Unreal Nature

November 13, 2017

What Remains Is the Wit

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… [color] had become a commodity whose supply was abundant and devoid of mystique.

Continuing through Kant after Duchamp by Thierry de Duve (1996):

… if craftsmanship has been rendered objectively useless by industrialization, then skillful making must also be subjectively felt as impossible by the sensitive artist. This is, “even in normal painting,” that “inner necessity” which drove Kandinsky and the other early abstractionists toward the abandonment of almost every traditional convention of painting, and Duchamp toward the abandonment of the craft itself. Gone is the making, what remains is the name. Gone is the skill, the talent, what remains is the genius, the wit.

… But painting has not become impossible. The fact that industrialization has bereft painters of their traditional social function as purveyors of images — the fact, for example, that photography has taken over the market for portraits and other representations — does not in the slightest make the practice of painting objectively impossible. It makes it useless in regard to this traditional function, but it does not forbid it nor does it ipso facto suppress its know-how or repress the desire to paint.

[line break added] On the contrary, it can be argued that economic progress has made it possible for many more people to find the leisure to paint than was ever the case prior to the industrial revolution. The impossibility of painting is merely a feeling, the subjective signal accompanying the awareness of its objective uselessness in a society where the production of images has been mechanized and from which painting has withdrawn, like a relic from an obsolete artisanal past.

[line break added] Though merely a feeling, the impossibility of painting is a mandatory feeling, however, a quasi-moral one, a feeling that should be felt by any artist who is sensitive to his or her time, to the inventions that propel it towards economic progress, to the ideas that carry the hope of social progress, to the technologies that upset the cultural status quo. It is, in other words, the feeling of any artist who, like Duchamp, around 1912, understands or senses that there is more art in photography or cinema than there is in painting because these new cultural forms, far from being deprived of social function, allow a glimpse of the possibility of a truly popular art.

… Competition with photography was the most obvious threat; competition with the pigment industry was a more insidious but no less crucial one and, by the way, linked to the first. Historians usually agree to date the beginnings of modernist painting from the moment landscape painters abandoned the artifices of workshop practice to seek daylight. In submitting their skill to the constraints of on-site production, of course, the plein-air painters entered into explicit competition with photography.

[line break added] The camera was the principle mechanizing device that the painters had to reclaim, which they did by mimicking it and behaving as if their eye and their hand, coupled to their canvas, constituted a light-recording machine. They sought to give their craft a reprieve by “internalizing” the technology threatening it and by “mechanizing” their own body at work. Whereas this strategy of resistance was still implicit in impressionism (“Monet is but an eye,” said Cézanne), it was made explicit by Seurat’s divisionism, which was simultaneous and parallel to the invention of “autochrome” color photography by the Lumière brothers.

[line break added] Since Van Eyck, color and light had been one and the same thing for the true painter. With impressionism, they began to split: the instantaneous imprint of light is what Monet tried to capture in his Rouen Cathedrals or his Haystacks. Color, on the other hand, became the means to an end. And it could do so because, being readily available in tubes, it had become a commodity whose supply was abundant and devoid of mystique.

My most recent previous post from de Duve’s book is here.




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