A couple days ago I wrote about the fact the mythology and religion, as viable subjects for the painter's arts, had declined to an alarming degree. A reader saw this as hardly alarming, perhaps even a positive development. Let me clarify. I think what I saw as "sad and frightening" about the virtual demise of mythological, and to a slightly lesser extent, religious painting, is the fact that as a result, painting has now become so narrowly focused. It's true, art historians have always had a need to categorise and conjugate past subject categories. It helps in the understanding of past art and artists. But, I think my point is that so many artists have now turned to depictions of their world, whether external or internal, literal or abstract, to the point that the vast majority have forgotten how to handle what used to be fully half their pool of art subject matter.
By their very nature, mythology and religion demand story telling abilities, something that now seems to have been relegated to the art of cartoonists. There certainly are modern-day myths and religions as well, and I might point out I certainly never limited religious art to Christianity (I used the plural term, deities). Also, I'm not crazy about angels either. By the same token, I don't consider angels or "new age" art religious (contemporary mythology maybe). But mythology, as painted by our forebears, was never contemporary. I don't think the idea of contemporary mythology (as such) even occurred to them. Certainly it wasn't evidenced in their art. To place it in perspective, to some extent, ancient mythology was seen as an intellectual, perhaps light-hearted, but nonetheless socially acceptable cover for nudity with sexual overtones. It was also seen as a means of teaching great moral parables outside the context of religion, and at a time when religious art was starting its long decline from favour. Perhaps art today no longer wants to deal with morals and no longer worries about the social acceptability of nudity or sexual elements. If so, that too, would be sad and frightening.
But moral considerations aside, speaking purely from an art point of view, I have to repeat; I think it's sad and a bit frightening that painters have let their narrative painting skills deteriorate to such an alarming degree, leaving it to TV, the movies, and cartoonists to carry on whatever may be left of this tradition. I dare say most artists I know, even the most experienced ones, would have a difficult time telling a religious or mythological story in paint. Most wouldn't even want to try. I've tried it and know from experience how hard it is. It's not something I'd want to do very often. It demands clarity of thought and purpose, exceptional organisational/compositional skills, and linear thinking beyond the scope of most working painters today. It's so much easier to just paint for the sake of painting, or to present a frozen, fully developed, conceptual conclusion in our work than to explain to the viewer visually how we arrived at that end.
contributed by Lane, Jim
14 January 2001