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Real artists do it blindfolded

David Hockney has pushed his quest to expose classical artists' alleged use of the camera obscura and other optic devices into the New York Times.

The New Yorker reported on Hockney's claims a year ago, and the Times is covering it now in regard to a symposium on "Art and Optics: Toward an Evaluation of David Hockney's New Theories Regarding Opticality in Western Painting of the Past 600 Years" at the New York Institute for the Humanities.

So artists may have used some trick with some mechanical device to make their representations more realistic — big deal. I mean, sure, if you're an art historian, this is your job, to think about such questions. But the article presents Hockney's argument as if it's somehow relevant to the layperson's appreciation of a work of art.

To be sure, the Times states early on that it isn't putting words in Hockney's mouth:

Mr. Hockney is not accusing any artist of cheating. "I am not even saying that people traced," he added. "Optics don't make art." The lens, the mirror and the camera obscura are all just tools. The point is that artists encountered them much earlier than anyone thought.

But the Times still makes hay over the seeming impropriety of optical techniques. "Many artists find it shameful to be caught using photographs," it notes, for instance.

The critic's endless fascination with the genesis of a work of art puzzles me somewhat. The only problem with using a photograph, from my standpoint, would be if it stilted the resulting work. A piece of art should be judged on its own merits — how does it look, what does it say. Would Shakespeare have been any less a poet for the use of a laptop? (If anything, his typesetters would have, since they in fact had the final say of what was what....)

The trouble, it seems, is that fans want their idols' genius to remain hidden. Nay, they protest, they are not like us, their talent is divine transcendence, it cannot be revealed. Hockney threatens to unveil too much. Yet, even if the greatest artists used such techniques, the paintings they made are not unmade, nor made the less beautiful. And their creative vision, their true genius — seeing what had not yet been done, but could be — is entirely undiminished.


Addendum: A more recent article in the Times concludes:

Fidelity in art, it turns out, is about integrity, not optical mimicry. If I were an artist, I suppose it would be comforting to think that Van Eyck and Hals did what they did with mirrors. Anything to narrow the unbridgeable gulf between greatness and me. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to genius.

December 5, 2001 1:00 AM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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