In “Languages Of Art” Nelson Goodman describes two types of art, allographic and autographic. Allographic art has a notational score and is distributed by reproduction, like a novel or a DVD. Autographic art is a unique original artwork, like a painting or sculpture.
A copy of an allographic artwork is a print, a copy of an autographic artwork is a fake. Goodman argues (giving the example of Vermeer scholarship) that even if a fake is indistinguishable from the original today we cannot know that it will never be possible, with developments in technology or knowledge, to distinguish it in the future. Autographic art could be copied using atomic-level 3D scanning and printing, at which point the history and provenance of the artwork become the only current ways of distinguishing the original from a copy. But some as yet unknown fact or technique might still be developed to tell them apart.
When printing an allographic work, the materiality of the print is irrelevant to the extent that it does not interfere with the successful communication of the content of the work. The materiality of the print is noise in the sense of Shannon’s information theory. But noise can become ironized into signal by history. For example the hiss and crackle of vinyl records sampled in trip-hop or the deliberate digital image corruption of glitch art.
When producing a fake, another concern of Goodman’s, material differences from the original are noise. Where they become identifiable, these differences can become a signal indicating the work of celebrated or infamous fakers. Or they can become the signature of inauthenticity.
We cannot assume that every material fact about an autographic artwork or a particular print of an allographic artwork is intended to be part of the signal of the work, this would be the intentional fallacy. But every material fact about an artwork may affect its reception and interpretation. This is obvious for autographic work, where control of the medium is a sign of artistic competence, but it is also true for allographic work.
Bits require atoms to hold them, and prints require a substrate. The medium modulates the message, and the materiality of text has been something that authors have played with since at least “Tristram Shandy”. But the materiality of text that criticizes or historicizes art is not a product of authorial intent, rather it is an imposition by editors and designers. It is contingent. But this is the intentional fallacy, and the material qualities of a text affect its perception and reception whether the author cares or not.
The design of an art history, theory or criticism journal is not intended to confound the signal of the texts it contains. It is designed to lend them an air of neutrality and authority. If the authors of the texts they present do not intend this, they at least consent to it.
At art school in the early 1990s I was struck by the fact that the general posture of criticality of the cultural studies department towards other media didn’t extend to the particularities and peculiarities of their own. Media can at most appear neutral in the culture that exploits them. Much historic conceptual art and concrete poetry now speaks more immediately of mid-twentieth century bureaucracy’s office technology than of its artistic written content. But historical distance can be replaced with critical distance. We can find our own media strange. This includes the media of critical texts and of art history.
Which is why I think Charlotte Frost’s “What Is Art History Made Of” is such an important essay. Frost both recognizes the materiality of art historical media and seeks to broaden it. The Digital Humanities are already expanding the range of methods and materials available to art history, but Frost describes a broader self-critical programme for such experiments to pursue. This is a superset of a “critical digital humanities” that is much more than the call to order that label usually covers, bringing in Maker Culture and art practice as well (Art & Language are a useful precedent here). It is a self critical expansion of art history into its own objects that promises increased expressive range and communicative bandwidth for the field.