How often have we heard someone dismiss a piece of art because it doesn’t look like a photograph? It is almost as if a work of art has to conform to a given set of visual rules before it can be accepted as art in some people’s eyes. It seems that this means of judging art stems from the premise that there is a link between how something is perceived and the skill in which that perception is portrayed on paper, canvas or on board.
These two concepts: perception and technical skill become the basis on which so many judge art, which is a shame because it is such a limited view. Let us look at each in turn and discover what they really mean.
Perception is a process by which the retina detects an image and a signal is sent to the brain, which then interprets what is seen. Some would have us believe that this image is the truth and this is what the artist should strive to achieve in his work. But is what is perceived the truth?
If one was daft enough to stand on a railway line and look along its length the rails appear to meet at a point somewhere in the distance, often referred to as a vanishing point when using perspective. However, we know for a fact that the railway lines do not meet at a point, otherwise the trains could not run. So what we see is not the literal truth, but the visual truth. Two forms of truth.
If a person is colour blind then the world to that person will look much different from a person who can detect the full range of colours. Similarly a fly, which has a multifaceted eye, perceives the world as though looking through frosted glass. If the fly could paint his visual truth would be quite different from ours, even though he is seeing the same world.
It is only in the last 500 years or so, since the invention of perspective in the early Renaissance, that we have become obsessed with the visual truth. This phenomenon happened only in the west, in the east things were quite different. Particularly, in Japan, China and India the emphasis was not so much on the visual truth, but on the literal truth. So a road would be painted parallel, a figure at the top of a mountain depicted the same size as one in the foreground. Why? Simply because people do not shrink because they are further away, neither does a road change shape.
Children from all over the world draw and paint in exactly the same way until around the age of five when culture begins to exert its influence. A child paints the literal truth, the sky is blue and ‘up there’ the grass is green and ‘down here’ and there is nothing in between, hence the fact that children’s work will often have a blue strip along the top of the paper and a green one along the bottom.
The work of children and of eastern cultures is just as valid as ours, but is based on a radically different concept. What is known to be true rather than what is seen to be true.
In the 1860’s contact with the east, especially Japan, influenced artists in the west who began to experiment with some of these eastern ideas. This brought them into conflict with the art academics of the time who dismissed their ideas. One can begin to detect this influence in the work of the Impressionists, but perhaps more so in the work of the great post-impressionist artists like Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin.
Cézanne, in particular, started to experiment with multiple viewpoints in a picture. If you look carefully at some of his still life’s you will notice the table has be lifted at a different angle to the surround objects to give us a better view of the fruit in the bowl. This was done deliberately to give the viewer a better view and to get around the limitations of trying to depict a 3D scene on a flat 2D surface. It was Picasso who took these ideas much further; he began to destroy the traditional image in favour of a more multi-faceted image in his Cubist works.
Once Picasso had made this step it became clear that artists were no longer bound to use objects in a literal way, simply arranged on the flat picture plane. The floodgates opened and artists realised shapes, colours and objects could have a life of their own in their own space. More importantly, these objects, shapes, and colours could evoke abstract thoughts and meanings and therefore begin to address some of the areas that figurative art has more difficulty in addressing.
Artists, such as Malevich, Mondrian and Kandinsky began to give shape the same relevance as an object and the idea of abstraction was born. Their works appealed more to our senses and began to explore other elements of art: the way that we as human beings interact with colour, shape, form, texture and the significance these elements can have on our feelings.
In a sense this is what is at the basis of all art. We can distinguish a great portrait, for example by Rembrandt, from that of an amateur painter – who is hell bent on capturing a photographic likeness – by the fact that Rembrandt has managed to capture the essence of a the sitter by his use of colour, shape, texture etc. and through this, has given us an insight into the soul of the person.
The ability to draw or paint like a photograph is a great technical skill, but it is not what makes an artist great. It is the artist’s vision, the passion, the emotion, the feeling, the drama and his manipulation of the elements of art that gives us, the viewer, an insight into the meaning of the work. We have to look beyond the technical skill to see what the artist is really trying to convey to us.