Should Art reflect what we see?
How often have we heard someone dismiss a piece of art because it doesn’t look ‘real’? 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. This means of judging art stems from the premise there is a link between how something is perceived and the skill in which that perception is portrayed. That is quite valid but there is more to art than that. If you want to search for the truth in art you will need to open your mind a little.
The two concepts: perception and technical skill, have become the basis on which so many judge art. This is a shame, because it is a limited and misguided view. In this article I’m just going to consider perception. Perception is a process by which the retina detects an image and the brain then interprets what is seen. Some would have us believe that this image is the only truth. And this truth should be what the artist should strive to achieve in his work. But is, what is perceived in our brains, the truth? It comes down to what you are willing to accept as the truth in art.
So what is the truth in art? 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. This is often referred to as the vanishing point. However, we know for a fact that railway lines do not meet at a point; otherwise the train would fall off the tracks. So what we see is not the literal truth, but the visual truth. Two forms of truth. So if we are to create the truth in art which truth do we use?
If a person is colour blind, the world to that person is perceived differently to that of 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 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. But then images begin to look like the work of Picasso.
Children 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. So a child’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 these 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. Imagine drawing what you see as you know it to exist, rather that how it is seen. If you do you might begin to understand where a number of modern artists are coming from.
Checkout these famous artists and see if they have used the visual truth or the literal truth.