Mark-making in the digital age

Gerhard Richter (German, born 1932), Abstract Painting (613-3), 1986. Oil on canvas, 260.7 x 203 cm. Collection of Preston H. Haskell, Class of 1960. © Gerhard Richter 2014 / photo: Douglas J. Eng

Viewing Rothko to Richter: Mark-making in Abstract Painting at the Princeton Museum of Art, I was struck by the concept of mark-making and what the making of mark signifies. The exhibit explored the ways in which certain abstract artists in the postwar period explored the form of painting. More specifically, the exhibit engaged with how these artists questioned the act of leaving a mark, in case ink on canvas. What does the mark mean? What meaning can be conveyed through a collections of marks that make up a painting? Can there ever be a neutral or objective mark?

This formal exploration in painting coincided with a similar explorations in writing by writers as diverse as William S Burroughs and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Other art forms also saw movements dedicated to the same formal investigations. John Cage, for example, stripped music back as far as silence in his search for the definition of music.

It was as if, after two world wars and the atomic bombs, everything was open to questioning, every movement, every impulse, every thought that passed through us and issued out into the world. We could no longer trust anything about ourselves and had to start again at Year Zero, itself also being a product of this time- a mad political questioning that treated lives as the marks that make up society.

The formalist focus on mark-making may have lost its prominence in the arts, but it is still a valid question as we grapple with new technologies and the relationship between those who make art and those who view art. The ability to find and transform images, words and sounds has led toward an extreme mutability of the mark. Up to now, the mark has had a certain permanence. For the artists in this exhibit, the mark was a concrete sign signalling for all time, the existence of the artist and their effort at communicating something. Now, the mark is vapour. The words I am typing now are susceptible to cut and paste. With that, my marks become yours, or mine in a different context. There is, therefore, a different meaning to mark-making in the digital age.

The definition of this meaning has been developing in the field of intellectual property, most notably copyright, over the last few decades. Copyright is a product of physical mark-making and helps shape our understanding of what marks mean. I paint a picture or write a book. The brush strokes or ink on paper are mine. I own them. When the marks are a series of infinitely reproducible 1’s and 0’s that can move from New York to Beijing to Cape Town and back faster than I can take a breath, the old paradigm of ownership is meaningless.

So where does this leave mark-making? Are the questions that the artists in this exhibition explored still valid, or are we now forced to ask other questions?

It seems that marks and making of them are no longer so personal as they were. They are, also, not so mono-directional. Instead of the artist applying a mark as part of a communications to a viewer, marks in the digital age have become communal resources to be used and reused over and over. Sometimes these resources make reference to their predecessors, as is in the case of parodies or mash ups. Sometimes they hide their relationship, as can be the case in screen-scraping web sites. In any event, the mark is mine and not mine, a form of communication and a tool for others.

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