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James Carpenter

In Dr. Zimmermann’s “Reproduction in Art” (reprinted in the collection of the same name), we find accounts of trompe l’oeil deception outlandish enough to seem subtle fictions themselves. Zimmermann tells us of an urn of water so cleverly reproduced in fresco that it’s reached for during a fire at the ducal palace in Padua; a hyacinth in colored marble, reputedly of the workshop of Lysippos, so convincing that its commissioner has to admonish the house-slaves not to water it; the sketch of a bird, so often mistaken for the real thing that its owner has a cage specially constructed around where it hangs on his wall, in order to dissuade his children’s friends from trying to catch it—the list continues.

Reports like these, absurd as they seem to us, are just the sort of thing we like to point to when we make the case for progress, in drawing the distinction between our sensibility and those of an earlier day. I would never make such a naïve conflation of reality and fiction, we say to ourselves; and whether we take pride in our advancement beyond that childlike susceptibility, as our rationalists do, or join our sentimentalists in deploring it, we’re generally agreed in taking the advancement as a primary fact of modern consciousness.

But things might not be so simple with consciousness. Some have suggested that different phases of consciousness have each their own reality, along with their own means of representing and understanding it; and if we take up that line of thinking, it becomes dubious that our inability to confuse reality and fiction in the ways that earlier minds have, bears significantly (or at all) on how we may be living out our own version of the same error. The honest, living error in art is the one least obvious to the one making it; and deception by trompe l’oeil now seems absurd and primitive precisely because it isn’t our kind of error, not the kind of thing that functions as an error to us—something like the conflation, by a foreign speaker, of two words in our language that we ourselves could never honestly conflate. Fortunately, as in language, the recognition of such an error is no complex feat of systematic reasoning, performable only by the grammarian; it’s a spontaneous intuition, felt by those for whom the grammar of artistic meaning is a living, functioning part of perception itself. Living errors, like living truths, are not at bottom things we find, but things we feel, or are shown by those who feel them;1 and though not obvious to us, they are anything but hidden.

I’m going to take the position that, sophisticated or no, we’re not at all past mixing up fiction and reality in our arts. In fact we do it all the time, and just as naively as those who were fooled by (and perhaps those who spent their time making) the trompe l’oeil works that Zimmermann conjures up. In talking about how we do this, I want to take up a practical, everyday example as my starting-point: namely, the practice of painting from photographs.

I want to start here because painting from photographs, though not given much attention one way or another in the art world, is a practice that I’ve never felt quite right about, either as an artist or as someone who appreciates art; and because I’ve found my feeling corroborated (in one form or another) by everyone I’ve spoken to about it, whose opinion I trust in such things.2 And the feeling is hardly restricted to a few. Even aside from the notion that painting from photographs is somehow “cheating” in the usual sense—which I think wholly misses the point of art, but more on that in a minute—the practice is always controversial in talk about art; its supporters are inevitably its defenders. Its presence is also, almost always, palpable in the artworks themselves. In many cases it is an absolute stain: be such a thing never so cleverly done or well received, my fingertip feeling, and that of many others, tells us no. So what is it exactly that we are saying no to?

Formally speaking, there are a number of material properties unique to photography that often appear awkwardly conspicuous in paintings done from photographs. The presence of distinct focus and periphery; the pooling of color and light into bodies whose shape and position are determined by the properties of a lens; the overall sense (if of no other camera-made distortion) of uniform flatness—all of these are tells that, when too obvious, can instantly impart dubiousness to a painting. Yet aside from the incidental fact that they are not always so obvious—indeed, some painters are able to anticipate them so well as almost to obscure them entirely—the live question seems to be why such tells should count as artistically problematic in the first place. Why is it that these material differences are so jarring, whereas others—say, in paintings of sculptures—aren’t?

The readiest answer is that paintings and photographs are both flat, whereas paintings of sculptures are of objects spatially heterogeneous to them. The painting from a photograph3 jars, I might say, because it’s not just materially different from its object, but somehow also materially confusable with it—there’s some sort of wrongheaded substitution or conflation going on, which just doesn’t sit right with what painting is (and maybe not with what photography is, either). In other words, it is the material similarity of the two arts that seems to provide the basis for the jarring quality of their material difference. I want to say it allows the conflation of the painting and the photograph it incorporates just enough for the expectations intrinsic to the photograph to be imported into the painting, but not quite enough for the painting to meet them in any satisfactory way. Or, to put it more simply: the flatness of a painting and the flatness of a photograph aren’t the same kind of flatness, and painting from photographs (to the extent that it arouses the aesthetic repugnance in question) acts like they are. But so what? Doesn’t painting, in its mimetic function, “act like” a lot of things it isn’t? What’s the problem with this particular “acting like”?

I’ve said that the common complaint that painting from photographs is somehow “cheating” misses the whole point of art; and in the usual sense of the word, this is true. Whatever else we can say about it, the point of the arts rests with finished artistic products; and in this entirely end-centered practice, the steps taken to get to the finished product don’t matter (morally speaking) as they would, say, in sportsmanship or finance. The goal here is not a neutral object, such as points or money, that can be achieved either by fair means or foul, but a product that is coterminous with the rules followed to produce it; in this sense there can be no cheating in the arts at all, because there is nothing to cheat at.4 To put it in a way specific to our case, there is no goal or set of rules common to painting and photography, that photography helps us get to more easily or quickly.

Still, there may well be something worthwhile in the complaint, if we take “cheating” in the broader sense of evading responsibility. Indeed, to say that the painter who paints from photographs runs the risk of evading a critical responsibility of his art seems, somehow, to get at the heart of the problem, and to address more relevantly the material distinctions brought up earlier. The problem is not simply that paintings and photographs are materially different in certain more or less obvious ways, but that painting’s emulation of these material properties of photography (however skillfully done) seems to constitute an evasion of its own purpose. Similarly, what we really mean when we say that a painter who copies photographs confuses or conflates the material properties of his art and photography’s, is that he’s abdicating some part of the specific obligation that making a painting puts on him. So—to ask the question in a new way—what responsibility does he run the risk of evading, to the detriment of his work?

Here it seems right to return to the issue of flatness that was touched on earlier, and look at it again in this new light. The flatness of a painting and the flatness of a photograph are different, as we’ve said; now the problem, we’re supposing, is that in treating them as the same, the painter surrenders a very significant part of his painterly responsibility. With such a concrete case in front of us, this is easy to see. The flatness of photographic depiction, its translation of three-dimensional reality into two-dimensional reality, is made by the camera; it is simply one of the given properties of the medium that the photographer works in. The flatness of painterly depiction, on the other hand, is achieved by the painter in his medium; or, to put it in our new terms, the translation of three-dimensional reality into two dimensions is one of the responsibilities of painting. What this means is that for a painter to use the pre-translated two-dimensional reality of the camera as a basis for his work is always, aesthetically speaking, dangerous business, because in doing it he runs the risk of abdicating that central part of his painterly function, and building a certain degree of disingenuousness into his work.5 But if this is the case, why is it done at all? Why run the risk?

Obviously, for specific answers to this question we would need to speak to the individuals who prefer to paint this  way; 6 but generally, I think it stems from a much more widespread misconception about the arts to which we have already alluded in part, the discussion of which will bring us back around to Zimmermann and his trompe l’oeil deceptions. Say the artist who paints from photographs, who substitutes the flatness of the photograph for that of the painting, does so in complete innocence of the risk he takes—or rather (as is more likely, given the controversial nature of the thing), denies that risk outright. What does this say about his conception of painting and photography? In the first place, it says that he does consider painting and photography coextensive; that to him there is a goal or object common to both painting and photography, such that substituting the depictive means of one for those of the other poses no aesthetic problem. They’re both flat, and that makes them close enough for one to be useful to the other. That they might be materially different kinds of flatness arouses no concern in him, because to him the end of both is one thing, independent of the material means of achieving it. That goal, he might say if we pressed him, is the representation of reality—“reality” here being conceived of as something independent of the arts, something given and objective, which both painting and photography represent in their own different, but essentially coordinate, ways. Reality, in these terms, falls outside of any responsibility of the artist to create or find; it is not part of his problem. It is, in short, aproblematic.

This broader assumption, in my opinion, is a fatal one for an artist to live by, because the reality with which art in its many forms deals, whatever else it may be, is crucially problematic. It is reality realized, as it has never been realized before, by this person; and as such, prior to being worked out in some objective form, it is wholly chaotic and difficult. In this sense the whole business of expression is the solving of the problem reality poses to the artist: it is the representation of what comes to the artist new and fundamentally unordered, in the order of an equally new formal whole. That expressive end, the ordered whole, is never given, but has to be discovered—invented, as we say, because it is discovered in the creative act of its discoverer—and the artwork is undertaken precisely in that effort. Aproblematic reality, on the other hand, is exactly that reality that is already solved, already ordered. Accordingly, though the representation of it may indeed be virtuosic and impressive, it is what we might rightly call “craft”—the meeting of expectations laid down in advance of the creation of the work—and involves no real expressive discovery. Indeed, we might say that the virtuosity of handling in such an artwork is its only reason for being: because its expressive end is known before a single stroke is laid down or word written, its whole success lies in its ability to realize that given end in some immediately striking way. Even its novelty is superficial, because the reality it imitates is not unique to it, but preexisted its production altogether. It is for this reason also that the substance of such artworks is not medium-specific: the artist for whom painting and photography are interchangeable is the artist for whom reality is not the reality that only a painter or a photographer is capable of seeing and representing, but the reality we all see, reduced to a generally transferrable form.

It would seem that in order to be so accommodating of different arts and modes of treatment, this aproblematic reality would have to be an extremely vague thing; and in fact, it is. The problematic realities with which every serious artist deals are as individual as the artists themselves, and have to be expressed in connection with the specific media in which they work.7 The aproblematic reality that I’m referring to, by contrast, is simply the most immediately shareable, presumptive reality we have on hand—namely, the reality of common discourse that is taken for granted by all of us, all the time—and so bears no intrinsic connection to any particular medium at all. In fact it is one of the hallmarks of artworks that take up reality in this way, that their “meaning” is wholly communicable by verbal or literal means; and whether that meaning takes the form of a slogan or call to action (as in political art), a symbolic statement (as in conceptual art), or any other kind of explanatory message, the fact remains that it finds its ultimate articulation in a form other than the one the artist put it in—and that form is the language of common discourse.

Now there is nothing wrong with common discourse, or the reality it expresses; and even aside from their everyday utility, both find a legitimate place in the arts when artists, in the course of their work, genuinely uncover a place for them.8 But when artists resort to the substance of common discourse as the basis for what they do, without questioning what it might mean peculiarly to them in their medium, they are avoiding a very significant artistic responsibility, and building superficiality into their work.9 As it is a fundamental responsibility of the painter to problematize, as they might say, “space”—to, say, take three-dimensional reality as requiring translation into two-dimensional reality and so translate it, as only a painter can—it is the fundamental responsibility of all artists to problematize reality, to take it in the absolutely unique, un-ordered aspect in which it appears to them, and “solve” it by means of a form that only they can realize. If they begin with what is aproblematic and common-discursive, they are “cheating” their art in the real sense. Thus the expressibility in everyday talk of “the meaning” of an artwork is no commendable quality in it; on the contrary, it raises the very real question why the work was created in the first place, if what it expresses is so much more clearly expressible otherwise. This does not mean that the substance of an artwork has to be abstruse, or even particularly complex, for the work to be good; it only means that it has to be intrinsically related to the medium in which it’s realized, such that the artwork itself constitutes the only way of “saying” whatever it is that it “says.”10

Despite its prevalence in illustration and other crafts, painting from photographs as a practice may very well be a matter of limited artistic concern, not particularly common among those of today’s artists who are taken seriously; and if I were to have taken this much time simply to develop an attack on it, I might rightly be accused of breaking a butterfly on a wheel. Yet the bigger issue I’ve just raised in discussing it—the confusion of the aproblematic kind of reality, proper to the common discourse of everyday life, and the essentially problematic reality with which serious art has to do—is a much more fundamental one, and widespread among today’s most established artistic tropes.11 To my mind it constitutes our version of the central aesthetic error of which Zimmermann’s trompe-l’oeil instances remind us: a confusion in our arts of what is given and what is created, so peculiarly suited to count as a living error for us that it is almost invisible. The notion that our art is meant to express our accepted, shared reality is part of that accepted, shared reality itself; and is affirmed by every artwork made in accordance with it, and reinforced by every critical judgment in their favor. Equally central to that accepted reality is our vaunted historical self-consciousness, which places us “moderns” at the end of a progression and subordinates the values of other ages to our own, making it particularly hard for us to question ourselves as we question them, or expect any continuity of practice whatsoever between our artists and those of previous ages. Indeed, our commonplace denial of such continuity is one of the barriers to our seeing the error in the first place; if we expected the same problematic depth from our own artists that we’ve wondered at in the great works of the past, far fewer of us (least of all our artists) would be satisfied with the shallow, everyday take on life that so much of our art, however striking, represents.

That the aproblematic approach is self-affirming, brings us to another crucial aesthetic difficulty it poses. In its constriction of artists to a shared view of reality, this approach is semantically indeterminate; like all forms of common discourse, it is necessarily vague enough to be used equally by everyone. Yet in its constriction of artists to any view of reality at all, it is over-prescriptive: it has the effect of narrowing down the arts to the forms that deal in the most readily sharable views of things, and ruling out other forms as aesthetically unviable. In other words, it is semantically indeterminate, but formally over-determinate: it progressively limits the expressive forms artists see as available to them, resulting in the increasingly rigid conventionality of what they make and how they approach making it.

If this preference for the aproblematic appeared only as one mode among many available to us, it wouldn’t be a cultural problem—as we may suspect it wasn’t in ages whose artistic practices were regulated by rules more explicitly distinct from those of common discourse. In that case, however resultant in artistic triviality, it would only be a choice made by individual artists (as the pursuit of trompe l’oeil effects was, in its time), and not threatening to artistic practice as a whole. Yet the aproblematic convention, for us, is much more powerfully exclusionary; and the forms in which it results are in fact prescriptive on a cultural scale. The profound question of genre aside (which our age, like no other, treats as resolved), each art comes associated with a limited range of approach that it is hard to find artists willing or able to transgress. It is tacitly understood nowadays that the main artistic concern of prose fiction lies with the plausible telling of a story, in almost exclusively dialogic form;12 of poetry, with the reporting of subjective states, in connection with a clear and idiosyncratic situation; of painting, with illustration (whether of an object, a concept or an ethos, it makes no difference); of photography, with the projection of a sort of idealized documentary candor; and so on—and departures from these publicly accepted formal concerns seem to become fewer and farther between, as it is taken more and more for granted that said concerns are coextensive with the arts in question, rather than single possibilities of expression among many.

When this comes to be taken for granted by the artists themselves, it is a more pernicious cultural problem than that it should prove increasingly difficult to find audiences willing to spend their time or money on products of other kinds. Audiences (whether in the form of viewers, readers, publishers or producers) are always more or less general entities, with more or less general interests; and have as much right to approach artworks with an eye to their commonplace intelligibility, as to any other value in them. But for our artists to approach their own work that way—to approach the aesthetic individuality of themselves that way—is a catastrophic error, and undermines what should be our society’s first and last recourse against the cant that overruns it. Even if we allow that there will be some for whom the accepted forms are adequate, as there are some whom off-the-rack suits fit adequately, we have to imagine that they’ll be much rarer in the former case than in the latter; and deplore the fate not only of the other artists, who now have to stretch and squeeze their inner physiques to fit them into forms not appropriate to them, but of the rest of their society, who gradually forget what a true fit looks like.

Obviously, since the ultimate danger of the aproblematic approach lies in the over-prescription of artistic possibility, the solution can’t take the form of a prescription. It seems like an evasion to say that the solution is something every artist has to find out for him- or herself, but that is exactly the case. That problematic realities are entirely individual is what makes them problematic in the first place, and it can only be stressed that artists are those for whom the responsibility of going it alone is, to put it lightly, a burden worth bearing. Accordingly, too, continuity with past artistic practice—though a good indicator of present rightheadedness—cannot provide us with any sort of prescriptive solution either, as regards our approach to reality. We know the notion that poetry is essentially concerned with situational subjectivity is too narrow, precisely because it rules out the enormous majority of poetic works that aren’t; but to conclude any sort of general rule of poesy from this, or from any of the existent poems in question, would be equally narrow, and equally irresponsible on the part of the present poet, who has his own cross to bear. Artists can and should look to the artistic successes of the past for analogous cases; but what is useful in those successes is principally formal cohesiveness—the everywhere fitness of each work to its own formal principles—and the spirit of past artists in pursuing that cohesiveness at all costs. The realities those works express are as non-transferrable as the materials they’re made of; they are precisely what their makers, like all artists, ultimately had to face alone.

As such, there is no school or style that can substitute for this central responsibility of the arts. Those that have arrogated such ability to themselves have shaded quickly into mannerism and caricature. At times in our era, for instance, avant-gardism has seemed the remedy to the shallowness of aproblematic discourse. Certainly, as an occasion for individual artists to shake themselves out of complacency, it has been as worthwhile as any; and that it assumes a problematic place for artists in society is at least part of the right attitude. But the avant-garde misses the point by locating its problematic too exclusively in the social sphere, and a just suspicion accompanies all of its achievements, precisely because they are formulated as a movement. Ultimately what this means is that, as reactionary as the avant-garde is against the shared forms of common discourse, it is in fact a common discourse itself, supplanting one aproblematic approach by another. As Zimmermann’s trompe l’oeil deceptions were mere refinements upon their era’s vulgar conflation of art with the appearance of reality, the efforts of the avant-garde have consistently refined upon the mistake of our own time by demanding, in place of art as the common discourse of everyone, art as the common discourse of an elite. Avant-garde art is not the discovery of new forms of meaning, so much as it is that part of the old system of meaning which represents abstruseness; and in its insistence on being acknowledged—even as unintelligible—by a common audience, it fails in its own true purpose. In answer to a mistake only correctible by the invention of new languages, it has only ever been able to provide secret words in an old one.

Artistic forms are, among all human productions, preeminently individual. Their fitness to their makers, to the unique apperceptions of reality that those makers have and are, is one way into their ultimate reason for being; they exist as concrete realizations of that individuality. This doesn’t mean they can’t be shared, any more than the singularity of one person precludes his associating with another; on the contrary, art objects are perhaps the most sharable of individualities, as they are certainly the most individual of shared artifacts. But their sharedness is not given, or built upon in their production; it is discovered, worked toward, invented in the process of that production. Without the problem of reality—the problem of how specifically to come to grips with, and ultimately to share, what is experienced only by oneself—art is lifeless, superfluous; it is capable of ornamenting and disguising what we already know, but not of bringing new realities into being. It will have sacrificed expression for the far lesser, though (for most) more immediately appreciable good of communicability. Something is certainly gained for meaning in this substitution: namely, the ease of its transfer from one person to another. But what is lost for meaning—its specificity—is every bit as critical to it. Aproblematic communication is never specific communication; and to that extent, it falls as short of real communication as the solipsisms of the ivory tower. It begs the question that is posed of reality by our individuality itself. To make it our utmost expressive good is to give up the ability to say what each of us really means.

[1] I wonder how much of the existential ennui that is made so much of by our artists has its root in spontaneous inklings of this sort, systematically misinterpreted or ignored in the interest of other, extra-aesthetic values.

[2] I should make clear that when I say I’ve never felt right about it, I don’t mean this in any absolute sense. I know as well as anyone that there are better and worse ways to use photo-reference in painting, that great artists as well as lesser ones have used it to their advantage, that there may well be painterly pursuits to which, far from detrimental, the practice is essential, and so on. My point here is not to make categorical statements about one practice or another, but to investigate a feeling and see what relevant insights it may uncover.

[3] Not necessarily a painting of a photograph, for reasons that should become clear.

[4] For instance: acrylics are, for some artists, easier to work in than oils; but using them doesn’t constitute “cheating” because the finished painting is all that matters, and the use of acrylics results in a different painting than the use of oils would. When a shortcut results in a different end, it isn’t a shortcut, but a separate practice altogether.

[5] Runs the risk of abdicating his responsibility—it isn’t necessarily the case that he will. To say that using photographic reference necessarily dooms a painting to shallowness would be not only philosophically arrogant but also aesthetically unsound, because it locates artistic shallowness in a medium, rather than in the end-use of it. No artistic medium, insofar as it is a medium, is shallow in itself.

[6] Those to whom I’ve spoken about it usually seem to want to appropriate what I might call the visual authority of a photograph—its built-in appearance of completeness, cleanness, fittingness, etc.—while also retaining the very different (but equally unassailable) quality of subjectivity—of which, to them, painting is the representative art par excellence.

[7] It’s no accident that indeterminate admixtures of media occur so frequently today; along with the equally prevalent forms of “commentary” and cliché, they’re simply one of the formal appearances of art when it insists on an aproblematic basis.

[8] Of course, when they do so, the discourse in question ceases to be common discourse and becomes, like everything else the work incorporates, a functional part of that work. Art and common discourse create and hold meaning in essentially different ways—a fact that is lost when it is said, for instance, that an artwork “refers” to something outside itself. To the extent that the thing in question is in the artwork, it becomes part of its semantic fabric, and its meaning is transformed accordingly. Otherwise we are put to the embarrassing pedantry of insisting, say, that every sculpture made of marble “refers” to the country where the marble was quarried, or that every poem “refers” to the dictionary.

[9] Take a portrait by Chuck Close. These are almost always visually stunning: the multiplicity and fineness of parts, the vibrancy of color, the sheer size—all of these produce an overwhelmingly striking effect, beneath which we might well assume a corresponding volume of aesthetic depth. But what they’re built on, one and all, is a completely unquestioned assumption of photographic reality—itself a pretty narrow take on photographic portraiture—to which the size, the colors, the parts add nothing. Or rather, we might say, they only add things: the underlying vision is not transformed by its being realized in a new medium, but superadded to, by parts too essentially alien to it to touch it, much less raise it to the level of artistic discovery. Make no mistake, Mr. Close is a craftsman of the highest order, and there is great honor in that; but nothing was ever truly honored by being called what it wasn’t.

[10] I put “saying” and “says” in quotes to emphasize the crucial difference between the kind of expression that we employ in everyday speech, and that employed by the various arts—including the arts of language. The ways a poet or prose artist employs words, and the ends to which he or she employs them, are every bit as divergent from the means and ends of common discourse as those of painting, sculpture and music are.

[11] The recomposition of pre-established imagery out of numerous smaller parts, as in the works of Vik Muniz, Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili; the re-casting of political messaging in traditionally artistic media, as in the works of Barbara Kruger and Ai Weiwei; the representation in conventional imagery of pre-established (essentially verbal) meanings, as in the works of all of the above—each of these is a practice centrally informed by a view of the subjects of art as given rather than invented.

[12] Contemporary prose occupies itself so thoroughly and unthinkingly with “realism” that it often borders on the absurd. For instance: a central part of our current secular, atomistic common-discourse reality is the notion that the world is infinitely replete with objects, qualities and even events in consciousness that are entirely indifferent to what we consider the more centrally important goings-on of human life. From this, the convention has arisen that vast quantities of irrelevant details—the more irrelevant, the more “realistic”—make for a truer plot, and set the scene for an engaging, believable story; and now you can hardly scan a random page in a contemporary novel without finding lists of dissociated pictorial descriptions, chains of unmeaning mental associations, and (of course) countless streams of mimetic dialogue, all meaningless to the story—to say nothing of the written work—except as points of contact with the “real” world it references. That this overbearing literary realism is entirely conventional, is shown by the fact that it is never omitted, even in deference to other “realistic” concerns (such as the consciousness of a narrator who is supposedly not a writer).