Painting and drawing are back. That’s the big news.
Drawing is the new Painting. Drawing reveals processes that painting hides. Drawing in paint enlivens painting. Drawing is marginal. Drawing is handmade and expressive without being outmoded or too commercial. Drawing defies mass mediation and the digital. Drawing is free from convention and therefore it is the ultimate expression of freedom. Drawing is unpretentious and partial. It is a fragment of a new world, or it is a partial memory of the past. It captures a moment in time. Drawing never died. But drawing is threatened: there is no more life drawing; design is now all done on computers.
Drawing can be done in any medium. Drawing is cheap and always available. It is uniquely suited to expressing the ephemerality of all life, today. Anyone can do it, and everyone does it. Drawing is the first art we all produce as children, and therefore it is universal, raw, spontaneous, and innocent. Drawing is an international language. Drawing is the oldest art form, even before writing. The animals at Lascaux are actually drawings, not paintings, and they preceded any other art form by millennia. Drawing is the foundation of all art and design since the Renaissance. Chinese ink painting and Islamic manuscript illumination are actually drawing. Photography is the “pencil of nature.”
Drawing is closest to the original kernel of an idea. Drawing is private. Drawing is the trace of a unique human subjectivity. Drawing returns us to narrative but without objectivity. Drawing always connects to writing. It links directly to literature. It is always a fiction. Drawing is irrational and rational, done on both sides of the brain. Drawing uses the newest digital technologies. It creates a virtual reality. Drawing is the foundation of all art departments, so important that it does not even need a concentration of its own. Drawing is very valuable, and must be shown only rarely, protected by glass. The more minimal, delicate, and ephemeral, the more poetic and evocative it is. The more obsessive, the more expressive it is. The more monumental, the more paradoxical and contemporary it is.
Drawing is the newest oldest medium. Drawing is impossible to define.
Writing about drawing is plagued by truisms. If these sound like your grandfather’s art criticism, it is because they can be found in both texts from the 1950s and writing from the 2000s, though the older texts tend to ascribe these values to painting. It has so far gone largely unnoticed that a knot of assumptions about pure expression, with a dash of narrative storytelling and a pinch of subcultural references, filters contemporary drawing through the aesthetic theory of painting in the postwar period. In a wide range of contemporary criticism, drawing means a return to traditional values of authenticity and expressive freedom—the same values so strongly attached to painting in the postwar era that they became taboo for the generations that followed. In the 1960s these values became hallmarks of a counterculture, even as the art world rejected them in Pop art and Minimalism; they have more recently been recuperated by what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the “new spirit of capitalism,” the ideological justification for the capitalist economy that since 1989 has developed virtually unchallenged around the globe. Boltanski and Chiapello write that “neo-management aims to respond to demands for authenticity and freedom, which have historically been articulated in interrelated fashion by what we have called the ‘artistic critique,’ and . . . it sets to one side the issues of egoism and inequalities traditionally combined in the ‘social critique.’” Authenticity and freedom seem to be modernity’s permanent aspirations, appearing alongside and in reaction to technologies of mediation that appear to threaten them at every stage; but what happens when the threat is a moving target such as capitalism, which constantly evolves to internalize and defuse every criticism it receives? What happens when drawings like Sue Williams’s Stabilized—impressive, vibrant, edgy and personal, but also political, calligraphically styled and highly finished work on mylar—can now simply be sold by the gallery as a painting in order to elevate its value.
How can drawing respond to a situation where its historical associations with freedom from all the economic, social, and political constraints attached to Western painting seem to dovetail perfectly with the rise of an art market that uses drawing’s purported autonomy and authenticity to continually transform it into economic and social capital—in other words, when the autonomy from commerce, the public sphere, and technological reproduction that used to define drawing’s value seems to have evaporated even as its meaning still depends on them?
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