“Painting is No Longer a Window”: The Revolutionary Expunging of the Visual Imagination

Painting is no longer a window on an imaginary world.

or

Painting is no longer allowed to be a window on an imaginary world.

There are some ideas that are so ingrained, repeated so often, and are impressed on us so early, that we accept them before we even have the chance or ability to questions them. The central idea of modern art is that “painting is no longer a window…” or the more all-embracing “art is no longer a window”. I read this on my own in art magazines I got from a used book store when I was still in my teens, and then it was hammered home throughout my art education.

Have you heard the idea that art/painting is no longer a window…

Have you agree that art/painting is no longer a window…

 

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about how one of my hoaxes was inadvertently included in a short educational film, produced by PBS, explaining and justifying appropriation art, titled, The Case for Copying. While sleeping some of the ideas presented in the video were kicking around in my head, and my subconscious, or perhaps even the deep-chunking operations of the unconscious, mulled over the information.

Here are some quotes from the film that percolated behind the scenes while I slept:

  • Manet’s painting is not a window unto another reality, but a cluster of representations…
  • As [art critic Leo] Steinberg saw it, paintings were no longer doorways to imaginary worlds, evoking our visual experience. They were like table-tops, strewn with papers and objects…
  • the artist’s job, so Warhol claimed, was not to offer up new images of beauty, but to reproduce what society had already approved.
  • Good artists copy, great artists steal.
  • Copying shows that the idea of the original, originating genius is a myth.

Notice in the progression of ideas that the artist who makes a window into an imaginary world is not a “great artist” because he or she does not copy, and is part of a mythical cult of originating geniuses [as opposed to real geniuses who copy…]. I’m not going to grapple with the extrapolations of what it means to try to make an original, imaginary world in a painting, [whether it is a myth, genius, not great art, or whatever] here. For the sake of brevity and clarity, I’ll just tackle the core idea.

When I woke up this morning I had the slightly different perspective of dream consciousness, and was able to see outside of the cornerstone of modern art, through contemporary art, that painting, or art, is no longer a window.

First came the realization that this is the core idea of modern art. This idea is regurgitated everywhere. If you do a Google search for the precise phrase, “painting is no longer a window,” you get over 39,000 results:

The more damning, “Painting is not a window,” because it implies painting never was a window, gets 583,000 hits.

Here are some of the first quotes that come up:

  • The painting is no longer a “window on the world,” as it was thought in the Renaissance. The artist’s job is no longer to represent the visible…
  • Painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work…
  • painting is not a window, frame, peep-show, hole-in-the-wall, but a new object or image hung on the wall and an organization of real space relations…
  • Because a painting is not a window, there is no need to imitate the mechanics of vision and view a scene from only one spot.
  • The theory of Flatness: a painting is not a window, a painting is paint on a flat surface.
  • A painting is not a “window”, but purely an object. The modern artist sought to emphasize this “purity”.

You get the idea. I could go on and on for possibly days amassing all the utterances of this core idea that appear online. This doesn’t include the implanting of this notion before the internet. Not only did I read it in printed articles in my teens, but I can remember hearing it in my art history classes, in my early 20’s (that’s 25 years ago, folks).

The Fifer, by Manet, oil on canvas,  1866.

My teacher, in a Survey of Art History course, used the world “playing card” to describe how Édouard Manet deliberately flattened the picture plane in The Fifer (above), and in so doing was a pioneer of modern art. And flattening the picture plane is another stock phrase every art student should be aware of.


Laocoonte, El Greco. Oil on canvas, 137,5 x 172.5 cm, c. 1610 – 1614.

Incidentally, I assume that back in 1610-14, when El Greco painted the above canvas, nobody was accidentally walking into it thinking it was just a doorway heading outside. It’s not realistic, and not intended to be. Clearly, artists already knew that a painting was both the imagery within the rectangle of the canvas, an interpretation of physical reality, and the physical painting itself. It wasn’t necessary to eradicate imagery to understand that a painting is, well, a painting. Nevertheless, art history tells us that we needed Kazimir Malevich to paint a black square before we could understand a painting was also a painting and not just whatever was depicted in it.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square 1913.

See folks, a painting is just a painting, no more and no less. It’s definitely not a window into anything, unless it’s a barrel of tar at night. And if a black square isn’t anything more than a flat painting, neither is any other painting before or since, I guess.


So what’s wrong with this?

Upon wakening, and noticing that eradicating the visionary window was the keystone of modern art, something horrible emerged. There was another way of looking at this, it only required flipping the words around, and it rang true with my lived experience.

Art is no longer a window into an imaginary world becomes Making a window into an imaginary world is no longer art.

The artist’s job is not to offer up new images becomes Offering up new images is not a job for artists.

Typically, we see this transition as a good thing, because it opens up doors to all manner of art-making and frees artists from being locked in the rectangle… But at the same time there’s something very nasty and sinister lurking there, which is that it slams the door shut on artists who would use their imagination and skills to realize imaginary worlds. It presumes that new kinds of art replaced older forms, and permanently.

When my instructors told me in art history classes, art classes overall, and even painting classes, that art was no longer a window on an imaginary world, they were telling me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t allowed to make paintings of imagery from my imagination (unless they were abstracted, appropriated, or non-representational). This is akin to telling writers that they are not allowed to make up stories.

Their paradigm presumes that art evolves in a linear fashion, and one movement replaces another, rendering the former redundant or irrelevant, just as new scientific understanding repudiates former beliefs (ex., the heliocentric model of the universe replaced the Earth being the center). Making new imagery from your imagination is thus a hopelessly backwards way of making art.

You can think about art in new ways; you can combine extant images; you can paint reality or borrowed imagery in new ways, but the one thing you can’t do is invent imagery in a representational way. This is forbidden.

In my art education beyond community college (they were more forgiving) I was allowed to do whatever I wanted as long as it wasn’t inventing my own imagery from my imagination, THAT was to be stamped out. Hell, I wasn’t even allowed to paint, when it came right down to it, in grad school.

Objectors might want to argue that, no, nobody was saying you couldn’t make new imagery, it was just that art was no longer ONLY a window into another world. Let’s do a Google search to see if that’s the case.

A search for “art is no longer just a window” delivers precisely ZERO results!

Sure, there are over a millions results, but “No results” found for the exact phrase. Notice that the top visible result has the words splayed all over the place, including “The church is no longer” and “didn’t just look”.

Compare this to the more than 39,000 results for the precise phrase, “art is no longer a window”. But, hey, maybe they used the word “only” instead of “just”.

Again, ZERO positive results, and the first one to come up without quotes is the same article about the church, that’s how scarce it is to come up with anything even resembling painting is no longer just or only a window. The idea, apparently, doesn’t exist.

What if we try, “art is not just a window”? Hot damn, we got ONE result.

This doesn’t really support the idea that painting can be of an imaginary world, it is by contrast, apparently, a mirror to the artist’s soul.

We got one result, again. But, also again, art is a window on the soul, and not on an imaginary world: Her art is not only a window to her soul but also a window to a humanistic philosophy of life. Art can be a window on ones soul without even containing an image, so these are not arguments that art can also any longer be a window into an imaginary universe.

Then it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t searched for the positive assertion. My whole thesis I realized is about to implode, or half of it, anyway. What if I do a search for “art is a window on an imaginary world”? I’ll spare you the screen shots and just give the results of my multiple attempts to get a positive result.

  • “art is a window into an imaginary world” = no results.
  • “art is a window on an imaginary world” = no results.
  • “painting is a window on an imaginary world” = no results.
  • “painting is a window into an imaginary world” = no results.

Let me take off “world”. Maybe they use “realm” or “universe” or “private world”…

  • “painting is a window into an imaginary” = no results.
  • “art is a window into an imaginary” = no results.

let’s try something other than “imaginary”

  • “art is a window into a fictitious” = no results.

I’ve got it. Think Surrealism. Hah.

  • “art is a window into a dream” = no results.
  • “art is a window on a dream” = no results.

Got it. Why use “imaginary” rather than “imagination”. Surely art or painting is a window on the imagination, especially if it’s a window on the soul.

  • “painting is a window on the imagination” = no results.
  • “art is a window on the imagination” = no results.

uh

  • “painting is a window into the imagination” = 1 result. (“How to Live As God’s Masterpiece”)

One result, but it’s religious.

  • “art is a window into the imagination” = 2 results.

The best we can get in all these searches is a few hits for art being a window into the imagination, but even these infinitesimally puny results against an avalanche of invective insisting the opposite are just addressing the imagination in general, are obscure publications, and seem to somehow have missed getting the memo.

How is this possible?! Not only does virtually everyone, apparently, think painting ISN’T a window on imaginary anything, nobody thinks it is, nor art in general. Or, rather, nobody has typed up those exact phrases on the internet, until now.

The war on art being a painted imaginary world, or including a painted imaginary world, is over. The visual imagination, as in the ability to create new images, has been vanquished by art. Any vestiges are hiding around the periphery, dormant, ignored, sidelined, or somehow invisible. And you are not allowed to resurrect it.

However, art doesn’t move in a linear path, and one movement doesn’t replace another. Rather, we just came up with different alternatives of what people can do creatively.  The idea that you can’t do something, especially as central and rewarding as creating your own imagery using your imagination, is not only dictatorial and self-defeating, but stupid. It also makes it rather attractive to pick the forbidden fruit.

Can artists make original imagery in 2019, or better yet 2020? The linguistic mind says “no”. Let’s see what the visual imagination and the subconscious have to say on the subject. I’m putting my money, all of it, on we can come up with original imagery. [Hint: I already have a fool-proof counter to their argument, which is: A) If were aren’t capable of anything new now, when was the cut off? and B) The answer to that is, there wasn’t one, and if we were ever capable of doing something new, we will always be able to.]

I think it’s time for resurrecting the visual imagination, but when I was growing up Frankenstein was my favorite movie monster, so, I guess I don’t like leaving the dead alone.

~ Ends

Death’s Dream Kingdom 01: Salamandrine, by Eric Wayne.


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4 thoughts on ““Painting is No Longer a Window”: The Revolutionary Expunging of the Visual Imagination

  1. Weird.

    Yes, i taught painting was no longer a literal window of the real world, …because photography took its place.

    But no longer a window to an imaginary world ? Nope. Never heard this, and obviously violently disagree. Thats just stupid and corruption of the idea of freeing to artist to paint other worlds.

    Painting is no longer ( just ) painting —- because digital imagery fullfills the same roles.

    I was taught painting is meant to express what photography cant… Yes, an imaginary world, but also the viewpoint and psychology of the artists and subjects. The artist has the harder to job, when reflecting reality to make the hidden, the depths manifest. The implicate, explicated.

    Paint what you love, fuckem. Id love to see your bigger works in a gallery.

    ( Once again, plz unblock me on Google. I want to buy something… +adam black )

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Adam:

        Hey, thanks! I didn’t get a lot of positive response for this one, but that’s kinda’ the norm.

        I think you have a developed appreciation of composition. Composition is kind of a 2D element (arrangement of forms, lines, and so on), but in this case it’s also 3d because of the illusionistic space. The composition is also a bit abstract, whereas the subject is representational. Not everyone would pick up on the congruence between those, but I think you did judging on your comment.

        I’m almost done with the second one. It’s more ambitious in some ways (there are 3 figures in it), and more difficult to complete.

        I’m definitely planning to go color, but I’m working on the long game here, and trying to develop the technique along with the imagery for a while before adding in color. When I work in color it will most likely be directly in color, rather than coloring over B&W.

        Like

    1. Yeah, the thing with photography is that painting no longer is necessary as a documentary sort of vehicle for the appearance of quotidian reality. Photography usually does that better and with far less effort.

      But aside from that, there has been the movement away from images and to things. There are, of course, lots of painters trying to create new imagery, but you won’t find them in the major exhibitions, or as winners of various art prizes (ex., the Turner Prize didn’t have a single painting in it this year, let alone one that was about imagery).

      So, for example, my last piece that you liked is DOA as far as the contemporary art world is concerned (and it really, really doesn’t help that I’m a middle-aged SWM). But, as you say, fuck ’em.

      If most artists think they need to make conceptual/political art, and painting (digitally or analog) is hopelessly backwards and irrelevant, than there’s a lot less competition at what I’m interested in doing, which is creating new images.

      Did I block you on Google? Must have been years ago when that mod banned me on the Philosophy forum (I never returned) for, well, making too good of an argument and not deferring to the authority of higher ranking members, including most importantly his self. I then appealed to you to repeal the ban, as, well, in my book you ban people for being rude, not for being insufficiently obsequious in the presence of perceived authorities. Mind you, this is the same forum where I had debates going on for days in which I had to beg the other party to stop calling me names and insulting me. The topic was probably to do with consciousness and/or free will, topics about which the intellect alone can’t grasp the full picture, as it includes experiential subjectivity and requires a level of self-awareness that not everyone possesses. You can’t really argue consciousness with a super computer, because it doesn’t know what it is. Anyway, you sided with him, so, I banned you, too. Water under the bridge long ago.

      Anyway, you can reach me here or through Gmail, I think. I don’t even remember how to ban or unban people via Google. Eh. let me look it up.

      That was easy. I just winged it and found it instantly. There were only 3 banned people, including “Derp Derpington”. I don’t know who “Brian L. Martin” is, but he’s the third person.

      Uh, if there’s any image you’d like a print of, just tell me and I can upload it to a site I use that’s very fair and reasonable (which is why I use them). I can’t sell shit online and gave up a long time ago, but when someone asked me before for a print of a certain image, that’s what I did and it worked marvelously. I really need to make a page about prints.

      Best wishes,

      Eric

      Like

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