Woman Sleeping under a Tree
tempera on canvas
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg
For several years Whitechapel Gallery in London has been publishing a useful series of anthologies called Documents of Contemporary Art. The volume on PAINTING issued in 2011 included an interview excerpt from the magazine Modern Painters. American art historian Svetlana Alpers discussed 'the death of painting' with British arts journalist Matthew Collings. Excerpts from this reprinted dialogue appear below –
Svetlana Alpers: But hasn't this happened before? Isn't that the late nineteenth-century Paris Salon moment?
Matthew Collings: No, there isn't the same dramatic division between live wire artists and academic artists now. Now everyone's a live wire and no one is. There are artists today who are considered to be in some kind of aesthetic world, as opposed to other artists who are more concerned with concepts, or with politics or other zones of content; they seem to take the medium of paint seriously. But there's a difference from what came before. They might have ideas about organization and placement, and the painterly texture and everything. But while they seem to be doing something that seems like an activity that used to go on in the 1950s, there's also something in their new brains or their souls or whatever that won't allow them to go beyond the first base. Photography dries them up.
Svetlana Alpers: Maybe it's how they receive photography. After all, Manet received it differently from other people of the time. It's hard to imagine a world without painting or drawing. Are you suspicious that the whole thing may be over?
Matthew Collings: Yes. I think your book [The Vexations of Art, 2007] is both serious and is looking at seriousness. And the difference with painting that goes on at the moment is the refusal to be serious: using the relics and husks of a serious culture and sort of moving them around despairingly, but everyone applauding as if it's not despair.
Svetlana Alpers: I don't have the responsibility you have day in and day out to describe what's going on right now. I have the luxury of being attendant to, but outside of, this art world. And I'm just puzzled and curious and hopeful. But a point of Vexations is that it's an anti-rupture book. Rupture is very in now. There's Arthur Danto – he says something ended, and then something else started with Warhol. And then there's Hans Belting writing about the end of art history. But I'm very suspicious of rupture accounts. Actually, I think things kind of go along more. My book is an account of a tradition, which, for all its breaks, essentially in some way went on. My belief is more that things will go on than that there has been, or will be, a rupture.
Matthew Collings: I think there's an illusion of continuity because there's a huge new audience. But it's a false popularity. The audience isn't really interested in art and doesn't know much about it. All this new painting answers to the audience's shallowness. The TV audience and the serious art audience are much closer than they used to be in their values.
Svetlana Alpers: Oh come on. When there were altarpieces in churches, when Piero della Francesca painted frescoes in Arezzo, everybody went into the church. They couldn't get into the chapel, because it was behind the high altar. But I don't believe there was suddenly a moment when the popular and the ordinary and all that suddenly invaded; high art has also long been popular art.
Edward Bawden in the Studio
tempera on panel
Royal College of Art, London
Matthew Collings: Yes, but there's a total caving in to pop values now. You get pop plus pseudery, never actual seriousness. Painters learn something about painting. They might have special, even elitist sensibilities. They might have great talents and be greatly gifted. They might understand painting and the whole historical line of painterly painting and its special issues. But they know they've got to wrap this stuff up in a package that appeals to people who don't know any of that stuff and don't care about it.
Svetlana Alpers: I see painting that doesn't seem to me to be done that way, whether or not it's selling for a huge amount. I also think the way you talk about painterliness is not quite on, because you separate it out as if it's different from the other issues a painting might be about. Really, they are absolutely together. I do think if Velázquez rose from the dead and saw a Manet, he would understand what was going on. I don't think that people nowadays painting this way or that, packaging painting in this way and that, is so bad. It's not going to destroy anything. And if people paint in a way I don't have a taste for, that's not spoiling anything.
Matthew Collings: Painting's very slowness makes it boring for many people. They want millions of hot new paintings, but they don't want to be bored. There are always ways to take the slowness out, be more hot and fast. You've got a very large consuming audience, and a market, the museums, the publications, the collectors, and what goes with all that is a new idea of glamour around the whole idea of art, which applies back and forth in complicated ways between contemporaneity and tradition. The glamour shimmers back and forth between them. So they both start to seem similar, like adverts, flat and popular.
Svetlana Alpers: An optimistic thing in our time would be to say that if you said that in 1860 or 1870, one would think, Well how is this going to go on? After all, in the later nineteenth century, the 'end of painting' was a theme and we've got it again. Maybe it happens at the end of all the centuries. One might have been surprised what an extraordinary painting century the twentieth was, given the problems painting seemed to have faced in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Matthew Collings: From my point of view, I think something is passing, and in the moment of it passing one becomes suddenly very interested in what it is. What's passing is the idea of people taking painting seriously on its own terms as a tradition and a discipline, and the intensity and density of the human achievement, and the idea that there are thoughts that pass on and mutate, and a new thing changes the old things, just as the old changes the new. In my work, I want to talk about the thing that's gone, comment on it and describe it. I want to say to people that painting as a tradition has its own rationale. Let something not be popular for a change. Find some value in that.
assembled from 'found' rugs
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut