Be careful how you interpret the world: It is like that. – Erich Heller
Regardless of how true to life it might seem, looking at a landscape painting is not like looking out of a window the same size as the canvas. Perhaps we think that strict adherence to Western perspectival techniques, rooted firmly in geometry, make our representations the closest approximation to the way things are that we can realistically achieve. I recently read a classic work in the art historical canon, Erwin Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form, which gives an account of why we think that that is the case, and also why it is not necessarily so. Bear with me.
‘Perspective’, as a graphic device, is something that out eyes construct from the relationship of the shapes that they are presented with, it’s not something that is actually out there (or in there) in the picture. There is actually nothing ‘natural’ about vanishing point perspective, it’s an imposed rationality ushered in in the Renaissance. And since humans had been blithely making pictures for millennia beforehand, we can safely assume that other methods have been perfectly acceptable at one time or another.
So what’s wrong with thinking that vanishing point perspective is simply the best, that it’s better than all the rest? For one thing, vanishing point perspective presupposes that the viewer only has one eye. As often as I talk about how much I want to be a pirate, I do at present have two eyes, as does most of the population. Two spatially separated, continuously roaming eyes construct the environment around us very differently, although that difference is something we have come to ignore in artworks. We are familiar with the effect of holding something flat and fairly thin perpendicular to our face – it suddenly doesn’t seem flat as the far sides appear to spread out from each other as our brain synthesizes the competing images it receives. This simple but not insignificant outcome renders single vanishing point perspective, with its presupposition of a single mastering eye, as incredibly unnatural. But since the Renaissance we’ve been gung-ho about rationalism in general and vanishing point perspective in particular, becoming so well-schooled in it that we now think of it as natural.
Despite the allure of mathematical rigor and the perfect representation of space offered by vanishing point perspective, there have been modern alternatives. In the 20th century there were critiques conducted from various angles, such as the challenge presented by cubism. Other methods saw the fracturing of cityscapes into component parts and an emphasis on the phenomenological perspective – what it was like to move through these spaces, to live in and experience them, rather than how they ‘really are’. Impressionism had called attention to the surface of the artwork; it self-consciously made it known that the artwork is a surface, and not a window onto some objectively existing reality. Modernism also highlighted the materiality of the work by placing a greater emphasis on the ‘madeness’ of the canvas, in order to lessen its capacity to create an illusion. In this way the criticism of an assumed monocularism developed into a critique of occularism in general, examining the contingency of sight and challenging its privileged position over other kinds of sensory information. There is no seeing without a physical eye to see – sight is an embodied function that cannot be divorced its instantiation as just one faculty of a living, breathing animal.
This is still a world away from the ancient period, where different sized figures indicated their relative importance, not their constructed distance from the viewer, and depth was instead indicated by overlapping the pictorial elements. So what happened between then and now? Panofsky argues that the way we render perspective changes as our knowledge changes – that the manner in which we form our representations is an instantiation of a much broader conceptual system. The way we thought about the world around us changed in the Renaissance, and so our way of rendering it also had to do so. Sight is then a psychological process, and major shifts in the modes of artistic expression occur when the old means of representation no longer reflect the way we feel about the world at large. This interpretation of the way that artistic approaches change has been adopted by subsequent scholars with their own agendas; Walter Benjamin, for example, argued that the photographic artform, as a product by and for the masses, is a socialist media, and the way in which it has transformed our understanding of the reproducibility of artworks (art is no longer the domain of the privileged) demonstrates that our collective cultural consciousness is ready for the inevitable arrival of socialism. The movements between artistic media are not just particular manifestations of a larger conceptual shift as they were for Panofsky, since Benjamin includes this within the wider sphere of a social and political consciousness. What is being argued by almost everyone is that artistic movements are just the tip of the cultural consciousness-iceberg.
All of the discussion above has been generated through the required readings for my art history methods class. As you might have gathered, this is entirely preoccupied with Western art historical practices and so I mostly sit in petulant silence. Occasionally I will tentatively raise a paw (or otherwise shriek indignantly across the table – I am a wild and inconstant thing) when the imbalance seems maddening and I think that an example from Asian art could provide an interesting counterpoint. Western linear perspective, for example, was introduced to Japan in the eighteenth century and was most quickly adopted in the woodblock print medium. But things are never as simple as all that, and one artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, blended Chinese didactic tales with Western perspectival techniques. This manner of expression was adopted precisely because of its novelty, its foreign-ness, long before it was fully understood or properly articulated. It didn’t seem that the old modes of representation had been proved inadequate just yet, since works in the old formats continued to be produced for a couple of centuries. Indeed they still are, if we want to see the ‘superflat’ works by Takashi Murakami as a continuation of a Japanese artistic lineage characterized by the strength of its graphic design.
There are all sorts of other talking points too. For centuries artists in Asia have attempted to depict the progression of time in only two dimensions – in narrative handscrolls as we move from right to left, unrolling the story as we go. Frequently we encounter the appearance of the same figure in more than one place in the visual field of single vertical hanging scroll, as we construct the flow of time for ourselves as our eyes travel from one vignette to another. And so on and so forth.
But I have decided that it’s ultimately counterproductive to make these references in class. Much as I want to represent my unfashionable field (and mostly because I enjoy being a nuisance), touching on these differences without having the chance to explore them is just making Asia ‘exotic’ and strange in the best 19th century Orientalist tradition. Which is not very helpful for anyone. I have spent (considerable) time thinking about how I could bring this Western-centred regime down from the inside (I’m talking about my class, not the US).
I still haven’t thought of anything, which is disappointing not least because it would have been the kind of caustic remark that I would have liked to have ended this particular diatribe on. In the process of writing this, however, I realized that I enjoy this kind of debate – in class I wasn’t necessarily thinking about circumventing it the entire time, which upon reflection, is somewhat of a novelty. Maybe I should change my perspective, if my old way of thinking about the world doesn’t work any more. Revolutionary though this could be, maybe, just maybe, everything doesn’t suck ALL of the time, and my default setting doesn’t have to be combative.
I think I need a lie-down.