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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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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...

23 replies on “What People Mean When They Say “Painting Is Dead””

  1. Sinead should have said The Rolling Stone is dead, not music, but everyone’s known that since they reformatted their print publication to cut costs. If you’re still in print media, you might need to cash in on Kim’s curves at some point if you haven’t already.

    In any case, her thesis about music production doesn’t hold after Beck’s 2014 Album of the Year award. He is more DIY in instrumentation and production than almost any musician in history.

    1. Or we could consider its date of death to the point at which Jann Wenner required all hires to be drug tested.

  2. Paul Delaroche has been misquoted in numerous texts as
    stating upon seeing his first daguerreotype that painting was “dead.” Delaroche
    was one of the first important painters to publicly endorse the use of photography
    by artists. However, there is no evidence that Delaroche ever made any such
    apocalyptic statement.

  3. It usually means one of 2 things – the person declaring something dead is too focused on the mass media depiction of that thing (Sinead looking to Rolling Stone and American Idol for fresh and vital music). Or the person declaring something dead is in a cloud of nostalgia – “X isn’t raw and pure like it used to be. I don’t know anything about what’s going on these days but I’m sure it all sucks.”
    Oh, and people who write for a living need to declare things dead so they can declare a successor aka The Next Big Thing.

  4. This, this is pure gold, or, do you ostrich much? “(I will leave aside for the moment the indefensibly heinous nature of these politics.)”

  5. The fact that O’Connor isn’t aware of some of the genuinely creative and interesting music around today means that she is a lazy and undiscerning commentator. If John Peel was still around he’d set her straight.

  6. I don’t have anything really to say about the Rolling Stone cover or the supposed death of music but in my experience those who speak the most about the death of painting are painters. As a concern in art, the death of painting trope played itself out in the early 80s. While in school in the late 90s/early 2000s I started hearing talk about it once again, and it was always painters. One professor, a painter, would frequently state that “everyone” talks about painting being dead. Of course, she would then run with that strawman to let us know in no uncertain terms that painting was not dead and was still the primary artistic concern. My feeling at the time was that the trope was repeated by painters in order to force a discussion to take place about painting and that their real fear was not the death of painting but that painting was no longer central to art, it was just one amongst many media available. My feelings towards painting have mellowed since then.

    1. Hi Fresh,

      I’ve had similar impressions of the reasons for painters repeating the trope. I also think that there is an anxiety among them about painting no longer being the primary medium through which art audiences imagine or appreciate contemporary art.

      Still, it seems to me that the cave paintings as Lascaux indicate something about painting functioning as communication system and storytelling and while these functions might find other mediums of expression (new media) the human impulse to do these things doesn’t go away.

  7. No , painting is not dead. Iconoclastic prognosticators like to stir the pot every decade or two. Art changes constantly in this era of exponential information proliferation. The success of certain brash innovators test the validity of firmly held opinions. Personally I don’t care for the Hirst/ Koons sardonic styles but I’m still looking at and impressed with many painters for refreshing interpretations of the medium.

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