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April 27, 2004

Our Poor Paragone

Franklin at Artblog has posted (here and here) on a topic that has been on my mind recently, especially in regards to the current issue of Modern Painters he mentions in his second post.

I appreciate, and to a certain extent agree with, Franklin's point that, while the "statements can't be proven true or even sensible,... it seems that for centuries, this one-upmanship has driven art's progress." The question of whether progress is always fueled through conflict, I think, is an open one. But do arguments like Hockney's serve any positive critical purpose? I'd say no, especially considering the willful blindness he indulges in regarding photography's strengths (in many respects common to both media) and painting's shortcomings (ditto).

How someone with such engagement with photography as Hockney's could say some of the facile things he does regarding that medium astounds me. (Lacking my hard copy at hand, I crib from Franklin's excerpt: that photography is only good for the documentation of paintings and drawings or that, absent a caption, we just don't know what to think of a photograph.) In general I find such discussions of 'which medium is inherently better' to be fundamentally beside the point, especially when considered so abstractly—that is, consideration of the fitness of means without consideration of ends. My further objections to such treatment of the topic of painting and photography in particular, are twofold.

First, such talk places our discussions in the distasteful territory of generic purism, a la Lessing. Further, as far as such oppositions go, this is a pretty weak one. The famous paragones of the past, of word vs. image and sculpture vs. painting (and even perhaps the more limited debates between drawing and painting, or disegno and colore/colorito), presented real apparent contrasts, thus making the recognition of similarities between the combatants all the more compelling. I'm at a loss for seeing such undeniable, essential contrast between painting and photography, taken in general. Certainly, I can recognize the differences between a particular painting and a particular photo and do not deny the aesthetic differences wrought by the necessities of medium, but I reject the notion of such a solid distinction considered generally.

Secondly (and following on the above), it makes it far too easy to search for a work's meaning at this abstract level of what really only amounts to a difference of technology and to leave it at that. How much disservice has been done to Gerhard Richter's work in trying to ferret out some rejection of either painterly or photographic modes by way of this opposition, thus avoiding confronting the work head on? Or, on the other hand, falling back on what can only be described as formalism—that his importance lies only in his adroit combination of the two?

Similarly, I recall reading recently a review of Eric Fischl's latest that seemed to find it remarkable that he manages to reconcile the competing forms of photography and painting. Sure, such a feat is miraculous if we assume from the first that the two approaches are indeed inimically opposed. But they are not so opposed in the least. Nor are they in any real way irreconcilable, as evidenced by the incredible ease by which artists consistently combine the two, to the point of overkill. But easy critical poses die hard. (I'd like to consider this issue in terms of the abstract truisms of the modern/postmodern critique of representation, but that's a topic for another time.)

In short, I find the view that painting and photography occupy the opposing poles of the world of art to be utter hogwash. Both are impressively flexible media capable of a wide variety of expressions. And I think there is far more overlap between the two than not. Painting and photography, by virtue of shared history, conventions and expression, share a common (if broad) pictorial space (and this is probably rooted, as Barthes points out in Camera Lucida, in that of theater). Indeed, Hockney argues as much in his Modern Painters interview (if only in order to declare photography irrelevant), pointing out that the camera as artistic technology significantly predates chemical photography. I would in fact stretch the point further, tracing the birth (both ideological and technological) of the modern paradigm of painting and photography back to the invention of mathematical perspective.

This opposition may have been tenable (at least in cultural terms) a century ago when painting's status as sole preeminent art form remained somewhat intact, and when photography had yet to be accepted as high expression. Not so in the age of spectacular, oversized C-prints and the abjection of post-"death" painting. When you get right down to it, painting never really lost its clout, merely ceding the crown to itself in the guise of chemical and digital photography.

Again, none of this is to say that the two media are identical. Nor is it to imply that a history of forms should not consider the two in terms of or in competition with one another. This is rather to recognize that they represent more or less technologically different articulations of the same broad aesthetic spaces, and to insist that we move beyond this weakest imaginable paragone to a criticism that is more attuned to the aesthetic particularities of each particular expression, painted, photographed, whatever.

"Our Poor Paragone"
Posted by Dan at 03:36 PM

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Referenced in this post:

Artblog: Dueling Media
Artblog: Dueling Media 2
Artnet: The Richter Resolution—Jerry Saltz
Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida