Art of endurance

Charles Saatchi has been busy ridding his gallery of messy beds, dead dads and sliced cows to make w

The other week, I got a call from someone at the publisher Jonathan Cape. Would I like to write the catalogue essay for a big, ambitious cycle of exhibitions that Charles Saatchi is planning for 2005? Intrigued, I asked what the mega-collector had in mind. The answer astonished me. Saatchi is moving all the Damien Hirsts, Tracey Emins and other Brit artists out of his palatial lair at County Hall in London. In their place, a three-part show will mark his gallery's 20th anniversary by celebrating "The Triumph of Painting". Saatchi wanted me to write a wide-ranging essay, placing the primacy of painting today in the context of its role over the past century or so.

I told the man from Cape that it was impossible for me to oblige. Sounding puzzled, he asked why. I explained that, throughout my career, I had supported an open attitude to the array of possible media available for contemporary artists. As a young critic on the London Evening Standard in the 1970s, I had no time for the old idea that painting was pre-eminent. Plenty of readers felt affronted by the idea that "art" could legitimately explore the potential of photography, film, video, performance and so on. But artists were already producing powerful work by investigating these alternative forms, which have enriched art ever since.

Despite accusations levelled against me by diehard champions of pigment on canvas, I also admired a diverse range of contemporary painters - Howard Hodgkin as much as Robert Ryman. Yet I saw no reason why they should be regarded as superior to artists working in other ways. I certainly couldn't understand why so many people denounced the new media as "not art".

When E H Gombrich wrote his classic The Story of Art more than half a century ago, he declared in the introduction that "there is really no such thing as art. There are only artists." It was a sane and liberating remark, rooted in an aware- ness of the transformations undergone by "art" ever since image-making began in the prehistoric era. Gombrich's remark turned out to be prophetic, too. The late 20th century was a momentous period of widening directions taken by experimental young practitioners.

In the early 1980s, there was a concerted attempt to reassert the supremacy of painting. Its most spectacular manifestation in London was a monumental exhibition at the Royal Academy called "A New Spirit in Painting". This contained a few impressive young artists, most notably the German Anselm Kiefer, but too many were uncomfortably close to blustering, latter-day expressionists. Their work has not lasted well, and most of them failed to develop in satisfying ways. Dealers and collectors who paid exorbitant prices for their work must have regretted the extravagance ever since. The most outstanding individuals in "A New Spirit" - Philip Guston, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud - were far older and could hardly be hailed as proponents of a fresh impetus in art.

Plenty of other avenues were opened up during the 1980s, in many cases by artists who did not flourish until the following decade. As Saatchi was quick to recognise, a new generation wasted little time in stamping the British art scene of the 1990s with a startlingly different iden- tity. Powerful painters could be counted among them, including Peter Doig, Gary Hume and Jenny Saville. On the whole, however, young artists preferred to move between a diverse range of media. Hirst certainly produced paintings, but he also created works with a shark, formaldehyde and dead sheep. When he won the Turner Prize in 1995, some critics loudly deplored the absence of painting from the prize show. They failed to notice that Hirst's main exhibit, the sliced cow and calf called Mother and Child, Div-ided, could be seen as a reinterpretation of religious painters' long involvement with the theme of maternity.

Painting will not go away, can never be ignored and is certainly not "dead", as it was declared in the 1970s. Even in Turner Prize shows, it has emerged with unpredictable force - for example, in Callum Innes's minimal abstraction, Michael Raedecker's combination of embroidery and pigment or Chris Ofili's provocative canvases incorporating collage and elephant dung. Yinka Shonibare, a flamboyant member of the most recent Turner Prize shortlist, may not use paint in all his work, but his "African" fabric images, using cloth bought at Brixton Market, are saturated with thick, uninhibited swirls of paint. Even his gaudy and disturbing sculpture of a headless mannequin kicking off its shoes on a swing looks back to Fragonard's celebrated 18th-century canvas in the Wallace Collection.

There is really no need to see painting as an activity engaged in a struggle with other media, all of them bent on reducing it to an insignificant role in the art of the future. It will always play a vital part in the fruitful dialogue between an ever more diverse range of possibilities for image-making. And the painters of the past will continue to stimulate contemporary artists in the 21st century and beyond. However, we would be foolish to suppose that painting will ever regain the dominance it enjoyed in earlier times - such times can never return in a restless and swiftly changing world where new visual strategies are constantly becoming available. To survive, art must always be alert to its own era. Only thus can it be authentic, adventurous and innovative. That is why we should guard against lapsing into a nostalgic fantasy about the so-called "triumph of painting".

I greatly admire some of the artists in Saatchi's forthcoming extravaganza, and look forward to seeing painters as outstanding as Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans in the opening instalment. But why do we have to see them as part of a vic- torious event, trumpeting the superiority of the medium they employ? If I were among the painters in Saatchi's display, the gleeful label would embarrass me. After all, both Dumas and Tuymans are obsessed with mortality, not triumph, and they feed off photographic and televisual sources. So did many of the artists whom Saatchi purchased in the 1990s, when he believed in the diversity of media and would have laughed at any attempt to give painting the winner's crown.

However tempting, yearning for a lost supremacy is a doomed enterprise. Far from leading to glory, it can only end in disenchantment.

"The Triumph of Painting" opens at the Saatchi Gallery, London SE1 (020 7928 8195) on 26 January. A book of the same title will be published on 6 January by Jonathan Cape (£35)

Four paperbacks of Richard Cork's writings on modern art are available from Yale University Press

Is painting back for good?

Michael Craig-Martin, Artist
The announcement of the return of painting is a triumph of public relations, not painting. Painting never went away. There are always artists making interesting paintings - sometimes they attract little attention, sometimes, as now, a lot. The traditional division of art according to medium is no longer relevant or useful. The most absurd is the supposed division between painting and conceptual art. Some painting is conceptual (to the extent that this overabused term still has any meaning), and some is not. Some photography and video is better understood in the context of painting than in that of other work in the same medium. More than 40 years ago, artists started to challenge and eventually overturn the hegemony of painting. Today painting is one of an artist's options, by its nature neither out of date nor suddenly relevant. I think painting will always attract some artists because of its combination of orthodoxy and openness, its capacity to respond to every level of engagement from obsessiveness to detachment.

Jack Vettriano, Painter
Much was written in the 1980s about the "return to painting", but I don't think it ever really went away, as such. Perhaps figurative work was ignored for a while, overshadowed by other media deemed to be of more contemporary relevance or perhaps more apposite for the movement in vogue at the time. Things of beauty give me great pleasure and I've always valued the skill and craftsmanship that is obvious in the work of an artist who has truly mastered paint as his chosen medium. My exposure to art came relatively late in life when I started visiting local public galleries to see if I could work out, and thereby teach myself, how the artists I admired used light, shade and texture to create their images.

Charles Saumarez Smith, Director, National Gallery
Over the past two decades, there has been a recurrent debate over the role of painting and its centrality as an art form, beginning with the return of painting in the early 1980s and the exhibition "Zeitgeist" at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. In the 1990s, it was clear that painting was taking a back seat to new art forms, especially film and video, but also versions of performance art, as represented by the Young British Artists. But that doesn't mean painting has ever lost its legitimacy. My own view is that it will continue to retain its importance to collectors (not many people want to own performance art) and that it will remain, as it always has been, a practice with its own passionate followers among artists who want to master the medium of canvas and oil paint.

John Squire, Musician and painter
So British painting is back. When did it leave? Was it something we said? Were Fiona Rae and Gary Hume not listening? Painting didn't stop; it just faded from view in the tabloids' frenzied mockery of shock art. Surely there's room for everyone. I love the smell of paint, the surface, the imperfection, the mess and the magic inherent in subtracting one dimension from three. I'd rather play a round of golf with Josef Mengele than suffer another video installation (if you've seen one desperately naked individual cavorting on a carpet of ball bearings, you've seen them all), but it takes all sorts. Painting is cheap. All you really need is a lump of earth, a burnt stick and your own spit, or a few tins of Dulux. I'm no Luddite, but the king's new clothes were wearing a little thin.

Gillian Ayres, Painter
I have spent my whole life painting and have never been interested in conceptual art. Painting has not declined; people have just focused on other things. One reason for the popularity of conceptual art is that people like to feel they understand. They like things that are easier to explain. Painting is hard to understand and hard to write about. In the 1950s, Patrick Heron wrote on the visual nature of art for the New Statesman, but he was sacked, I think, because no one understood him. But it is very important that visual as much as verbal practices are maintained. I am concerned about the future of painting because I have doubts about how much has been going on in art schools. How much have students been encouraged to paint? I don't think much of Saatchi's power, and I couldn't care less about what he says. I find it alarming that people follow him like stooges, and I wish they would form their own opinions. However, I am heartened by the idea that painting may flourish in the future. I hope it does.

Julian Stallabrass, Art historian
"The Triumph of Painting" is an advertising slogan and should be treated with all the scepticism reserved for manufacturers' pronouncements about the virtues of their cars or lagers. Painting is the art form most conveniently bought and sold. It can be stored and displayed without taking up much space, its conservation is well understood and it is widely recognised to be "art". So it is unsurprising that painting's triumphs run in concert with the economic cycle, being tied to each upswing. Saatchi's latest effort is a speculative venture, betting that the likely revival of the economy will bear with it the fortunes of painting. It should be remembered that not all of his ventures are successful - he was unable, for example, to make the art world believe in the existence of the "New Neurotic Realism", another punt founded in part on faux-expressive painting.

Julian Opie, Artist
I often used to argue about this with my first wife, who is a painter. She felt, I think, that there was a special, distinct (and glorious) history and tradition to painting on canvas. I can't help thinking, what about painting on something else? What about making a coloured flat image on canvas but using sheets of sticky-backed plastic (as I do)? What about an image on an LCD screen? What about egg tempera on a plaster ceiling? Or coloured sand on the floor? Surely painting, or image-making, has been done over the centuries in whatever were the most available and appealing mediums. I think the problem arises when you start to look at movements and trends instead of artists and artworks. However you choose to make something has meaning and multiple references. If you make it in lavatory paper or diamonds or tank parts, the meaning and look of those materials will have a large part to play in the finished work. Perhaps there was a time when an artist could make something in oil paint on canvas or in bronze and feel it was normal and proper. I think now you would have to be purposely naive to do so (though this is OK in art). There was a period before I was out of college when these issues were battled out among artists and it was difficult to make paintings without appearing conservative and thoughtless. Those battles have been fought and won, I think. "Painting is dead"; "painting is back": what is really dead is this argument. People do what they want, or at least what they can think of, and sometimes the best way to achieve that will be oil paint on canvas. My ex-wife would disagree.

John Hoyland, Painter
Painting is a language: a subtle, shifting, variable language, a bit like music. The problem is, people in positions of power don't understand it and haven't bothered to learn it. Painting was declared dead in 1972, and since then has been considered a cottage industry and sadly neglected. It's been a hard time for painters. But many of the ideas that have been resurrected by other artists are old hat and meaningless. There is a powerful monopoly of people who prefer conceptual art. But the thing about great artists is their ability to keep coming back. Painting is certainly the most relevant, vital medium - it's nice of Charles Saatchi to realise that after all these years. While the work of Tracey Emin is essentially folk art, painting is a magical, alchemic art - you just can't fake it.

Anthony Frost, Abstract painter
Painting will always be around. It's like a style in fashion: it gets picked up and thrown into the spotlight now and again. Maybe it is in trouble, though, as the £30,000 Jerwood Prize for painting stopped this year. That leaves the John Moores as the only competition with serious prize money for "real" painters. All mediums are relevant; painting is only one of them. I saw the Bruce Nauman show at the Hayward a while back: all video, but the best thing I've seen in years. I saw the Cy Twombly works on paper show this year at the Serpentine Gallery: superb. I saw The Fall at the Royal Festival Hall back in January - amazing music, totally relevant. And I saw the Rothko show in Paris a few years back, which made me sit down and cry; it was overwhelming. Painting today is alive and kicking because, as fashions come and go, there are people who just carry on doing it and get better at it. Just think of John Hoyland, Basil Beattie, Craigie Aitchison, Cy Twombly, Albert Irvin, Patrick Caulfield and Sean Scully. Long live painting!

This article first appeared in the 01 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, We punish the man, but protect a corrupt system