Tool and Method

Pierre-Damien Huyghe

Translated from the French
by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods

Pierre-Damien Huyghe, “L’outil et la méthode,” Milieux 33 (Le Creusot: Écomusée du Creusot-Montceau, 1988), 65–69.

When photography appeared, Baudelaire was worried about art, and painting in particular. For him, art could not be photographic because it did not have to do with reproduction. Photography, however, did have to do with reproduction, not only, incidentally, through the sort of picture it created, but also through the capacity to mass produce the picture itself. In this sense it was similar to industry. As Baudelaire wrote, “it stands to reason that, by bursting onto the art scene, industry becomes art’s most deadly enemy, and that the confusion of functions prevents either art or industry from being fulfilled. Poetry and progress are two ambitious things which hate one another with an instinctive loathing, and, when they meet, one of them has to serve the other. If photography is allowed to replace art in some of its functions, it will soon completely supplant or corrupt it, thanks to the natural alliance it will find in the folly of the multitude. So it must get back to its real duty, that is to be the servant of the sciences and arts, but a most humble servant, like printing and shorthand, which have neither created nor superseded literature.” 11 Charles Baudelaire, Curiosités esthétiques: Salon 1845-1859 (Paris: Garnier, 1962), 319.

I do not think that everything that Baudelaire says here “stands to reason.” The initial difficulty lies in the actual notion of reproduction that he associates, without further ado, with the notion of photography. It is not in the least bit evident that the photographic apparatus—the camera—is an apparatus of reproduction, even if the photos it produces can be reproduced. The creation of a photograph and its reproduction are not equivalent operations, for the photograph is inevitably based on a way of seeing things that is realized, in particular, in terms of framing and choice of angle. From this point on one may doubt whether the photograph can accurately render reality. Baudelaire, notwithstanding, admitted as much, scoffing as he did at the poses which models are forced to adopt during their sessions. For him, photographic precision was a decoy insomuch as the photo is in reality based on a mise en scène that may subsequently, at the moment of contemplating the product, be either ignored or misunderstood. It is perhaps here that we find the thesis most strongly posited by Baudelaire: the photographic decoy can only function if the public is not aware of the camera’s ruses. However, for Baudelaire, it is this ignorance that, in effect defines the public as such, that is to say as an entity distinct from the artist and the critic. It would seem that what Baudelaire was afraid of was not so much photography as the industry that disseminates the images it produces. The duplication of an opus is sacrilege: is becomes something “disseminated among the people,” losing all taste and meaning. 22 Ibid., 317.

Here we find once more the ancient fear, already present in Plato, of the dissemination of meaning. Two problems are related to this fear: that of preserving the communal identity over time, and that of the kinship between tradition and worship. There is no doubt that tradition is in part linked to transmission and dissemination: there is no tradition without dissemination. But dissemination ushers in the possibility of an uncontrolled interpretation. Hence the relation with worship: dissemination of the patrimony will be an exhibition, it will take place in a place where people will have to go and gather, a place, too, where people will be able to hear the authorized commentary of clerics who are guardians of the essence and masters of interpretation. Here there is some relation with communion, an experience shared and commented upon communally, but also with the conditions in which the work of art, and particularly painting, is visited and looked at. In a time of reproducible photography, on the other hand, the work can come to the viewer. The exhibition becomes diffuse and the arbitrariness of solitary and secular interpretation can, where applicable, find a foothold. This analysis is likely to be the object of several kinds of criticism. Here, I shall stick to things esthetic. The nub is knowing if an objectivity of the work exists, a system of passage from manifesto to meaning that can do without commentator and guide. If this is the case, why be afraid? As for lack of proof, why not wager, on the face of it, on the objectivity of the work? The reproducibility of the photograph, like that of the book, tends, incidentally, to question the thesis of the kinship between art and worship rather than art itself. Firstly, it questions the trust that the critic and the artist show with regard to the other, whomever they may be. It reveals a primary fear within any exhibition: the fear of grappling with freedom. It would be in contradiction with the very concept of freedom to think that such a confrontation should be translated by a dispersal or a disagreement. In reality, the encounter is also included in it. It is this inclusion within freedoms which, in my view, can be revealed by the objectivity of the work. It is also important to have trust in objectivity and admit that it is possible for one freedom to be in agreement with another, without betraying itself.

Baudelaire’s essay offers two more meaningful pointers: in it, on the one hand, photography is essentially regarded as industrial, on the other hand, this industry appears to be exercising a tremendous competitiveness with art. Baudelaire does not doubt the fact that it is possible to “muddle functions.” The fact is that if art and industry were thought of as two domains, distinct in every aspect, the threat of confusion would obviously not be perceptible. Baudelaire’s revolt against photography was not based solely on the bad taste associated with the multitude. It was indeed Baudelaire the critic, a man of art and culture, who expressed his fear that painting might be defeated. This means that he himself thought of photography as being capable of taking the place of painting. Now such a logic of competitiveness and replacement only holds good provided that, between the competitors, an area of encounter is posited. So this would be a place where, in Baudelaire’s actual mind, painting and photography compete, a place that both are capable of occupying, an actual place that photography risks filling even better than painting. It is in this “better,” which challenges values, that everything is played out. We must first ask questions about this close convergence of alleged rivals, and find out what underlies it. Let us for the time being admit the thesis posited by Baudelaire, introducing the competitiveness between painting and photography as a competitiveness between art and industry. If the photographic industry is capable of “replacing pictorial art in some of its functions,” this is because, at a given moment, the work of industry can be compared to the work of art, and involves the same categories; it is also because product and work are conceived in identical terms. So when Baudelaire describes the work of the painter—Delacroix, for example, at the 1846 Salon—he does so in a way which we may find suits the work of the photographer, as soon as an attempt is made to replace, in Baudelaire’s description, the painter’s hand and tools of the camera. So the tools are defined as a “material means of execution.” In addition, “the preparation of the elements of the work” must be such that “when the hand sets to work, it will encounter as few obstacles as possible, and fulfil with servile speed the divine orders of the brain: otherwise the ideal will fly away. 33 Ibid., 110. Can the swift and servile submission of the camera to the order of a prediction also describe the photograph? And who will deny that, where speed of execution is concerned, the camera is better armed than the human body?

Such an analysis probably leaves a considerable margin of distinction between the painting and the photograph, because it will be said that one proceeds by touches and the other by photos, in such a way that neither has the same sense of realization. But in addition to this being questionable, insofar as, at the end of the day, what is involved in both cases are traces, I would like for now to emphasize this “servile speed” value mentioned by Baudelaire in his praise of Delacroix. The servility of the hand implies a theory about the preparation and equipment which separates these three terms (equipment, preparation and hand) into elements to be related in accordance with a conception. As far as speed is concerned, this provides the success-based criterion of this relation. So this is the description of the stages and components of a process which might be that of any kind of organized production work. There is just one reservation, which might perhaps make the specific difference in art with regard to technique: the conception, which cannot be explained as a program, would invariably be susceptible to an irremediable flight. This is why it is important to reduce as much as possible the resistance of the equipment, and carefully prepare it to receive the touch of the mind. It would nevertheless seem that, in this touch, we do away with human gravity and duration. There is an instant discharge which once and for all realizes the work. In the ideal praxis aimed at here, the body is as if passed by glory. In the artist, man might awaken after the fact, amazed by having made this work which currently exceeds him, henceforth aware of having been like the occasion of a childbirth, whose origin is revealed and lost, all at once, in the secret of its trace. Otherwise put, at the very moment of the execution of the touch, the artist, traversed by the flash of his genius, is in reality dazzled to the point of blindness. He does not see what he is doing: his body turns into a machine. He stretches, gathers himself and focuses in order to best reduce the frictions likely to disperse the energy driving him. Without thinking, he carries out an order, responds to an impulse that will be represented neither in itself nor in him, but solely through its luminous traces. What else does a camera do? In the fraction of a second when, once all the preparations have been made, the meeting with an idea, a material and a medium is triggered and fulfilled, is the photographer not akin to the hand of Baudelaire’s painter, by which we mean servile to the point of being replaced by a machine, an object which neither thinks nor looks? In this way, then, can the mysterious and fascinating operation of artistic genius not be reduced to the operation of a little black box? Here, technique threatens to return to the same cave which, based on a fairly solid tradition, had been defined for another. At the same time, it seems to drive humanity out of this artistic refuge where, without looking too closely at the method, it had thought it was safe.

Baudelaire would be unable to admit that the camera provides a plausible model of the painter’s artistic activity. If the artist’s body and gestures contain nothing that can be reduced to the operation of a manufactured camera, then the theory of genius collapses, because there is no room any more for giftedness and exception. If the artist acts like a camera, then, like the camera, he is reproducible, and the manipulation of his expertise will soon be accessible to one and all. The sacrilege of duplication comes to the fore once again, and Baudelaire retreats: he sacrifices the camera and, in his own words, “progress,” so that it cannot be said that the difference between technique and art is slight.

Theories about genius share in common what Kant’s words neatly sum up: “Genius actually consists in a happy relation, which no science can teach and no labor makes it possible to acquire.” 44 Emmanuel Kant, Critique de la faculté de juger (Paris: Vrin, 1868), 146. Because genius is an object of neither science nor labor, it is strictly impossible to represent it. It eludes the concept as well as the rule and experience taught by itself. As the blind application of a vision or inspiration, it signifies that the human element, in its loftiest manifestation, cannot be grasped in a reflexive consciousness. The paradox is that the task of production, often thought of as a servile and instrumental humble activity, can also give rise to similar analysis. Described as punishment, sorrow, torment, suffering and constraint, the production of the means of existence seems to deprive man of his perfection, handing him over to routine gestures carried out without thinking, and even, at the end of the day, according to the demands of a machine. In this absence of thought, the producer is indeed the shameful twin of genius: like it, he will carry out gestures that, having withdrawn into another residence, consciousness cannot authenticate. The recognition of this shared kinship thus raises the issue of the body and gestures as apparatuses of consciousness. It is based on a discourse about the method of consciousness incarnate, namely that it is possible to re-examine the difference between technique and art.

There probably exists an artistic labor, that is to say a work whose meaning is not the submission of equipment to a program, but the experience of its consistency. Here, the issue is not that the equipment should render something that might be described in advance in the form of a plan. It implies a particular definition of the tool. The tool is often thought of as a go-between that makes it possible to process a raw material in accordance with a forecast. In this way of thinking about the tool, there will be an interest in the energy-related bottom line of the operation, otherwise put, its yield: the tool will be considered all the more perfect when it renders a maximum of matter processed for a minimum of energy consumed. Henceforth, work will be caught in the nets of management, and an economy. It will be the object of a calculation where the quantitative measurement of time will play an important part. In esthetic experience, on the other hand, output and consumption do not represent values. At the same time, the description of this experience as processing a form of matter is not right, any more than the definition of the tool as a means of this processing is. Matter, tool, and the human factor are not necessarily separate elements capable of being connected together, with a sole end of usefulness or service. They can also be conceived of as forming a unity, a continuity, or a reciprocity, I would even say a landscape. Our perception of the world is not that of a rough being contemplating a raw nature. The tool may be an indiscernible link with our way of seeing things. As such, it does indeed constitute a landscape, whose consistency the artist proposes to explore, and whose byways they will criss-cross. This criss-crossing involves time and respect, not the measurement of time, use and wear, even if it is true that, like all movement, it leaves behind as evidence a mark upon which the discourse on method can be founded.

So the tool is not in itself opposed to art. It may lend consistency to an intent, a way of looking, or a gesture, in a nutshell to the shift of a consciousness in a world which it seeks to neither exploit nor consume, but rather to complement by the depositing of a trace which will be the echo, testimony, and monument of its passage. From this viewpoint, I should like quote from an essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, referring to the writer’s apparatus and his work:

“I say that I know an idea [...] when I have managed to get it to inhabit an apparatus of words which was not initially designed for it. Of course, the elements of this expressive apparatus did not really contain it: the French language, thus instituted, did not contain French literature—I had to off-centre them and encounter them to make them mean what I was aiming at. It is precisely this ‘coherent deformation’ (A. Malraux) of available meanings which commits them to a new sense, and gets listeners, but also the talking subject, to take a decisive step.” 55 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Éloges de la philosophie et autres essais (Paris: Gallimard, 1953), 99.

This “decisive step,” where the very expression says that it is less a result than a work of openness and quest for a way, “will underwrite the installation of a new sense in culture.” 66 Ibid. As far as the apparatus is concerned—here the word as it deploys language to the point of making a novel arrangement appear—it is less something handed over to a use and a mastery, rather than gesture and gaze. If we admit that language is a place of reception for the meanings that we usually use for its convenience, without thinking about its arrangement and its configuration, then the apparatus of words consists in looking at and inhabiting this place in ways other than a place of service and comfort, where we might draw to our heart’s content on the means for satisfying our expressive needs. Thus understood, the apparatus cannot be sepa-rated from the intention, which will be extended and developed in movement. It is not what the gesture grasps in order to be accomplished and realized (if this were so, in Merleau-Ponty’s essay, it is language that would be the apparatus, and not the word). It is rather what ushers in a relation between an intention and elements, or what ushers in an intimacy between this intention and a datum.

What might the painter’s apparatus be? First of all, it would appear—appear being the operative word—to consist in a certain number of available and eclectic elements that are to be found in it, with which painters usually work. It is not a matter of deriving something from this equipment, but of getting it to take a step forward in connecting it through gestures to a way of looking at things. In the analysis put forward by Merleau-Ponty, the writer is not looking for new words, which is to say the aggrandizement of the tooling, but a new meaning, which he is, incidentally, seemingly unable to represent for himself. So he takes language, and looks for turns of phrase where language will be able to bear witness to the world within which he is thinking. The painter does likewise: he walks round his equipment, again and again, trying to blend his gaze with it. In this way, the canvas or wall becomes defined, dimensioned space, a possible place of residence, and a format. The format is the first apparatus, the first work of the eye: it is the election of an interior that the painter undertakes to prepare.

Based on etymology, the French appareil and apparat (apparatus and ceremony) are connected: both refer to the Latin apparatus, which means “dressing, preparation, provision.” But the dressing or, in painting, sizing, is not a moment that can be isolated, after which the so-called production, properly speaking, of the work would begin. It is rather the actual constitution of this work that, in its turn, is the never closed memory of the entirety of its preparations. In this sense, there is no moment when, with the work being considered as a finished product, the apparatus might be temporarily put aside, pending a new use. Even the exhibition can be regarded as the actual deployment of the preparations. It is their com-memorative ceremony and thus the apparatus of the work itself, or the last dressing/sizing to date. Henceforth, it does not attest to the end of a process, it does not deliver a manufacture for consumption, but rather proposes the compilation of a meaning where the last term is still being sought. The decision to exhibit does not mean that a signification has been enclosed within the limits of a frame, but that it is important to propose this limited space of painting as a meeting place or an arena of ways of seeing things, so as to take this step which only witnesses can make: authenticating the work as a work of art by installing it within the memory or ushering in its tradition, which amounts to the same thing.