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‘Dead he is not, but departed, for the artist never dies.’— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Death is only but a phase of transition for an artist, from the mortal world to the immortal one. It’s no surprise that we find the two words, ‘art’ and ‘immortality,’ so closely associated with each other that they seem synonymous.

When an artist sketches, paints, or just splashes colors on a canvas, they are etching their soul on the white fabric. Allowing a part of their soul to dwell within a physical, tangible object that will outlive their physical body. An artist creates art and brings an inanimate plain canvas to life. The now-alive canvas will live until the end of time itself. In other words, by creating art, an artist becomes immortal.

So, while an artist can never die, who says art can?

Art has been announced dead countless times over the past few decades. The very fact that the debate on whether art is dead or not has been continuing for half a century or so tells us that art is still very much alive, even thriving.

Those who believe art is dead have not been able to decide when or why did it die exactly. But just for the sake of inclusion and a better formation of opinion, let’s take into consideration their point of view.

Who Says Art Is Dead and Why?

It’s certainly not artists who make the above-mentioned claim, but they still are people who are profoundly concerned with art, its state in today’s world, and how, in their opinion, it has deteriorated over the years.

There are people in this world who love art and feel deeply connected to it. And there are those who are indifferent to art or what state it’s in right now. We can safely say that the group of people claiming art’s quietus are not from the latter, but the former group. Because to form such a strong, expressive opinion of art, one has to be connected to it at a deeper level.

Hence, one must respect any and all opinions coming from people who talk about art with passion and knowledge, however incomplete though. Among the names who’ve formed an opinion about the end of art, the renowned American art critic, Arthur Danto, is the most noticeable.

Danto’s the Death of Art

Danto has written various publications focused on the end of art. His book, “The Death of Art – 1984,” is one of the most renowned works on this subject.

In his book and his popularly cited essay, “The End of Art,” Arthur takes a philosophical approach to convince his audience through a progressive model of art and some of his personal judgments about the current state of art.

Did the Camera Kill Art?

The first argument he presents, relating to the progressive model of art history, is that ever since its inception, art has been an incessant endeavor to mimic reality as closely and as faithfully as possible. This model states that art continued to advance because artists struggled to create art that looked better, and more realistic than preceding works of art.

But Danto says the continuous struggle to create realistic art practically came to an abrupt end. This happened with the advent of the camera.

This argument can effectively be countered by mentioning the simple fact that camera and motion picture has helped and enhanced illustrative art more than it has damaged it. As the camera replaced the need to mimic nature on the canvas, it promoted another more sedulous form of art – Expressionism.

Did Art Stop Evolving?

Danto’s second claim regarding the progressive art model is that after phasing into Expressionism, art had nowhere further to go. Danto says that art, as a means of ‘communication of feeling,’ cannot follow a linear path and will remain non-progressive. He says so because human beings cannot develop new forms of emotions to convey through art. Hence, expressionism is stagnancy and the end of art.

But the second claim too is proved wrong by examining the progress of Expressionism as a form of art over the course of history. That Fauvism gave way to Cubism and Cubism to Surrealism is evidence that Expressionism has and will continue to evolve.

While the debate with Danto will go on forever, we think we’ve won the first two rounds. Oh wait, Danto passed away in 2013. But we’re still debating with him. Which means he’s communicating with us, through his written word, through his art. His art is very much alive.

Some express their extreme disappointment with contemporary art and complain about it being too unaesthetic, self-referential, clichéd, and often thoughtless.

Reductive art is another weapon art critics used to support their opinion. Reductive art, if you’re not already aware of it, is the opposite of creative art. Art has always been a creative process ever since, and now to see it becoming a destructive process prompts criticism.

Take, for example, Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 “Erased De Kooning.” Rauschenberg knocked on De Kooning’s door to ask him for one of his sketches. Upon receiving it, he employed Reductive art. Erased the sketch, and displayed it as a blank sheet of paper with a few smudges, remnants of the drawing that existed there.

Or the “Double Negative,” made by Michael Heizer, where he dug out a massive 240,000 tons of earth to create a ditch. A work of art featuring negative space.

Upon encountering such developments in the art world, many lament the transition of art from a continually advancing means of communication to something that seems utterly meaningless, destructive, and sometimes visually unappealing.

Art Is an Independent Discipline

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The same applies to art too. You can never differentiate art from non-art. Well, there are qualifying requirements that art galleries and critics use to determine whether an artwork is qualified for their standards or not. There is no specific threshold that differentiates art from non-art.

Someone can draw an irregular round line on a piece of paper and call it art. Another person might agree with them. If you don’t call it art, it doesn’t matter to them. In the same way, an erased De Kooning, tons of earth removed from a peak, and a banana sticking to the wall are works of art for the artists who make them and their audience. Because as long as there is an artist and an audience that calls something art, it is art.

Art Lives, as Long as Humanity Does

Art has existed for as long as humans have, and it will live for as long as humanity lives or even more than that. It was there more than 30,000 years ago when the Homo Sapiens created Rhino drawings inside caves. It has survived mass extinctions, dark ages, and great wars. Why will art die now?

Art has always been a form of expressing feelings that can’t be put into words. It continues to be the platform for artists all over the world to convey their feelings and make an impression on the world around them.

Be it in the form of a meticulously detailed portrait or something as simple-looking as a blank canvas, titled “no image.”

The camera has not killed art. It has enhanced it. It has allowed artists to share their art with the whole world and get inspiration from things located on the other side of the world.

The camera has opened new avenues for art. Because of it, artists can be more creative, use imaginative colors, and create designs the eye cannot see in nature.

Art Is Thriving!

At the moment, painting and other forms of art are thriving! There are artists, art shows, exhibitions, and art galleries springing up in every corner of the world. Not to mention, online art galleries are all the rage now. This shows that the art world is bustling more than ever. Artists are sharing their work, collaborating, inspiring, and getting inspired by photography, social media, and the digital age – the very things critics claim to be the death of art.

Painting and other forms of art have diversified more than ever. While a critic such as Danto will point out the most surprising works of contemporary art, like a banana taped to a wall, there are still many other types of art being made all over the world. 

From miniature paintings to giant sculptures, the number of artists and works of art being made in the world today is more than ever. Art is changing, and it’s changing the world too!

Last but not least, having an audience grants immortality to art. As long as a painting is communicating some sort of message to even a single person in the audience, and that person appreciates the message, the painting qualifies as art and will stay so for as long as it has that one person in its audience.

Coming back to where we started. Art makes the artist immortal because art lives forever. A work of art lives in the heart of its maker, who has created it with passion and grit. A work of art lives forever because it’s an embodiment of an artist’s soul.

Zainab Waseem
Zainab Waseem

Zainab Waseem is a writer & content creator. Specializing in the realms of art, business, & technology, she has written for various publications over her career. Zainab has a particular affinity with politics, economics, and art and adds value to the Art section at Writer’s Order.