Painting in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Painting in the Age of Digital Reproduction
Catalogue essay for ‘The Analogue Surface,’ curated by Lis Fields
Workplace Arts Gallery

Painting in the Age of Digital Reproduction

In 1935 Walter Benjamin first argued that the technologies of mass reproduction offered an opportunity to revolutionise art. Reproducibility offered the opportunity for reproducible art to displace the limitations of the unique object dependant upon its unique situation. Technical reproduction had the potential to expand the possibilities for art: to reach mass recipients and, as he put it, to meet them half way. Benjamin was writing in the face of fascism and its fetishisation of authenticity and authority. Against the fascist idea of heroic individualism, reproducibility gave hope of communal production and consumption.

Today, our situation is very different. Reproducible images and ideas saturate and colonise not only the work environment but what is now called leisure time. Global capitalism has fully embraced technical reproduction. It is used, however, to isolate the individual by helping to instil and service individual tastes. Identity is presented as the accumulation of choices of the individual in terms of desire, indulgence and consumption. Mass recipients are no longer met half way. The technologies of reproduction have become complicit with what Slavoj Zizek has called the obscene super-ego injunction to enjoy. What capitalism needs is sustained and excessive consumption and therefore the kind of individuals who define themselves through such indulgent behaviour.

We live in an age of digital reproduction. From stock market prices to digital cameras, information is quantified into binary distinctions, which allows for its immediate reproduction and mobility. In contrast to older, mechanical forms of reproduction, digital technology is marked by the dematerialization of its images. With a photograph taken on film, there is an original negative: each print is derived from this original. With a digital photograph, the image is immediately recorded as coded information. The reproduction of this information can be complete, without loss or degradation. In a sense, the image does not exist apart from it reproduction: to talk of an original is meaningless.

It is the very archaic qualities of painting, those which made it susceptible to Benjamin’s critique, that might give it the potential to provide a critical perspective on the current dominance of technologically reproduced images. In contrast to mechanical reproduction, painting produces unique objects, marked by the labour of the artist. In contrast to digital reproduction, it produces a substantial, material surface. Paint has unique qualities. The pigments used in painting produce a colour range that cannot be reproduced through mechanical printing. The same is true of the particular characteristics of the surface of the paint. The scale of the painting also relates directly to the body of the recipient: paintings can encourage an intimate proximity or overwhelm with sheer size. Paintings have particular viewing distance: intricacies of surface can encourage a close scrutiny; optical effects can demand a distance. To state that painting embodies these specific qualities, that cannot be reproduced without loss, is nothing new and no guarantee of relevance nor quality. What is new, is the particular social and cultural circumstances in which painting, like everything else, now finds itself. Painting means nothing if it does not respond to its social circumstances, which are now expressed, in the cultural field, in the domination of digital reproduction. Within painting the archaic labour of manipulating the stuff of paint could become, potentially, a site of resistance to the injunction to enjoy the production and consumption of the reproduced, digital image. But this cannot be a return to the fetishisation of the individual’s authentic actions: to an older version of the isolated individual. Painting, if it is to mean anything at all, must respond to the conditions of digital reproducibility.

Painting and digital technology can be connected by ideas of surface. Painting is still haunted by the ideas of the critic Clement Greenberg, despite his being deeply unfashionable since his essentialist schema was smashed to bits by Minimal and Conceptual art. In Greenberg’s essentialist definition of art, each medium tended to isolate those qualities specific to that medium, at the expense of all else. Indeed, this was a liberation from the bad influences of literature, which he saw as the dominant and dominating cultural form. In this theory, literature infected painting with ideas of narrative, which was manifest in the concern for illusion and meaning. What was true and specific to painting was flatness: the two dimensional surface of the canvas. Greenberg says:

“[M}ost important of all, the picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive places of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas; where they lie side by side or interlocked or transparently imposed upon each other.”

Despite the essentialist theory, Greenberg’s ideas of surface are complex and suggestive. The flatness of the paint never quite coincides with the flatness of the picture-plane. Instead, there is only what might be called the illusion of flatness. Greenberg articulated this propensity for illusion with the idea of “the cut:” the fact that the first mark on an empty canvas ‘cuts’ the picture-plane. This is to say that any mark on a blank surface creates a relationship of foreground to background: an illusion of space.

So, the materiality of paint inevitably creates space. This is at odds with the literal flatness of both the virtual surface of the painting and the actual surface of the canvas. It is insufficiently remarked that at the heart of Greenberg’s theory of abstraction is an essentialist definition of painting as illusion: that abstraction relies upon the inevitable spatial illusion created by paint. The interest in the theory, as indeed in the work it championed, lies in the tensions between material surface, virtual surface and the shallow illusionistic space created by the paint.

The question of surface in painting becomes reinvigorated in relation to the digital surface. Whereas in painting the material surface and the virtual surface are in the same place, on the canvas, the digital surface is a virtual surface, removed from its materiality. The epitome of the digital surface is the computer screen. It is on the screen that the digital image is made and manipulated, regardless of whether it is viewed on screen or as a print. This image is virtual: the technological translation of bits of binary code into colours. The image is a property of the physical apparatus which emits light from behind a transparent surface but this is not the materiality of the image: the apparatus is merely a medium for the translation of data into light. The substance of the image is the binary information.

It is, however, in the virtual surface that meaning resides. If one could, so to speak, reach through the screen to gain access to the digital itself, it would be meaningless. It is precisely through the translation into surface that meaning is acquired. In the film The Matrix, the virtual world was represented by streams of characters on a computer screen. This device served to show that this world was, in reality, made of data and that its appearance was false. However, the fact that this data had itself to be translated into an image on a screen, shows that the data is inaccessible or meaningless in itself: this is just another way of making the data into an image.

The virtuality of the digital surface contrasts with the materiality of the flat, painted surface. Painting always fails to become a flat, virtual surface. The materiality of the paint is always, in one sense, an interruption of surface. This interruption can point at something behind or beyond the virtual surface. The point is not to impugn the virtual surface in favour of greater depth or meaning; there is no greater meaning. It is the truth of the digital that meaning is, and always was, a property of the virtual: on the surface. Like painting, digital technology is neither good nor bad. Also like painting, it could not be invented until the social conditions that could make use of its properties were in place. It is no surprise that digital technology is used in the reproduction and circulation of images that isolate and dissociate persons and things from each other. Such conditions are a cause, not a result, of digital technology, which is not to say that this is the only use or importance of digital reproduction. The radical task remains the making of connections.

A corollary of the painted surface is the nature of the work that goes into producing it. The digital surface is removed from the conditions of its creation. It is impossible to tell whether the manipulations of colour and form in the digital image are the direct manipulations of a human being or functions of computer applications. It is not even clear whether this distinction between person and machine can be made with any confidence. The digital is mediated by machines, and the machines are made by and mediated by collaborative human endeavour. The upshot of this is that the digital image circulates free from the labour of its production. In contrast, the painting always carries traces of the labour that went into making it: a painting is seen to be a process of work. The more the painted surface tries to hide the means of its own making, the more work it takes; the less the brushwork is apparent, the more this work is apparent. It is unfashionable to talk of art in terms of hard work, which is usually reserved as a category of praise for amateur rather than professional production. However, the idea of work can be a way to escape both the ironic distance of the easily produced and ideas of the artist’s special and authentic touch. Work is a way to make art be seen to be caused: to have connections.

There is no obvious way for art to respond to the cultural dominance of the digital. Digital technology is routinely incorporated into the making of art but this is not necessarily to be aware or critical of the conditions upon which this technology is based. Painting seems a poor candidate to take on this task. Indeed, much contemporary painting plays out its own detachment: there is a profusion of insipid, ironic and knowing painting, which fractures itself into appropriated gestures of figuration and abstraction; high and low cultural reference; various historical styles; and so on and so forth. In his recent book on chromophobia, David Batchelor draws a distinction between analogue and digital colour:

”The colour circle is analogical; the colour chart is digital. Analogical colour is a continuum, a seamless spectrum, and undivided whole, a merging of one colour into another. Digital colour is individuated; it comes in discrete units; there is no mergence or modulation; there are only boundaries, steps and edges. Analogical colour is colour; digital colour is colours.”

It is his argument that artists in the 1960s made a radical break with analogue colour, and thus with painting, in favour of the readymade colours of industrial processes. This is a story of liberation and reinvigoration in the circumstances of art in the 1960s. However, the definition of the digital as something reproducible and readymade fits in snugly with the now dominant ways in which art is conceived: the artist is the assembler of idiosyncratic ideas and things. The artist, as the assembler of readymade parts, can be reduced to someone defined by the choices he or she makes, in a way indistinguishable from the contemporary consumer. In contrast to this cosy detachment, the digital is a suitable cultural symptom for painting to take on precisely because it is so unsuitable.

One way for painting to tackle the digital is to reproduce the look of the digital. There is obviously a kind of perversity in using painting as a medium in which to reproduce or mimic the characteristics of digital images. The stuff of the paint holds it back from emulating the virtual surface of the digital. However flat the surface of the paint; however smooth the blending of colours; however crisp the edges between colours: there will always be a material remainder in the paint. In relation to the purity of the digital, there will always be an air of bathos about painting. This bathos is something painting needs to embrace: it is by its nature as an awkward and laborious process that painting might find a critical distance from the stultifying immediacy of the virtual. This is not to deny the reality or meaning of the virtual but to be critical of the way the virtual image is used in the service of an imposing consumption: to disarticulate connections. Painting, like any other medium, will never be a necessary nor sufficient condition for criticality. At the moment, it may have the potential to be one way of maintaining a distance: of not getting lost in immediacy. And this may be all we can ask.