Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 4

What We Are Painting


I have examined the content of 21st -century representational art to ask what the choice of subjects tells us about what artists think is important. I am disregarding questions of technique or style to look at the possibility of creating meaning in our fractured age. While the increasing popularity of fantasy and imagined worlds as subjects for representational art suggests they offer meaning to many, I have never saved any such image for future consideration, so these subjects are not discussed. The categories I propose are personal and have fluid boundaries–semi-permeable membranes, if you will. I recognize the hazard of writing as if the varied work of so many artists with such differing backgrounds was all of a piece. I have also taken advantage of the opportunity to quote many of the artists speaking about their purposes in their own words.One choice we see is to recapitulate views of the past as represented by the new atelier movement. Jacob Collins has led the way these last twenty years, with the serial founding of ateliers largely based on the 19th-century French academy system. His student may spend an entire school year making one drawing of a plaster cast ornament. This approach can confuse technique for substance, mistaking how well we do something for why. Further, while atelier students may master the techniques of the 19th century, they lack its system for distribution of their work and, more importantly, its consensus of acceptable topics to paint. Consequently, this leads to still life paintings, with a particular concentration on those same plaster casts; landscapes that are essentially pastiches; nudes and portraits in the static poses required by the practice of working from the outline in; or figures shown in costume and poses such as appealed to those who were nostalgic for a simpler past more than 125 years ago. The Art Renewal Center list of approved ateliers has grown at a rapid pace, yet after admiring the technical mastery of much atelier work, I cannot find a strong case to make that the content is important. In the words of Michael Zakian, “What is added to the world with such technical skills, beyond technique?”

John Currin also employs technique based on his understanding of old masters to paint pictures that he doesn’t want his own children to see, so I won’t show them either.1 His work has been described as “contemporary renditions of old master poses and formats that often conflate opposing sensibilities—vaulted taste with vulgarity, sentimentality with irony, and conventional beauty with banality.”2 Currin himself has said he chose pornography as a subject in part because of his fury that mainstream American publications refused to show the controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005; the affair quickly escalated into an international diplomatic crisis.3 That the Muslim religion practices “aniconism,” the prohibition of figurative representation and, in particular, the figure of Mohammed, seems to have been less the issue for Currin than the threat to freedom of expression. “We have been hearing a lot of guilt about…the godless libertine West. I sort of imagined these as illustrations of that insecurity—the twilight of secular socialist democracy. It is important to me that I think of them as images of Europe,” Currin explained to an interviewer.4 Reacting to the demands of religious fundamentalism with pornography has made for an improbable, though entertaining, commentary on the choice of subject for representational art in the 21st century.

  1. Calvin Tomkins, “Lifting the Veil: Old Masters, pornography, and the work of John Currin,” The New Yorker, January 28, 2008.
  2. Getty Perspectives: James Cuno and John Currin, accessed December 1, 2015,
  3. Heiko Henkel, “Fundamentally Danish? The Muhammad Cartoon Crisis as Transitional Drama,” in Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, A Publication of OKCIR: The Omar Khayyam Center for Integrative Research in Utopia, Mysticism and Science, VIII, 2, Fall 2010, accessed December 4, 2015, http://okcir/Articles%20VIII%202Henkel-FM.pdf
  4. David Usborne, “John Currin: The filth and the fury,” Independent,