentally masculine concept of genius.

Kasimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915?

Milton C. Nahm notes that “speculation in the eighteenth century, in which the notion of the genius was most interestingly investigated, came to concentrate upon the implication in the theory of inspiration that the poet could know without being trained or taught” (Nahm, 1956: 126). This is perhaps the most significant feature of the concept of genius with regard to the birth of abstraction because it suggests that inspiration comes out of a mysterious nothingness. One can immediately see the relationship between this notion and the concept of abstraction and the ultimate expression of abstraction in the form of the monochrome.

 The concept of genius was very valuable, it saved artists in their time of need—confronted by the obvious power of mechanical reproduction which could only get better, and the death of God which seemed beyond any further resurrection. It is also the case that the new power in industrialising 19th-century European society, the nouveau riche bourgeoisie were a poor substitute for church and courtly patronage. The weakness of the seminal commerical gallery system in the late 18th and the 19th century gave rise to the mythic tormented artist, starving in a garret, committing suicide (van Gogh), or emigrating to Tahiti (Paul Gauguin).

Ad Reinhardt, Painting, 1954-58. Oil on canvas, 78 x 78 in. National Gallery of Art, Canberra, Australia. (C) Ad Reinhardt, 1954-58/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney

Genius also provided the groundwork for an explosion of creativity because there was no longer any fixed subject matter that painting needed to represent. It could indeed represent nothing at all; especially if inspiration came from a mysterious psychic nowhere. Indeed nothing at all would ultimately represent artistic genius. We see this first in the work of Mallarme, then Malevich, Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Yves Klein and Ad Reinhardt.

At the turn of the millennium, despite the intellectual impact of Frankfurt School theory, structuralism, and poststructuralism the notion of genius is still surprisingly strong within the contemporary artistic community. This is in spite of the fact that it has outlasted its creative usefulness, and its fundamentally masculine orientation. Today photography is now fully accepted as an artistic medium, women are making their mark in the world of art, and bringing art into everyday life is now one of the most enduring aesthetic projects—if we measure its birth with the Readymade it is over ninety years old.

But the coup de grace to the romantic concept of genius—the secret weapon  meant to combat materialism—is that is now reveals itself as fundamentally a marketing tool. The aura of genius is the brand value used by the art market to transmute the base matter of artistic objects (however antiaesthetic) into gold.

And so,  in the wake of the decline of abstraction and painting we are confronted, once more, with the primacy of the everyday (see Bourriaud 2002; Coulter-Smith 2006).

Benjamin, W. 1973. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. In Illuminations. London: Fontana
Bonito Oliva, Archille. 1982. Transavantgarde international. Milan: Giancarlo Politi Editore.
Bonito Oliva, Achille. 1987. “La trans-avant-garde italienne”. In  L’Époque, la mode, la morale, la passion. Aspects de l’art d’aujourd’hui, 1977-1987, exh. cat. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, pp. 562-565.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Relational aesthetics, Documents sur l’art. Dijon: Les presses du reel.
Coulter-Smith. 2006. “Conclusion Solving the Probleml“. In Deconstructing Installation Art. Southampton: CASIAD. Online book available at
Nahm, Milton Charles. 1956. The artist as creator. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

1 Comment »

  1. Hey there just happened upon your blog via Google after I typed in, “artintelligence » Abstraction, Genius and the Decline of Painting” or perhaps something similar (can’t quite remember exactly). In any case, I’m grateful I found it because your content is exactly what I’m searching for (writing a college paper) and I hope you don’t mind if I collect some information from here and I will of course credit you as the source. Thank you very much.

    Comment by Von — November 12, 2012 @ 1:59 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress