11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 55

Is this the end of painting?

Martin Gayford asks whether the high-tech age spells doom for old-fashioned art

Some arty readers may have been concerned by the recent news about Monet and Rolf Harris. A substantial section of the population, it seems, is unable to tell the difference between them — some thinking that the Australian entertainer depicted the waterlilies at Giverny. Admittedly, both have or had grizzled beards, but even so the information is a disturbing straw in the wind.

So, too, is the information that almost half the population haven't a clue who painted the 'Mona Lisa' (though only one man thought it was by Leonardo DiCaprio). Is this finally the end for the grand old medium of painting? Will it be killed, not — as foretold long ago — by photography but by a general indifference? Does the moronic inferno of the information age spell doom for old-fashioned art?

Painting, it must be admitted, is very old technology indeed. It has been suggested that prehistoric painting may actually have preceded the development of speech. Whether or not you accept that, it is clear that one of the very first acts of human culture was to sketch bison and similar beasts on the walls of caves. Quite why this was done is not clear, but that is often the case with art. People ask the same question about the works of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin: why do they do it? Part of the point of painting seems to be that, in a practical sense, it's pretty pointless.

And, essentially, the art of painting has not advanced much since those days, 10,000 or 15,000 years ago. Some, indeed, would say that it's got worse; the veteran Spanish modernist Joan Miro, for example, used to claim that art had been decadent since the days of the cavemen. Admittedly, the occasional technique or device has been introduced — canvas, turps, single-point perspective — but still, a master from Lascaux or Altamira would understand what most painters were up to in 2003. And he or she might be able to do it better.

Gary Hume, one of the most prominent painters to pop up in Britain in the 1990s, is fond of saying that he's just a caveman, painting on his wall. He means it metaphorically, of course. Hume's work is more likely to be found in the Tate, the Saatchi Gallery, or at the Venice Biennale than in anywhere so damp and badly lit as a cave. But, fundamentally, he's right.

Meanwhile, other media have appeared, superficially at least more in tune with the times. Video artists such as the American Bill Viola — whose work this autumn occupies the rooms at the National Gallery that were devoted to Titian in the spring — are at the forefront of technical possibility. Viola explores extreme slow motion, combined with sumptuous production values.

Other contemporary artists make works of art that are barely distinguishable from feature films. The epic narratives of Matthew Barney, another acclaimed American artist, have stars, soundtrack, elaborate budgets, everything that feature films have except comprehensible plot and dialogue (and not all new releases at your local cinema have those either). Then there's sound art, photo art, virtual-reality art and performance art. What can a caveman or an Old Master, armed with a palette and a few hog's-hair brushes, do to compete?

Nothing — or that was the answer given by a fellow critic I was chatting to at the Venice Biennale earlier this year. In an age so saturated with extraordinary moving, interactive images. Old Master paint ing at least is doomed to irrelevancy. In the future, Titian and Rembrandt, he went on, would seem merely quaint archaeological exhibits. Even modern painters would lose touch with that tradition.

As it happened, a contemporary painter of the coolest variety — exhibited in Sensation, collected by Charles Saatchi — was sitting nearby. So we rounded on him to settle this last point. Who was the earliest figure in the history of art who meant much to him personally. He thought for a moment, then answered, 'El Greco'. El Greco may not be quite as venerable as Lascaux, but he is old-fashioned enough (he died in 1614).

But cutting-edge and up-to-the-minute though he is, this young fellow was after all a painter, and painters of any kind are a conservative bunch. John Currin, who is just at the moment the coolest painter alive, and the toast of New York society, is famously interested in Cranach and Tiepolo. Whether he is any good or not, to judge by his exhibition at the Serpentine gallery, is another matter.

But artists in other media often end up obsessed by painting. Bill Viola, high tech though he is, is at the National Gallery because much of his work takes as its starting point paintings by masters such as Pontormo. Bosch and Bellini. Even for artists who work in other media, painting often remains the touchstone. You can tell that what Viola does is art, and not something else, because it is related to the grand tradition of painting.

Does anybody else give much of a damn? Recently, Tom Utley confessed in this magazine to not liking Leonardo da Vinci (`Madonna of the Pseuds', 13 September). In fact he is in distinguished company there. Lucian Freud has said that a book should be written, saying what an awful artist da Vinci was. But Utley went on to suggest that many educated bourgeois folk do not in their hearts really much like culture. They only think they ought to, and pretend.

If so, they are pretending pretty hard. If half the population can't remember who painted the 'Mona Lisa' — or never knew in the first place — the other half seem anxious to travel to Paris and stand in front of it. In fact it is an excellent example of a work of art so popular that no one has had a chance to see it properly for decades. There is a constant, jostling throng in front of the picture, so only the staff of the Louvre and those lucky enough to be let in after hours ever get a chance to look at it as a painting should be looked at, slowly and tranquilly.

The number of people who are interested in old pictures — whether sincerely or not — is so large that it threatens to swamp the most famous, and to reduce the most popular exhibitions to rush-hour Tube conditions of crowding. True, many modern people like to have the experience packaged for them in a modern fashion, so they go round with a taped guide clamped to their ears. Still, the interest is there.

If any more people start 'pretending' to be interested in painting, blockbuster exhibitions may become impossible to enter. As it is, all the pre-booked tickets for Gauguin in Tahiti now on in Paris were sold before the exhibition opened. And if all those people who currently believe it was Rolf Harris who went to the South Seas and produced all those paintings found out their mistake, that might be the end. Gridlock would descend on the galleries of the world.