July 17, 2004
On lenses in the fifteenth century and on "art"

The invaluable Arts & Letters Daily links to this piece by Ellen Winner about scientists who try to throw light, as it were, on the history of painting. Wenner makes it clear that some scientists do a far better job of this than others.

The successful one she writes about is Charles M. Falco:

When Charles M. Falco, a physicist in the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona, presented mathematical support for artist David Hockney's contention that certain early Renaissance painters used lenses to project images that they then traced, he was greeted with fury and indignation by art historians. Falco's arguments were most widely publicized in 2001 in Hockney's extensively reviewed Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, and they were presented at a high-profile conference at New York University that same year with Hockney and art historians, but they can also be found in scientific journals.

Still, even recently, when I've broached Falco's arguments to art historians, I've been greeted with surprise that I can take them seriously. The assumption seems to be that the claims have been shown to be wrong and can be dismissed. However, then I discover that the art historians don't even know the details of the argument. The devil is in the details, and understanding the exact science does matter.

The controversy over Hockney and Falco grew out of Hockney's discovery of a sudden shift toward naturalism in the 1420s and '30s in Flanders. Hockney claimed that the shift was too abrupt to have occurred without the use of optical aids that allowed artists to project images of the 3-D world onto a canvas and trace them. With the entry of Falco, evidence took the place of opinion. Falco pointed out that concave mirrors can serve as lenses that project images and that such mirrors were available as early as the 13th century. He went on to analyze anomalies in certain paintings that were consistent with the use of a lens and - most important - difficult to explain otherwise.

That last phrase is the key. Only if lenses were being used could certain errors be explained.

This is the painting Falco is talking about


I find this kind of thing fascinating. Partly, this is because I have an axe of my own to grind, or maybe that should be a lens. My concern with this is that the word "art" is, I believe, too arbitrarily assigned to certain sorts of creations, and denied to others, and that this has harmful consequences.

If something is said to be "art", a huge amount of admiring attention is focussed upon it. Young people are taught to admire it and to do more stuff like that. But if something else, on the face of it more admirably made and with a more admirable message, is denied the label of art, then an opposite thing happens. Objects that ought to be admired and an example to the next lot of creators – to the next lot of humans, for goodness sake – are instead allowed to sink into obscurity.

What has this to do with whether or not painters used lenses in the fifteenth century? Or to put it another way, why are the propositions of Falco and Hockney being greeted with such fury, assuming Winner is correct about that happening?

I think that it is because what Falco and Hockney are saying blurs the distinction between "art" and merely, you know, making stuff to sell. The painter with his lens suddenly looks a whole lot more like a photographer doing wedding photos or publicity stills than he did before. The painter with only a brush inserts his precious "feelings" into the object he makes, with every brush stroke, or so we are told. The lens man only uses a brush because that is, technically, all he yet has. Show modern photography to the guy who did this painting that Falco analyses, and he'd grab it.

My view of art, and of the word "art", is not dependent upon the correctness of arguments like those of Falco and Hockney.

Here is a guy who thinks they are wrong. He argues that the errors Falco says could only be the result of moving a lens could also be the result of the artist merely changing his point of view, while using the regular manual methods. But what matters to me is that this critic is not a regular "art critic", he's from an "eye research institute". He is looking at picture making in the same way, and arguing in the same way, that Falco and Hockney are doing, even though he reaches different conclusions. He takes their argument seriously, and is perfectly happy to discuss the matter scientifically.

The point is: do you see this huge gulf fixed between image makers and thing makers (painters and sculptors) of one sort - of the "artistic" sort - and other sorts of image makers and thing makers (photographers and industrial designers and manufacturers of stuff)? To me, there is a continuum, with old style painters very much in the thing making industry, before they had things like printing and photography and giant machines to mass produce. But their attitude was much the same as that of these later thing makers.

If, on the other hand, you think that mass production is a crucial difference between art and mere stuff, someone tell Charles Dickens, and the rest of those printed book writer guys. I end by flying off at somewhat of a tangent, in the form of another Arts & Letters linked article, this time about what might happen next to the novel. Pictures are involved in that also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: Painting