The historical function of Western art following the introduction of perspective since the Renaissance was to reproduce an exterior world. Through scientific advancements of the vision machines, coupled with an understanding of Euclidean space, the perspectival window-into-a-world that was the vocation of painting for several hundred years was made possible by commerce and military technologies. The perspective grid introduced into painting as a means of depicting three-dimensional space on the two-dimensional surface also served to upgrade ballistic science and territorial navigation.
The images that came after the Renaissance increasingly leaned towards portraits of the aristocracy, alongside the ‘counting’ (Barthes) of commodities. The exterior world was rendered visible by being mapped-out by a surveying gaze, standing in a pictorial world of as a sovereign that orders space. The eye that sees the painting is the eye of the ruler, or else the owner, of the content of the image. Out of this came an entire structure – a certain kid of ‘world picture’ – which more or less was advanced alongside the rise of capitalism.
Then comes modernity in painting which displaced this phase of the image as a depicting-machine of an exterior world; in its place came an image that was not represented but evoked. The question of eliminating the imitative, illustrative character and replacing it with the evocation involved a new ‘world picture.’
Part of this shift was due to the invention of photography which even in its original formation was a better means of depicting the exterior world in its likeness than painting. But this is a bit too simplistic – it wasn’t just a matter of a new technique usurping an old one. Painting had come across something that photography did not find: the suspicion of reality.
Think about it like this – everything that you had hitherto known or were taught about the way the world worked, and as a consequence about how representation was to get itself done, was turned upside down by an age that moved faster and faster. All the old stabilities and all the old referents became increasingly hard to managed in the face of such acceleration.
Following suit in the general trend of modernity towards crisis and experimentation, the avant-garde in painting turned painting upon itself as it was concerned with arrangements of the painting as an ‘autonomous’ thing. Of course, there is no such thing as an autonomous work of art.Works of art are always tied to ideological or metaphysical systems and are therefore ridden with politics – there is no such apolitical art anymore as there is an apolitical technology, simply because there are conditions of possibility for the formation of certain modes of the visible. The appeal towards an autonomous object of painting was not so much about an entity completely independent of the circumstances in which it was evoked as it was about turning-in about the object in order to experiment with its features and its elements.
The old ‘world picture’ was already being shattered elsewhere when painting turned towards favoring experiments in the specialization of painting, which is to say, honing-in on just what painting could be when using all the elements (line, color, texture, form, etc.). Acting like independent linguistic units, the elements of the painting were to make possible a new kind of psychic improvisation.
The expressions of this kind of art hummed with the embattled (subjective) agency and its dislocated and shattered systems of reference, now blown to bits like the bodies at Verdun.
As Lyotard says in his pamphlet on postmodernism, the overall feeling of the time was such that realistic representations could no longer evoke reality except as nostalgia or mockery. Stable referents began to wither away as the old ‘world picture’ dissolved in the face of an increasingly shattered experience. “Classicism,” says Lyotard, “seems to be ruled out in a world in which reality is so destabilized that it offers no occasion for experience but one for ratings and experimentation.”  What is of moment here is the surpassing of an entire history in representation that ordered the visible through quattrocentro and its replacement with experimentation.
In the face of this displacement, the modern aesthetic question became just what makes an art object, as well as whether or not that object could find an audience. It was no longer concerned so much with the beautiful as such, or even of a stable aesthetic experience through which an anchored subjectivity could form itself.
The experimental avant-garde came up against a vast machine of dispossession (of the craft). The dispossession that happened i the arts was the same elsehwere, part of an overall trend. The shattering effect that broke-in the new age of modernism challenged all the old structures of reality and identity. The artists took up this destablizing tendency because they had found it already in the tendency of the age.Earlier questions of Realism, which have always provided the ‘correct’ images in the guise of kitsch or academicism, and which constituted a code of political alliance, persisted up against these new questions modernity asked about the art object by means of ignoring the challenges (or sometimes, destroying them politically as was the case with Stalinism). Everywhere that modern art became a politically sensitive question, the artists who held up a mirror to their own age were buried under a Return to Order or other such neoclassical narratives. What the modern artists rightly identified, and what made them so dangerous politically, was the suspicion of reality.
Through the evocative painting the painters thought they could get closer to finding out their suspicions. That is to say, the evocative painting became a means of fleshing out an understanding of the mirage of a stable referent and the illusion of identity. Evocation could be a means of allowing the painting and the depths of the painter’s mind to augment themselves through varying forces without an a-priori designation constructed from elsewhere. Painters were to look at this curious state of affairs out of their own reflection and reflexivity, unrestricted from the punitive judgements of the reality-engineers.
This is what made the experimentation in the avant-garde so dangerous to the political regimes of the 20th century. Experimentation in the arts did not show the ‘correct’ signs of organization. It wasn’t that the institutions feared all the unhindred lines and shapes, it was more about this point of reasserting the limits of what could be imagined. In the end, the political tyrannies would just make experimentation in the arts illegal and instead push their own ridiculous officially-sanctioned subject-matter. They did this everywhere from Socialist Realism to Pop Art (which actually aren’t that different from one another). It was the same elsewhere in literature: the more people can read the more constraints and provisions have to be set in place to control what they read, so it was much easier to debase artistic education. If populist kitsch was to be the order of the day, then it was to carry itself out upon a willful act of suppressing questions and by a roundabout way therefore, the condition of the avant-garde itself – the condition of experimentation. In this way the regimes thought they could safeguard the value of certainty. But these political maneuvers missed a glaring point or else they deliberated ignored it: it wasn’t the artists that drove the train that shattered all the old referents and stabilities – all they did was pick up on the occurrence of this tendency – rather, capitalism itself functions in this way.
The artists were not only suspicious of the ‘reality’ sanctioned by all the old devices of representation, but of this movement of destabilization itself. They saw it as a challenge to their creative and interpretative abilities. Through this they were following the same kind of suit that Nietzsche rendered in his style. The artists were not trying to have you adopt their position – it wasn’t demonstrative. Instead, it was about suspecting alongside the origins of visible presentation, or to look at the origins critically. Just what could be considered painting? This question is only answered via its negative. The fruits of this method extend pass the regime of representation to include our general moral fabric. It is interpretation that sets the range in which facts can be appealed to.
Suspicion is not a bad thing. It is the only thing appropriate to the inquiring mind both in philosophy and in art. Towards this it would be healthy for us to again take up this banner of experimentation.