Making paintings popular again

It is hard to appreciate that, around 150 years ago, painting was so popular that the Paris Salon was able to attract over a million visitors, although the whole population of Paris was less than two million. It would be a bit like the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London getting over four million visitors.

Paintings also used to attract great press attention: critics like Émile Zola wrote for newspapers about modern painting during the mid-1800s, and weekly magazines such as La Vie Moderne (1879-83) were popular enough to organise their own art exhibitions. Painted moving panoramas were profitable enough to fill Broadway theatres, and to tour Europe and the US.

Then sometime in the twentieth century, it all went wrong. Painting became increasingly introspective and out of touch with the real world of everyday people. Photography became hugely popular, with photo news magazines selling internationally. Movies and then television became huge industries, which have come to dominate almost everything else.

The fine arts industry did not disappear, though. It continued its commercial development, but not in the popular way that dealers like Georges Petit and Durand-Ruel had seen it, by throwing their gallery doors open to all and sundry, and mounting Universal Expositions. Now the dealers, auction houses, and critics have gone straight for the wallets of those with serious money, and the drive to speculate, accumulate, and profit.

Today, if you were to ask the proverbial person on the Clapham omnibus, or NY subway train, to name some modern painters, few would be able to come up with a single valid answer. If I were to ask you to visualise in your mind the most memorable paintings you have seen, most would have been painted before 1900.

Let’s face it, modern painting has all but disappeared into its splendidly jewelled navel.

What is frustrating is that this is not because of any shortage of superb paintings from brilliant artists. One good outcome from the turmoil of the twentieth century is that they can paint in whatever style takes your fancy.

The snag is that the established fine arts industry remains disinterested in the reason for painting in the first place. It matters not to them whether any modern painting is seen outside of the small group of obscenely rich people whose money (and speculative business) keeps the auction houses, dealers, agents, and their hangers-on, in business. Painting for the people? Only if those people are prepared to pay seriously for it, it seems.

I think this money-driven and money-controlled industry is thoroughly bad for painting, and for the people. Were it not for the work of enthusiasts in the galleries, and hard-working artists themselves, our children and their children would probably never see real works of art in the flesh. Then, for the first time since the Renaissance, we would have whole generations brought up having never seen a ‘proper’ painting in real life – much as we might fear the same for reading a ‘proper’ novel.

If we value paintings not as movable property but as works of art which are central to our culture, we must promote them, their appreciation, and understanding. We must talk to our children and grandchildren about paintings, and take them to galleries where they can see and learn about some of the most enduring, powerful, moving, and important objects made by humans.

We must also expose people using the Internet to paintings, to remind them of the wonderful works of the past, and of the present. Modern painters – and those who represent painters now dead, but whose work is still in copyright – must encourage the use of images of their work. Releasing medium resolution images to Wikimedia Commons under appropriate licensing is an effective way to do this. Sharing them on social media will make some into memes, placing them squarely to the fore of modern culture.

Our discourse and discussion about paintings will no longer grind to a halt somewhere around the First World War, but will be current, contemporary, and topical. Works which address issues of the day will add to the debates on social and political matters, rather than being hung on the walls of mansions. Society will once again guide the direction of painting.

We all have roles to play, if we are to restore painting to the heart of culture, as it had been for so many centuries. Let’s make paintings popular once more.