PRINT April 1982


IT IS NOT JUST PHOTOGRAPHY that has rendered the profession of painting “impossible”; to claim that it was would be like saying that Stéphane Mallarmé’s work,or James Joyce’s, were simply responses to the development of journalism. Painting’s impossibility arises from the industrial and postindustrial—technoscientific—world’s greater need for photography than for painting, just as that world needs journalism more than it does literature. The momentum of this world brought with it the decline of the so-called “noble” professions which had belonged to the previous world, as well as the contraction of that earlier world.

Painting won its noble imprimatur, was ranked as a Fine Art, and was awarded almost princely privileges during the Quattrocento. In the centuries that followed it contributed its share toward realizing the metaphysical and political program of visual and social order. Optical geometry, the ordering of colors and values according to a hierarchy of Neoplatonic inspiration, and the pictorial rules that captured and crystalized the heydays of religious or historical legend helped instill a sense of identity in the new political communities—the City, the State, the Nation—by allotting them the fate of seeing all through reason and thus making the world transparent (clear and distinct). The narrative, urban, architectural, religious, and ethical components of these communities were given order on the pictorial plane by the painter’s eye, according to Leon Battista Alberti’s costruzione legittima (broadly, the laws of perspective). In turn, the eye of the monarch registered a well-ordered universe all the way to the vanishing point. Exhibited in the churches and the great halls of seignorial or civic palaces, these representations allowed every member of the community the same possibility as the monarch or the painter for an identity within and mastery over that universe. The modern concept of state—the republic or the democracy—is foreshadowed by this commoner, who in perceptual union with the monarch is a “virtual prince” and who will later become the citizen. The modern concept of culture stems from this public access to historical-political identifying signs and to their collective interpretation. Museums perpetuate this tradition; but more pointedly, a glance into the halls of Congress in Washington, or into the Chambre des députés in Paris, attests to the fact that this classical spatial organization is not limited to museum paintings, but structures the representation of the body politic itself. The extent to which the plans of Greek and Roman public places are paradigms for the modern sociopolitical arena is clear.

Photography achieves this program of metapolitical visual and social ordering. It achieves it in both senses of the word: it realizes it, and it concludes it. The know-how and knowledge that were given substance and were transmitted in the school and the studio are now programmed inside the photographic machine. In a single click, an ordinary citizen, whether amateur or tourist, can organize his or her identifying spaces and make a picture that enriches the cultural memory-bank. Improved contemporary instruments free one from the problem of lengthy poses, of focusing, aperture selection, and developing. Thanks to optical, chemical, mechanical, and electronic refinements, the photographic machine makes certain of the skills, experience, and training that were required of the apprentice painter (such as eradicating bad habits, educating the eye, hand, body, and soul, in order to elevate them to a new order) available to the amateur. All the amateur has to do is choose a subject and even there the photographer is guided by customs and connotations, though they can be ignored and the unexpected can be sought—as it often is. Rather than becoming a tedious survey, amateur photography over the course of the 19th century became a means of prospecting and discovering, and even of ethnological inquiry. The old political function of painting became fragmented; the painter was an ethnologist of little ethnologies,and the community now had less of a need to identify with its prince, its core, than it had to explore its boundaries. Amateur photographers made field trips; they returned with documents.

Painters had already set themselves to the task of documentation (one thinks here of Gustave Courbet, of Edouard Manet), but they were quickly overtaken in this. Their procedures could not compete: slow professional learning processes, costly materials, lengthy production periods, difficult objects to manage—in short, the cost of the whole endeavor was high, compared to the relatively minimal total cost of making a photograph. Later, Marcel Duchamp concluded that it was no longer the time to paint. With photography, the idea of the industrial ready-made had arrived. Those painters who persisted had to confront photography’s challenge, and so they engaged in the dialectic of the avant-garde which had at stake the question “What is Painting?” Painting became a philosophical activity: previously defined rules governing the formation of pictorial images were not enunciated and applied automatically. Rather, painting’s rule became the re-evaluation of those pictorial rules, as philosophy re-evaluates philosophical syntax.

Thus avant-garde painters cut themselves off from the public who were already handling well-regulated photographic equipment, and had been leafing through “real” pictures (and seeing them at the movies as well). That public remained convinced that the programs for artificial perspective had to be maintained, and did not understand that it can take a year to make a blank square; in other words, to create nothing (assuming that that’s the only form of the unrepresentable).

Thus photography entered the field that had been opened up by the classical esthetics of imagery, the esthetics of beauty. Like classical painting of the Renaissance, photography called upon communal taste. The nature of this consensus, however, is profoundly modified in photography, as it is in the whole field of esthetic objects in the contemporary Western world. Immanuel Kant insisted that consensus as to what is beautiful must remain free; in other words, that it is not regulated a priori by laws. The widespread introduction of industrial and postindustrial techno-sciences, of which the invention of photography is only one aspect, evidently signifies painstaking programming, by means of optical, chemical, and photo-electronic processes, of the production of beautiful images. These images immediately bear the stamp of the laws of knowledge. The indeterminate, since it does not allow for precision, will have to be eliminated, and with it goes feeling. The person for whom these beautiful pictures are intended is a consumer of finished products. Photography’s infallibility is that of the perfectly programmed; its beauty is that of Voyager II.

Loss of aura is the negative aspect of the hardware involved in producing the machine that produces the photograph. The amateur has to choose a subject, but the look is controlled by the manufacturer. Experience is that mass of affects—of projections and memories—that must perish and be born for any subject to attain the expression of its essence. The body of amateur photography has almost nothing to do with experience and owes almost everything to the experiments of industrial research laboratories. As a result, it is not just beautiful, but too beautiful. Something is inherent in this “too”: an infinity; not the indeterminacy of a feeling, but the infinite ability of science, of technology, of capitalism, to realize. The ability of machines to function is, by principle, subject to obsolescence because the accomplishments of the most esteemed capitalists demand the perpetual reformulation of merchandise and the creation of new markets. The hardness of industrial beauty contains the infinity of techno-scientific and economic reasons.

The destruction of experience that this implies is not simply due to the introduction of that which is “well-conceived” into the field of esthetics. Science, technology, and capital, in spite of their matter-of-fact approach, are also modes of making concrete the infinity of ideas. Knowing all, being capable of all, having all, are their horizons—and horizons extend to infinity. The ready-made in the techno-sciences presents itself as a potential for infinite production, and so does the photograph. In this sense amateur photography, at first glance not much more than the consummation of the machine’s image-making capacities, also belongs to the infinite dialectic of ideas in the process of being realized—the state of consuming—and therein it heralds a new condition. The end of experience is no doubt the end of poetics, but it is also the concretization of an objective infinity which continually constructs and deconstructs the world, and one wherein the individual, at whatever level of the social hierarchy, is both voluntary and involuntary subject.

It follows that the definition of a well-realized photographic image, initially linked to the rules of artificial perspective, is subject to revision. Photography enters into that infinite field opened up by techno-scientific research. Its initial function, inherited from the identifying task assigned to painting in the Quattrocento, falls into disuse, as does the general community’s previous definition of its identity. In the current state of techno-science and accumulated capital in the developed world, community identity requires no spiritual allegiance, nor does it demand a grand, shared ideology, but it crystallizes instead through the mediation of the total sum of goods and services, which are being exchanged at a prodigious rate. At the edge of the 21st century the search for knowledge, technology, and capital is evident in the very structure of our languages. The traditional function of the state has shifted: it need no longer incarnate the idea of community, and tends instead to identify with its infinite potential to generate data, know-how, and wealth. Within this trend, photography is relieved of the responsibility for ideological identification which it inherited from pictorial tradition, and makes room for research, and, of course, for photographic art. We are past deploring “mechanical reproducibility” in works of art; we know that industry doesn’t mean the end of the arts, only their mutation. The question, “What is photography?” draws photographic researches into a dialectic comparable to that of the pictorial avant-garde.

The pictorial avant-garde, as we have seen, responded to painting’s “impossibility” by engaging in research centered around the question, “What is painting?” One after another, previous assumptions about the painter’s practice were put on trial and debated. Tonality, linear perspective, the rendering of values, the frame, format, the supports, surface, medium, instrument, place of exhibition, and many other presuppositions were questioned plastically by the various avant-gardes. “Modern painters” discovered that they had to represent the existence of that which was not demonstrable if the perspectival laws of _costruzione legittima were followed. They set about to revolutionize the supposed visual givens in order to reveal that the field of vision simultaneously conceals and needs the invisible, that it relates therefore not only to the eye, but to the spirit as well.

Thus they introduced painting into the field opened by the esthetics of the sublime—which is not governed by a consensus of taste. Avant-garde painting eludes the esthetics of beauty in that it does not draw on a communal sense of shared pleasure. To the public taste its products seem “monstrous,” “formless,” purely “negative” nonentities. (I am using terms by which Kant characterized those objects that give rise to a sense of the sublime.) When one represents the non-demonstrable, representation itself is martyred. Among other things this means that neither painting nor the viewing public can draw on established symbols, figures, or plastic forms that would permit the sense or the understanding of there being, in these idea works, any question of the kind of reason and imagination that existed in Romano-Christian painting. In our techno-scientific industrial world there are no consistent symbols for good, just, true, infinite, etc. There have been certain “realisms,” usually academic—bourgeois at the end of the 19th century, socialist and national-socialist during the 20th—that have tried to reintroduce symbolism, to offer the public accessible works of art which will allow it to identify with specific ideas (race, socialism, nation, etc.). We know these attempts always call for the elimination of the avant-garde. For its part the avant-garde, in its prodigious effort of questioning precedents of painting, manages to neglect utterly its “cultural” responsibility for unifying taste and providing a sense of communal identity by means of visual symbols. The avant-garde painter feels an overriding responsibility to the fulfillment of the imperative implied by the question, “What is painting?” Essentially what is at stake in the work is the demonstration of the existence of the invisible in the visual. The task of “cultivating” the public comes later.

That which is not demonstrable is that which stems from Ideas and for which one cannot cite (represent) any example, case in point, or even symbol. The universe is not demonstrable; neither is humanity, the end of history, the moment, the species, the good, the just, etc.—or, according to Kant, absolutes in general—because to represent is to make relative, to place in context within conditions of representation. Therefore one cannot represent the absolute, but one can demonstrate that the absolute exists—through “negative representation,” which Kant called the “abstract.” The momentum of abstract painting since 1910 stems from the rigors of indirect, virtually ungraspable allusions to the invisible within the visual. The sublime is the sense that these works draw upon, not the beautiful.

The sublime is not simple gratification, but the gratification of effort. It is impossible to represent the absolute, which is ungratifying; but one knows that one has to, that the faculty of feeling or of imagining is called upon to make the perceptible represent the ineffable—and even if this fails, and even if that causes suffering, a pure gratification will emerge from the tension. It is not surprising to find the term sublime in Guillaume Apollinaire’s essays on Modern paintings, in Barnett Newman’s writings and painting titles, in texts published by many more recent avant-gardists during the 1960s. The word belongs to the romantic vocabulary.

The pictorial avant-gardes achieved romanticism—in other words, a Modernism (already presaged by Petronius and Augustine) which signifies the weakening of the links between that which can be felt and that which can be understood. But at the same time they were by-products of a romantic nostalgia, because they looked to their immediate circumstances, to the actual conditions of the artmaking process. Marcel Proust was still a romantic, Joyce less so, and Gertrude Stein even less. Henry Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich were romantics, and so was Eugène Delacroix; Paul Cézanne less so, the Delaunays and Piet Mondrian barely at all. These last three were already following the experimental imperative (in what they accomplished if not always in what they wrote). Their sublime was fundamentally not nostalgic and tended toward the infinity of plastic experiment rather than toward the representation of any lost absolute. In this, their work belongs to the contemporary industrial, techno-scientific world.

As for Achille Bonito Oliva’s “trans-avantgarde” and similar current notions in Italy, Germany, and the United States (including Charles Jencks’ post-modernism in architecture—which the reader will kindly not confuse with what I have referred to in the past as the “post-modern condition”), it is clear that under the pretext of consolidating the avant-garde tradition it is in effect squandering it. That tradition can only convey itself through the dialectic of refutation and questioning. Drawing firm conclusions, especially by process of addition, means the end of that dialectic and the encouragement of the eclecticism of consumerism. Mixing neo- or hyper-realistic motifs with lyrically abstract or conceptual ones on a single surface is saying that everything is equal because everything is easy to consume. It means establishing and ratifying new “taste.” This “taste” is not Taste. Eclecticism panders to the habits of magazine readers, to the needs of consumers of standard industrial imagery, to the sensibility of the supermarket shopper. That kind of post-Modernism, to the extent that it exerts—by means of critics, curators, gallery directors, and collectors—intense pressure on artists, aligns pictorial inquiry to the current state of “culture,” and strips artists of their responsibility to the question of the nondemonstrable. That question is, to me, the only one worthy of life’s high stakes, and of the world of thought in the coming century. Any denial of that question is a menace—and one that cannot be ignored, as it threatens to relax the tension between the act of painting and the essence of painting, when it is that very tension which stimulated one of the most heroic centuries of Western painting. This menace implies the corruption of painting’s honor—which thus far has remained intact in spite of the worst temptations of the state and of the market.

The governing principle of the postindustrial techno-scientific world is not the need to represent the representable, but rather the opposite principle. To turn away from this principle—that infinity is inherent in the very dialectic of search—is absurd, impractical, and reactionary. It is not up to the artist to reinstate a make-believe “reality” which the drive toward knowledge, technology, and wealth will continually destroy in order to replace it with a version considered more viable—and which itself will eventually be replaced. The spirit of the times is surely not that of the merely pleasant: its mission remains that of the immanent sublime, that of alluding to the nondemonstrable. It goes without saying that such a mission causes anguish, but painters are not subject to the question, “How can we avoid anguish?” They are subject to the question, “What is painting?” In addition, they are also subject to the question “How do we communicate our painting to those who are not painters?”—but this does not mean that the two roles are to be confused. To confuse them would be comparable to the philosopher confusing responsibility to thought with responsibility to the public. The responsibility of communicating the meaning of thoughts and paintings belongs to the intellectual. In fact, the question “What is thought?” places the philosopher in an avant-garde position. That is why he dares speak of painters, his brothers and sisters in experimentation.

The subject of representation is of such broad philosophical scope that I thought it best lo conceive this piece as a critical sketch, rather than as far-ranging.–J.-F.L

Jean-François Lyotard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VIII (formerly Vincennes). He has written several books on the philosophy of art.

Translated from the French by Lisa Liebmann.