Figuratively speaking, art is just a matter of fashion

It sounds like a simple question. Is Real Painting better than Conceptual Art? The answer, however, is much more complicated, says Tom Lubbock
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The Independent Online

The art world rumbles. The battle lines are drawn. Let's give the two armies names. We'll call one side Conceptual Art. We'll call the other side The Campaign for Real Painting. And they are at war. Or rather, so the story goes, they aren't, because the battle is already over. In the last decade or so, Conceptual Art - represented by the Young British Artists - has won all the prizes, especially the Turner Prize, and occupied the commanding heights of the British art world, for example the various Tate Galleries, and grabbed all the media attention. Meanwhile the Campaign for Real Painting is in retreat, overshadowed, pushed out and buried by an art establishment who believe that the practice of painting the human figure, by hand, in oils, from life or from imagination, is thoroughly old hat and beneath consideration. And now the whole world is filled with installations, video-projections, ready-made objects, dead animals, manipulated photos and obscene model-making.

The art world rumbles. The battle lines are drawn. Let's give the two armies names. We'll call one side Conceptual Art. We'll call the other side The Campaign for Real Painting. And they are at war. Or rather, so the story goes, they aren't, because the battle is already over. In the last decade or so, Conceptual Art - represented by the Young British Artists - has won all the prizes, especially the Turner Prize, and occupied the commanding heights of the British art world, for example the various Tate Galleries, and grabbed all the media attention. Meanwhile the Campaign for Real Painting is in retreat, overshadowed, pushed out and buried by an art establishment who believe that the practice of painting the human figure, by hand, in oils, from life or from imagination, is thoroughly old hat and beneath consideration. And now the whole world is filled with installations, video-projections, ready-made objects, dead animals, manipulated photos and obscene model-making.

But is the tide about to turn? For like the resistance movements in Dr Who, the Campaign for Real Painting hasn't disappeared. It has continued painting away underground, not getting much attention, but regrouping and getting ready for another push. Perhaps it will succeed in winning over the media and art establishment by the plaintiveness of its appeal, by the sheer force of its work? Or perhaps the dominant fashions and prejudices will remain obdurately undented.

That, more or less, is the drama raised by an exhibition that opened yesterday in London.

Real Painting is represented by eight young British artists who persist in painting from life. The most prominent of them is Stuart Pearson-Wright, whose recent ludicrous portrait of the Duke of Edinburgh was widely publicised. In "Being Present'' at the Jerwood Space, they are showing their work and coming out fighting for the cause. Could figurative painting now become the new dominant tendency, to supplant the existing dominant tendency? And would that be better for us all? Or at any rate about time too?

Well, people are always talking like this, and of course it makes life simpler to see the operation of contemporary art as a battle with two sides, or a system with oppressors and oppressed. But the big simple story is a big mess. Whenever the Turner Prize comes round, somebody says: but why no figurative painters? - even though in recent years the prize has shortlisted several figurative painters, and was won in 1998 by Chris Ofili and in 2002 by Keith Tyson, both of whom are figurative painters. So there plainly is not an official prejudice against young figurative painters. Ah yes, comes the reply, but they are the wrong sort of figurative painters. They're not Real Painters. And immediately you can see that the situation here, like situations everywhere, is a little bit more complicated.

So let's go into it a bit deeper. Let's agree entirely that the painters in "Being Present'' wouldn't stand a chance of being shortlisted for the Turner Prize. The reason for this is that the people who judge the Turner Prize, though they have many failings - the artists on the 2004 shortlist, also announced yesterday, are mostly quite extraordinarily dull - even so, these judges aren't quite that stupid. They can see that this kind of figurative painting is indeed old hat, and what old hat means is that not only has someone done it before, but that someone has done it much better before and there really is no point in doing it again worse. And whenever someone speaks up for Real Painting it always means painting that's a pale and wonky imitation of something else.

And the fact is, the arts like novelty and don't like out-of-dateness, and for good reason: done before usually equals done better. If this is a problem, it is a general problem. There are artists of every variety, not just figurative painters, who find themselves neglected for being out of date. There are kinds of video art and installation art whose day has passed too.

And while we're at it, here are some more facts about art - some of them sad facts, some awkward, some ironic. For instance, there really was a time when there was a strong prejudice against figurative painting - the 1940s and 1950s, when there was a strong prejudice in favour of abstract painting, and a feeling that it was very reactionary to make figurative paintings. But this feeling passed. And in Britain the works of Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach are widely appreciated. But the odd thing is that it's always figurative painters who nowadays claim to be excluded. You never hear the same complaint from abstract painters. Abstract painters just don't figure in the argy-bargy - ironically, because they actually find it much harder to thrive in this country than do figurative painters.

There are certainly fashions in art - like the mid-century fashion for abstraction, like the recent fashion for aggro and jokeyness and there always will be. There's not much you can do about them. Fashions promote indiscriminately artists, good and bad, who fit the fashion, and exclude irrationally other artists, good and bad, who don't. The only thing to do with art fashions is to keep your eyes open - neither embracing everything they embrace nor embracing everything they exclude.

There is general luck and unfairness in this world like any other. Some bad artists are unfairly promoted; and some good artists are unfairly neglected, and maybe the passage of time will sort out this anomaly or maybe it won't. But at any time there are lots of under-regarded artists, some of whom should definitely be more famous, and some of whom never will be.

Everybody is competing with everybody else for attention. There will be losers. There will be struggles. If one group of artists wishes to rise from obscurity by making out that they have been suppressed by a conspiracy - well, the gambit may work or it may not. And to the extent that you can read an article about them in this and other newspapers as a result, the gambit has of course worked marvellously.

KEEPING IT REAL: ARTISTS EXHIBITING IN 'BEING PRESENT'

Joe Schneider

Self-taught, won the Carroll Award for Young Portrait Painters in 2001. Work includes cityscapes, interiors and the human figure. "I am addicted to responding to a person or an environment which possesses its own life and energy. It is not just a reproduction of appearance but an attempt to remake the world."

Phil Hale

Recently commissioned by The Jerwood Foundation to paint composer Thomas Adés for the National Portrait Gallery. Describes his latest pieces as concerned with the recognition of the sentimental and the untrue in his past work, and the methodical, nearly mechanical, unsuccessful removal of it from his current process.

Carl Randall

Has exhibited at the Royal Academy and the National Portrait Gallery. Currently painting in Japan on a scholarship from the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. His architectural paintings often use thin glazes of paint and focus on the play of light in a bid to create a sense of drama and mystery.

James Lloyd

Sponsored by designer Sir Paul Smith, Lloyd won the BP Portrait Award in 1997 with a portrait of Smith's wife Penelope.

Brendan Kelly

Scottish artist working in London. Graduated from Slade. Commended several times in the BP Portrait Award before winning second prize in 2001.

Jennifer McRae

Recently completed a portrait of playwright and novelist Michael Frayn for the National Portrait Gallery. Has exhibited widely and won the BP Travel Award. Over the past few years has been experimenting with the image of the figure in duplicate. "I hope to make work which takes the model out of the studio and into a space I have created. I like to experiment with duality as well as singular identity in people."

Ishbel Myerscough

Long-established exponent of edgy oils, has painted Helen Mirren for the National Portrait Gallery. Has won several national awards including the BP Portrait Award in 1995. She has had three successful solo shows with Anthony Mould Contemporary Art.

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