Don't believe the hype: painting isn't dead

8 October 2018
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4 minute read

Lisa Bryce: Between This and That (Private Collection, München, Germany © Lisa Brice)

Elise Bell is one of the brains behind the ever illuminating and entertaining Tabloid Art History. In light of this year’s Turner Prize brouhaha, we asked Elise to consider the role that painting plays in the contemporary creative landscape.

“Stop all the clocks, painting is dead”, cried the art reviewer from behind [his] desk. This was, in essence, the tone and topic of influential historian and broadcaster Kenneth Clark’s 1935 essay, “The Future of Painting”, a piece of work which cemented his reputation as being an art world old crank – despite being in his thirties at the time of writing.

In the essay, Clark laments modern art, the swerve towards conceptualism, and what he believed was a future in which painting as he knew it would cease to exist. It was a shorthand for a country in the grip of political and aesthetic flux, a letter of mourning for a bygone age of Victorian conservatism.

More than eight decades on, this moral panic — or apocalyptic fatalism, whatever you prefer to think of it as — has become a national pastime in the UK art press; the anxiety of a painting-less world almost always rearing its head following the release of the year’s shortlisted artists for the Turner Prize.

Yet whilst the farcical uproar of The Turner Prize is about as joyfully familiar as a day-long migraine, this year is different. For the first time in the Prize’s 34-year history, there are no paintings in contention. As It’s Nice That pointed out a few weeks back, the entire thing is video based.

So what is there? According to The Telegraph, a lot of dark rooms, with Mark Hudson insisting that “If the future of art is going to be all about watching videos in darkened rooms, God help us.” In this year’s Turner Prize a “God” of some sort is certainly casting down an omnipotent eye; each artist taking a moral and political stance against oppressive regimes as overarching as the U.S. police force, class systems and neo-nazi killings. To gaze critically is to see that a lack of painting is illustrative of a current socio and economic climate tuned in to themes of surveillance and constant documentation.

As much as critics have derided this year’s Turner Prize as unbearably depressing, demanding that it “cheer us all up for a change,” it remains to be seen whether we actually deserve it. If video art has a history of being the medium of choice for confrontation and biting critique (look at the work of Adrian Piper, Martha Rosler, John Akomfrah), a Turner Prize year existing solely of video feels resonant and right.


Michael Armitage: #mydressmychoice (White Cube)

All the nominees share an underlying urgency that seems fresh to the touch, a yearlong snapshot of contemporary feeling rather than a promise of what is to come. It fits the sign of the times to have these conversations played out on screen rather than canvas. In the same way that Tracey Emin’s Bed was representative of the detritus mess of the YBA’s and late 90s, video art is perhaps the only medium capable of conveying the connected and recorded world in which we now live. Both were called “not art,” by then contemporary critics.

An aversion to identity politics in art is certainly one reason why many of the big names in art criticism love to loathe video. Online, Times art writer Waldemar Januszack has argued that a video will never quite hold the same emotional profundity as a painting. Love it or hate it, in Luke Willis Thompson’s Autoportrait there’s a painterly atmosphere to the way the camera lingers like a voyeur on the profile of Diamond Reynolds. The activism of Forensic Architecture is reminiscent of the anti-establishment defiance behind the Turner Prize’s namesake, JMW Turner, particularly in his painting of The Slave Ship.

Art not being art, or art being not the right kind of art is the prevailing theme for the onslaught of criticism coming the way of the 2018 Turner Prize. “For god’s sake bring back the visual allure – and perhaps even some of those colourful objects in two or three dimensions,” writes Michael Glover for The Independent. But there is nothing to bring back. The in-your-face-shock of the Turner Prize is in part what has kept it going for so many years. Despite existing on a sliding scale of quality, the Turner Prize has successfully navigated British taste through the difficult and at times impenetrable gates of contemporary art. How many people knew sound art was thing before Susan Phillipsz’ 2010 Turner win? The so-called death knell for painting rang through the country that year too.

From Lynette Yiadom-Boayke and Anselm Kiefer to Michael Armitage and Lisa Brice, the most acclaimed or financially successful artists remain overwhelmingly painters. Despite the hysteria, contemporary artists are still wielding paintbrush and palette to create a vision of a world that we otherwise wouldn’t see. That Damien Hirst, former bad boy of British media now turned repentant in the face of criticism, is crawling back to painting, is as illustrative as ever of the power the medium still wields over the psyche of the art world.

The belief that painting is dead or that the art world has become a convoluted mess of conceptualism is clickbait at best and lies at worst. It screams of a media landscape struggling to accept what is socially and historically important in favour of the comfortable.

Despite the Turner Prize this year, painters will wake up, go to their studios and continue to paint. Jenny Saville’s big, beautiful bodies will continue to be made and the art world, as ever, will continue to produce and exist. Painting will never die because art and our capacity for consumption will never die. Don’t worry everyone – it’s just another false alarm.

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Elise Bell

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