Abstraction and Digital Production

story © Michael Betancourt, December 8, 2013 all rights reserved.


The reductive abstraction common to the twentieth century, from the ‘form is function’ of reductive formalism—both Adolph Loos and Clement Greenberg—mirrors the demands of early capitalism for efficiency and speed of manufacture by unskilled labor. The elimination of features dependent on personal training and their replacement by the industrial assembly line (by Andy Warhol as much as Donald Judd) demonstrates how abstraction embraced the ‘deskilling’ common to capitalism first noted by historian John Ruskin in the nineteenth century. With the development of digital technology, and the shift from production to replication, the formal protocols of earlier abstraction (especially the geometric formalist work of the 1920s and 1930s) were embedded within the digital itself. The digital automation foregrounded in the more contemporary work of Roxy Paine’s Painting Manufacture Unit makes the link between contemporary industrial production and abstract art into a subject of the work: instead of challenging capitalist processes and demands, abstract art instead acts to affirm them through the adoption of forms that are ‘deskilled’ (i.e. not requiring human agency); at the same time, digital technology collapses the assumed distinctions between the ‘abstract’ and the ‘not-abstract,’ a factor that becomes apparent in Wade Guyton’s digitally produced works. This elision of distinctions is a feature of digital capitalism—via the serial generation of commodity forms—where permutation ignores all differences, enabling the valorization of what were historically contradictory domains under the rubric of novelty; the elision of distinctions reflects this protocol’s dominance. Abstraction is thus simultaneously symptomatic and descriptive when confronting digital technology, a duality that is reflective of how both forms have historically emerged within capitalism. The problem both pose is therefore identical: engaging the contradictory demands of this historical foundation.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  December 8, 2013  all rights reserved.

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