Is Painting (Really) Dead?

This article was originally written for issue 38 of Nanyang Arts Magazine ( and intended as a dual language text. I am grateful to the Chief Editor, Enoch Ng for allowing me to post this here, with the translated text by Yang Ying Zheng.

Is painting REALLY dead?

Painting as an English word is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it describes a painted picture; or the process of using paint in a picture, as a protective coating or as decoration. As a verb, it describes applying colour, pigment or paint. So the phrase Is painting REALLY dead is a figure of speech meant as a metaphor, irony or understatement. As a metaphor, the phrase could mean that painting as an art form or medium is no longer popular to produce or collect. As an irony, the global sale of paintings at auctions, art fairs and galleries suggests otherwise. As an understatement, we need to unravel more complex issue of what art is, before asking what painting is.

I was perhaps asked to write around the topic as an afterword to Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ November 2012 discussion forum bearing the same name. The question ‘is painting really dead?’ can be interpreted in a few ways. Assuming that the reader like me had not attended the forum, I will attempt to circumscribe the topic by describing painterly references, their significance, followed by my thoughts on the matter in each instance. This text is not meant as an authoritative discourse, but it could be read as a personal opinion that may or may not resonate with academics, practitioners or critics.

First, paintings in Western art serve as records of historical events. Painting as a form of realistic representation retells an event in time in a visual manner, or tells a narrative in a particular fashion. The cave paintings of Lascaux possibly illustrated the almanac of hunting events; European 15th church paintings recounted instances from the bible; and portraits hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London illustrated what the rich and powerful may look like. From a historical perspective, the invention of photography challenged the role of painting and the death of painting meant that the documentary purpose of painting was replaced by photography. Paul Delaroche, a 19th Century French History painter proclaimed “from today, painting is dead” after his first encounter with daguerreotype, an early form of photography. Daguerreotype and its descendants are arguably more life-like and true to form. Yet today, we can create an impression that people can hover by carefully timing a jump shot. We might also be familiar with digital tools such as Adobe Photoshop ® that could remove skin blemishes, yellow teeth stains or saturate the lush colours of fabric with a few clicks. Digital imaging, and digital compositing have equipped photographers with means to enhance an image beyond what reality can frame: we can put a man in space, or just about anything anywhere. Dalaroche’s statement has been appropriated to critique the status of painting in the evolving contemporary art world.

Yet the role of painting in Western art as some form of record has not diminished. It has instead, shifted to record the inner mind. Freed from the burden of representation, it gained popularity in abstraction in different historical contexts. Formless-ness and emotions derived from fading memories, passing impressions or distilled colours rather than a recognisable subject matter, gained vogue, resulting in whimsical or child-like drawings.

Second, painting serves as an exemplary, undisputed proxy for art in general. Paintings, in its myriad manifestations, exist in every known civilization and culture. It is a versatile medium, capable of evoking rich meaning, symbolism or cultural identity. Paintings exists on ancient Greek earthenware pots or intricate cloisonné found on pots in ancient Byzantine empire and later in China. Paintings appear on ceilings and walls of the Sistine Chapel representing man’s proximity to God; yet they also exist as early ‘moving images’ in Chinese hand scrolls, requiring the skillful reader to decode the silent picture. The brush, disciplined by the hand, is capable of transforming a dot, line and curve into a graceful dancer’s movement, a charging horse or a fish in an immense pond. Painting as a medium is synonymous with art to most English speaking and Chinese speaking readers.

Equally, paintings allow the eye to be disciplined–to be guided to see beyond the surface. By learning to compose and arrange visual elements on a surface, we may learn about scale and proportion and perspective which are used in advertisements and motion graphics to different effects. By experimenting, manipulating pigment on different surfaces through different techniques and medium to achieve different creative results, we may learn about artistic processes that foster habits of the mind. Furthermore, images could be used to teach visual culture; images made by artists could be used to teach history, social studies or citizenship, inseparable from the events that inspired or provoked the artists. Images have a profound effect on us, not only because we are bombarded by it 24-7, but also because seeing is a primary and primal means we orientate ourselves to our surroundings. Painting and drawing lie at the heart of image making.

Thirdly, painting is like translation. On a basic level, a mental idea translates into a visual form or a form is observed and transcribed onto a surface. By studying shifts in academic interests in painting from East to West (or East to West since the earth is round), we may discover cross-cultural influences in painterly traditions and trends. On another level, painting is like reading texts in two languages, where clarity or new ideas are obtainable. The translation, when imbued by the translator’s own lived experiences sometimes inevitably transmutes and alters the initial concept. In my own experience, I might derive insight into an art concept by comparing the English to Chinese translations, or vice versa. Yet Western art painting is not easily comparable to Chinese art painting. Perhaps because the younger generation of Singaporeans have relatively more exposure to Western art painting, it comes across as sophisticated and classy. But painting should not be understood in this dichotomy. Painting, along with other art forms, is inseparable from the social, cultural and historical contexts in which artists made art. The appreciation of painting should stem from some appreciation of its context.

On another level, like the physics law of conservation of energy, the artistic processes and materials of painting is converted from one form to another, but never ‘destroyed’. Visual artists might make a film like a painting, or a Japanese garden might look picturesque. Our total appreciation for painting is conserved over time; painting remains the de facto comparison, yard stick or bench mark for all other art forms.

Yet the status of painting in the contemporary art world is often called to question. In this increasingly digital world, the value of pigment on a support is challenged by the convenience of wielding pixels on a virtual surface. Whether the pixel is a privilege, or a curse is perhaps equally debatable and subjective. How a painting’s auction price reflects the aesthetic value is equally baffling. Art historical movements and styles are constructed boundaries on a continuum, the result of our collective rational, neat-freak tendency to pigeon-hole ideas and concepts. This creates an impression that our collective appreciation for painting oscillates like cyclical trends for fashion. In my opinion, our collective appreciation for painting has never waned. Like an appetite for a favourite childhood food, it remains embedded in our collective psyche as long as they make crayons, paintings are not banned and doodling is permitted at childcare, daycare and kindergarten.

Painting is a medium of a message the artist wants to convey. While media theory suggests that the medium is the message (McLuhan, 1964), and a sinister manipulator lies behind the object, the message is equally what the reader wants to signify. While a perfume advertisement conveys the message of desire, the product—scent and bottle—becomes desirable only if we belief it is effective. If a painting is made what it is by the significance given by society, then every member of society including every reader, contributes to what painting is. Whether painting is alive or cremated, may well depend on how much we know we know, as well as what is happening in around us. To end, artists might find more joy in creating the next artwork; equally, the viewer might find more joy looking at or making paintings than to worry about whether painting is dead, and whether it is commercially driven or not.

文 —— 林国文 翻译 —— 杨应正

绘画是艺术家传达信息的媒介。创作的信息是艺术家最为关心的。传媒学虽然认为媒介就是信息(McLuhan, 1964),背后却隐藏着恶意的扭曲,信息同样是观者所要求传达的。香水广告——气味及包装——挑起了身体的欲望,而唯有当消费者确定其效果时,占有欲才能得逞。假若一幅画的意义是由社会所赋予, 社会中的每一份子都给画作铸造了生命。画作是否长存或灭寂,就在于信息的真实性与欣赏者能否领略其中的信息。无论如何,画家的喜悦是在创作下一幅画,同样地,观者也可能在观赏过程中找到更多乐趣。这比担忧绘画是否已死,是否另辟蹊径,或被消费主义所主导有趣多了。

尽管如此,绘画艺术在当代艺术世界的地位时不时受到质疑。在这个日益数位化的世界里,用颜料作画面对巨大的挑战。虚拟世界中可以任意挥洒的像素,但现实生活确需要更多的实际考量, 如费用,储藏等。像素是个美好的祝福或是诅咒,是个见仁见智的议题。艺术运动与潮流是人类集体理性、习惯分类的倾向的产物。这形成了人们对绘画产生某种欣赏态度,就象追随服装潮流,随之运转。依我看,整体绘画欣赏意识从未衰减。正如我们对童年喜爱的食物永远存有口腹之欲,只要蜡笔继续存在,托儿所或幼稚园里也不禁止绘画与涂鸦, 绘画将永远存在。

就另一个层面而言,恰如物理学上的能量守恒定律, 艺术创作的过程及使用的颜料是由一种形式转化成另一种形式,却不曾被“毁掉”。视觉艺术家的影片可取得画作的效果,一个日本花园可以如诗如画。我们对绘画的欣赏能力在时间辗转流逝中保存了下来;事实上,绘画艺术依然是衡量其它艺术形式的尺度和标准。



同样的,绘画也让眼球接受训练 —— 陶造我们的艺术视觉去超越事物的表层。通过各种外在的视觉元素的组合排列,我们学到广告设计以及动画艺术上常见的、视觉效果纷呈的,关于比例及透视学原理。通过不同的技术与媒介,在不同的载体上,藉着实验、改变颜料的性质,创作过程活络了大脑的思维活动。尤有进者,形象艺术可用以传播视觉文化;它与激发画家灵感的事物之间有着不可分割的关系,因此也可用以教导历史、探讨社会课题,传输公民价值观。形象艺术对人类的影响深远宽广,不仅因为我们时刻都被它轰炸,视觉更是让我们与周遭环境接触的根本媒介。绘画是成就图像的核心。


首先,在西方,绘画常用以记载历史事件。绘画是再现现实的艺术,它以视觉的方式讲述或重述在特定时空内的人与事件。例如拉斯科洞穴壁画描绘和记载了常年的狩猎活动,15世纪欧洲教会的绘画艺术讲述的是圣经所记载的事件,伦敦国家肖像画廊的众多肖像则诠释了达官贵人的形象。从历史发展的角度而言,摄像技术的发明给绘画的角色与功能带来了挑战,绘画艺术的死亡意味着绘画的记录这一功能被摄影所取代了。19世纪熟悉法国历史的画家保罗·德拉罗什初次接触摄影机的雏形 —— 达盖尔银版摄影技术后,宣称“从今天开始,绘画艺术死了”。达盖尔银版摄影技术及其后的技术发展,在人事物的捕捉上,确实栩栩如生,真假难辨,而今天我们甚至可以精确地计算出相中人在跳跃时捕抓他们犹如在飘浮的镜头。此外,我们熟悉的数码软件,例如Adobe Photoshop,只需以鼠标点击几下即可将相中人脸上的粉刺扫除、泛黄的牙齿漂白,还可添加艳丽的纺织效果色彩。数位影像与数位合成技术的应用,让摄影师创造出超越现实生活所能想像的形象:把人放到太空中,或者把任何东西放到任何角落。德拉罗什的宣言恰好可用来说明绘画在不断演变的现代艺术世界中的处境。

“绘画”(Painting)在英文里是名词也是动词。作为名词,它是指一幅画,或指正在绘画的行动,或给墙壁涂上防护层或美化的工作。作为动词,“绘画” 指采用颜料进行绘画。因此,这个提问“绘画艺术真的死了吗?”是个隐喻、反讽甚至是委婉的说法。若是隐喻,其意思是:作为一种艺术,绘画不再普遍为人们所欣赏,不论是投身绘画行列或是赏画、购画。作为反讽,指画作的销售在全球性拍卖会、画展与画廊其实生机勃勃。若说是委婉,在探讨什么是绘画艺术,或宣判它的死期之前,我们有必要先阐明一个更复杂的议题:什么是艺术?

Suggested Reading:
Phaidon. (2002). Vitamin P. London: Phaidon.

Phaidon. (2011). Vitamin P2: New Perspectives in Painting. London: Phaidon.

Desai, D., Hamlin, J. & Mattson, R. (2010). History as Art, Art as History: Contemporary Art and Social Studies Education. New York: Routledge.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lascaux, accessed 23 November 2012 from


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