As cultural deaths go, the imminent death of painting has been more widely predicted than most. The Royal Academy's Monet show might have queues around the block, and for the first time in years a painter - Chris Ophili - might have won the Turner prize, but lily pads and elephant dung apart, painting no longer commands the attention of the period when Hockney, Bacon and Freud were in their pomp. Now sculpture and conceptualism have the grido, as Dante put it, and some critics doubt painting will ever recover its pre-eminence.
None of this surprises Eric Hobsbawm. Looking down from the Olympian heights of his unreconstructed Marxism, the retired professor considers the decline and fall of painting as a key signifier in the grand dialectic governing our troubled century. His Age of Extremes spoke of "the smell of impending death" hanging over the visual arts since 1950. In Behind the Times: the decline and fall of the 20th-century avant-gardes, he nails the coffin lid down firmly on avant-garde painting.
Painting has failed on two main counts: neither discovering the technical means nor the stylistic ends to express the radically changed relations between art and society in our century. To Hobsbawm the history of the visual avant-gardes in this century is a non-stop "struggle against technical obsolescence". More importantly, because of what Walter Benjamin identified as its "aura" of uniqueness, painting has been unable to make the collective impact that in Hobsbawm's view characterises the truly "successful" art forms. Painting is a privately consumed minority interest, and Hobsbawm has the statistics to prove it. In 1994, he points out, "only" 21 per cent of Britons visited a museum or art gallery as against 96 per cent who regularly watched films on television. Through its combination of technology and mass marketing, cinema has emerged as the central art form of our time, ergo (the Hobsbawm steamroller concludes) David Selznick's Gone with the Wind is a more "revolutionary" work than Pablo Picasso's Guernica. So, one wonders, if painting is primarily intended for private consumption, why ask it to do something public?
Looking at paintings, like reading literature, has always been a minority activity. Picasso's pioneering cubist works of 1905-14, which Hobsbawm thinks put painting "on the way to nowhere", were produced for a tiny quorum of opinion-forming consumers. Those were the hard facts of cultural life then; nowadays anyone can enter a bookshop and buy a book of elegant Picasso reproductions for under a tenner. Hobsbawm's branding of Picasso's cubist project, and indeed just about all of 20th-century painting, as a "failure" on quantitative grounds is a historical anachronism, depressingly playing to the relativist crowd.
Reading this book, a superbly produced transcript of the 1998 Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture, you feel that deep in his cussedly Marxist heart Hobsbawm dislikes the elitism of the best painting. He is partial to a bit of machine-age Leger, and he thinks the London Tube map the most original work of avant-garde art in Britain between the wars - "technology and art in the service of rational communication" - but he hates abstraction as the most loathsomely elitist medium of all. "What could painting do once it abandoned the traditional language of representation?" he asks. "What could it communicate?" Presumably those who burst into tears in front of a Rothko canvas ought to have their heads examined.
Hobsbawm argues that it is Andy Warhol, with his Factory-reproduced figurations, who, alone among postwar painters, "expresses the time". Posterity (and the art market) is already proving him right, at least in this instance. Which leaves us exactly where? Well, with the relentless search for cultural novelty that now passes for what we once called the avant-garde. As Hobsbawm himself wrote in the closing chapter of The Age of Extremes, we are approaching the end of a Hegelian cultural cycle that stretches back to the end of the 18th century and the very roots of modernism.
Few doubt that the age of intellectual elitism is over. The arts have been democratised - the final triumph of capitalism would allow nothing less - and exclusive notions of high art, on which the heroic age of avant-garde painting depended, are hurriedly being consigned to the dustbin. With the digitised 21st century upon us, the art of easel painting has become an art of nostalgia. And why even bother to look at a real painting when the RA's Monet show can be enjoyed on-line in the comfort of your own home? Move over the avant-garde, make way for the leisure industry.
Scott Reyburn is a novelist