Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, November 16, 2009

ut pictura poesis

Over at Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody is meditating — here and here — on Kenny Goldsmith’s claim that “with the rise of the web, writing has met its photography.” Tim rightly finds this statement pleasingly epigrammatic but historically inaccurate, and tries to come up with a better formulation. I think he does — it’s kinda complicated, so you should read his posts — but I think what he really should have said is that Goldsmith’s analogy goes wrong right from the start, because he’s confused about what photography did to painting:

Writing has encountered a situation similar to what happened to painting upon the invention of photography, a technology so much better at doing what the art form had been trying to do, that in order to survive, the field had to alter its course radically. If photography was striving for sharp focus, painting was forced to go soft, hence Impressionism. Faced with an unprecedented amount of digital available text, writing needs to redefine itself in order to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.

Is it really true that painting “had been trying” to do what photography came along and did better? If so, what exactly was that? Was it a matter of achieving “sharp focus”? That might account for some painters (George de la Tour, maybe, or Joseph Wright of Derby), but what about Turner? Or Rembrandt for that matter? There’s no doubt that photography came to supplant painting for some purposes, but even architectural painting did not disappear with the advent of photography, much less portraiture.

Might Goldsmith be suggesting something else? When he mentions text he cites its “abundance,” so maybe he’s thinking that photography brought images into “the age of mechanical reproduction”. But that’s not right, either, because printing presses reproduced images as well as text, and by the time photography came along there were many techniques for the reproduction of images, via intaglio or relief.

Moreover, “textual abundance” is not new. As Ann Blair has been showing us for some time, the printing press very quickly brought us more books than we could ever hope to read — and all the anxieties that accompany information overload.

So, in short, while Tim provides an account that’s much better than Goldsmith’s, I think he would have done better to reject the image/text analogizing altogether. Both sides of the story are too complex for any epigram to be better than misleading. The advent of photography changed painting, but not in simple ways; and I would contend — though I can but assert the point here — that the printing press changed our relations to texts in far more fundamental ways than digital transmission has.


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