Books: Art is dead. Making marks on paper isn't

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The Independent Culture
What is Painting? by Julian Bell Thames and Hudson pounds 12.95

The art world is not a happy place. If you're out, you want in. If you're in, you want out. Or you want to be somehow both in and out, or to set up your own new art world, or to blow the whole thing up, or to melt it down into the world at large. This has been true for some time. A profound dissatisfaction with the available art world is one of the distinctive features of modern art.

You could do a nice little history of this tendency, through Blake, Courbet, sundry secessions and independence movements, anti-art, outsider- art, and all art's many attempts to disappear into ritual, political action or everyday life. You might note that the art world always seems to reclaim its rejectors in the end, and that perhaps no artist has ever wanted out quite badly enough. You might note also that, just lately, things have gone rather quiet on this front. But stay - for another voice is raised, and from an unusual quarter.

What is Painting? is a puzzling book because its main point only comes through in fits and starts. It's an odd mix: a free-form and opinionated history of art, and ideas about art, during the last two centuries; philosophical excursions on the nature of painting; and - towards the end - flashes of unexpectedly cross polemic.

Bell scouts huge generalities, his arguments are never more than just adequate, subjects turn on a sixpence. You'll find that in a page and a half he's moved from the "sublime" in Rothko to why neuro-science disproves feminism. Some very bright ideas appear briefly, and some fine phrases are turned (Anselm Kiefer's work is "a marriage of information and the informe"). But none of this dispels the impression that it's all a bit cranky; or at any rate that the author is still sorting things out in his head. Putting scattered hints together, though, this is the sense I get.

Bell is a painter (fact). He's pissed off at the way modern art has got so theorised - maybe because the theories seem to leave the sort of painting he himself does on the sidelines. But he knows that theory isn't a new problem; Western painting has been ideas-led since the Renaissance. So he's mugged up art-theory, to get his own line on it clear. And being in another part of his mind extremely into ideas, he tells a good story - partly borrowed, partly original, variably persuasive and digressive - about how ideas of representation, narrative, space, expression and imagination have mutated down the years, and how the idea of art itself has mutated, now into something that has little room for trad painting.

Partly, then, this is a How Painting Died thesis. But the whole point is, there's a get-out clause. Bell proposes a distinction between two metaphorical locations, which he calls the Market Place and the Big Store. In the Market Place, painters go their own free way, offer their various wares, and customers come and have their fancy taken by this or that, or not. But in the Big Store painting sets itself up as an art, makes itself intellectually respectable, with theories and canons and projects; the Big Store is where all that interesting and unfortunate art-theory-history happened. I don't quite see how these metaphors translate, but it's clear what Bell's trying to do: detach painting from institutional art, make it something with a possible life of its own.

As we near the present day, the struggle surfaces more explicitly and plangently. On the one hand there are "those tantalising, indeterminate markings called paintings", with no specific goals and no definite meanings (though capable sometimes of an overwhelming meaningfulness). Meanwhile "the institutions of art ... exist to fix and conserve meaning. They move in quickly ... making sure that indeterminacy does not spread." Note the echt underdog rhetoric: painting, sometimes a gentle, innocent thing threatened, sometimes a wild, dangerous thing tamed.

It's the institutions, of course, who declare the death of painting. However, "the practice of making coloured marks on surfaces continues". Indeed, painting should welcome its proclaimed death as "a liberating and challenging prospect", the occasion to break away from art altogether, set up on its own. Painting doesn't need art and its theories: "Who needs a theory of firework displays?"

Well, clearly Bell needs some sort of theory of painting as a non-art enterprise, and I can't see he really secures one. What's more, it turns out that by those "coloured marks on surfaces" awaiting de-institutional freedom, Bell actually means "painting in a skills tradition", which itself sounds a fairly institutional and theorised thing. But the main question about the liberating prospect Bell offers - as with any goodbye-art-world proposal - is practical: what's supposed to happen?

His foreseeings are vague. New painting may develop in local and provisional contexts. New terminology may emerge "from what we discover in paint". Maybe he has in mind some sort of art colony. It's a common enough artist's dream, and sometimes comes briefly true - an alternative, small-scale institutionalism. (If one of the colony gets put up for the Turner Prize, are they chucked out?)

In fact I suspect that not much is supposed to happen. The "prospect" is really a way for the trad painter to feel more cheerful about how things are now. It takes an existing situation - never going to show in the prestige public galleries, but doing fine in the non-metaphorical market place - and calls it, not exclusion, but independence. I'm a painter, I've got my public, and my mates, I don't care about "art". So why the fuss and the book? Oh, of course he cares. Like all the great art-rejectors, it's practically the only thing he cares about.

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