February 5, 2013

I think that’s dead on. It makes me think about two branches of how things tend to go. They extend in opposite directions. One makes me think of comic books, and the other of photography.

Everyone knows Action Comics No. 1. Or rather, they know it because of the seven figure prices that good copies of it command. This fact has inspired several generations of collectors to preserve their comics until the day when ‘they’re worth something.’ It doesn’t take a degree in economics to see the problem with this. Action Comics No. 1 is expensive because it was once valueless, and so very few copies of it have survived. If comic books are treasured nowadays, they will never be scarce and so there will be no market for them in the future. This fact turns all those plastic sleeves into transparent coffins, where the value of a comic book rots away even as its body is perfectly preserved. This is an example of how an unintended consequence can reach back to strangle the entire enterprise. To nobody’s profit except the manufacturers of little plastic sleeves.

There’s another way that unintended consequences can frustrate our intentions. And in such a way as to make the death of our intentions into the birth of something much more interesting. The invention of photography is a good example.

Around 1800, there was an intense desire to make descriptions of the world that approached objective truth. Isaac Newton and Pierre-Simon Laplace had shown how every motion in the universe was ‘really’ an expression of simple mathematical relationships. The industrial revolution had shown how the optimized motion of a machine could drastically increase production, slash labor costs and excrete the difference as titanic sums of money. These mathematical and mechanical ways of treating our experience would hybridize to become the scaffolding of the world which we presently inhabit.

Enter Nicéphore Niépce, Henry Fox Talbot and Johann Erdmann Hummel.

 image

(1827)

image

(1835)

 Niépce is usually credited with being the first person to make a permanent record of an object, solely by projecting the light it reflected onto a sensitive surface. Talbot did the same thing, ten years later and in England. Their contributions to photography are well-known. What is less well-known is how their photographic experiments emerged from an inability to draw. Niépce had a hand-tremor that made him incapable of drawing a straight line and Talbot was simply untalented. Both men initially saw the permanent photographic process as a means of producing mechanically what they couldn’t create artistically: realistic and objective records of the world they lived in. Niépce and Talbot couldn’t draw to save their lives and so had to invent chemical photography.  

image

 (1831)

image

 (1831)

At precisely the same moment, 1831, a German artist named Johann Erdmann Hummel was inventing photography from the other end. His subject was an enormous granite bowl, commissioned by the Kaiser and installed in Berlin’s Lustgarten. Hummel would paint two pictures of this bowl looking through a variety of lenses to flatten its perspective and enhance its detail. These paintings depict the bowl with such incredible realism as to be far and away the most photographic images for twenty years after the invention of chemical photography. In the sense that Hummel created ‘realer’ images of his subject than anything Niépce or Talbot could produce, it isn’t an exaggeration to call him the better photographer. The fact that photography would come to be understood only as the chemical production of images from reflected light shouldn’t get in the way of seeing the much more important point: Hummel invented photography too. And in a form that satisfied the age’s desire for an objective record far more successfully than any other process available at the time.

The reason I bring this up isn’t to monkey with who gets credit for inventing photography, it’s to explain the why of its emergence. Photography wasn’t an accident and it wasn’t created by tinkerers. It was the result of longrunning project to see the world in an intensely rational way.

But reasons only satisfy reason, and people like Niépce, Talbot and Hummel destroyed realistic art with them. Photography’s ability to perfectly reproduce any object that would reflect light ended up making realistic painting first obsolete, then tedious and finally anesthetizing. This last quality would undermine the conception of our world that gave rise to photography in the first place.

What’s the point of dedicating your life to the exquisite observation of the world so you can later record it in paint when there’s a machine that does it for you? Very few inventions have been as devastating to the human faculty they made obsolete as was photography’s detonation of realistic art. For something equivalent you have to go back to whatever written language must have done to memorization. Or spoken language to smell. All this becomes painfully ironic when you remember that the fuse was lit by three men who thought they were advancing realism in art.

By bringing reason to bear on a problem that doesn’t properly concern it, these men erected the same empty scaffold that goes up every time rationalism exceeds its authority. Photography certainly does produce realistic images of the world but its facility at doing that eventually empties those images of meaning. Cheapening not only photographs, but everything that tries to be realistic. This is because—after photography—realistic works of art seemed not to resemble their subjects, but only photographs of them. (If you don’t believe me, remember that the World Trade Center towers seemed like nothing so much as scenes from an action movie as they collapsed. And that actually happened…) And all we’re left with is an unpleasantly rigid way of seeing the world. But that’s what life is like in the empty scaffold that science x industry is as skilled at erecting as it is inept at filling.

The point here is that photography killed what it tried to perfect. Killed it just as dead as greed has killed the future market for comic books. But whereas the unintended consequences of greed tend to sterilize, photography’s destruction of realism made art almost uncontrollably fertile. Greed is inherently small-minded. It has to operate inside the dense scaffolding of economics and so frequently strangles itself as it tries to expand. The rational scaffolding that photography represents spread contagiously and nearly consumed art in the 19th Century. But not entirely. And in an organic, human domain like art, anything less than complete eradication ends up only pruning.

            Clearing the field for a realization.

Photography’s perfection of realistic art—barren as it was—forced a long-overdue recognition: reality is not the same as realism. Moreover, that a surplus of realism doesn’t sharpen our awareness of reality, but anesthetizes it instead.

 Enter the spate of famous artists whose work demonstrates this point. Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp, Rothko, Dan Flavin.

            Unamusingly,

the works of art themselves have in turn been consumed by precisely the same cycle of greed as Action Comics No. 1. And on an industrial scale. The expansion of the science x industry scaffold produces a lot of money. Which has been used to capture art, and once again embed it in a scaffolding foreign to its nature. The only difference is that artists—unlike Marvel—can decide that they no longer want to play. They can decline to find their place in the scaffold. Cease to create the ever more expensive anesthetics the wealthy need to absolve themselves of guilt. Cease to manufacture the kind of culture that makes life in the scaffold bearable. In favor of one that prefers ashes to expansion. And dirt on its ass to vertiginous heights.  

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