Blog / 2018 / Painting in a Traditional Realist Style Is Like Doing a Cover Song.

February 26, 2018

[video transcript]

Cover songs—of both the audio and visual varieties—are a little like hyperrealism or fan art and a lot like celebrity portraiture, and I don’t love any of those kinds of art. If you want to know more about how all art has a nostalgia/imitation element to it, I recommend my book about copyright.

Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Barack Obama and Amy Sherald’s portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama
Kehinde Wiley President Barack Obama and Amy Sherald First Lady Michelle Obama

When you hear one, it’s like this tugging feeling on the back of your brain: “do I know this tune?” And then that confusion quickly resolves itself and blossoms into this beautiful mixture of nostalgia and new.

It’s a cover song!

And if you liked the original piece, you are going to be intrigued by the new version. You may not love it, but you will be attracted to it because of that familiar thing that you liked so much.

And I think that, in visual art, the equivalent of the cover song is painting in a traditional academic realist kind of style—something like this. If you’re familiar with western art, there’s lots of references in this image that feel very familiar, like things you’ve seen again and again. And then there’s the newness of a different subject, and a couple other things that are maybe a little bit new. But there’s a real, like, feeling of nostalgia about this painting. It is very comfortable for a lot of people and very seductive.

So it’s a lot easier for an artist who is making this kind of work to gain an audience for their art than an artist who’s making work like this. Here there’s definitely a mixture of nostalgia plus new, like there is in all art. But the nostalgia that’s being referenced is less popular maybe, certainly less obvious, a little more daring. And the new that’s being injected into this work is also less obvious and more daring.

There is nothing wrong with making cover songs or the visual equivalent of cover songs. And there is lots of creativity to be found in that work, but it’s just not as interesting to me. I am not excited about artists who are looking at the past and trying to freshen up something old for a current audience.

What gets me going is the kind of artists who are looking for something newer, and those are the artists that I want to support!

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