Enemies of painting

An attempt is currently being made, partly conscious and partly by default, to undermine belief in the continuing viability of the art of painting. Although this is not confined to one place, at a time when the achievement of painting in this country is far greater than at any time this century, painting is being subjected not just to indifference and the damning of faint praise but increasingly to a campaign of denigration and an attempt to destroy by indiscriminate blanket condemnation a major
area of artistic endeavour.

It is hard to believe that relations between painters and critics and art writers have ever been so bad or that the level of so much writing about painting has ever before in this country been so gratuitously dismissive or more unashamedly lacking in a basic understanding and love for the language of painting, let alone showing the deeper commitment which might justify such a destructive critical posture.

In a less literary culture than ours, articulate and passionate support would have been forthcoming against charges which where sincere are based often on quite false aesthetic assumptions and, where insincere, are examples of scandalous superficiality and opportunism. But painters, who by definition have not the equipment to oppose this outrage of critical irresponsibility in the medium by which it is perpetrated, cannot expect such support here. An art loving intelligentsia, at home amidst books and plays and films and Sunday papers - that well balanced diet of literature, politics, theatre and fashion - cannot really bear, literally cannot bear, a purely visual artistic reality and no room has been made available in our cultural scheme of things for such an art. But such an art is going on in England and sooner or later attention must be paid to it.

The charge that painting is finished, whether made defensively to justify a lack of feeling for the medium itself, or from the Utopian viewpoint that traditional artistic conventions have become outmoded, or simply from disenchantment with the latest manifestations of the art, is an old refrain. Painting is always finished, of course. This reflects and gives expression to that sense of the extreme nature of art. It is almost axiomatic that at any given moment from almost any viewpoint it seems impossible that it should go on. But that it invariably does, seems to render art itself to those who long to be creative but find that they cannot be, almost an affront to their own unfulfilled creative yearnings. Artists have noticed the phenomenon that critics and others close to art who seemingly care deeply about art often seem at the same time almost to hate it. It may not be too far-fetched to say that one of the prime roles allotted to contemporary so-called experimental or avant-garde art is that of being a stick with which to beat conventional art and thus assuage the sense of guilt such a love/hate relationship towards conventional art produces.

If it were, however, the case that painting was finished, why is it that anyone at all, let alone wave after wave of new young painters, accepts and struggles with an artistic convention which non-painters can, with a few words, prove so patently exhausted and worn out? This is the reason. For a certain kind of creative imagination - namely the visual one - the experience of confronting and aspiring to give artistic life to a plane, produces a physical, emotional and intellectual response so deep, powerful and unarguably demanding of acceptance that it reinforces beyond all intellectual doubt the absolute conviction that this small arena, far from being a limited or outworn convention, remains the high central plateau of the territory of a visual art. This is the arena for that synthesis of pictorial space, light and form on a plane of given dimensions which we recognize as capable of carrying special expressive potential and call the art of painting. That this convention is constantly fundamentally questioned, tested, and literally physically attacked by painters themselves, in no way blurs the clarity of its basic definition or diminishes the authority of its laws and limits, or undermines the viability of its language. It is as viable now as it ever was. It provides as difficult a ground for creativity as it ever did. Its potential is as infinite and its variety as unmeasurable as it always was. Such is art and such is life and each requires its conventions. Those who reject the convention from within must be sure that they have earned the right to do so out of unavoidable conviction and inner necessity. Those who reject the convention from outside must avoid substituting for a deep and open-minded personal confrontation, a casual unconsidered and arbitrary judgment based on ignorance, visual unresponsiveness or a passing dialectical whim.

Finally, of course, those who accept it must justify their acceptance every creative moment of their lives and the configurations and images of painting are in a large part the record of the attempt to be true to that moral imperative.


Published in Studio International, December 1971