Advisor: Deborah Davidson
Group 2 - Critical Theory II Paper
28 February 2010
Trace and Index
Wayne Thiebaud, speaking about his relation to art theory in an interview with Turps Banana, says, “It seems to me that while they are interesting they are, maybe, a little too much like Jell-O. Every theory is good to a point, marvellous [sic] constructions. But what finally counts is what the painting physically is. And that is something I don’t think words can ever do (Smith, 12).”
How does theory relate to the physical act of creating an aesthetic object? Or to the act of viewing and interacting with an aesthetic object? Are words ever sufficient to describe either experience? What is lost in applying theories developed around language-focused sign systems to visual arts? What is gained and how can these theories help us understand and talk about art? Can these concepts provide me with a new lens to focus on my own work and the work I look at as an artist?
The Critical Theory II readings deal with the ideas of marks, traces, signs, stains, indices as a way to talk about how aesthetic marks might operate and create (or not) meaning. In particular, the readings focus on the nature of photography and drawing as traces and indices. As a reader new to these concepts, all utterly abstract, linguistically based, and seemingly unrelated to the actual process of painting. Or are they?
In "Notes on the Index," Rosalind Krauss says, “Nothing could seem further apart than photography and abstract painting, the one wholly dependent upon the world for the source of its imagery, the other shunning that world and the images it might provide…As paradoxical as it might seem, photography has increasingly become the operative model for abstraction (Krauss 210).” According to Krauss, this operative model “involves reduction of the conventional sign to a trace, which then produces the need for a supplemental discourse (Krauss, 211).” This reduction can occur because of the nature of the trace and the index. Looking for a unifying element (other than style) in the “willful eclecticism” of 1970s art, Krauss identifies a common way of relating to the index, as indicated by a “pervasiveness of the photograph as a means of representation” and “the photograph combined with the explicit terms of the index (206).”
To understand Krauss’s argument, it is important to remember that the index has two meanings. In the first, the index is a trace, imprint, or residue of something, which has a physical connection to its referent (for example, a footprint, a photograph). In the second, the index acts as shifter. The index/shifter is a “category of linguistic sign which is ‘filled with signification’ only because it is ‘empty’ (Krauss 197).” As Newman states, “The index is also…a certain kind of empty linguistic expression that derives its sense from the context in which it is performed, such as ‘this,’ ‘that,’ ‘now,’ and the personal pronouns (94).” This makes possible the kind of shift Krauss sees in DuChamps use of the readymade – A shift made possible by the concurrent advent of photography and the development of an abstract pictorial language (Krauss 206). Similarly, the photograph itself can be viewed as a readymade; an index or relic of a specific moment in time. For Krauss, “It is about the physical transposition of an object from the continuum of reality into the fixed condition of the art-image by a moment of isolation, or selection (206).”
But how does this change when one begins to speak of the actual marks contained in a drawing or painting? Does it make sense or help to understand or talk about painting and the types of marks that occur in painting using the principles of semiotics? How is meaning relayed through mark and gesture. An alternate view is proposed by James Elkins in What Is Painting.
Elkins talks about how “art history lacks a persuasive account of the nature of graphic marks, and that limits what can be said about pictures. If a sign, as Charles Peirce said, is ‘something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity’(1) – a formula as vague as it is compact—then every mark in a picture is also a sign: every brushstroke, pencil line, smudge, and erasure must function as a sign and have meaning. In practice, that would spell trouble for accounts of pictures which take ‘sign’ to mean the forms made out of the marks – such as, in the typical examples, figures, scenes, and narratives. For the most part – and with important exceptions in all periods and subjects – art history has concentrated on the larger-scale forms, or on the large-scale properties held by groups of marks, such as facture and ‘handling’ (Elkins 3).” Elkins proposes thinking about marks as “subsemiotic”. “In the end,” he says, “semiotics shrinks the notion of what a picture is, assimilating pictures to texts and overlooking their painted strangeness (Elkins 5).”
It is also interesting to think of the shifter/index, with its contingency in terms of empathy, and the ability to relate to “the other”. Speaking of the difference between painting and photography, for example, Thiebaud says, “Photography, as I see it, is made from everything into something. Painting starts with nothing and has to find something. So in a way
photographs are made from the outside in, and painting is made from the inside out, and for me it seems to miss that very important aspect in painting – namely empathy (Smith, 5).”
The definition of empathy is “1. Intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another person. 2. The imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself (The Random House College Dictionary).” There is a connection in the characteristic of the index as shifter to switch between I and you positions. Jean Fisher seems to support this, in her discussion of drawing saying “The movement of drawing, the instant of art, is a mobilization of the creative will, of a vision that transforms material as it abolishes the subject-object distinction and opens the self to the possibility of otherness. Insofar as it is capable of generating a new perception of the world and a reinvention of both language and the subject, the instant of art has potentially a profoundly ethical dimension (Fisher 225).”
The process of painting, and the physical touch by the artist’s hand relates to the index through touch. Like the physical trace or imprint, the mark of the brush becomes and index of the individual artist and the energy or life causing the mark-making. Thiebaud says, “….painting is a metaphor of the body, in terms of equilibrium, skin, texture, chemical organization – but also musculature…Since painting is a dead, still object it doesn’t move, so you have to enliven it, it seems to me, with your sense of a perception of physicality, which you then transfer to enliven a work. If that’s missing, you are then, whether you like it or not, in an area of a kind of taxidermy (Smith, 5).”
Returning to the question of the role of theory in art making, I feel that Thiebaud is correct: theory can inform and deeper understanding, but in the end, at least to the artist, it is the physical act that is important. James Elkins, in What Painting Is states:
Painting is alchemy. Its materials are worked through without knowledge of their properties, by blind experiment, by the feel of the paint. A painter knows what to do by the tug of the brush as it pulls through a mixture of oils, and by the look of colored slurries on the palette. Drawing is a matter of touch: the pressure of the charcoal on the slightly yielding paper, the sticky slip of the oil crayon between the fingers. Artists become expert in distinguishing between degrees of gloss and wetness—and they do so without knowing how they do it, or how chemicals create their effects (9).
In a broader context, Mary Ann Doane in her article, “Indexicality: Trace and Sign: Introduction,” proposes that “Cultural production today seems to be haunted by anxieties surrounding the status of representation in what has been described as our ‘post-medium condition.’(1).” She claims that as the digital has threatened photography’s (and other medias) status as “a trace of the real”. She continues, saying “The digital offers an ease of manipulation and distance from any referential grounding that seem to threaten the immediacy and certainty of referentiality we have come to associate with photography (Roland Barthes’s association of the photograph with the ‘absolutely, irrefutably present’[Camera 77] (Doane 1).” One role of painting might perhaps be, in its physical singularity, to reiterate its status of presence and “the real”. As Newman says, “we could place the emphasis on the fact that a gesture has been made, the fact that something has been left for us—a mark inscribed on a piece of paper, perhaps—by someone. We would thus receive the gestural mark as the trace of the other, without any need for that mark to be meaningful (Newman, 104).”
Doane, Mary Ann. “The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity.” Differences 18.1 (2007): 128-152. Print.
---. “Indexicality: Trace and Sign: Introduction.” Differences 18.1 (2007): 1-6. Print.
Elkins, James. On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.
---. What Painting Is. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.
Fisher, Jean. “On Drawing.” The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act. Ed. Catherine de Zegher. London: Tate Publishing, 2003. 217-226. Print.
Newman, Michael. “The Marks, Traces, and Gestures of Drawing.” The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act. Ed. Catherine de Zegher. London: Tate Publishing, 2003. 99-108. Print.
Pliny. “Book XXXV.” Natural History: Books XXXIII-XXXV, The Loeb Classical Library. Ed. G.P. Goold and H. Rackham. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952. 151-152. Print.
“Empathy.” The Random House College Dictionary. Revised ed. 1982. Print
Smith, Colin. “The Difference Between a Wolf and A Dog: Wayne Thiebaud in Conversation with Colin Smith.” Turps Banana 3: 4-13.