Painting Can Never Be Art

This is not art. The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is mysterious, but mystery alone is not art.

I have been lambasted frequently on the internet and in glossy exhibition pamphlets for the above, but it is a statement I refuse to either modify or recant. Instead, let me repeat and explain: Painting can never be art.

Never, I realize, is a long way off. However, given that we have roughly 32,000 years of painting to judge, I can safely say that, barring an incredible leap forward in canvas or pigment technology, painting can never be art.

A great many very important people have devoted their lives to claiming that paintings are art, but those people, although well-meaning, are incorrect. Let us start with a definition of art. As there is no one better to define art than an artist, I will use that of Tolstoy, who said “art is a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another.” (Jerrold Levinson, The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, Oxford university Press, 2003, p5). We have, of course, many instances of such indirect means of communication we are readily used to: movies, which engage the viewer directly and use that engagement to subtly manipulate the viewer’s expectations of the world; novels, which require that the reader construct, given only a few basic rules and suggestions, an entire universe and use that universe to reinforce or alter our view of the ethical world; and video games, which allow a user to act, to move within a world, learn the rules through trial and error, and build a working method for analyzing and interacting with each other and with the universe. Art may serve the superficial purpose of telling a story, but it also indirectly allows us to become ur-philosphers and scientists, questioning all that we observe.

We can plainly see that examples of art in prose, film, and video gamography abound which follow Tolstoy’s definition of art. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, although at times as indirect as a wollop to the head, still serves the far more important and subversive purpose of warning of the dangers of a totalitarian government. The film Wall-E and the game The Sims 3 both allow overt stories while subtly hinting at the dangers of commercialism.

But in paintings? A painting, simply put, lacks subtlety. It either assaults you with its message in the most crass, unwelcome way possible, or  simply hangs mute, attractive daubs of color on a surface but infused with no real substantive meaning. I can safely say that no moral issue was decided or affected thanks to Édouard Manet’s Carnations and Clematis in a Crystal Vase. It is a pretty painting, sure. But aesthetic does not equal artistic.

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. Pretty, yes, but aesthetic beauty does not make a thing art any more than a naturally occuring waterfall is art, or any more than clear autumn sky is art. Starry Night has no meaning. As with all paintings, it is not art.

Perhaps that previous definition of art doesn’t satisfy you. In that case, we can use the definition developed by Martin Heidegger, who said “art is the means by which a community develops for itself a medium for self-expression and interpretation.” (Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”, in Poetry, Language, Thought,  Harper Perenniel, 2001) Video games, of course, satisfy this definition of art twice over: they represent the expression of the video game creator, a man or woman who works as part of a large group, essentially a nascent community created for the purpose of creating art; video games also represent the expression of the players, who navigate the invented landscape and reinterpret it through their actions, commentary, or mods.

Now let use that definition for paintings. What community does a painting represent, except for the painter? In that case, painting is not the expression of a community, but rather the onanistic mumblings of a single individual. What community does painting speak to, except for other painters? Painting is therefore not art any more than a guide on how to build a ham radio is art: both are interesting enough for the individuals involved, but they lack the ability to speak to humanity as a whole. Painting, unlike true arts such as film, prose, poetry, and video gamography, do not accept others inside. Painting is not art. It is a circle jerk between the painter and other painters.

Painting as tautology: Only art students are required to look at Picasso's Guernica.

Not satisfied? Fine, then let us ask the philosophers for a definition of art. Kant described art as “a kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication.” (Kant, Critique of Judgment, Guyer translation, section 44) Painting, it should be noted, fulfills only one small part of this definition: it is representative. However, it is unable to cultivate mental powers, because it is simply unable to offer an in-depth assessment of our world. This is no fault of the painters, of course, it is simply that they are limited to 2 dimensions. Painting is, like the denizens of Abbott’s Flatland, unknowingly trapped. It can not approach or reject the viewer. Movies, dances, video games, films, songs, novels and poems all have the 4th dimension, time, to move in.

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. By itself, it is pretty enough but ultimately unsatisfying. As part of something more, such as the title sequence of a film, or the loading screen of a video game, it could be true art.

Simply put, painting is incapable of satire. It can not have a discussion with the observer, and thereby affect his or her method for communicating with the wider world. Where in painting is there anything approaching the finely honed satirical worldviews of Grass’s The Tin Drum, of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto 3, or of Costello’s Oliver’s Army? These works of art bring our own limitations as humans directly to the fore. Painting can not effectively convey the difficulties of living as homo sapiens; it can only capture finite areas of space and detail them more or less without comment.

Consider Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, or Marker’s La Jetée, or Bashiri’s You Have to Burn the Rope. Each of these are minuscule and fleeting, yet these works of art can profoundly modify the observer’s worldview. Is a painting capable of such feats? No. A painting is never more than the feeble opening enjoinder to a discussion. A painting says “Hello, I have something to say,” but lacks the dimensions to say it. Beginning with our prehistoric forebears, smudging colored pigment on walls of rock, painters have had 32 millennia to show us the moral ambiguity and consequences shown in Twain’s Huck Finn, Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus, Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and BioWare’s Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Yet no painting has even come close.

I have nothing against painting. Paintings are pleasant enough to look at. I have several scattered around my apartment. But painting is clearly not art, and it does not need to be. If painters want to continue painting, people will continue purchasing paintings to hang above their beds or entertainment centers. It is not a transaction that needs the label “art” to continue, any more than a doughnut maker demands that we acknowledge his greasy confections as art. A painting, like a doughnut, is made to be consumed and forgotten.

Curtis Retherford


6 responses to “Painting Can Never Be Art

  1. Speaking of satire, nice satire of Roger Ebert.

  2. painting is a form of art. also agree with Tolstoy’s definition that art is a form of communication. not necessary community representation, true art painting is a individual communication between the individual and other individuals. often simple communication is turned to a complicated one by art historians because of lack of information or need of proving own point. I always have admired the simplicity!

  3. you shouldnt let other peoples definitions for things rule your life.

  4. I like that you try to think differently, but it lacks real argument.

    Exactly WHAT is art, and WHY can’t paintings have that?

    I agree with Jonathan; it seems like you just quoted some1 and made your text around that. This is frustrating for me, maybe because it’s too hard to let go of the traditional point of view, but I don’t see you bringing any hard (enough) proof.

  5. everything can be art, especially noways. It is interesting to see you spending time and effort to put together an article that is a clearly provocative and represents a theory with no valid arguments.

  6. Nicely done.

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