Painting as Information?

Pat Simpson, School of Creative Arts, University of Hertfordshire, UK

A common belief regarding globalisation is that it is driven by ‘information’. For Maurice Castells (1996) the primary vehicles of networked information were the internet and the media. What about art? Can art works, particularly paintings, be regarded as containers of information which participate in the process of globalisation? This paper sets out to explore the question by using some specific examples of European, American and Russian paintings. 

Contemporary art discourse highlights the definition of painting as problematic, nevertheless, taking account of the current fluidity of definition a painting has certain basic physical and visual characteristics. Do these characteristics, however, constitute ‘information’? I suggest that, to be able to read and understand what the characteristics might signify, we need to know about the artist and the historical context in which the work was produced. Thus, I argue that the characteristics of a painting might rather be regarded as raw ‘data’, similar to computer code, hence the retrieval of ‘information’ depends on a process of interpretation of the data by the viewer, using other sources of information. There are, however, too many potential variables and too many unknown factors governing why any work looks as it does. The extent of the retrieval and interpretation of the data will depend on the cultural/socio-political baggage that the viewer brings to the encounter with the painting, and the context of the encounter. 

The final part of the paper investigates the role of art within a process of cultural ‘globalisation since at least the 1400s, in which painting has played a part. I suggest that such globalisation has never been entirely disconnected from power politics. The conclusion highlights the problems with treating any visual material as ‘information’, and also the deeper problem with the concept of ‘information’ itself, and its ambiguous relationships both with constructs of truth, reality and authenticity, and with the operations of power and money.