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The Chuck Close Problem and Digital Representation

posted Jan 30, 2013, 10:03 PM by Ellen Pearlman

The Chuck Close Problem and Digital Representation

In an April post  I wrote about how Chuck Close had presaged much of the digital outlook, facial recognition and facial OSC due to his suffering from Prosopagnosia, a condition that messes up facial perception in humans. His understanding of how the eye breaks down the visual field is now in a contentious place, according to an article in Hyperallergic by Scott Blake.

Self portrait of Scott Blake (2008)  using his “Chuck Close filter”

In homage to Close, Blake who is an award winning designer made a digital filter that resembles Close’s painting technique. In 2010 Close emailed Blake and threatened legal action if Blake did not shut his site down. Since Close is worth millions of dollars and has access to vast legal resources, Blake did as requested.

Close’s own version of the face of Chuck Close

Blake goes on to argue that Close did not create his signature style before computers went on to create and enhance it for him. He produced a computer generated mural from 1963 to illustrate the point that this style of imagery, or its predicessor existed before Close says he invented it.

Leon Harmon & Ken Knowlton, “Studies in Perception #1″ (1966), computer-produced mural, as shown in the 1968 MoMA “Machine” show, 5 x 10 feet (© Leon Harmon & Ken Knowlton)

He backs up his argument with other examples of digital bit-mapped style. The point here is not to reiterate Blake’s arguments or interactions with Close or to say who got there first, that’s all contained in the Hyperallergic article.The point is to think about the foundation of the relationship between human and machine vision, the artistic process, originality, rip offs or knock offs, intellectual property, and the law that governs these issues in a myriad of countries (for example, China or the U.S..)

Whether or not an artist originally developed a painting technique, it is impossible at this point for anything that remotely resembles a digital technique to be suppressed, especially if it relates to or is reproduced on the internet. This places the individual artist at a tremendous disadvantage, as they have to spend enormous amounts of time protecting their legacy. Warhol would have been thrilled to have been copied and represented ad naseum, but he was the exception, not the rule. Another example is the famous, at least in the art world, Richard Prince appropriation copyright case where Prince was sued for appropriating photographs by Rastafarians by the French photographer Patrick Cariou, and lost.

Much of digital artistic representation has its roots in the original vision and perceptual understanding of artistic thinking. But now when anyone can easily invent programs that can mimic those styles, even if one creator is sued, there will be others who reside in countries where the force of American copyright law can never penetrate, who will create copies or digital representations of those styles.

Originality, such a prized asset and the foundation of the high prices commanded by the art/auction market is what Close, for good reason, is actually defending. If everyone has access to a program that can make Chuck Close look-alike paintings, there goes the exclusive market that so richly rewards the few. This is no put down of Close’s work, his rights, or his ability to get high prices for his work. It’s a little bit like manufacturing and the shoe industry. When there were cobblers, individual shoes were highly prized, well made, and lasted a long time. When manufacturing created mass markets, and mass turnover of shoes, their value declined, cobblers for the most part disappeared, and the entire industry produced more shoes at a lower price. Note to Chuck Close: I don’t think your work is like shoes