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Hockney Looks Art Questioned

Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Techniques of the Old Masters took two years of David Hockney’s life. After all that effort, some people got their shorts in a knot! Susan Sontag, for example, decried Hockney’s theory. "If David Hockney's thesis is correct, it would be a bit like finding out that all the great lovers of history have been using Viagra," she said. (Leave it to her to put it in a sexual context.) She seems critical because her opinion of what makes art art is not sacred anymore. So it is with much of the book’s critics. In claiming that artists used optical devices, Hockney destroys for some people the art itself. Well then, exactly what is it that makes art? Silence from the critics. Okay, if not "exactly," what is it generally that makes art? Silence still. Hockney has tossed a strobing rescue beacon into the sea of art criticism.

Although Hockney has done us a double favor, by first investigating an area not looked at before and secondly thus indirectly inviting some standards into the Oprah-esque dialog of art criticism and curating today, his book does have some flaws. While these problems are not enough to seriously wound his basic idea, it is well that the reader be forewarned.

Ironically, it is the Sontag of the clever quip who also touched on a valid (as in, can be put to the test) critique. In so doing, she illuminated a common human problem: seeing the world from our view only. ("To a hammer, everything looks like a nail" Syndrome) Sontag states, "What David Hockney does is start from the position of a practicing artist. 'I couldn't draw like that.' Therefore the presumption is they [Renaissance artists] couldn't do it." Certainly, this problem of Hockney’s limited starting point deserves checking. Meanwhile, this statement shows that we (including Sontag herself) should examine the fatal attraction of our starting points. That attraction can make someone overly critical, emphasis on "overly." Being critical is fine; the act of judging is crucial to our existence. These days, however, “judgment” is an outcast word, suffering from a smear campaign. In spite of this small flaw in his starting points, Hockney’s ideas, and the responses they’ve generated, reveal the need to restore the virtue of judgment, replacing the contemporary narrow righteousness.

Sontag’s two quotations above serve as examples. Her “Viagra” bite reveals her prejudice about the skills necessary to be a great artist. Fuhgeddaboudit. The other comment, about Hockney being amazed because he couldn’t draw like the Masters is a judgment that can be tested. A look at the Hockney drawings in the book itself gives real, physical evidence that is available to all who want to discuss his skill. As a 30-year artist and drawing instructor, my judgment is that it’s true that David Hockney is not a very skilled draftsman, not a “natural” like some of the artists he talks about. Looking at the examples of his work in the book itself will provide the reader a way to test the thesis. Yet a prior belief or condition does not mean a theory is not true. Even Einstein worked on his theories of the universe under the influence of his prior beliefs. Ideas need to be presented with some support, so that our opinions and beliefs don’t trap us into having to “respect” or “disrespect” them.

Here is a quick review of Hockney’s idea and his evidence. Upon seeing some Ingres drawings, he realized how much they looked like some works Warhol had created by using a projector and tracing the image. The lines were done in simple, unerring strokes, without the finding/floundering that freehand drawing shows. Hockney then began to notice other art possibly done with optical instruments, creating in his studio a “great wall” of color photocopies. He came to the conclusion that mirrors, camera obscura (a dark room, with a small hole in one wall that projects what is outside onto a wall in that room), and camera lucida (a device that projects the subject being drawn upon the drawing paper of the artist) had often been used by artists. In fact, the use of optical instruments had begun very early in the Renaissance. In his book, he presents his evidence, while forcefully pointing out that using such tools doesn’t diminish the artistry of the paintings. This is where Sontag and many others disagree, feeling that the skill of representing what you see is critical to artists before modern art. Put that way, the position is obviously weak, since literally tons of art prior to the Renaissance and after 1870 has been made without the skill of naturalistic representation.

Having a tool does not make the artist. The problem is, trying to decide what DOES make art invites a Tower of Babel. Here Sontag and postmodernists, overemphasizing their own interpretations, can merely state opinions and/or deride those who disagree. Ironically, while condemning objectivity as dogma, such people have become followers of a faith, a belief in subjectivism and jargon. Therefore there is no palpable basis for deciding what’s art. Jurors of a recent important art exhibition in the Chicago area said “As we looked through the slides, a shared sensibility emerged. I don’t have a way to describe it.” Isn’t that mystical, faith-based? Doesn’t it empower curators and critics to be something like high priests themselves? It is important to have (to TRY to have) standards upon which we can have discussions, not Proclamations. With stardards there is freedom; otherwise, there is religiosity. Developed over centuries, there were standards for art, often fought over and forced to be modified, but there, for all to have something concrete to work with. Under these, Hockney, not Sontag, is correct. It was accepted that good art had to have the following qualities: an inspiring idea (content), done with exceptional form (line/edge, shape, value, texture, color, technique, and, especially, composition). Under this description, Hockney can say that being able to get a likeness down is not the end-all and be-all of art.

Back to the book itself. Hockney presents evidence for optical devices. This visual evidence is amazing, although it suffers somewhat from the ferventness that is both the main flaw and strength of the book. Also, the chapters of the book seem erratic.

Here’s the strength/flaw of the book: It is SO fervent. Hockney is so excited with his curiosity and discoveries that he’s like a schoolboy extolling the virtues of his sweetie. Like many people excited by an idea, however, Hockney conflates circumstances to suggest the existence of something. Sometimes he overstates his case, seeing many “just so” proofs, reasoning backward, forward, and sideways in his excitement. The following example from the book (p.286) shows both how an idea is overly stretched with “what if’s” and Hockney’s exhilarated tone:
"Alberti’s story of Brunelleschi and the discovery or invention of perspective is well known.  Published in 1435, it was really contemporary with van Eyck and Robert Campin in Flanders. Brunelleschi demonstrated perspective by painting a small panel (half a braccia square).  To paint this, he stationed himself just inside (some three braccias inside) the central portal of Santa Maria del Fiori, in short, in a dark room looking out to the light. The mirror-lens produces a perspective picture.  The viewing point is a mathematical point in the centre of the mirror.  Perspective is a law of optics.  So was it ?invented??  It happened in Florence in 1420-30.  Today, it is the window through which the world is seen, with television, film and still cameras.  The Chinese did not have a system like it.  Indeed, it is said they rejected the idea of the vanishing point in the eleventh century, because it meant the viewer was not there, indeed, had no movement, therefore was not alive.  Their own system, though, was highly sophisticated by the fifteenth century. Scrolls were made where one journeyed through a landscape. If a vanishing point occurred, it would have meant the viewer had ceased moving.
Did the mirror-lens originate in Bruges and then was send to Italy by one of the Medici agents?  Arnolfini was an agent of the Medici bank.  Did Brunelleschi show the mirror-lens to Masaccio?  Is that why his heads are so individualistic?  There was certainly no precedent for that look in Florence before Masaccio.  It occurs at almost the same time as Campin and van Eyck in Bruges.  Did Brunelleschi devise the rules of perspective to make the picture bigger than those the mirror-lens could produce?
All of this has interest beyond art history or the history of pictorial space, because the system of perspective led to the system of triangulation that meant you could fire cannons more accurately.  Military technology had a jump from it, and it is clear by the late eighteenth century the West’s technology was superior to that in China, hence the decline of China in relation to the West.
The vanishing point leads to the missiles of today, which can take us out of this world.  It could be that the west’s greatest mistakes were the “invention” of the external vanishing point and the internal combustion engine.  Think of all the pollution from the television and traffic.”

Hockney’s enthusiasm is evident in the words above. It is even delightful in a way. His leaps and connections make a reader’s mind churn. He wants to share his intense involvement, and in this the book is almost too successful. It is disjointed, sometimes confusing, and its great enthusiasm might turn people off. That would be a shame, it’s worthwhile experiencing Hockney’s idea and his two-year experience.

Two other significant points arise. Hockney openly states one point; the other is evident in light of the controversy that followed the publishing of the book.

Hockney’s other major point is that young artists are not being educated. Here’s Hockney:
"I asked [an art student] what he thought of the show (“The Genius of Rome” exhibition at the Tate in 2001). ‘Overwhelming’, he said, wearily, as though the pictures had been painted by mythical demi-gods far beyond his own abilities...The knowledge had not been passed on...If science did not pass on its knowledge to the young we would soon be in a dark age. Isn’t this irresponsible? I mention this for all those people who think my thesis takes away some of the magic of Art. It does not. Indeed, for me, my investigations have meant the rediscovery of skills (with optics) and methods that can enrich the future." (p.198)
These words fall in the second last paragraph of his summary. He seems to think them very important.

The second additional point of consequence is implied in the statement about artists’ training, and in the responses to the book: the issue of standards. Without some sort of standards, how can there be an art discipline, how can there be any debate beyond opinion-hurling? Hiding behind an anti-elitist mantra, fearing judgment as though it were the ruination of ego, the visual art curators, critics, and often artists themselves forbid discussion of objective standards. Never mind that we all know that objective means “TRYING for principles” and not “dogma.” Still the art establishment runs away from the standards that were achieved with great difficulty over the centuries: content and form. Standards are not “elitist” if they are used to reach out and touch someone. Nor should they be dogma, but should be alive, evolving; not made extinct. What is elitist is having a manner of judging and curating that is highly opaque to people in general.

Hockney’s sacrifice of two years of his life is worth it. His flaws of enthusiasm and proselytizing are worth the rewards. He challenges us with idea that artists of the past used optical tools. He stimulates the mind to consider standards. He questions how we educate artists, all the while he shows stunning art. His is a fine gift; and we are glad he can get back to making art himself. Bon voyage, David Hockney.

©2002 Robert Stanley