16 March 2020

Mumford -- Art and Technics (xiv)

"As with printing, photography did not altogether do away with the possibilities of human choice; but to justify their productions as art there was some tendency on the part of the early photographers, once they had overcome the technical difficulties of the process, to attempt to ape, by means of the camera, the special forms and symbols that had been handed down traditionally by painting. Accordingly, in the nineties, American photographs became soft and misty and impressionistic, just when impressionism was attempting to dissolve form into atmosphere and light. But the real triumphs of photography depended upon the photographer's respect for his medium, his interest in the object before him, and his ability to single out of the thousands of images that pass before his eye, affected by the time of day, the quality of light, movement, the sensitivity of his plates or film, the contours of his lens, precisely that moment when these factors were in conjunction with his own purpose. At that final moment of choice--which sometimes occurred at the point when a picture was taken, sometimes only after taking and developing a hundred indifferent prints--the human person again became operative; and at that moment, but only at that moment, the machine product becomes a veritable work of art, because it reflects the human spirit." (93)

"in conjunction with his own purpose"
In other words, this is where willfulness and vanity are turned to constructive ends; or at least the artists themselves are bound to think so, since these are their "purposes" and not someone else's. Ideally the audience/recipient also has an active part to play in assuming the same discriminating posture vis-a-vis any transmission they might choose to receive; but the question of direct communication of messages and ideas, of the equal validity of myriad contradictory interpretations of the transmission, looms large here. What if the recipient's purpose is, from the outset, somehow at odds with that of the artist? And even where their purposes are in fact aligned precisely, who is to say that this happy accident could not still get lost in the aesthetic shuffle?

Indeed, the skeptic is wont to intone: If you really need to send a message, write a letter. To decode that saying in terms of the present discussion: a language (one worthy of the name and shared by the parties concerned) is the most functional Technical means of comunication (worthy of the name), and photography is not, quite, a language. In Technics, initial design choices determine the use dynamics of a machine, which in turn determine an essential purpose for it. Similarly, the very notion of message or purpose seems to dictate that there is, whether really or merely ideally, an essential standard against which efforts of realization can be judged. All together now: Communication is a branch of Technics, not of Art. Aesthetic productions, meanwhile, say what words alone cannot, which is fine if the substance of your message or purpose is vague or negotiable. If your purpose is in fact deathly important, then you should get Technical and exclude a large part of your human personality from the transmission. If your personality is the message, then it's fine to use Art, but you had better be an unusually interesting and deep person if you expect anyone else to care.

From any position short of full comminicative potential, the aesthetic distinction between impressionistic photography and photographic photography (what else to call it?), between machine art which "attempts to ape...the special forms and symbols that had been handed down traditionally by [handicraft]" and that which "depends upon the [machine artist's] respect for his medium," between art which subverts mechanical function and art which affirms it, this distinction comes to seem rather arbitrary. In this passage it is implied, and elsewhere asserted, that art which subverts Technics is less successful across the board, including (perhaps especially) aesthetically, than art which affirms Technics. Mumford puts forward "machine art" as the clearest illustration of this dynamic, but ultimately I think that the distinction between functional art and recreational/contemplative/aestheticist art is most meaningful here. In other words, where there is a clear, objective standard of success or failure against which to measure the artist and their work, a standard which is borne of quotidian matters rather than hedonistic or metaphysical ones, then I would expect a pattern to emerge whereby affirmative machine use begets demonstrably higher functioning products than does subversive machine use. Art for its own sake, meanwhile, is definitionally oblivious to process, cares only about results, and imposes no (or at least many fewer) absolute standards of success or quality. This is why, from the standpoint of an aestheticist artist, Mumford's stricture against subversive machine use seems more like axe-grinding than meaningful analysis. I for one consider there to be no remarkable deviation in quality along the distinction between affirmative and subversive technicians; I do, however, see a certain path dependence as inhering in each way of working, with subversion leading not, as is so often claimed for it, to a broad flowering of untapped possibilities but simply to more or less equally narrow set of possibilities dictated by the initial design of the machine.

As such, the lesson I would take from the example of nineteenth century impressionistic photography is neither that it is doomed aesthetically nor that it can find no function, but merely that the desire for social acceptance under a very particular rubric is itself quite the arbitrary consideration vis-a-vis Art, arising as it does from neither aesthetic nor from functional demands but from social insecurity. It would be totally unsurprising, then, if art issuing from this quite unartistic mindset would fail at fulfilling roles which it was neither conceived nor designed to fill. In my own bailiwick there is no shortage of analogous examples: there are instrumentalists who turn to extended techniques and avant-garde performance practices simply to draw attention to themselves, to stand out, to be contrarian, or to conceal other deficiencies; and there are those who make their names and careers as earnest, compelling avant-gardists who subsequently choose to cash in on the mere spectacular potential which inheres in a drastic reversal of course. And then there are musicians like Robin Hayward and Vinko Globokar who have built compelling practices on technical subversion and succeeded on most every critical level all while sustaining a sincere posture. That they are exceptional examples is, I think, a function of the overall poor signal-to-noise ratio in the contemplative arts, and not necessarily a function of how contemplative artists use or misuse machines.

If all of this is so, then it would be absurd to claim that the "human person" is less "operative" here than elsewhere. I've known some profoundly deficient, supremely operative human persons, and I think we can all be thankful, actually, that they've gravitated toward the contemplative arts and away from the functional ones.

"that final moment of choice"
Perhaps the photorepresentational will has just recently found its Technical apotheosis in the smartphone and its various space-age cameras, in the "burst" and the "moment," functions which have done for curation what the camera itself did for representation. This seems a near-archetypal instance of an innovation which was technically achievable decades before social conditions led it to be advertised widely on television. Similarly, it is just the latest instance of the problematic, the others, the imperfect rejects, being at minimum more interesting, and often enough also more artistic, than the acceptable, the idealized, the perfect, which it is the contemporary will's social duty to prefer. The proof: these others are so good, in fact, that a recent TV commercial leads with the outtakes rather than with the choice cuts. In instancing the "final moment of choice" as a normative (non-)choice, it becomes undeniable that the outtakes are more interesting than perfection even if they are not necessarily better.

If there are device- and marketing-specific reasons, as well as social ones, that two-factor photo curation has just recently come (back?) into popular consciousness, this practice is incidentally also extremely relevant to the dynamic Mumford outlines here. These technologies themselves now make more transparent than ever before the possibility that this "moment of choice" can just as well come after the properly technical concerns and the gadgets themselves have been powered down and returned to the shelf. Curation is at that point not merely more accessible but, given the wide reach of these devices materially and socially alike, very nearly an essential part of photography, much as music production and post-production are, despite the prodigious recent growth of specialized credentialing therein, more likely than ever before in the recording era to be handled by the performers themselves. In one sense the counterproductive elisions of agency Mumford writes against have been made harder to accomplish; in another sense this has come about via a new regressive disenfranchisement within a formerly "democratized" art form, whereby social stigma and normative thinking pre-determine artistic choice that formerly lay more wholly with the individual. If you don't believe me, try playing raw sessions for an audiophile.

For those of us who wish to present ourselves to the world as artists first and foremost, there are two ways to interpret all of this vis-a-vis the will. Perhaps a compulsory choice is no choice at all; or perhaps this choice was always implied/tacet and by being made conscious makes (gently enough) a genuine agent out of the formerly passive recreator. Perhaps production responsibilities are imposed on music performers via an unfortunate confluence of economic, material and cultural forces; or perhaps musicians have thus wrested control of something they can do for themselves as well as anyone else can do it for them, thereby cutting overhead and regaining agency where usury and abdication and previously prevailed. As for photo-representational art, perhaps the social world thus represented is, essentially, a play of wills which is only made stronger by diversity; or perhaps this social world is a war of wills where greater technical power makes possible ever greater mutual destruction.

Presumably photogs still need the skill to account for many of the same variables Mumford lists even if their timing no longer needs to be perfect. There is even the possibility, which I assume has by this time been realized thousands of times over if not necessarily under the auspices of the formal art world, of a firmer division of labor between moment photographer and burst sorter, between Technician and Curator. In such a scenario, neither person is able to lay a whole claim to Mumford's conception of artisthood independent of the partnership, much like a termite colony in which the group demonstrates the characteristics of a complex organism but the individual bug does not. Termites get a lot of work done this way, but a human society committed to any degree of individualism might think twice about the implications of such extreme divisions of labor for the fate of the individual. Is there not a point where lifting the burdens of agency itself becomes oppressive by stunting development? And is this not intrinsically what Technical advances do in spite of their many more salutary aspects?

"his interest in the object before him"
The object which is mechanically reproduced by the photographic image has, as far as I can tell, no sentience or agency in Mumford's account; but in fact this object is quite frequently, perhaps even paradigmatically another human being, another citizen, social agent, desiring subject; and this means that the advent of photography greatly intensified a conflict of rights between the subject's freedom of expression and the object's freedom from it.

Mumford speaks to the possibility that the moment of choice can occur at two different stages of the process, either in the moment the picture is taken or as it is selected from among many such options. This two-part process of generation followed by curation is hardly unique to the photorepresentational arts, but the unique political dynamics of the representation of one subject by another are multiplied, literally and figuratively, by it. The object-agent can now be violated not just once but twice: first they can have their image captured for purposes over which they have less control or certainty than they are justly entitled to; next, they may see this image reproduced, deployed, distorted in all kinds of ways that may be more specifically violating. As photography becomes faster, more powerful and more precise, it requires a lot less skill than it used to capture the object in an unflattering moment; rather, you simply need enough time and a fast enough camera. The narrow area into which the expressive personality of the subject is channeled by this technology is coextensive with the area where the object-agent can be violated. Just as machine art has unique and distinctive aesthetic and functional qualities, so it enables unique forms of violation which humanity didn't have to wrestle with back when it was far more difficult and technically inaccessible to hand-draw someone's spitting image quite so well. And so the internet is full of clickbait portals which compete for our attention this way: football game wrap-ups which lead with piles of players in unfortunate positions, political coverage leading with spitting-mad stills of unsympathetic figures who may merely have been speaking a prosaic word that happens to begin with a hard consonant. If representational mediums do not quite lead inexorably to these sorts of outcomes, nonrepresentational mediums do lead inexorably away from them. It seems to me (still) that this fact has not been adequately considered or elaborated by scholars of art's place in society.


Stefan Kac said...

Richard Schickel
Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity in America (1985)
pp. 12-14

""To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed," Susan Sontag remarks. And "There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera." Yes. And though television does not freeze moments forever, as still photography does, it has an appropriative and aggressive function. This is not serious for those who appear only occasionally on the tube. Their brief moments of exposure evaporate into air, lost in the media hum of the age. But for those who must put themselves constantly at the mercy of the cathode ray, it is a problem. They are, after all, volunteers for this duty; no one is forcing them to undertake it. Therefore people think they must like it, need it. And some do, of course.

"But like it or hate it, their lives in the public eye implicitly encourage appropriation and aggression. Even victims—people thrust into the news because they happened briefly to get in the way of history or of some lunatic convinced that he was history—are forced to endure this final victimization... When the American hostages were finally returned from Iran, a State Department spokesman was quoted in the press as saying that they "would be free either to cooperate with news organizations and become celebrities or to withdraw quickly into private life" (emphasis added). Most chose the latter course after submitting to the orgy of welcome that was staged mainly for the benefit of the press. In a way, it was a well-managed business, a quick, healthy venting of built-up media steam. But surely there was no choice in this matter for this put-upon group. There never really is.

Stefan Kac said...

(Schickel, cont.)

"Be that as is may, since television has breached the walls of polite convention that formerly separated performer and audience, the well-known and the unknown, everyone now jostles rudely and noisily to exploit the opening in the defenses. They all pour through it, wave upon wave of journalists and pseudojournalists. They are of course abetted by modern technology. The jet plane, for example, can whisk the paparazzi to the most isolated of retreats. The telephoto lens permits the lurking photographer to sneak up on the famous, while the motor-driven shutter allows him to squeeze off many shots quickly—assuring him of at least one salable snap before the security men move in or the celebrated person pulls himself together and assumes his public face and posture. Lightweight film and tape cameras add to the mobility of the gawkers surrounding the famous.

"In recent years, as a result of these "advances," we have been treated to glimpses, through a lens blurrily, of the contours of many famous breasts. Or to put the point as precisely as possible, we have been made privy to the breasts, et cetera, of many women whose fame does not rest on the display of their physical charms. For example, a former First Lady, the Princess of Monaco, even, for heaven's sake, that aged recluse, Greta Garbo. This is not to mention the many well-known actresses whose unit publicists did not control the output of their stillsman as carefully as the promised they would (or didn't notice the grip with a camera up on the grid). Outtakes of similarly unprotected moments, caughts by the motion picture camera, somehow make their way from the trim barrel in the editing room to the pages of the less respectable skin books as well. From time to time the newsstands indeed offer one-shot magazines bearing some such title as Celebrity Skin (which at least meets the truth-in-advertising standard). What price the frisson provided by the forbidden or the unlikely? A suggestion: a sizable proportion of the male population is constantly being reduced to the status of the preadolescent, peering through the keyhole as his sister takes a bath. And that says nothing about legitimate feminine outrage over this exploitation."

Stefan Kac said...

Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934)
Ch. V/8

"While all these new forms of permanent record were first employed chiefly for amusement...they had important uses in science, and they even reacted upon our conceptual world as well. The photograph, to begin with, served as an independent objective check on observation. ...history is non-repeatable, and the only thing that can be rescued from history is the note that one takes and preserves at some moment of its evolution. To divorce an object from its integral time-sequence is to rob it of its complete meaning, although it makes it possible to grasp spatial relations which may otherwise defy observation. [e.g. astronomy]


"One may perhaps over-rate the changes in human behavior that followed the invention of these new devices; but one or two suggest themselves. Whereas in the eotechnic phase one conversed with the mirror and produced the biographical portrait and the introspective biography, in the neotechnic phase one poses for the camera, or still more, one acts for the motion picture. The change is from an introspective to a behaviorist psychology, from the fulsome sorrows of Werther to the impassive public mask of an Ernest Hemingway."

So, "history is non-repeatable," but also unfathomable in its totality. Human beings are the agents of history who, nonetheless, can faithfully record only frozen snapshots of it. These snapshots are more manageable, at the cost of also being profoundly misleading. Their fidelity is to atomized historical artifacts, not to history itself. Their "meanings" are illuminating but "incomplete." Their proliferation effects profound changes in the social environment.

I reject the notion that the Old World was teeming with Werthers, but the one I live in does seem to be teeming with Hemingways. I am rather ignorant of both these gentlemen, actually, but Schickel also takes Hemingway as paradigmatic and devotes appreciable space to him and his antics.

Stefan Kac said...

Marshall McLuhan
Understanding Media (1964)
MIT Press edition (1994)

"Nobody can commit photography alone. It is possible to have at least the illusion of reading and writing in isolation, but photography does not foster such attitudes. If there is any sense in deploring the growth of corporate and collective art forms such as the film and the press, it is surely in relation to the previous individualist technologies that these new forms corrode."
(p. 189)

Stefan Kac said...

McLuhan, Understanding Media

"To understand the medium of the photograph is quite impossible...without grasping its relations to other media, both old and new. For media, as extensions of our physical and nervous systems, constitute a world of biochemical interactions that must ever seek new equilibrium as new extensions occur. In America, people can tolerate their images in mirror or photo, but they are made uncomfortable by the recorded sound of their own voices. The photo and visual worlds are secure areas of anesthesia."
(p. 202)