The Power of Paint Now: Painting in a Digitalised, Neoliberal World

A place for painting?

 ‘Painting is dead.’ This 1838 quote comes from French painter Paul Delaroche. Photography had been invented a few years earlier and Delaroche had just seen a daguerreotype for the first time. This new technology was seen as such a threat to the old methods of painting that people did not think that painting could survive. The death of painting is an idea that has been much talked about since those days and it is still under discussion now. Indeed, for decades, many artists have rejected painting, preferring instead to work with new medias and technologies and painting has, for some time, seemed like a relic from the past that does not have a place in modern art or modern society.

This seems especially true in the modern, digitalised world. Now almost all aspects of our lives (including art and culture) rely on complex technology, where our interactions are increasingly mediated through a screen and where the pace of change is breath-taking. What place could there possibly be for something as anachronistic, as atavistic and as old fashioned as a painting?

And yet the signs are that there is a place for painting after all and that painting has either been resurrected or that reports of its death were somewhat exaggerated. Painters are painting and the desire to view paintings seems as strong as ever. The fact that MoMA organised a contemporary painting show called ‘The Forever Now’ last year, their first since 1984, suggests that far from being dead, painting was merely resting, waiting patiently for its revival. Some would argue, in fact, that painting has never been more alive, more exciting and, perhaps unexpectedly, more of its time. Why should this be? In the following paragraphs I will examine this question by contextualising painting within other contemporary ways of seeing the world. I will argue for the relevance of painting today. I will suggest that our digitalised, neoliberal society, whilst bringing huge advances and advantages to humanity also presents us with a new set of problems, particularly for vulnerable groups of people and especially for young women. I will suggest that within this context, and alongside the proliferation of digital images, the presence of painting is more important than ever.

I will suggest that painting has its own language which is difficult to describe but important nonetheless. I will suggest that the act of viewing a painting (at least in person) is inherently different from viewing other, mainly digital, images. This is not because, as some suggest, the digital image itself is inevitably superficial. Far from it, digital imaging can be complex and exciting. Rather, it is the way in which we view digital images, which is, on the whole, a rapid and superficial experience, with little time for real involvement and reflection.

Whilst I acknowledge that the proliferation of digital images includes images of paintings and that this inevitably changes the way that paintings are viewed in some instances. It also perhaps increases and democratises the art audience and it may even be that the artist’s knowledge that their work will be viewed online actually changes the way paintings are made (Bacon, 2015). I will argue, that, in spite of these changes, paintings are still being made, relatively slowly, laboriously, with skill (one hopes), by hand (mostly), and they are still being viewed, in many cases in person, in thoughtful and reflective ways. This way of looking at paintings, in person, differs completely from the way contemporary digital images are viewed. On computers, laptops, tablets and phones, images are glimpsed briefly as they move rapidly across a screen and I will suggest that this, inevitably, has a very different, and important, impact on the viewer.

A (Very) Brief History of Paint

There is evidence that painting has been around for a very long time. The El Castillo cave paintings, for instance, were painted 40,000 years ago (Priseman, 2015). Always of its time, painting has evolved through the ages with a multitude of different methods, materials, styles and techniques. Recent history saw painting change drastically.  Canvases came off walls, materials changed and in many cases were appropriated, for example Pollock’s use of household paint. Painting then moved off canvases onto other surfaces. Klein, for example, applied his signature blue to a plaster cast of the Venus de Milo. He also used naked bodies to apply paint rather than brushes (Borteh, 2016). This was accompanied by a move away from painting itself, as seen in Duchamp’s urinal and Carl Andre’s bricks.


Though painting never went away completely, many artists chose to work with other mediums, for example installation, film, video, sound and concrete. Painting was largely neglected in art schools and, as Hudson notes, there was a new orthodoxy which rejected painting as retrograde and accepted conceptual art as a more challenging and forward thinking form (Hudson, 2015, p24). 

The Political and Social Context of Art

The developments in art in general and in painting in particular are hardly surprising. All art is of its time, with artists appropriating, assimilating and reflecting back, influencing and being influenced by the society that surrounds them. This of course includes the political system within which they are operating. According to Logan (1978) ‘Art and politics have always mixed’ and part of the artist’s job has been to challenge society, to extend imagination and to widen social and political debate. Much of the art in our national galleries was, in fact, once viewed as dangerous and was vilified and suppressed.

Andy Warhol – 32 Campbell’s soup cans
The symbiotic relationship between art, politics and society is evident in the commercial imagery of the 60s that was used in the context of pop art, for example Warhol’s soup cans (Hudson, 2015). In the 70s, postmodernism signalled the end of modernist painting and the idea of ‘the death of painting’ became more widely accepted. This attitude prevailed throughout the 90s.

As Hudson notes, the geopolitical events immediately preceding this decade (the 90s) such as the civil unrest in China, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of communism in the Eastern bloc fostered new forms of art (Hudson, 2015, p24). Theories of feminism, multiculturalism and post colonialism led to a more democratic pluralism in art, and painting, already on shaky ground, was firmly demoted from its historical position of superiority (Hudson, 2015). Art movements such as ‘relational aesthetics’ emerged with artists such as Angela Bulloch, Liam Gillick and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster making work that involved multiple disciplines and viewer participation (Yablonsky, 2015).

Angela Bulloch – Flexible
The coming together of politics and art continues. As Cembalest noted in 2011, political activism is not new to artists and increasingly they are devising projects that raise awareness of political situations and work to improve them. He cites the examples of Vik Muniz who advocates for Brazil’s garbage pickers and Ai Weiwei who criticized poor construction of schools in China’s earthquake zones. Ai Weiwei was in fact detained by the Chinese authorities for his political activism (Cembalest, 2011). As Logan (1978) has suggested, one powerful image can be much more effective than other forms of communication. Once again, Ai Weiwei is brought to mind, with his haunting photograph recreating the drowning of the refugee toddler Alan Kurdi in the Mediterranean in 2015.

Ai Weiwei – Photo recreating the drowning of Alan Kurdi
Society Now

Our contemporary neoliberal society has huge advantages. We have seen (at least in the West) the eradication of diseases, increased life expectancy, expanded opportunities for education and travel, unprecedented levels of affluence and vastly improved communication networks. There is however a dark side to neoliberal, market-centred policy.  Many claim it creates inequality and unfairness and that its policies cause huge amounts of distress and anxiety (Giroux, 2013). Development has been uneven internationally and nationally with some parts of the world and some parts of society being left behind. Sixty percent of the world, for instance, does not use the internet (International Telecommunication Union, 2015).

In the developed world, neoliberalism brings its own problems and these seem to affect vulnerable groups such as young people and particularly young women. As Hutton (2016) notes there has been a huge increase in anxiety among teenagers and young adults. Hutton, and others such as Will Davies, relate this directly to neoliberalism and particularly its policies of marketization, measurement and individualisation (Davies, 2016). Laura Cartwright also claims that neoliberal policies have led to, amongst other things, personal debt, job insecurity, huge competition for fewer jobs, unaffordable housing, and inadequate pension provision (Cartwright, 2016).

Within this system, where only profit counts, a survival of the fittest mentality takes over. This results in individuals being constantly measured and tested so that their level of ‘fitness’ can be assessed. This engenders anxiety that one will be found wanting and when this fear coincides with the realisation that, with the rolling back of the state, there is no safety net if one does not measure up, then as Monbiot (2016) notes, there is a huge increase in fear, anxiety and depression.

In the developed world at least, new technologies are a complex part of this picture. They facilitate valuable social interaction but much of the interaction is superficial. People may have thousands of ‘friends’ online but this is not the same as having relationships in real life. There is also the problem of online trolling and bullying. Worse, it is during these interactions that information is gleaned from individuals by big businesses. This information is then fed back to them in order to sell them things (Malcomson, 2015). A vital part of this process, which is designed to compel them to consume, is to convince them that they are failing or falling short in some way. This has devastating consequences for young people who are in the process of developing ideas about themselves and their place in the world (Giroux, 2013). The Times Higher Education recently reported a ‘noticeable increase’ in mental illness among students. The NUS vice president claimed that “students are experiencing increasing pressure in a more marketised environment” (Asquith quoted by Havergal in THE May 17 2016). This sentiment was echoed by Natasha Devon, the government’s mental health tsar, who was sacked recently for speaking out. She noted that we have four year olds being tested and school leavers facing university with record levels of debt and that ‘anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence’ (Devon quoted by Forster in the Independent, 2016).

Critics of neoliberalism claim that its ideology permeates all aspects of society and of course art itself inevitably becomes part of the system it is critiquing. Both art and artists can become co-opted by the dominant ideology and art is not immune to the worst aspects of marketisation. The top heavy art market where a few artists become obscenely rich whilst millions of young people can no longer afford to go to art school is a case in point. The vast majority of artists, though, are not making unthinkable amounts of money. They are coping with a lack of investment in the arts and a traditional gallery system in decline, and are busy finding creative ways of supporting their art practice. They may be collaborating with other artists, they may be working in collectives or across disciplines and with other industries. Often they are working as educators, passing on knowledge to the next generation whilst at the same time making and showing their work.

Women’s Problems

Contemporary society brings its own peculiar problems for women, especially young women. Social and print media can have a huge impact on body image and self-esteem. Research by B-eat, the eating disorders charity suggests that eating disorders are increasing (B-EAT, 2014) and girls are particularly badly affected. Self-harm is also rising with 1 in 10 children hurting themselves (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2014). Once again girls seem to suffer more. According to Professor Fiona Brooks, head of adolescent and child health at the University of Hertfordshire, self-harm is ‘considerably worse among girls’. She also says that, at age 11 boys and girls report the same level of wellbeing but by the age of 15, forty five per cent of girls report that they feel low once a week compared to twenty three percent of boys (Brooks, quoted by Bacino in the Guardian, 2014).

It is clear that the old problems of patriarchy remain. Female genital mutilation, for example, continues to this day. Shockingly, even a recent article in the Economist (2016) argued in favour of a medicalised ‘safer’ version of FGM, suggesting that women still don’t have control over their own bodies. Research also shows that in spite of much talk of gender equality in society, and indeed laws passed addressing it (the equal pay act was passed in 1970) women do not have equality in the workplace, including (perhaps especially) within the art world.  Art News recently collated statistics about women in the arts. The figures are depressing and show that women are discriminated against at every level (Reilly, 2015).

Art’s Response to Women’s Problems

The position of women in society has been addressed recently by artists including Cindy Sherman, Vanessa Beecroft and Amalia Ulman. Memorably, Ulman used Instagram to create an online performance piece that explored the social construction of femininity. In ‘Excellences and Perfections’ she created a fictional female character who documents her life on social media. Thousands of people unknowingly followed the series of spoof selfies which showed Ulman’s progress from provincial girl moving to the city, getting cosmetic surgery, developing a drug addiction, working as an escort, having a breakdown and recovering. It was seen by some as a scathing attack on the vacuity of selfie culture (Sook, 2016) but actually it was much more about Ulman playing with new technology to address the age old question of how gender is constructed.

Amalia Ulman – Instagram post from ‘Excellences and Perfections’
The position of painting

What about painting? It’s easy to place Ulman’s work at the centre of contemporary culture and therefore to see its relevance. It’s perhaps less obvious that painting can comment so acutely on contemporary issues. But, arguably, painting has always been, and always should be, about the society it exists in. As Andrew Graham Dixon points out, the reason Sickert is such an influential artist is precisely because he believed that painting should be ‘about’ something. That it should always be concerned with human emotions and human predicaments (Graham-Dixon, 2004).

Some artists who are currently addressing women’s issues in politics and contemporary culture through paint are Marlene Dumas and Paula Rego. Dumas utilises contemporary photography as a source for her paintings. Her subjects are varied but often include women. In her 2015 exhibition, ‘The Image as Burden’ Dumas depicts women at all stages of life from birth, to childhood, adulthood and death. Through her expressive use of paint and by drawing on historical archetypes of women as powerful priestesses or deities, she presents a complex and unique picture of women today which contrasts with the one dimensional images of women that proliferate on social media (Wilson, S. 2014).

Marlene Dumas – Barbie (With Pearl Necklace)
Paula Rego draws on mythical women from stories as varied as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’. She is interested in femininity and gender roles and her work addresses issues such as marriage, abortion, sex trafficking and abuse. In ‘Bride’ (1994) Rego presents a female figure in bridal dress. The subject is lost in thought and older than the typical bride and she leaves us questioning the role of marriage for women in society. In her paintings Rego uses a female gaze to challenge patriarchal norms and gender stereotypes (Rosa, 2016). Other artists addressing women’s issues now are Annie Kevans, Jennifer Linton, Andrea Bowers, Chantalle Joffe, Cathy Lomax, Stella Vine, Tracy Emin and Jenny Saville.

Paula Rego – Bride

My work

In my own work I attempt to address contemporary feelings of alienation, anomie and vulnerability particularly in relation to young women in contemporary society. Paper is chosen as a support to represent the fragile and precarious position of young people today. The materiality of the medium of ink is significant in that it is a relatively old fashioned medium in contrast to new technologies. Various strengths of ink are applied then washed or wiped away leaving a succession of delicate, translucent layers. This alludes to the sense of vulnerability and precariousness that I am trying to suggest in my work.

Fiona G. Roberts – Giulia
The subjects, mainly girls, are not smiling or pouting but are reflective and thoughtful. They are often set in darkened interiors. The ambiguous compositions suggest uncertainty or discomfort as I attempt to convey something of the powerlessness of certain groups of humanity in the face of neoliberal capitalism.

The language of painting

It is clear that in my own work and in the work of others the medium is vital. As Marshall McLuhan stated, ‘the medium is the message’ (McLuhan, 1964) and it is the materiality of paint which has a complex language of its own. Painting can be delicate and subtle or forceful and obvious. Either way it is a form of idiosyncratic, individual handwriting. It is a unique signature but it is also an interactive process. As Donachie notes, painting requires the viewer’s participation (Donachie, 2016). In that way, the painting and the viewer work together to construct meaning. Painting is an alternative language, akin to poetry, it allows us to put aside conventional analysis and see an alternative view.

The peculiar language of painting is analysed in depth by Sharon Orleans Lawrence. She begins by noting the persistence of painting and she relates its refusal to die with its power to speak to the viewer. She claims that it is painting’s ‘resonance (evoked reactions based on feelings)’ that accounts for its longevity (Orleans Lawrence, 2013). A work can impact on the viewer at a visceral level. It engages the viewer and resonates not only at the time of its making but across time and across trends. She quotes Robert Firth who says that a work of art ‘makes a selection of elements, of experience, imagination and emotion in such a way that its composition will evoke reactions based on feelings’ (Firth cited in Orleans Lawrence, 2013).

Orleans Lawrence links resonance with the materiality of paint. She talks mainly about oil as a medium but her ideas can be applied to other painting materials. She claims that it is the various ways that paint can be applied to a surface that contribute to the viewer’s engagement with a painting. She also notes that the way the artist applies paint, the thinking behind it, the materials, methods and techniques used, the decisions made about composition, colour, inclusion and exclusion, all mean that resonance is achieved ‘not only on a formal level, but on both formal and conceptual levels at the same time’ (Orleans Lawrence, 2013).

She notes the inadequacy of conventional language when describing what art, and in particular, what painting does. What painting does and how it works is ineffable. Perhaps Duchamp’s concept of infrathin is appropriate when trying to describe it. Duchamp said that some things are impossible to define and one can only give examples. The instance where tobacco smoke is exhaled and it smells of both the smoke and the mouth that exhaled it as the two odours marry, is an example of infrathin. Orleans Lawrence draws on Robert Hughes to describe what painting does. Hughes claimed the effects of painting were ‘Whitmanesque’. Orleans Lawrence concurs. She suggests that painting, like Whitman’s poetry, ‘seems to inhale the world around it and then exhale it into the face of the reader’ (Orleans Lawrence, 2013).

Ways of looking

Painting is not at the centre of things now. How could it be and indeed why should it be? The world now is one of mass production and digitalisation. That is emphatically not what painting is, but, the fact that painting is not mainstream may be its strength. Maybe this means it is less likely to be co-opted and corrupted by the dominant political system and its high-tech modes of communication. Perhaps it’s a truly alternative language in a world awash with digital images. As Winterson (1995) says, we are bombarded by instant, disposable media images but art is an anathema to these images. To look at a painting takes a different sort of observation and engagement. It takes significant effort but with that effort comes significant reward.

The viewer’s method of engagement with the painting then is significant. This chimes with Cartwright’s recent research which draws on Couldry (2010). Couldry claims that the ways we engage with modern media platforms are instant, fragmented and transient. They leave no room for reflection, depth of thought or critique. This process makes it extremely hard for us to ‘join up the dots’ when trying to make sense of contemporary society. We are literally unable to make the connections between our own personal issues (of rising anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders etc.) the social problems that are involved in them (e.g. debt, job insecurity, lack of affordable housing etc.) and the economic and political processes and ideologies that are responsible. Cartwright (2016) confirms this with her own research. The young people she interviewed were able to recognise the problems they faced (e.g. debt, job insecurity etc.) but were unable to relate these problems to the wider political ideologies that were causing them. These findings are fascinating in relation to young people’s lack of engagement in contemporary politics but they are also fascinating in their relation to painting. If, as we are claiming, engagement with painting is in complete opposition to the process of engagement with the dominant, contemporary media then it is easy to see the relevance of painting now.

Painting can raise awareness of a multitude of issues. Viewing a painting can be a slow, thoughtful and meditative process and it can be a space for contemplation, the very opposite of hurried superficiality. Priseman (2016) claims that painting is a ‘slow and absorbing process’ that does not merely describe a subject but can allow us to meditate on it. As he puts it, paint can ‘function as a metaphor for our subconscious, allowing it the capacity to make visible a world we sense inside ourselves yet cannot easily see’. The slowness of painting and looking was also noted by Kay Donachie at a recent painting research panel discussion. She claims that looking at a painting involves a different type of scanning of the surface. There is a different sense of time, a slowing down of how we see (Donachie, 2016).

Perhaps this slowing down to allow for deep consideration is particularly pertinent at this time. It was, after all, quick fixes and superficial answers to complex question that caused problems in recent political events in the UK. Painting exists in direct contrast to the mass produced and the digital. Whether it is traditional painting using oils on canvas or painting in the expanded field, painting is a vital process of thinking through doing and its ineffable qualities seem more important than ever. It can help us to understand the world around us, to ‘join up the dots’ as Cartwright (2016) suggests and perhaps even help us to strive for a better world. As Winterson (1995) notes, art can incite extreme feelings and, through that, it can help us transcend the everyday, to be more than we are.

Conclusion: painting is alive and more important than ever

Painting looked unwell for a long time. Developments in photography and the rise of conceptual art meant that ‘technical skill was removed as a painterly virtue’ (Farago, 2016). Painting was rejected as a valid art form to such an extent that, by the 1960s, minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, could confidently claim that painting was finished (Farago, 2016). He was wrong, painting is far from finished, even, or perhaps especially, in our contemporary, neoliberal world. When the market is everything, art can challenge utilitarian beliefs that something that cannot be ‘used’ has no value. Within art and culture things are produced that cannot always be measured by market value. They may be, on the surface, of no obvious use and yet their value in terms of enhancing our lives can be significant. John F. Kennedy knew the power and truth of art. Although he was speaking here mainly about poetry, the sentiment can be applied to all forms of art including painting:

‘When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement’ (Kennedy quoted in Ramm 2015).

The current political climate is turbulent and following the recent referendum, arts writer Charlotte Higgins claimed that art is needed more than ever. She argued that Britain seems divided at present and we need artists and intellectuals to interpret the breaks in society, to help us cross rifts, to make sense of what is happening and to show us the way forward (Higgins, 2016).  This echoes the sentiments of Ammer, Hochdorfer and Joselit (2016, p11) when writing about contemporary painting. They claim that ‘The ancient practice of painting, rather surprisingly, remains an excellent medium for relocating all kinds of subjects and objects in time and space – i.e., for configuring social networks’.

In the midst of market-driven neoliberalism, where digitalisation has sped everything up, it can be difficult to see painting as relevant. In fact, it is precisely because of these conditions that painting is needed more than ever. As a contrast to the high-speed, high-tech and the mass-produced. Painting can provide an alternative space for thinking, a meditative slowing down of seeing that looks beyond the superficial. With its unique language and its invitation to look in an unconventional way, in detail and in depth, it can provoke debate, challenge ideas, ask and answer questions and express fundamental truths about the society we live in and what it is to be human. As Priseman (2015) notes, painting is part of ‘a desire to prize open the veneer of human experience and peer below its surface, in an attempt to understand the nature of our fundamental existence’. Painting is not dead, it is alive and well and doing what it has always done.


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