What People Mean When They Say “Painting Is Dead”

Apologies to Andrea   Mantegna (original Wikipedia)
Apologies to Andrea Mantegna (original Wikipedia)

Last week, Sinead O’Connor declared that music has died. In an apoplectic Facebook post O’Connor vilifies Rolling Stone magazine for putting Kim Kardashian on its cover, and in the package deal calls out Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh, and seemingly the entire popular music industry. Her argument, as near as I can tell it, has to do with the rank commercialization of popular music in regard to its employ of celebrities to sell the music though these personalities have little or nothing to do with the actual production of music.

Her public condemnation reminds me of Victoria Jackson’s response to the news that Barack Obama had been reelected. She is reported to have tweeted “I can’t stop crying. America died.” This in turn brings to mind Paul Delaroche, who after encountering a daguerreotype in roughly 1839 declared that painting was dead. It’s the declaration itself that strikes me as fascinating rather than the signified content.

What do we mean when we say that something, as opposed to someone has died? Clearly, despite Victoria Jackson’s devastation, the United States of America has continued on its conflicted, disputatious way, and painting has been declared dead and been resuscitated enough times to make the proclamation a kind of punch line. (Did you hear the one about painting buying the farm?)

I think that the description of something as dead in the above ways is more than exaggeration. It is an individual’s bid for public confirmation of his or her own experience witnessing a treasured object’s irremediable transformation. Essentially O’Connor is asking the people in her social media community to hold her hand and engage in a ritual of recognition and remembrance of what music was when its primary emissaries were singer-songwriters not salespeople. Jackson is asking for other evangelical Christians and anyone else who shares her deeply conservative politics to cry with her and affirm her grief by grieving alongside. (I will leave aside for the moment the indefensibly heinous nature of these politics.) Delaroche was engaged in a different game: he was more concerned with prediction, but subsequently similar advisories concerning painting have been more or less representative of the initial steps of mourning a lost object or practice.

This is to say that the human tribe is very much a social one and we do not, generally, grieve alone. Even in this age of electronically mediated connection we come together in order to consecrate the time that we witnessed something together, and we ask for support in moving ahead into a future we don’t quite comprehend.

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