Thursday, June 11, 2009

Motives for seeing

The new drawings in the online art gallery MyArtSpace were disconcerting, but I couldn't figure out why. Graphite renderings apparently copied from photographs, they were not just meticulous but overmeticulous. Those conventionally posed studio images of smiling children in 1950s haircuts and Victorian gentlemen in domineering beards, those flattened copies of already flat Japanese woodcuts -- the artist recycled them to a new life on his page, only to blanket their shapes with a fog of carbon and remake them into a kind of paper taxidermy. He (and his biography page at MyArtSpace tells us that he is a he, but nothing else) seemed to be the owner of a carbon museum, a collection organized around a principle of blackening and acquisition which remained inscrutable to me.

Then I clicked on the image of a shirtless man with muscular arms folded over his chest. Circling one biceps was a tattooed ring of barbed wire; over the heart was a tattooed swastika.

I thought: "Oh, it's prison art! It's the art of killing time!"

And then I could stop thinking. When I was actually looking at the images I had been puzzled, but once I could induce my puzzlement into the cell of a generalization, I felt at ease. Now I could lock the cell door, turn my back on the art, and walk away. Now I was in possession of a principle; now I could think I knew. I may have been entirely wrong, of course. Maybe this art didn't come out of a prison at all. But I no longer felt any need to care.

That insouciance of mine certainly owed at least a part of its existence to a technological change in our motives for seeing: the beginnings of the photographic mode of assisted perception. When Goya chronicled the Desastres de la Guerra a quarter of a century before that event, he took note of the human limitations of art when he wrote below an image of men, women, and children in the instant before a firing squad kills them, No se puede mirar. The words shape themselves into a hideously monitory paradox. We look at the picture, but its words warn us, "One cannot look."

Click to enlarge.

But photography seemed to promise us liberation from that failing of ours. In possession of what seemed to be a wholly mechanical, wholly impersonal art form, we could now begin to see past the images our imperfect eyes, those timidly insolent servants, delivered to us. Now we could strip bodies of their physical form and perceive them as ideas. As if we were aiming along the barrel of a musket, now we could look. Francis Galton, for instance, didn't just think of people statistically; he looked at them statistically. Thinking, Galton discovered the concept of regression toward the mean by averaging family members' heights across generations. Looking, he invented a camera which combined and rephotographed images of criminals in order to produce composite images of criminality itself.

(Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848 - c. 1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. 163-64.)

Galton's rephotography was an act of collection and connoisseurship. Like the artist on MyArtSpace, he was taking control over a corpus of faces. But here's an interesting difference between the two. If he's at all sophisticated about art since the coming of photography, the man with the pencil is aware that by recopying images he can't help ironizing them. If he's conscious of what he's doing, like (say) Cindy Sherman, collectors will buy his work to show that an artist's ironizing power can be acquired with a credit card. On the other hand, if the artist isn't conscious of the irony, a collector can approach with a stick-on label like "outsider art" and do the ironizing for him. Either way, the portraits after their transactional repurposing can work art's power on their collector's face. From neutral, its expression will change to an ironic smirk. That's how we'll know it has encountered art.

But Francis Galton, completely serious Victorian? What expression can he bring to our faces?

Born in 1822, Galton was already seventeen years old when Daguerre in France and Talbot in England led photography before the world's gaze, and the tiny gas flames on his criminal camera are a light into the past. At the least, this camera and the idea motivating the man who operated it are pre-Freudian. Our concepts of motive are different now, whether we're talking about a criminal's motive to commit a crime or a polymath's motive to create a work of art and then call it science. For us, art's demand, Se puede mirar, is both more trivial and more terrible than it could be for a photographer of Galton's time -- at least a photographer who shared Galton's idea of the photograph as a perfectly disinterested mechanism for seeing. Galton seems to have conceived of his photographs not as things to be seen but as things to be seen through. But one immediate consequence of the invention of photography was a vast literature of meditation on magic mirrors and what they reveal, from The House of the Seven Gables in the mid-nineteenth century to The Picture of Dorian Gray at the end, and we have been educated by that literature in ways that Galton couldn't be. Living at the time the early literature of photography was being created, Galton was denied our privilege of retrospect. Any artist, in any era, has to be ruthless toward his subject, but the knowledge that he comes late to the art will contaminate a modern artist's ruthlessness with irony.

So it may finally be a difference between motivation in successive eras which separates our experience of seeing Galton's photographs from our experience of seeing a superficially similar body of images such as Walker Evans's subway portraits. To purloin his surreptitious images, Evans concealed his camera under his coat and let it aim itself. He retooled himself as a thing, a part of the picture-taking apparatus. But that was a conscious devitalization, and its consciousness has made some now dead people live again, live forever. Galton, on the other hand, worked with specimens already taken, already preserved for study. His was an art of thought, an art of the already abstracted, an art of the dead, a taxidermy.

In its era, Galton's conceptual art helped people escape from seeing into thought; in ours, it is the remaining artifact of a former way of thinking. If it isn't also the artifact of a former way of seeing, that may be its way of telling us that Se puede mirar has to be a commandment delivered anew to every generation as the technologies of art continue altering the relations between the world and our motives to see it.