It doesn't have anything to do with the fact that Turner Prize winner Richard Wright is a painter; three other painters have won before. What is significant is Wright's way of disposing of his art- he uses white emulsion to make his walls of gold disappear.
This could be categorised as the "the aesthetics of disappearance", an art that has destruction programmed into it. Why is this important today? For Wright, the world is full of "stuff", rather like the bursting cornucopia of digital TV- mostly stuff we can happily do without. The cultural sphere is filling up rapidly and Wright believes less is definitely more. From a strictly art history perspective, Wright's aesthetic can be tied into the current backlash against the 1980s YBA movement, especially Damien Hirst. Hirst, Emin et al are all about producing art objects, largely superfluous, for exhibition in the galleries of Joplin and other avatars of bad taste. Whilst some of this "stuff" is interesting, most of it, like the ephemera of the media industries, seems dispensable.
It's worth asking if Wright's condemnation of over-produced art places him in the camp of those previous modern art commentators like Matthew Collings and Robert Hughes who have become sceptical of postmodern, image-saturated art. Should Wright's effacing art be relocated within a classical tradition that these hitherto boosters of modern art have turned to: Raphael, Rubens, whose art depends upon planning and methodical execution rather than improvisation and novelty, the stock in trade of the YBA crowd. Some critics would happily re-claim Wright for an anti YBA tendency. They would say that Wright's painting marks a return to academic principles: use of the cartoon and preliminary drawings to provide the basic design for the artist to follow. Yes, Wright owes much to traditional fresco painting; but renaissance painters – in some cases- destroyed only their cartoons, not the paintings themselves. But Wright after meticulously planning and painting a wall invariably paints over it, removing it from the sight of his audience, and, let us not forget, himself; Raphael and others were aiming for immortality through their work. Wright's strategy resembles the process of forgetting; deliberately expunging selected parts of memory unlike renaissance art which relied on copying and the recall of ideas and motifs for the maintenance of a tradition.
There's another issue here. I wonder if it is right to say that in destroying his art, Wright removes it from history, let alone art history- not an easy question to answer as we seem to be at the end of history, even living in a post-historical condition. In his book, Art History after Modernism, Hans Belting analysed what he called the "continuity of painting", a space where painting is the site of memories or change rather than part of a movement in art history propelled by progress. Despite attempts to create new types of painting such as neo-expressionism in the 1980s- Schnabel, Basquiat- doubt about concepts such as history and time ensured that such movements were short-lived. It's interesting to consider Wright's painted-over painting in the context of Belting's discussion of post-history and post-modernism. Belting sees art at the end of history split between emancipation from the tradition or replaying "a lost game" in exhibitions and commentary. It strikes me that Wright's gold leaf walls despite their remembrances of art of earlier epochs escape the continuum of painting and the game of repetition and replay; hence it is a mistake to try to claim them as modern re-inventions of renaissance fresco painting, as one critic has. Wright is not the modern equivalent of Giotto or Raphael. Rather, Wright's art has to do with intervals in the artist's and the viewer's life- experiences not reliant on a model of continuous development of art over time, or worse, art that defines its modernity in the context of what has already existed.
That was a sentiment expressed by the cultural historian Walter Benjamin who equated the continually repeated with the condition of hell. Benjamin quoted Kafka from The Trial: the incident where the painter Titorelli produces canvas after canvas, all identical in every respect, from under his bed for the befuddled protagonist K to buy. By destroying his art, Wright ensures his art cannot be sold, or rendered into the status of the commodity. That is what makes Wright's disappearing act significant for the age of late-capitalism