Digital Experience in Modern Art

Richard Shiff

(Article paru dans Memoirs of the Faculty of Engineering and Design, Kyoto Institute of Technology, JINBUN, vol. 51, 2002, pp.85-94, à la suite de l’article de Takanori NagaÏ : « Reconsidering Modern Art Theory : Reading Richard Shiff’s « Digital Experience in Modern Art« , pp. 67-76.)

Aware that he was nearing the end of his life, Paul Cézanne wrote to Emile Bernard in September 1906: « Will I reach the goal I’ve sought so much and so long pursued? … I’m working from nature as always, and I think I’m making some slow progress. »[1]Paul Cézanne, letter to Emile Bernard, 21 September 1906, in John Rewald, ed., Paul Cézanne, correspondance (Paris: Grasset, 1978), 326-27. Translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.

There is irony here, along with the pathos. To us, a century later, it seems as if Cézanne had already accomplished amazing feats of painting, and if he had died twenty years earlier – having produced his views of Mont Sainte-Victoire of the 1880s, but not the more densely, thickly painted views of his last years – we would still be honoring him. Perhaps his extreme determination should have led him to some final success at imitating the appearance of nature. He had always defined that as his goal. But his way was material, through the medium of paint; and materiality interferes with representation, because it limits what you can do and even sometimes what you can imagine doing. In the notes of the neo-impressionist painter Henri-Edmond Cross, written two years after Cézanne’s death, we find this statement: « The materials allow a certain thought and not others … Consciousness is limited to what the material allows. »[2]HenriEdmond Cross, « Le dernier carnet d’HenriEdmond Cross II » (1908-09), ed. Félix Fénéon, Le bulletin de la vie artistique 3 (1 June 1922): 255. This was the cause of Cézanne’s insecurity: the technical limitations of his medium kept him from reaching his straightforward goal, whether or not he ever realized that the paint, and not some mental or visual failing, was his problem.

Cézanne’s famous, fitful struggle toward pictorial realism relates to the present situation of digital computing. This is why the word « digital » seems appropriate in defining certain issues in modern art. In English, it refers to the hand or fingers, and hence to problems of craft; and it also refers to computation and the grid-like mapping of images. The word « digital » identifies the stroke-by-stroke, bit-by-bit development of an image that is characteristic of the process of painting. The number of strokes that a painter can add to a canvas is indefinite, but each stroke requires time, and there may be physical limits on how each stroke can itself be structured. This is where we think of computers. Computers organize data so as to provide a complex representation of nature, whether pictorial or mathematical. But here, too, the medium has its limitations. Without the prospect of new materials suitable for ever increasing miniaturization, we would be forced to abandon our current theoretical models, which invoke the capacity of memory chips to hold a billion, potentially a trillion, bits of information. If a bit is like a switch that can be either on or off, their number can always be increased and their order adjusted (just like little strokes of paint); but it matters how many bits will fit into a switching box that can actually be built. So it matters also of what material these switches consist, their physical form and substance. One of the problems that Cézanne perceived in his own art was its failure to become close enough to the nature he saw. So he kept adding more strokes.

In general terms, Cézanne was confronting the phenomenological difference between seeing and making –this is the difference between viewing a distant landscape and manipulating a brush held tight in the hand. The painter’s devices produce marks of a certain size having a certain capacity for nuance. To paint is to realize that not every visual effect can be re-created with the available materials and tools. Nor will every effect created by the painter’s techniques, correspond to something previously seen, because representations readily assume features of their own. The problem is not necessarily a conflict between the subjectivity of the artist and the fact of nature that surrounds him. The problem can be within the functioning of the artist’s own bodily organs. Although the hand works to represent the eye’s observations of evanescent light and color, it does so in its particularly corporeal manner, as if eye and hand were operating through different mediums each with its specific characteristics and capacities.

There are many paintings by Cézanne in which I believe that the hand and its rhythms become dominant. This happens most obviously in relatively expansive landscape works where there are sequences of parallel slanting strokes. I think it may also happen in more restrained works such as certain small, intimate portraits. In a picture of his son painted around 1883-85 (Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris), Cézanne used a set of interlocking ellipses to define the crown of the boy’s head, the roundness of his shoulders, the scoop of his collar, the back of the chair beside him, and even, at a finer scale, the arcs of his eyebrows, his ear, and his chin. Here, Cézanne was drawing forth his « sensation » from his own gestures of painting as much as from his observation of adolescent physiognomy. The visual motif, formed by the movements and mirrorings of the ellipses, came into being through the medium itself, paint applied to canvas, perhaps stimulated by the presence of the boy, but not dependent on any particular aspect of him.

We might say that Cézanne thought he was a failure because his material construction of nature – the result of his painting technique – didn’t match the cultural construction that provided a context for his work and which told him what nature ought to look like, as opposed to what it felt like. He might have been satisfied with what happened when he worked rhythmically on a landscape or when the curves of his son’s physiognomy and the adjacent chair came to dominate his picture. But he seems to have believed that he still hadn’t captured nature. Cézanne’s culture was using a representational model somehow inappropriate to the pictorial practice the artist was developing through his own felt experience, his « sensation, » as he used to call it.

If we now take it for granted that Cézanne was a success at painting, is it because we have an understanding of material construction different from his own ? Perhaps that difference exists because he showed us how to conceive of it. But the question remains: Why could he not conceive of it himself ? Why should he not have concluded that he had made his paintings properly ? Why was it so hard for him to believe he had made major progress, rather than the slow progress he mentioned in the letter to Émile Bernard ?

Let me explore this question with a series of cases, each of which tells us something about what we might expect from representations when made by human hands. My examples move quickly into recent decades, to artists who did not, or do not, share Cézanne’s doubts and conflicts.

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A very ordinary category of representations are those we understand as copies. Copies (as opposed to freely interpretive imitations) should match their models or originals in some rigorous way, point to point[3]On distinctions between copies and imitations, see Richard Shiff, « Original Copy, » Common Knowledge 3 (Spring 1994): 88-107; also, Richard Shiff, Cézanne and the End of Impressionism(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 70-98..One test of an adequate copy is whether it can be superimposed upon its model without apparent difference or distortion. To satisfy this criterion of superposition, artists have often used devices for tracing. To judge by illustrations prepared by Albrecht Dürer, in the early sixteenth century, a simple grid might be laid over a source image, or a camera lucida might be used to project the image of the model onto a surface so that the projection could be traced.

Fears of an excessive mechanical entry into creative  representation appeared during the nineteenth century when artists became photographers. The early promoters of photography and marketers of its equipment made this a selling point of the new medium: its refined uniformity of surface and precision of rendering could be accomplished by people who lacked a corresponding manual facility or the patience to apply it. The hand, never very adequate for purposes of copying, would no longer need to try. In 1844, the pioneering inventor William Henry Fox Talbot stated that photography « enable[s] us to introduce into our pictures a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation, but which no artist would take the trouble to copy faithfully from nature … [Photography] dispenses with all [the] trouble. »[4]William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature(New York: Da Capo, 1969 [18441846]), n.p. One of Fox Talbot’s early prints demonstrated that an abundant mass of hay could be rendered just as readily as the simple, linear ladder set against it. Would technology inspire an analogous, trouble-free procedure within the old medium of painting?

To some extent, the solution came during the 1880s with Georges Seurat and others who used pointillist technique. This systematic, presumably « scientific » application of dots of color was devised to recreate the visual experience of an outdoor scene or a studio model. The image would not be specific to the artist but something anyone, even if unpracticed, could imagine imitating in turn; with pointillism, noted Seurat’s supporter Félix Fénéon, « manual skill [or cleverness] becomes a negligible matter.[5]Félix Fénéon, L’Impressionnisme (1887), in Joan U. Halperin, ed., Félix Fénéon, Oeuvres plus que complètes, 2 vols. (Geneva: Droz, 1970), 1:67. »

So the immediate challenge posed by Seurat’s technique was this: it seemed as if his touch could belong to anybody. Although Seurat’s dot was quite varied, it approached the appearance of impersonal regularity when compared with the marks that other painters of the time were making. Such regularity seemed to deny that the human hand would always reveal its distinct personality. The expression of personality or individual temperament had been one of the central concerns of both romantic and impressionist painters. With Seurat’s systematic application of paint, it seemed that artists would no longer express character, and there would be none of the agonized self-doubt that we associate with Cézanne. If this negative potential would be eliminated, so would the positive –the pleasure to be taken in the engagement of a personalized process of making.

No play and no pleasure: for that reason alone, one would be tempted to insist that the appearance of the mechanical in Seurat must be no more than a deceptive effect, something produced in the customary organic way despite its inorganic, mechanistic, appearance. An artist working by hand can be creative even when restrained by an orderly procedure and would be unlikely to forgo entirely all pleasure and play. It is hard to imagine people who fail to take pleasure in their own craft, even in cases where working becomes a kind of physical drudgery. We imagine this pleasure factor as a natural feature of human life. This is because everyone seems to believe that they observe such pleasure in children at their play[6]For this common notion, see Karl Groos, The Play of Man, trans. Elizabeth L. Baldwin (New York: Appleton, 1901 [1899]), 31-32; Walter Benjamin, « OneWay Street » (1928), trans. Edmund Jephcott, in OneWay Street and Other Writings(London: NLB, 1979), 52-53.. Children appear to enjoy using their hands to make things, just as adults voluntarily engage in manual exercise for the sake of that same simple delight –whether pruning a tree or preparing a meal. The « work » can be as varied as painting from the model or as repetitive as cleaning the brushes: the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning not only liked painting, but also liked doing the cleaning afterward, a substantial manual task[7]Information from John McMahon, de Kooning’s studio assistant during the 1960s and early 1970s (interview by the author, 1993).. The mere exercise of a skill of the hand can be its own satisfying reward. This universal value would apply to the professional exercise of art, as much as to hobbies, sports, and other leisure activities. And sometimes it even applies to everyday work, converting work into play.

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During the early 1960s, many critics assumed that American Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein had appropriated the styles and techniques of commercial art in order to work in its spirit of mechanical reproduction. When this new generation alluded to commercial reproductive techniques, just as artists now might appropriate imagery from commercial digital technologies, it seemed that their intent was ironical, that they were distancing themselves from the high-culture creativity associated with a romanticized past. For the Pop artists, the immediate past was Abstract Expressionism, artists such as de Kooning.

In a famous interview of 1963, Warhol emphasized the self-indulgent willfulness of his actions. The great irony — and perhaps it isn’t an irony –was that Warhol wanted his art and even his being, his soul, to be mechanical. He said: « The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do. » Knowing that Warhol had studied commercial art and had had a career in that field, his interviewer followed the artist’s statement by asking whether this art was even « moremachine-like, » as if the artist’s previous experience might have induced a lasting desire. « No, it wasn’t [more machine-like], » Warhol replied; « I was getting paid for it, and did anything they told me to do. » Here Warhol was saying something quite complicated: when he was a commercial artist, he could operate the machine, yet he had no control of the machine, and so he could not be(or perform like) the machine, in an aesthetic sense; he could not enjoy the machine, play with it, or, as he might say, « like » it[8]Andy Warhol, interview by G. R. Swenson, in « What Is Pop Art? Artnews62 (November 1963): 26. See also Andy Warhol, as quoted in Time81 (3 May 1963): 69: « The things I want to show are mechanical. Machines have less problems. I’d like to be a machine, wouldn’t you? » Warhol might have said that he wanted to be a photographer, like Fox Talbot, troublefree.. In order to like it, he had to play at being mechanical, imitating the mechanical process freely, just as he wished.

In the case of Roy Lichtenstein, critics remarked not only on his use of imagery from comics and commercial advertising, but also on his technique of the « dot. » Unlike Seurat’s pointillism, which depended on a small yet variable dot-like mark of the brush, Lichtenstein’s technique involved an array of marks of equal size and spacing –he used a hand-stenciled imitation of a printer’s screen of what are called « benday dots. » In an interview of 1970, Lichtenstein associated his technique with exploring a certain aspect of the mechanical: « I want my painting to look as if it had been programmed. I want to hide the record of my hand. » This is very much a kind of control, and it led Lichtenstein’s interviewer to wonder whether he preferred « to do everything by hand, » and why. The answer: « Yes. I like to have full control, but I don’t care if this control is obvious[9]John Coplans, « Talking with Roy Lichtenstein, » Artforum5 (May 1967): 34.. » ]Here the artist seems to have alluded to two different kinds of control. First, he referred to controlling the « record » of his hand –eliminating visible signs of tentativeness, idiosyncratic organic rhythm, irregular pattern, all those things that we might regard as the marks that identified the individual painter and that might interfere with a copying mechanism or a strict digital mapping. Then Lichtenstein switched to the other side of the issue; he wanted to « control » in the sense of completing his rendering without feeling that his use of a machine technology had determined his results. Although he used a projector, what he traced with it was his own handmade sketch of a source, not the printed source itself; and he kept the tracing open to his spontaneous alterations as he worked. The tracing was irregular, not regular; choices were being made; nothing was automatic. Because Lichtenstein claimed that his viewer’s awareness of the factor of self-conscious control was of little concern to him, he had no need to mark it as an ideological issue, one that would attract the attention of critics.

If I take Lichtenstein at his word, he attached no particular importance to either the handmade signs of his control or their lack. This put him at odds with the generation of Abstract Expressionists who preceded him. Their supporters perceived definite signs of control, but not the kind that results in fields of color kept neatly within borders; instead the Abstract Expressionist’s will was suppressing the hand’s acquired facility for the sake of a release of spontaneous emotion. In praise of de Kooning’s exhibition of black and white abstractions in 1948, the American critic Clement Greenberg wrote:

Emotion that demands singular, original expression tends to be censored out by a really great facility, for facility has a stubbornness of its own and is loath to abandon easy satisfactions. [De Kooning works] to suppress his facility. There is a deliberate renunciation of will in so far as it makes itself felt as skill.

This, too, is a rather complicated thought. Greenberg argues that for the sake of expression de Kooning denies himself the pleasure of manual facility and the capacity of his own considerable skill to control his line. But the artist’s will must then be redeployed, so he can « know [as Greenberg put it] when he is being truly spontaneous and when he is working only mechanically[10]Clement Greenberg, « Review of an Exhibition of Willem de Kooning » (1948), in John O’Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, 4 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986-1993), 2:229-30.. »

Roy Lichtenstein’s « control » did not solicit such comment; unmarked, it was to be experienced privately, more as pleasure than achievement. It made no pronounced distinction between the « truly spontaneous » and the « mechanical. » Later, Lichtenstein simply stated: « I get really involved in making the paintings when I’m working on them[11]Roy Lichtenstein, interviewed by JeanClaude Lebensztejn, in « Eight Statements, » Art in America63 (July/August 1975): 68.  Involvement would not be enough to satisfy Greenberg, who evaluated results, not the processes that led to them; he dismissed both Lichtenstein and Warhol as producers of mere « Novelty Art » (Clement Greenberg, « Interview Conducted by Edward LucieSmith » [1968], in O’Brian, Clement Greenberg, 4:281-82).. »  Involvement requires neither conscious control nor its lack. Rather, it simply requires a self-conscious application of attention, some kind of engagement, whether mental or physical or both. When Cézanne worked rhythmically, laying down his digital marks, he may have been quite absent-minded because he was so involved in the physical process. The same might be true of certain moments when Seurat or Lichtenstein were setting down their dots. They had control, but were hardly aware of it.

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During the 1960s, Pop artists, as well as members of a still younger, emerging generation of American painters –here the two examples will be Chuck Close and Vija Celmins –were not concerned to liberate painting from representation as the Abstract Expressionsts before them were. To some extent, they took that freedom for granted because they accepted as a fact that the medium necessarily determined the character of the image. They concentrated instead on how they felt when they viewed something while attempting to paint it, and what it meant to make something by hand. These artists used photographs as their model. The process of copying an image from a photograph allowed them to concentrate on the hand-work itself, because decisions about composition were largely eliminated by the definitive nature of the photographic source, an image that was already projected onto a flat plane, in the way that an artist’s model might have been projected by early sixteenth-century devices that employed grid structures. Composition would now be located in the details of the making process, in the marks or digital bits, not in the general disposition of the image.

In 1998, Chuck Close said the following as he recalled the strategies of artists of the 1960s, including his former self:

The way to liberate yourself from the conventions and traditions of the past was … to find a process and go with it … I wanted to make a painting in which every square inch was made the same way … showing no display of the artist’s hand in terms of virtuoso brushmanship but employing unbelievable hand-work … lots of labor[12]Chuck Close in Robert Storr, « Interview with Chuck Close, » Chuck Close(New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 88-89..

The labor in which Close engaged was premised on exercising control, just as it was for Lichtenstein. This issue of control is central to an exchange between Close and his contemporary Vija Celmins in 1991 on the subject of her drawings of galaxies. Since the early 1970s, Celmins had been making such drawings, which are derived from photographs. « You’re trying to control something as big as the entire cosmos, » Close says, « [while] at the same time, you’re trying to control a little eight-by-ten inch piece of paper. » Celmins replies: « I am only interested in controlling the space in front of me[13]« Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close » (1991), in William S. Bartman, ed., Vija Celmins(New York: A.R.T. Press, 1992), 29.. » Celmins is referring to the real, material space of her picture, a space about the same size as that of Cézanne’s portrait of his son. Celmins is satisfied to concentrate all of her emotional and intellectual energy on the marks she makes. Unlike Cézanne, she doesn’t worry about their relationship with bits of nature that are far away. This is why Celmins will sometimes insist that her art is abstract, as if it had no external representational model whatever. Her sources are photography and her own system of marking, both of which are already abstractions.

Further into the conversation with Chuck Close, Vija Celmins says: « Even though you may think [these galaxy drawings] came from lying under the stars, for me, they came out of loving the blackness of the pencil. It’s almost as if I was exploring the blackness of the pencil along with the image that went with it[14] « Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close, » 36.. » As a result of Celmins’s interest in the substance of the mark, the usual pictorial hierarchy is inverted: the blackness of the void dominates the lightness of the stars. Blackness is as real for the painter as light –it represents not absence of light but the presence of graphite or paint, a very physical marking, the engagement of the artist’s hand as the black pigment is applied in many layers. The blackness of Celmins’s medium is something she experiences in a dense, physical manner, despite her end-result of a painting that closely resembles a mechanically generated photograph.

Close’s early airbrush technique, as in the portrait of Philip Glass of 1969, is similar to Celmins’s subtle layering of pigment; it, too, represents a certain kind of very physical, digital experience. Like the grain of photography, Close’s individual marks say little or nothing in themselves –they do not gesticulate like de Kooning’s or even Cézanne’s –and we attend to them only when they « interfere » with the comprehensive image. Such interference occurs when we approach too closely, as we feel compelled to do, because any handmade surface instills curiosity as to how the human hand did its work. There may even be a sense of rivalry that causes us to look so closely, wondering if we could do the same thing ourselves, just as Seurat’s viewers wondered. With his use of a grid and his dematerialized application of pigment, Close’s strategy was to level the volume of sensory input so as to see all details equally, working toward paintings in which, as he said, « every square inch was made the same way[15]Close in Storr, 89.. » This was to see more by not allowing the salient parts to obscure the remainder. Close wanted the side of the cheek to be just as important as the nose or the eye. He wanted a digital uniformity similar to what is now familiar to us from computerized scanning. Viewing his work, we repeat the experience of noticing many more details than we would have expected –and not merely because of the unusually large scale that these paintings often assume. Close’s more recent paintings (from the 1990s) are very aggressively worked. Here, « empty » backgrounds, representing nothing but a quality of blank light, come alive with static variation –plays of warm and cool colors that reverse to cool and warm. The artist (and the viewer, too) delights in these uniform but noisy backgrounds. Conveying little information, they are painted fields of pure sensory activity. And that activity corresponds to what the artist experiences both as control and as pleasure.

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In 1953, at the age of eighty-three, a time when he was working with cut and pasted paper, Henri Matisse said that an artist « should look at life as he did when he was a child[16]Henri Matisse, « Il faut regarder toute la vie avec des yeux d’enfants » (1953), in Ecrits et propos sur l’art, ed. Dominique Fourcade (Paris: Hermann, 1972), 321.. » This is a commonplace notion, repeated endlessly by nineteenth-century romantics and early twentieth-century modernists, but not by the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Close, or Celmins. Is there still something to be learned through this idea even if we no longer believe it?

Matisse’s reference to childhood can be linked to a familiar conflict of two cultural constructions: first, the value placed upon productivity, where the product is a picture of nature, the result of a successful technical procedure, the kind of thing Cézanne struggled to achieve; second, the value placed on life’s material and corporeal pleasure, even psychological pleasure, which twentieth-century viewers have tended to associate with Matisse and also with a return to childhood aesthetic innocence, but not with the anxiety-ridden Cézanne. Yet, there are great similarities in the way the two artists worked; in fact, Matisse purchased one of Cézanne’s paintings and lived with it admiringly for years.

With regard to the conflict between productivity and pleasure, Matisse understood that one of these concerns might belong to the surrounding cultural debates and the other would be more likely to arise at the very moment the artist was engaged in the act of painting. An artist, Matisse wrote, « should have that simplicity of mind that leads him to believe he has painted only what he has seen »; nevertheless, he « should realize, when he thinks about it, that his picture is an artifice, but while he is painting, he should [simply] feel that he has copied nature[17]Matisse, « Notes d’un peintre » (1908), in Ecrits et propos sur l’art, 51-52.. » Here Matisse was suggesting that the kind of anxiety that had plagued Cézanne – worrying that his painting did not achieve a digital match to nature – would occur only outside the act of painting. Whereas, during the act, everything would seem harmonious and satisfying: the artist would feel that he was connected not only with his or her picture – « the space in front of me, » as Celmins would say – but also connected to the outside world. Part of the pleasure of art, Matisse was arguing, is to enjoy a representational fantasy, to act in the belief that adequate representation, a true copying, can be achieved through immersion in the process of painting. This becomes the painter’s joy, one that Lichtenstein or Close would know how to share : the sense that within the isolated world of the painter’s studio, the image becomes congruent with the real thing ; it becomes what you want it to be. In the moments of self-criticism that necessarily follow, the artist nevertheless acknowledges that his representation is an artifice constructed bit by digital bit, which captures no more than limited aspects of its analog model.

In 1946, Clement Greenberg argued that Matisse and other European masters had done first one thing, then the other: first they had acted innocently in following intuitive expression; then, as if corrupted by their own technical success and their critical self-consciousness, they began to repeat their solutions for profit. This is what Greenberg said: « The School of Paris no longer sought to discover pleasure but to provide it. … The emotion which had moved us in [Matisse’s] masterpieces of the years before 1920 [has been] replaced by virtuosity[18]Clement Greenberg, « Review of an exhibition of School of Paris painters » (1946), « Review of an exhibition of Henri Matisse » (1949), in O’Brian, Clement Greenberg, 2:89 (original emphasis), 292. For related discussion of the social implications of pleasure in painting, see Richard Shiff, « From Primitivist Phylogeny to Formalist Ontogeny: Roger Fry and Children’s Drawings, » in Jonathan Fineberg, ed., Discovering Child Art : Essays on Childhood, Primitivism, and Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 157-200.. » By Greenberg’s reasoning, this kind of shift from emotion to virtuosity took the play out of art, eliminating its salutary benefits for both producer and consumer[19]Living in an era of Sunday painters, Greenberg defined the hobbyas if it were art of the purer kind, « a homeopathic reaction from the purposefulness of serious and necessary work (or acquisition) that takes the form of work (or acquisition) itself. One works at the hobby for the sake of the pleasure in work … The hobby [offers] immediate rather than ultimate satisfactions … The hobby is play » (« The Plight of Our Culture » [1953], in O’Brian, Clement Greenberg, 3:148-49).. In other words, Matisse ceased to be the child he desired to be, and merely represented that child – with the unfortunate inadequacy of all representation. If we think ahead to Warhol, this difference between representing and being is analogous to the difference between having a machine-like style and actually experiencing yourself as a machine. And if we think back to Cézanne’s case, the parallel is the difference between the digital frustration that occurs when paint fails to match nature and the digital pleasure one takes in the rhythmic application of paint, which can feel – in the hand and in the body – like nature itself.

Did Matisse actually fail to maintain his childlike vision, as Greenberg said he did? In answering this question, each of us would reveal our personal internalization of the cultural constructions of play, work, pleasure, and productivity. What now approaches a commonplace truth (or at least a principle of criticism) is the belief that our technologies and technocratic political economy control us more than we control our individual fortunes and even our thoughts. We sometimes fear that we operate more like dematerialized computing devices than like people with hands that touch things, an act that generates feeling. If this is so, then perhaps painting and all arts of handwork acquire an extraordinary social significance as activities where control connects to an integrating bodily pleasure. Digital experience, the painter’s engagement with the making process –whether it has a style marked as controlled or spontaneous, mechanical or expressive –this digital experience assumes for us a substantial ideological and moral charge. The painter’s activity continues to provide a model or guide for living in a technological society. Yet it is a model that must be re-evaluated by every new generation.

 

 

Références   [ + ]

1.Paul Cézanne, letter to Emile Bernard, 21 September 1906, in John Rewald, ed., Paul Cézanne, correspondance (Paris: Grasset, 1978), 326-27. Translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.
2.HenriEdmond Cross, « Le dernier carnet d’HenriEdmond Cross II » (1908-09), ed. Félix Fénéon, Le bulletin de la vie artistique 3 (1 June 1922): 255.
3.On distinctions between copies and imitations, see Richard Shiff, « Original Copy, » Common Knowledge 3 (Spring 1994): 88-107; also, Richard Shiff, Cézanne and the End of Impressionism(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 70-98.
4.William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature(New York: Da Capo, 1969 [18441846]), n.p.
5.Félix Fénéon, L’Impressionnisme (1887), in Joan U. Halperin, ed., Félix Fénéon, Oeuvres plus que complètes, 2 vols. (Geneva: Droz, 1970), 1:67.
6.For this common notion, see Karl Groos, The Play of Man, trans. Elizabeth L. Baldwin (New York: Appleton, 1901 [1899]), 31-32; Walter Benjamin, « OneWay Street » (1928), trans. Edmund Jephcott, in OneWay Street and Other Writings(London: NLB, 1979), 52-53.
7.Information from John McMahon, de Kooning’s studio assistant during the 1960s and early 1970s (interview by the author, 1993).
8.Andy Warhol, interview by G. R. Swenson, in « What Is Pop Art? Artnews62 (November 1963): 26. See also Andy Warhol, as quoted in Time81 (3 May 1963): 69: « The things I want to show are mechanical. Machines have less problems. I’d like to be a machine, wouldn’t you? » Warhol might have said that he wanted to be a photographer, like Fox Talbot, troublefree.
9.John Coplans, « Talking with Roy Lichtenstein, » Artforum5 (May 1967): 34.
10.Clement Greenberg, « Review of an Exhibition of Willem de Kooning » (1948), in John O’Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, 4 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986-1993), 2:229-30.
11.Roy Lichtenstein, interviewed by JeanClaude Lebensztejn, in « Eight Statements, » Art in America63 (July/August 1975): 68.  Involvement would not be enough to satisfy Greenberg, who evaluated results, not the processes that led to them; he dismissed both Lichtenstein and Warhol as producers of mere « Novelty Art » (Clement Greenberg, « Interview Conducted by Edward LucieSmith » [1968], in O’Brian, Clement Greenberg, 4:281-82).
12.Chuck Close in Robert Storr, « Interview with Chuck Close, » Chuck Close(New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 88-89.
13.« Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close » (1991), in William S. Bartman, ed., Vija Celmins(New York: A.R.T. Press, 1992), 29.
14. « Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close, » 36.
15.Close in Storr, 89.
16.Henri Matisse, « Il faut regarder toute la vie avec des yeux d’enfants » (1953), in Ecrits et propos sur l’art, ed. Dominique Fourcade (Paris: Hermann, 1972), 321.
17.Matisse, « Notes d’un peintre » (1908), in Ecrits et propos sur l’art, 51-52.
18.Clement Greenberg, « Review of an exhibition of School of Paris painters » (1946), « Review of an exhibition of Henri Matisse » (1949), in O’Brian, Clement Greenberg, 2:89 (original emphasis), 292. For related discussion of the social implications of pleasure in painting, see Richard Shiff, « From Primitivist Phylogeny to Formalist Ontogeny: Roger Fry and Children’s Drawings, » in Jonathan Fineberg, ed., Discovering Child Art : Essays on Childhood, Primitivism, and Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 157-200.
19.Living in an era of Sunday painters, Greenberg defined the hobbyas if it were art of the purer kind, « a homeopathic reaction from the purposefulness of serious and necessary work (or acquisition) that takes the form of work (or acquisition) itself. One works at the hobby for the sake of the pleasure in work … The hobby [offers] immediate rather than ultimate satisfactions … The hobby is play » (« The Plight of Our Culture » [1953], in O’Brian, Clement Greenberg, 3:148-49).