At the beginning of the year my research questions were fairly undefined. I am interested in politics and social theory as well as painting so my ideas were mainly centred around disadvantaged or liminal groups in society and I was interested to find out if painting could somehow address their situation and possibly even give them some sort of voice.
Initially I was concerned with simply illustrating the particular problems associated with contemporary society through painting. I still think that this can be an important aspect of painting. There is no doubt that images, painted or otherwise, can be effective in drawing attention to social problems and can be used to bring about social change.
As my research progressed my ideas became more focused. My interests in the effects of neoliberalism on certain groups of people led to in-depth research on the problems faced by young people, particularly young women. This was reflected in my paintings which depicted young women in ambiguous situations in darkened interiors.
I think that things really became interesting for me when I was looking at the effects of contemporary digital technology in neoliberal society. Whilst new technology has undoubtedly brought immense and important advantages to humanity there are suggestions that it is also having some unpredicted and undesirable effects. Through looking at the work of Robert Priseman, Sharon Orleans-Lawrence, Nick Couldry and Laura Cartwright it became clear that the way we are interacting with digital technology is impacting on us in complex and possibly deleterious ways.
Couldry suggests that our engagement with modern media is instant, fragmented, superficial and transient. There is no space for deep analysis or reflection and because of this we are struggling to make sense of the world around us. We are, as he says, unable to ‘join up the dots’. Laura Cartwright confirms these findings with her research. They conclude that if we are unable to make sense of society then, even though we may be experiencing problems, we are unlikely to recognise what the causes of the problems are. If we don’t understand the causes of the problems then we will not be able to address them.
Priseman and Orleans-Lawrence demonstrate that the way we engage with painting is completely opposite to the way we engage with new media. Viewing paintings is a slow, meditative process that allows for reflection and depth of thought. It becomes apparent that engaging with painting may be a particularly relevant practice today. It may even help us to make sense of a rapidly changing world, to literally ‘join up the dots’ and therefore to make sense of our problems and work to change them. *
My research this year has left me with more questions than answers. Going forward it would be interesting to look in more detail at how painters relate to particular issues through the act of painting. I think we may, sometimes, be drawn to paint subjects without knowing why and I suspect we (somehow, perhaps subconsciously?) work things out, or attempt to work things out, through the act of painting.
It would also be fascinating to look further at how the act of viewing paintings, and other still images, is fundamentally different from the way we view almost everything else these days i.e. rapidly moving images through a screen. It seems that the difference is significant and it would be interesting to explore that and to work out what the implications are for painting in contemporary society.
*For a more in-depth discussion of these issues, see my essay on this blog. Titled ‘The Power of Paint Now: Painting in a Digitalised, Neoliberal World’