Is painting dead?

Marcel Duchamp „The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” („The Large Glass”) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Source of image:

Years ago, when I was studying art at the Cornish College of The Arts in Seattle, my art history
teacher, Steven Vroom, would say something along the lines: „Painting has been declared dead
many times during the course of history – all these predictions, as we know, have proven to be
false”. Being Steven Vroom, as theatrical as he used to be back in the 90ties, and perhaps
remains to this day, he would probably shout out loud: „Painting will never die!”. Interestingly
enough, Mr Vroom’s favourite painter was (and perhaps still is) Marcel Duchamp, an artist who,
after painting successful works in the style of futurism, moved very far away from conventional
canvases, brushes and paint. A master chess player, he became a father of conceptual art. This
turn in his career was a source of joy to some art lovers and artists and the horror of others.
Duchamp’s work sparked a lot of controversy; at the same time becoming a source of endless
discussions, arguments, and perhaps even broken friendships. It is debatable whether his
many followers were as original as their source of inspiration, but such is often the case with followers.

Will painting ever die? What if we question the very definition of death (in the context of painting). We
can even wonder what „painting” really is, and what it used to be in the past. The death of painting could
mean that not a single painting is ever created. This is rather not likely to happen. So perhaps
painting could be declared dead if no more „interesting” paintings are created? What one can
mean by „interesting” could be, for example, original, different from other works, distinct, or
perhaps generating discussions (as was the case with some of Duchamp’s works like The Large Glass, or
with readymades such as The Fountain)?

Is death (in the case of painting) a final state, or is there going to be an afterlife, a reincarnation? — that
is another question that could be asked by a nerdy intellectual like myself. Is the death of
painting a slow process or does it occur instantly?
Depending on how we define the death of painting it can be perhaps stated that a) no, painting
will never die b) never had died in the past, or quite contrary c)it died, d) it died many times
over and was reborn in different forms and last but not least e) it never died, but it was sometimes
dying in suspended animation? (becoming unlively and uninteresting).

The history of painting is often viewed in two distinct ways. Some see it as a continuum, a
tradition in which one style leads to another; young artists learning from older generations and
adding their own discoveries to the medium. Others (among whom typically are young and thus
rebelious art students) perceive the history of painting as a series of more or less complete breakups with
the tradition. Perhaps latter perspective may seem naive to some, a fruit of immaturity or lack of deeper
knowledge and understanding. At the same time, however, it seems that even Steven Vroom (a
very knowledgeable and passionate art historian, indeed) might have some trouble in pointing out
how The Large Glass, or — even better — TheUrinal relates to such „traditional” masterpieces as
the works of Rembrandt. If Duchamp’s works are not paintings (scupltures?) one can try to
make a comparison between the work of Pollock (who, after all, used canvas and paint) to that
of the Dutch master. Could we imagine what Rembrandt would have to say about Pollock’s
paintings if he was, somehow, transported in time just to see the American artist’s work? My quess
is that he would enjoy it, but not as a painting, but as an intriguing piece of decoration, a textile

What if painting died many times in history? What if what came after each such death was a
„non painting,” which only with time was slowly becoming „painting?
Some may think that I play with definitions of „death” and „painting” for no reason. It seems to
me, however, that if we look at a history of painting (or any other art form) as a chain of births,
stagnations, deaths coupled with changes in definition of the artistic medium – we can perhaps
free ourselves from limiting conceptions. This, in turn, could allow us to create more freely and
to change the medium (of, let’s say, painting) by ignoring its traditional boundaries.

Art history can give us some hints. Could medieval painting be considered a „non painting” or
(at the most) primitive painting in comparison to older generations of Roman painters (if the artists of the two
traditions ever had a chance to meet)? Was perhaps, the illusionistic perspective and
realism of the Reneissance a betrayal of spiritual medieval approaches to painting? What about
the long fight by the impressionists to be recognized as mainstream, high art painters?
I often think about the non painting and non „fine art” works of our times, which nevertheless possess
some level of complexity, artistic merit, workmanship. Graphic arts, comic strips,
design, or photography come to mind. Perhaps the art and the painting of our times lies „in the
streets” or at least outside painting galleries? Perhaps what will survive, as an art form, are
for example music album covers? Should one, as a painter, limit one’s creative output to what
is perceived as fine art painting, or should one instead turn to other creative possibilities?
Perhaps letting painting to die (once again) would not be such a bad thing after all?

Screenshot of Mickey Mouse from the short film The Band Concert (1935) Source:

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