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Conceptual art and the loss of painting

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Francisco Goya's "The Third of May 1808" depicting the execution by Napoleon's troops of a group of Spanish captives is an excruciating work of art. The French soldiers are painted in a tight group, their backs to the viewer so that their faces are not visible. The soldiers seem to have no humanity; they are a killing machine. They stand with rifles and bayonets directed towards a group of men at whose feet are laid corpses that they will, in the next few seconds join. It is night and a village limns on the horizon. The central figure is a man in a white shirt holding his hands aloft and staring into the serried rows of guns. One could write volumes.

But one does not need to write volumes: it is all there in paint. The drama and agony is immediately apparent to the viewer. One does not need to look for a title or the name of the artist to understand what is going on here. The painting arrests the viewer and compels him to meditate on the scene. This is a political painting, as well as a painting of human cruelty and despair. In other words it is full of meaning.


Goya has conveyed that meaning without words; that is the job of the visual artist, to use images that are self-explanatory. Today there are few painters that have that skill largely because modernism has shifted the focus away from the acquisition of skills in drawing and painting. In its absence we have conceptual art, art that strives to convey meaning but not as Goya did. This art, because of its poverty of expression, has resorted to words. The words are found in the painting and in the didactic.

The experience of the viewer is to gaze in wonderment at what the piece is trying to portray and then to desperately resort to reading the didactic helpfully displayed next to the painting. Here we find the real business, in which the artist enlightens the viewer as to her feelings about the piece and the complex process through which it was born and what she is trying to express.

What has happened here? Painting has become writing. Or, rather, painting relies on writing as an explanation for its existence. Take away the writing and we are left with rather unattractive smatterings of paint, no composition to speak of, no clue as to what it is about and certainly no pleasure at its existence.

A parallel to this also exists in which words are painting on the actual painting.

This is a major betrayal of the art of painting. It tells us that painting is not enough; we have to be told in words what to think and how to appreciate. The artist now stands between the work of art and the viewer as an essential mediator without whom the art is incomprehensible.

This is a form of elitism, for only those in the know are privy to the profound meaning that emanates from the artist who presumably has thought and felt much deeper than us the viewers.


Because the emphasis is on a meaning imputed to the object, care need not be taken to produce a thing of beauty. Indeed, the artists who produce these things are not trained in any craft at all be that painting or sculpture. They are unskilled. It seems that a trade has been made: I can't draw or paint so I will write.

The migration of art from the image to the word signifies confusion between the communication of events and things in the world through the making of images, with how we talk or write about them. Traditionally these two had been kept apart for good reason. When one is presented with an image our response is emotional and immediate. We are struck by beauty or drama or wonder. Early Christian works used signs to increase the connection with the event. For example crucifixion scenes were often replete with images of the hammer and the nails, the stick with the hyssop that carried the sour wine to Christ, a severed ear signified the ear of the servant that Peter struck off on the arrest of Jesus. These symbols were not incorporated into the scene but were painted as free-floating symbols. They added to the narrative presented in the image

However, when the artist uses actual words, even whole texts, the response of the viewer necessarily changes from the contemplation of an image to a cognitive response to the words. He becomes a reader and not a viewer, or, rather he is torn between the two.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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