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Blake and the Artistic Machine: An Essay in Decorum and Technology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 December 2020

Morris Eaves*
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque


By describing arts as technologies we gain a new perspective on the shift from classic to Romantic esthetics that clarifies Blake's term “machine” in relation to art. Printing drove visual arts to systemize picture reproduction on a principle Blake called “intermeasurability,” essentially atomism, by which art was adjusted to commercial technology. While efficient production requires division between conception and execution, in art conception is execution. Blake saw neoclassical artists divide them, then disguise the incoherent results with classical doctrines of generalization, harmony, and high finish adapted to the needs of systemization. Because the machine is execution and does not change, mechanical order becomes artistic order.

Research Article
PMLA , Volume 92 , Issue 5 , October 1977 , pp. 903 - 927
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 1977

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1 Blake's “Public Address” from his Notebook, quoted here from p. 564 of David V. Erdman, ed., The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, 4th ed., rev. (New York: Doubleday, 1970), the source of most of my quotations from Blake. For the letters, the text is Geoffrey Keynes, ed., The Letters of William Blake (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968). The abbreviations used in the essay are E for Erdman, Letters for Keynes, AR for Blake's annotations to Joshua Reynolds' Discourses, DC for A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, PA for the “Public Address.”

2 There are a number of other relevant passages; see, e.g., E, 537, 570, 571, and, for that matter, almost any of the instances listed under “machine,” “mechanical,” etc., in A Concordance to the Writings of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1967). The larger context of the metaphor in systems of geometry and mathematics cannot even be sketched here, but is at least indicated by this remark from Plato: “By beauty I do not mean, as most people would suppose, the beauty of living figures or of pictures, but, to make my point clear, I mean straight lines and circles, and shapes, plane or solid, made from them by lathe, ruler and square. These are not, like other things, beautiful relatively, but always and absolutely” (Philebus 51c), compared to one of the sentences that Blake engraved around his Laocoön: “The Gods of Greece & Egypt were Mathematical Diagrams See Plato's Works” (E, 271).

3 I am, of course, thinking of the train of thought and association established by Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1962), especially the uses he found for pictorial conventions in discussing the conventions of the printed page. The relationship is closer than it might seem at first, because printing is technologically a branch of engraving.

4 Of course this is not to say that artists and public were always aware of the graphic translation—certainly not always aware of the effects. But the distinction between “original” and “copy” or “translation” works one way in the graphic arts, a different way in literature. Blake observed, however, that in both arts his century had lost track of the relative values of originals and translations or copies, and, at worst, had decided in favor of copies over originals.

5 This statement weakly summarizes in one sentence the argument first advanced by William Ivins in Prints and Visual Communication (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953). Tvins had a great deal to say on matters closely related to the subject of this essay, not only in Prints and Visual Communication but also in his other works, especially How Prints Look: Photographs with a Commentary (1943) and Art and Geometry: A Study in Space Intuitions (1946). Readers who want more information about the procedures in Rubens' shop and an extended discussion of the development of systematic printmaking techniques should see Prints and Visual Communication and perhaps Mayor, n. 8 below.

6 The rhetoric here and throughout the essay is what might be called, for the sake of a point, empathie. That is, in order to make Blake's ideas clear, I try to write from inside them—as though I believed them. I have been partial in selecting from a range of art-historical facts the facts that Blake thought were most important, and I have tried to see them as he saw them. I am interested in explaining why Blake hated Rubens and Rembrandt; I assume that the reader is not particularly interested to hear whether I think Blake's taste was defective.

7 The best source of such stories is William T. Whitley's Artists and Their Friends in England 1700–1799 (1928; rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968), 2 vols. Those mentioned here are from Vol. I, pp. 23–24, 22, 53–55, 104, respectively.

8 Estampes galantes, in which the French upper classes celebrated their own fantasies of themselves at play in a manner not very different from English Restoration comedy, were a pre-Revolutionary fashion. They were produced for the most part in medium-sized workshops, where a fairly strict division of labor was the rule. See A. Hyatt Mayor, Prints and People: A Social History of Printed Pictures (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971), near Illus. 596–97 (n.p.).

9 Ackermann was a carriage designer turned print entrepreneur who fed the massive appetite for books illustrated with color prints at the turn of the century, using hack poets, popular illustrators, and an efficient system of production that could be operated on a scale vast for the time.

10 Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon, 1954), p. 540.

11 Art historians will notice that I am using “neoclassical” not as they usually do, in a special narrow sense, but as literary historians do—to designate broadly a group of related esthetic principles generally held, though obviously not without significant variation and change, by most important English writers and artists, musicians and architects, from the Restoration to the end of the eighteenth century.

12 Blake always uses “journeyman” pejoratively, as a synonym for “hireling.” “Journeyman” originally designated a day laborer, one who had completed an apprenticeship and qualified for daily wages. But his position as a master's employee soon gave “journeyman” the figurative connotations of “underling,” slavishly doing the bidding of another. Thus for Blake's time the OED cites Horace Walpole: “The colouring was worse … than that of the most errant journeymen to the profession.”

13 The mediator between science and commerce is technology, a fact that is usually clear enough, but occasionally obscured by the attitude of scientists. The history of commerce and science is evidence of their kinship. Jacob Bronowski, writing as a scientist and humanist defending the effects of science on scientists and civilization, sketched the historical relationship in Science and Human Values, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper, 1963), p. 21, n. 3. Science and commerce have shared their histories not because their goals are the same but because they share a material object of interest, nature, and techniques for dealing with it.

14 Mayor, near Illus. 427.

15 For the story of the disastrous wrangle between Blake and double-dealing Cromek over the project to illustrate Blair's Grave—finally designed by Blake but engraved by Schiavonetti—see G.E. Bentley, Jr., “The Promotion of Blake's Grave Designs,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 31 (1962), 339–53; Blake Records (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969), pp. 166–74; “Blake and Cromek: The Wheat and the Tares,” Modern Philology, 71 (1974), 366–79.

16 See Nikolaus Pevsner, “Blake and the Flaming Line,” Ch. v of The Englishness of English Art (New York: Praeger, 1956), pp. 117–46; Ch. iv of Robert Rosenblum, 'The International Style of 1800: A Study in Linear Abstraction,“ Diss. New York Univ. Institute of Fine Arts 1956; and Rosenblum's Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 154–59, 189–91. The most recent assessments have been made by W.J.T. Mitchell, ”Blake's Composite Art,“ and Jean Hagstrum, ”Blake and the Sister-Arts Tradition,“ in Blake's Visionary Forms Dramatic, ed. David V. Erdman and John E. Grant (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 57–81, 82–91. There are books forthcoming by Mitchell and by David Bindman that may enlarge and refine what we know about Blake in relation to the linear tradition, but the basic point is unlikely to change much.

17 In Science and Human Values, p. 22, n. 8, for instance, Bronowski makes it the main pursuit of science and art, quoting Coleridge for the latter. The phrase “universal unity” is used by Potts, the character who speaks most of Bronowski's opinions in the dialogue “The Abacus and the Rose,” p. 118. The definition of science as “the search for unity in hidden likenesses” is Bronowski's own, p. 13. Also see Potts's poem that ends “The Abacus and the Rose,” p. 119.

18 The model for harmony in discussions of painting is often Rembrandt, whom we sometimes almost think of as an artistic hero, at least as a rebellious, idiosyncratic, independent thinker who would have no truck with standard artistic doctrine and practice. But Blake's century used Rembrandt chiefly for his realism and his chiaroscuro, corrected and regularized in the way that Pope corrected and regularized Donne's satires. Rembrandt was filtered, in other words, through the main principles of the century; he was not influential in shaping those principles. When the century produced works that it thought were “in the manner of Rembrandt,” we hardly recognize Rembrandt in them today. They are pale, highly finished imitations. Likewise, the theoretical use of Rembrandt as a model of graphic harmony in critical discussions gives us a Rembrandt who is barely recognizable.

19 This is the view tentatively adopted by Robert N. Essick in “Blake and the Tradition of Reproductive Engraving,” Blake Studies, 5 (Fall 1972), 59–103, an otherwise informative essay.

20 An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the conference on “Blake in the Art of His Time” at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in March 1976. Michael Fischer and Hugh Witemeyer of the Univ. of New Mexico and Marvin Morillo of Tulane Univ. made a number of valuable suggestions. An NEH Summer Stipend in 1975 and various grants made through the Research Allocations Committee of the Univ. of New Mexico supported much of the preliminary research.