Mimesis in the Digital Age


     I will begin by laying out a few terms. “Imaging” is the term which has been adapted to denote the use of digital technology to produce images, whether for screen or print. The verb and the gerund forms of the noun “image,” was coined in 1992 by Adobe Photoshop, a bitmap graphics editor first trademarked and released in 1990. The digital production and editing of images marks the third age of photography.

     To use the term “photography” to apply to the Renaissance may seem an anachronism when that word was coined by Sir John Herschel in a paper read before the Royal Society on March 14, 1839, but I use it nevertheless because in modern parlance it has come to mean any activity which involves the use of a camera. Moving further into the past, as promised, to the 16th century, the camera obscura, literally "dark chamber" (from the Latin) referred to a black box with a lens that could project images of external objects, was used by painters such as Caravaggio and Vermeer to project such images directly onto the canvas from which they could be traced.  This controversial theory was first advanced by the artist, David Hockney.

    The early optical instruments or “cameras” had the ability to project an image but not to fix it. It was with the second era that chemical processes were found that could fix the image. In the third era, digitization has introduced as much change as chemically treated plates and then film did in the previous stage.

     Let us look first at what all three stages of camera-based imaging have in common. First of all, they all have verisimilitude. Lenses, even though each has its own properties, use the physics of light to extend in space or time the capacity, while maintaining in most cases the same principles as the human eye.  The second characteristic they share is scalability. An object or image can be projected to any size: for example, 4 x 5 inches, 8 x 10 or even billboard size. There are even more points of resemblance between optical-chemical photography and digital imaging, but what is the major difference?

     A digital image can be sorted by pixels through a software application into a very large number of categories. It can be sorted by contrast, color, shade, area, and many other ways. Any of the resulting sorts can be isolated and separately used in a variety of uses, even imported into other pictures or even other forms of digitized media without any loss of quality. It is the first time that the reproduction has not deteriorated in relation to the original.

     Historically, the reproduction degenerated in quality with each generation. Even with such a comparatively modern medium as film, both motion picture and still, the original negative is maintained from which first generation prints are made. Alfred Stieglitz wrote to his publisher in 1931: “My photographs do not lend themselves to reproduction. The quality of touch in its deepest living sense is inherent in my photographs. When that sense of touch is lost, the heartbeat of the photograph is extinct. In the reproduction, it would become extinct – dead. My interest is in the living. That is why I cannot give permission to reproduce my photographs.” (cited by Janet Malcolm in her essay “Artists and Lovers” 1979. She further cites Dorothy Norman’s text from Aperture’s History of Photography series.)

     In the more distant past, quality degenerated arithmetically as well as exponentially. Manual-chemical-mechanical processes such as etching and other traditional printmaking technologies produced editions in which the first copies were sharper than the last. Going further back to Renaissance Florence, where schools and salons manually reproduced the work of the masters, there was no question as to the superiority of the original.

     In his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” published in 1936, Walter Benjamin described the inexorable advance of the “exhibition value” as compared to the inherent or “cult value” of art, but the advent of photography accelerated this trend. While the original work, whether painting or theatrical production, makes certain demands, such as a pilgrimage even to see it, the reproduction has at least one foot in commerce and is validated only by the public.

     The popular arts have always existed, but the art and technology of reproduction has brought them to a position of dominance. An article in the New York Times Art & Architecture section (March 30, 1997) entitled “Living With the Fake, and Liking It” by Ada Louise Huxtable, begins: “I do not know just when we lost our sense of reality or our interest in it, but at some point it was decided that reality was not the only option. It was possible, permissible and even desirable to improve on it; one could substitute a more agreeable product. …Surrogate experience and synthetic settings have become the preferred American way of life.” She goes on to document the proliferation of the ersatz or imitative in the most concrete and, if I may coin a word, “non-virtual” of the arts– architecture.

     “Las Vegas style is in. One example: the Alamo Village theme park in Brackettville, Texas attracted as many visitors as the original structure, which lies 120 miles away in San Antonio.” The theme park including nearly three dozen board-and-batten and adobe buildings such as jails, saloons, general store, bank, hotel, church, stable, blacksmith shop in addition to a bigger than the original mission-fortress was built for John Wayne’s 1959 movie “The Alamo.”

     America was always a mixture of Puritans and freebooters, idealists and hucksters. It has always been a mixture of cultures and races. It was never, despite the wishes of some of its most dangerous denizens, “pure.” Mixture is the overriding truth of America.

     I enjoyed “The Alamo” and “Davy Crockett” too. I raise this alarm only to introduce a note of ambivalence. I feel that ambivalence is a very good starting point. Ambivalence right now is the beginning of discrimination. Advertising as an industry tries to foster discrimination without ambivalence and thus to render us fit to be part of a consumer market.

     Consumerism is antithetical to art. Consumerism panders to the public. I will not go so far as to say that it doesn’t educate, but the information promulgated by advertising is not dispassionate or fair. Advertising insinuates itself into the attention of the public through flattery. Even obnoxious commercials present a form of over-familiarity that we would find barely tolerable in a close friend or relative.  The type of art that flourishes in such an environment is saturated with self-promotion.

     Take the work of Jeff Koons, for example. He produces shiny objects with high production values and inane content, laughing all the way to the bank ( to quote the popular misquote of the late great Las Vegas phenomenon, Liberace, who remarked that he cried all the way to the bank). Koons even produces some of his pieces in duplicate or triplicate to reference mass production while making more money.

          The post-modernists deal with the problem of mass mind control through parody, but the problem with parody is that it often does not transcend its target but instead actually proffers the highest form of flattery through imitation. As soon as the inside joke exceeds its limits, it turns in on itself and becomes co-opted, engendering a fondness for the banal, for the degenerate, for the imitative. This isn’t bad in small doses, but it is not nourishing as a steady diet.

     The ascent and overwhelming triumph of popular culture encouraged by the development of better and easier means of reproduction has magnified recent history at the expense of the more distant past in nearly every walk of life. In other parts of the world, the distant past is still alive. In Iran, the most popular television program is a quiz show on which contestants display their knowledge of classical Persian poetry. Perhaps our post-modernist leveling of taste is a reaction against the snobbery and preoccupation with the past which characterized the Victorian Age and the Romantics. Or perhaps the rate of change has become so swift that we can now feel nostalgia for the more recent past. Or perhaps the medium of photography tends to encapsulate experience giving us instant nostalgia. This would foster a shallower and less nuanced view than either writing or painting.

     In 2005 I visited a small museum in Gulfport, Mississippi (a year before hurricane Katrina severely damaged it). I had gone to see the work of the regional artist, Walter Anderson, which included a room of a community center in which he had painted the walls, doors, windows, and ceiling. The museum also had an exhibit of photographs by Eudora Welty before she became a Pulitzer prizewinning author. I had never known her as a photographer. I had studied, in college, the work of the photographers of the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker, photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, and Gordon Parks, but I liked Miss Welty’s photographs the best of all. Not only did she have the production values, the sense of composition, the selectivity, the eye for the representative, the sense of composition, but she had something else that the others did not- the sense of belonging. Blank and white, these were her neighbors, yet she said that she gave up photography and took up writing because she believed that she could reveal far more.

     Plato denigrated art. Since art imitates physical things, which in turn imitate the Forms, art is always a copy of a copy, mimesis of mimesis, leading us further from truth and toward illusion. I’m sure that both artists and photographers will be thoroughly relieved to hear that I disagree with Plato. Art has never been re-creation; it has always been creation. Its purpose has never been to duplicate but to amaze. It does this not by copying but by altering. Fortunately, Plato also disagreed with Plato and presents another view of artist as prophet (as do I in my essay, “On and Beyond Symbolism”). As art freed itself from the role of representing nature, photography stepped in as mimesis not only of nature but of art. It works best when it appears not as pastiche but as serendipity, though the post-modernist penchant for bad taste has revived photographs as pastiche of the great works of art as in the work of Cindy Sherman.

     The march of progress, whether in the sciences or the arts, has been steadily toward the acknowledgement and employment of the counter intuitive. Two examples: contrary to appearances, the sun does not move around the earth; and, contrary to appearances, the columns of the Parthenon were not made perfectly straight or they would not have looked straight. The bulged in the middle in order to correct the optical illusion that a long line that is truly straight will tend to appear to be concave. In addition, all of the columns tip in very slightly: Mimesis is not an exact copy and never was- that is until the Digital Age.


copyright 2006 - Chaim Bezalel