An Obituary for Painting

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Painting, Said to Be Worth 1,000 Words, Dies at 32,007

Painting, which challenged the imaginations of countless prehistoric cave dwellers and body-pierced, tattooed Chelsea denizens alike, died last week. She was 32,007 and had a good run.

Her estranged husband, Philistine "Phil" Iconoclasm, confirmed the death, explaining that the police suspected foul play, though the case "is not as simple as Mr. Green in the drawing room with the palette knife." She died surrounded by her friends, as she lay on her hospital bed at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, where she insisted on using her broken palette as her pillow, and her faded beret sadly became her pale skin. It would hardly surprise me to read such an obituary in the newspaper. A favorite pastime of mine (I don't get out much, clearly) is to read reviews of the Whitney biennials. Although the exhibits are always the same--assemblages of new media oddities that blink and make noise with little to say--reviewers find a way to highlight what is "new" and "unique" about each show. "Biennial Shows More Paintings This Year!" they will shout one year. The headlines two years later will read, "Biennial Champions Sculpture." This form of reporting is studied in the same journalism schools as the fashion reporting that cries, "Green Is the New Black!"

If black and green are in, painting might be out. Overwhelmingly, technology is taking over galleries and museums in a move that can only be described as New Media Killed the Painting Star. Given the choice between human awkwardness in handling primitive tools like the brush and the pencil (as much of an effort in social suicide as using a dial-up Internet connection) and the slickness of the machine, museum-going publics are choosing clean, shiny and pixilated surfaces, like moths drawn to a flame. When painters do venture into the public eye, they often are too cool and aloof to get their hands dirty and make their own art. Instead, like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, they are marketers and managers who outsource the actual painting to teams of studio assistants.

But who wants the responsibility of being the physician who pronounces art dead? I know quite a number of painters who are creating very innovative work. These painters would continue painting at all costs, and if a masked hooligan gave them the choice of their paintings or their lives, they would thoroughly consider their options. To declare painting dead would be to rudely snub those painters and countless others who continue to paint. Perhaps a better enterprise than trying to diagnose painting is to imagine what a world would be like without painting.

Courbet once recommended that the museums be shut for twenty years so artists could begin to see the world through their own eyes. If painting was allowed to die, perhaps artists would be able to see the world through different eyes, with more expansive notions of art and art making. But is there something which paintings bring that machines cannot replicate? What is truly at stake in sacrificing the human touch, and slow philosophical mode of painting for the sensationalism of digital and multimedia art?

The answer lies in surfaces. In a recent conversation about contemporary painting, my art teacher and friend wondered aloud whether people would find computers so seductive if they had matte and not shiny surfaces. If the surfaces were matte, he argued, people would hardly find them so diverting, because "you might as well be reading a book." It would follow, according to this argument, that painting, if its self preservation instinct kicked in properly, would assume a shinier form.

Arthur C. Danto's Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005) suggests that artist Robert Rauschenberg might have been responsible for this evolution through his "combines," which blurred the boundary between painting and sculpture/assemblage. …