An Incomplete Guide to Critiquing Painting in Tumultuous Times

by Michael Bise March 27, 2017
Balthus, Guitar Lesson, 1934

Balthus, Guitar Lesson, 1934

An incomplete guide to critiquing painting in tumultuous political times.

1.) It does not matter who makes a painting. The object is all.

2.) A person who is offended by a painting should never critique a painting.

3.) To critique a painting, a person has to see it. Paintings are physical objects and they exert physical power. A painting isn’t seen until it’s seen. Photography does not capture painting. Paint colors are different in person. Texture is invisible on a screen. Size matters and cannot be grasped on an iPhone.

4.) Painting is a visual art. A subtle sensitivity to color and the ability to respond to symmetry or asymmetry all evolved for the purpose of survival. Over a few thousand years, painters developed the ability to deploy painting techniques to mimic the natural human visual response in order to attract the eye. Attracting the eye in visual art is first base. In the end the sex could still be bad, but if a painting is visually dull, no one even reaches the bedroom.

5.) Attracting the eye doesn’t mean creating a realistic representation. That’s fooling the eye. All visual arts, from Aboriginal painting to Arabic mosaic, exploit the basic principles of two-dimensional design to attract the human animal eye. Painting that claims to not be bound by the the subtleties of human visual attraction is not visual art. If it’s not visual art, it’s not painting. It’s conceptual or political or some other form of art.

6.) Painting embeds its subject matter in its physical matter. Critiquing a painting on the basis of its subject matter alone is boring and unsophisticated. In order to discuss the failure of a painting’s subject matter, a critic has to be able to articulate how this failure manifests formally, in the paint. If they can’t, they can’t critique painting.

7.) Originality counts. Does the painting look like a lot of other paintings? An unoriginal painting is a representation of the unoriginal mind. Is the critic’s mental image data bank large enough to be able to tell if a painting is original? Painting critics need to hold the entire history of painting as a coherent object in their minds. If not, they’re not able to critique painting.

8.) Morality and ethics in painting aren’t bound to culturally specific moral codes. Sexists, racists and murderers can and have made good paintings.

9.) The ethics of painting are formal. They have to do with exploiting, manipulating and transgressing the rules of two-dimensional design while maintaining visual attraction.

10.) The ability to paint respects no racial, sexual or cultural boundaries. Painters are born, not made.

11.) People who don’t know anything about painting should sit down, shut up, and listen to the the artists and critics who have given their lives to understanding painting.


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Hannah March 28, 2017 - 10:31

Oooh, sexy formalism/materialism/devotion. I get it, painting is pure. Or, rather, delightfully impure?

Either way, does this partial (haha) manifesto leave room for things like cultural appropriation? Or is that not a valid issue to be discussed/critiqued in painting?

Genuinely curious in what you think-


Michael Bise March 30, 2017 - 12:46

Hey Hannah,

Thanks for the question. All art, throughout all history, is made by one culture “appropriating” forms from another culture. Usually this happens when one nation overtakes another nation by force (economic or military) and integrates the art forms of the losers into the existing canon of the winners (which itself came from the same process) to create a new form.

I know it seems nasty, but such is life.


Hannah April 2, 2017 - 13:29

Thanks for the response. I think I’m always slightly miffed at what you write because it activates a sort of “truths I want to believe” part of my thinking, which is discomforting. You are far from a trumpist, but you have a little bit of the “I’ll say it. Out loud!” quality. It makes me an avid reader- especially when you relate your role as educator.

Jane Allensworth March 28, 2017 - 10:38

Right on!

Michael Corris March 28, 2017 - 11:05

This is a continuation of the ideology of separating object from work, painting from its context. A context that gives the work as much meaning as the push and pull of the brush against pigment.

Revulsion directed towards a work of art can be a knee-jerk reaction betokening any manner of deep-seated cultural biases. Or, like laughter, is can be a prelude to critical inquiry. (One might wish to inquire deeply into one’s response to a work of art when it comes to affect. What descriptor would you like to attach to the “emotion” you are feeling right now? Would “boredom” suffice?)

By taking such obviously negative visceral responses to art (anything, really) OFF THE TABLE simply enforces the bankrupt idea of disinterested observation.

I can imagine placing myself “at a distance” from any “thing”. But why would I if it were the case that that “thing” matters deeply?

How does not taking offense square with the enthroned relation between art and emotional response?

I’ve read so much on Glasstire that celebrates visceral, gut wrenching involvements with art. It’s not an exaggeration to say that as far as most of the writers of this website are concerned, a deep emotional commitment to art is the sine qua non of aesthetic authenticity, if not the guarantor of artistic excellence. Passion counts, but when, where, and how?

Does this emotional engagement count only when it’s positive, affirming the highest aesthetic values of art, placing the artist in the best possible light, glorifying any and all manner of obsessive compulsive behavior or opportunism, and encouraging artists to think of themselves as entitled to represent any subject whatsoever?

I’m not “shocked”, by the way, by the Balthus-as-pedophile nonsense. This “worm” should be dangled in front of some other audience, don’t you think? What is more shocking is that a mediocre voyeur like Francis Bacon should be celebrated as a great master of the expression of the human condition, etc., etc. My point here is that the real hard work is to deflate idols, not manufacture them and use them as a prohibition directed towards other cultural forms.

Does painting get a pass where, for example, photography or film doesn’t or, at the very least, are these reproductive media not considered to be problematic in the same way BECAUSE they are not painting? Consider Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others” and other ethical discussions surrounding representation and depiction of misery through photography: can it be generalized to apply to all depiction? If not, why not? Simply saying “painting is an art” won’t get you very far. Simply saying that painting is a more imaginative form of representation that photography or film will get you deeper into that hole you just dug for yourself.

Ethics are not media-specific, so media can’t help you resolve the contradiction or craft a plausible argument. A fuller notion of artistic practice can help . . . indeed, cultural practice in general, which entails teaching, learning and sharing. This means referring to context and history, not simply “looking at the object”, as it is, where it is.

Cry freedom of expression if you wish, but that’s just bathetic. The cultural contradictions thrown up by pluralism can’t be resolved without taking a stand. And people with something at stake take stands based on many things, most obviously their self-interests, but sometimes it helps to figure out how those self-interests arose, and if they stand for something “larger”, something informed not by clichés but by a sense of community and sociality and, yes, social justice. Our internalized needs and interests come from somewhere . . . even as they present themselves to us as our inner monologue.

Interdiction is complex but not complicated . . . except for those in power. When the appeal to “higher” ideals is voiced, watch out! It could mean that your legitimate right to protest is being trampled upon, your local social values are being discarded as “archaic”, “old fashioned”, and definitely not “(post) Modern”.

Has anyone else read the “incomplete guide to critiquing painting” and thought it COULD BE a response to the recent Whitney controversy? If so, is it an adequate response?

Isn’t it time to stop dragging out “cultural freedoms” and admit that sometimes the “other side” in a dispute about artistic freedom may be right? Or won’t a sense of privilege (or a history of cultural domination) allow for that?

Sheila March 29, 2017 - 09:09

A case in which the original posting and the reply seem as though they really should be swapped. All excellent points and questions worth the time to consider.

Michael Corris March 28, 2017 - 12:06

Passion for art is a hedge against rampant professionalization. It’s a reaction to the market and bears a passing resemblance to the enthusiastic amateur. Something to consider.

Sheila March 28, 2017 - 13:20

Isn’t this the same writer who criticized Francis Alÿs for supposedly executing his projects in a politically hypocritical manner? But he’s not a painter, and here we seem to be working, for whatever reason, within an old-fashioned hierarchy of genres that absolves all painting and the painters who paint them.

Michael Corris March 28, 2017 - 22:35

Good point, Sheila. And that allegiance to painting as the queen of the arts (move over architecture!) carries a lot of baggage. Have you ever had a conversation about net art, trying to make sense of it using the intellectual resources of aesthetics derived from the practice and connoisseurship of painting?

Sheila March 29, 2017 - 14:52

I suspect if some of the innovators of 20th-century painting rose from the dead and saw digital media for the first time, they’d ask easel painters, “My God, what are you still doing with that brush?”

I love painting: I do it myself, and I am, the devil help me, pursuing an art history degree. Something about a human hand making marks in pigment gets its hooks in a person, but painting has to—and does—submit to the same rigorous questioning as put to photography, new media, and concept art. In response to a painting, art historians ask who painted it, why was it made, what was its agenda, its different contexts, who profited by its making, who did not, yep, all that.

I could not disagree more with the opinion that anyone with questions about art but not among its inner circles should shut up and sit down—just odd to say in an argument against censorship. For one, whenever art cuts loose from its own feedback loop, it makes its great strides.

And more credit should be given to those who take issue with the painting in question: they know exactly what the artist is up to in her choice of format, style, color, form. They see her attempts to attract they eye; they’re just not buying it. Hasty, unoriginal treatment of the subject apparently does result in explosively dull art.

Chris Cascio March 29, 2017 - 08:50

TFW the comment is longer than the article. But seriously, all of this is great. The article, the comments, the laughter, the tears

Michael A. Morris March 30, 2017 - 07:39

Oh man, good to know that what seemed to be a situation of a well intentioned person making a well intentioned gesture that went wrong on account of privilege and latent racism that we all might have to admit we’re subject to is really just all of us not knowing how to look at paintings. That might have been complicated.

Michael Bise March 30, 2017 - 12:56


It’s not possible for you to know that Dana Schutz’ painting is the result of “latent racism.” You don’t have access to her mind. The only thing you have access to is her painting. You have to talk about the painting in the language of painting in the same way plumbers have to talk about plumbing in the language of plumbing.


Michael A. Morris March 30, 2017 - 18:37

I can see why you’d say that, but I’d counter that in this kind of situation, racism is located in the act and not necessarily the person.

And while while your metaphor might hold for certain aspects of the discipline of painting, cultural history, which this painting is involved in, is much larger and subject to other ways of speaking. And I can’t resist participating in your metaphor a little further: while plumbers may be able to speak to one another in the language of plumbing, if they do something misguided, it still spills shit everywhere that the rest of us have to deal with.

X,Y,Z March 30, 2017 - 10:52

Slightly off topic, Max Weber believed the only way to separate a politician’s intentions from BS, is to require the politician to accept the unintentional consequences in his/her pursuit of stated intentions.

In short, a kind of litmus test for measuring intention against actual outcome, but also as a way to measure true character. Applied to the painting flap, a test along these lines might be: Has the painter taken responsibility for the outcome of her intentions?

There’s more to be said about those who cling to subjective intention rather than addressing outcome. That would be Thucydides’ wheelhouse.

Betsy March 31, 2017 - 08:23

How far out does the responsibility for consequences reach? 25 years? 200 years? Political action is an action in time, and political intentions are either tied to action or not; but a visual artifact is there until it is physically gone. I am tired of artists who measure art’s value by anyone’s intentions as the real meaning. I certainly can’t wrap my head around being responsible for how people take my actions into the distant future. If I’m dead, what does responsibility mean?
I agree with Michael Bise that the THING is the meaning. Freedom of expression? In the current small tempest about a painting, looking at the larger world (including written art) is more instructive. That we value that freedom of expression (which is not an eternal law, but something we presumably value as a group that could disappear as a sanctioned value), is somewhat relevant. It has great value as a general principle.
I find “Saturn Devouring His Children” absolutely horrifying to look at. It’s hard to look at it an see the meaning as originally intended. And it’s hard to look at, but by the same token, it’s hard to look away. Goya was so effective! It is knockdown painting. Mind you, I’m not saying that there is anyone like Goya painting right now (maybe, probably), but it is still just a painting and it will not burn your hands off by existing, just as objectionable ideas in a book would justify book burning.

illalwaystell March 30, 2017 - 17:32

I agree Painting > Photography

A photograph is endlessly reproduced. A painting can never be produced. End of discussion.

[email protected] March 30, 2017 - 17:33

I agree Painting > Photography

A photograph is endlessly reproduced. A painting can never be reproduced. End of discussion.

Shaun April 1, 2017 - 12:21

Isn’t “the entire history of painting” already a context beyond the materiality of any individual painting object? Claims of originality or innovation require comparison to the historical archive and are an argument for the importance of context. Once you’ve allowed that some context matters, I don’t see how you can arbitrarily stop there.

John P April 4, 2017 - 19:22

a shit storm about nothing per usual keep it real asstire



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