There are two fundamental ways that humans have made their marks upon the world. One is by depositing pigment on surfaces, the other is incision, carving or impressing lines and shapes into objects. One requires two dimensions, the other three or even four. An incised line can appear or seemingly disappear through the motion of light across a surface, subject to motion of the light or the observer.
An incision can be decoded in at least three ways. Is the key information on the surface, or in the depths, or both? When applied to reproductive technologies, it’s generally an either/or decision. The end product is primarily the transfer of pigment to a flat surface, so ink is applied either to the high spots (as in linocut, woodcut, or movable type) or to the depths as in intaglio printing (engraving). Paper may be embossed or ink left raised in an impression, but this is a secondary characteristic, meant more for touch rather than symbolic use. Braille is of course a notable exception to this generality. Primarily, though, symbolic exchange is usually reducible to a two dimensional domain, with a third element being syntax—the sequence which symbols occur, either in space or time.
I have been revisiting Stephen Bann’s Parallel Lines (2001) for its trenchant critique of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936-39) and William Ivins Prints and Visual Communication (1953). Bann argues that Benjamin and Ivins leapt over the cultural context of burin engraving (specifically in 19th century France) to make broad statements about reproductive technologies that are misleading at best in their effort to crown photography as the logical culmination of the search for meaningful communication in the visual realm. Ivin’s declaration that photography presented “images devoid of syntax” has always struck me as particularly ludicrous, but coming back around to these books after a decade or so has brought new thoughts.
Bann argues that photography and printmaking developed along parallel lines, with practitioners sometimes crossing between technologies for a variety of reasons. Bann’s examination is crucial to me because for a brief span, the reproduction of images and words occurred on a parallel track of a different sort: words were reproduced through movable type, a relief printing method where the raised parts of a plate are inked. Woodcuts could be reproduced in the same fashion, but engraving brought entirely new challenges. Because engravings are incised, with ink pressed into the impressed spaces, they could not be printed using the same presses. Word and image had been divorced, cut apart by technological divergence. I’m not sure they have ever reconciled.
Books using engraved plates for illustration generally group the plates in separate sections, or exist as separate volumes from typeset texts. In fact, it was possible to buy the illustrations separately and combine them with print and have them custom bound together, making each copy of a book unique. Each illustration also represented a division of labor, because the designer of the image and the artist engraving the plate might also be different people, with different aesthetic senses.
This plate, for example, was inserted into an 1811 copy of Thomas Aikenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination. The image credits are T. Stothard del (delineavit- artist) and I. Neagle sculp (sculpsit- engraver). In a direct way, this is the syntax of engraving— there are two credits, always poised on the left and right in the same places, because there are two labors involved with separate conventions. It’s convention, more than syntax, that William Ivins names as the syntax of the image. Syntax is generally defined as sequence or arrangement, but Ivin’s use of syntax points to conventions, conventions that are more recognizable as transformation or translation between the planar media of painting and drawing and the incised medium, engraving.
What makes a visual expression valuable? In Marxist terms, that would be it’s exchange value. Walter Benjamin suggests that in the arts, this amounts to exhibition value, where rather than being a small scale object viewed by the few (cult value) it becomes a reproduced object viewed by the many. Stephen Bann points instead to a concept from Michael Baxandall, troc, which is the French word for barter (1985, ch. 4). Baxandall, in a chapter delineating the relationship between Picasso and his dealers and art critics of the day, defines it as a sort of syntax for visual expression which guided the way his works were created and distributed. “Market” is not the correct term:
But it must also be said at once that the relation is much more diffuse than the economists’. In the economists’ market what the producer is compensated by is money: money goes one way, goods or services the other. But in the relation between painters and cultures the currency is much more diverse than just money: it includes such things as approval, intellectual nurture and, later, reassurance, provocation and irritation of stimulating kinds, the articulation of ideas, vernacular visual skills, friendship and — very important indeed — a history of one’s activity and a heredity, as well as sometimes money acting both as a token of some of these and a means to continuing performance. And the good exchanged for these is not so much pictures as profitable and pleasurable experience of pictures.
Without suggesting that Picasso modified his art to accommodate market conditions, it isn’t a stretch to say that he sought approval. Human marking activities are intentional, and those intentions are not strictly a personal matter—there is a social currency that motivates them, rewards them or ignores them. Reproductive print culture changes the flow of information in dramatic ways, not simply because of the loss of cult status but because of entirely new social conditions directing them. Baxandall compares painting to the work of a bridge builder, who is constrained both by the structural character of his materials and the proclivities of those who have commissioned the structure and would like to consider it “beautiful.”
The material constraints of incised artwork are many. Burin engraving, in particular, is unforgiving and laborious. Once removed, material can’t really be replaced. The division of labor between designer and etcher was a necessity, particularly later in the nineteenth century when images were valued for their news value; burin engraving was wholly unsuited to this. Acid resist etching was far more popular, particularly in England, because instead of abrading the plate it was painted or drawn upon with resist material and later etched to incise the surface. Creating texture, or indistinct lines, was challenging.
Joseph Viscomi’s landmark Blake and the Idea of the Book (1993) offers an excellent peek into the practicalities of etching and the cultural context of reproduction in the 18th and 19th centuries. Illuminated printmaking, Blake’s “infernal method,” was marshaled against the division of labor then prevalent in visual reproduction:
In Illuminated printmaking, the labor of the artist (delineavit) and engraver (sculpsit) is the same labor, occurring in the same place and at the same time. This relation conceiving and making, between invention and execution, is encouraged by the very act of drawing as opposed to tracing and/or translating designs already drawn and thus composed. (32)
Drawing directly on the plates (including lettering all the text in handwriting) was the way that Blake composed all his major works. Only one book, juvenilia published by friends, was printed using a conventional letterpress. Consequently, the conventions of drawing are crucial to understanding how/why he was obscure in his own time and largely ignored. Viscomi compares and contrasts Blake’s extant writings about drawing with selected drawing textbooks, some of which he seemed to follow and others he chafed at, as well as various developments in printmaking that sought to bring it into alignment (at least in appearance) with contemporary trends in drawing.
This is only one side of the equation of troc. The other side, that of critical reception, is beautifully illustrated by an excerpt from Blake’s letter to the Monthly Magazine (1806) in response to the harsh criticism leveled at Henry Fuseli’s depiction of Count Ugolino.
Mr. Fuseli’s Count Ugolino is the father of sons of feeling and dignity who would not sit looking in their parent’s face in the moment of his agony but would rather die in secret, while they suffer him to indulge his passionate and innocent grief, his innocent and venerable madness, and insanity, and fury, and whatever paltry critics cannot, because they dare not, look upon.
The implication that the critic simply didn’t look at Fuseli’s work. “Under pretense of fair criticism and candor, the most wretched taste ever upheld for many, very many years.” Blakes backlash against connoisseurship speaks directly to the emergent “syntax” by which visual arts were being formed and judged in the 18th and 19th centuries
The taste of English amateurs has been too much formed upon pictures imported from Flanders and Holland; consequently our countrymen are easily brow-beat on the subject of painting; and hence it is so common to hear a man say, “I am no judge of pictures:” but, O Englishmen! know that every man ought to be a judge of pictures, and every man is so who has not been connoisseured out of his senses.
A gentleman who visited me the other day, said, “I am very much surprised at the dislike that some connoisseurs shew on viewing the pictures of Mr. Fuseli; but the truth is, he is a hundred years beyond the present generation.” Though I am startled at such an assertion, I hope the contemporary taste will shorten the hundred years into as many hours; for I am sure that any person consulting his own eyes must prefer what is so supereminent; and I am as sure that any person consulting his own reputation, or the reputation of his country, will refrain from disgracing either by such ill-judged criticisms in future.
The hope that people wouldn’t be “connoisseured” out of their senses is strong in both Ivins and Benjamin; Benjamin actually suggests that the mass taste was progressing faster in motion pictures than anywhere else, with a more prodigious appetite for advanced art forms. It remains that we always judge new art using the yardstick of the old, and while some “syntax,” or circumstances for troc, disappear others appear. Blake may have been able to overcome the division of labor in printing, but he could not change prevailing taste.
It has always been one of the primary tasks of art to create a demand whose hour of full satisfaction has not yet come. The history of every art form has critical periods in which the particular form strains after effects which can only be easily achieved with a changed technical standard that is to say, in a new art form. (Benjamin 266)
Benjamin’s sentiment, derived from Andre Breton, is much in evidence in Blake’s response. However, the conditions for communication will always be social and therefore political. Photography is not immune. There is a reason that Henry Fox Talbot called it photogenic drawing. Photography did not settle deep debates over taste, it merely complicated them.