It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


The Index is found here

Monday, June 25, 2012

Kemp : Coda

(this is the concluding chapter of Martin Kemp's "The Science of Art".
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

I hope that any doubts about my gross hypothesis, which stated that there was a specifically direct relationship during this period between the aspirations of 'artists' and 'scientists' in their visual understanding of the rules behind natural effects , have been largely allayed by the sheer volume of material"

Notice those scare quotes? Why would they be necessary - except that Kemp suspects that there would be more than a little doubt about whether the authors of all those books about perspective or color could be considered either an artist or a scientist.

And I don't recall that any "specific direct relationship" has been demonstrated as having been necessary for what artists or scientists aspired to or accomplished. What does the occasional, and almost always inconsistent, application of one-point perspective prove about the aspirations of the applier?

How can Kemp be serious about the intentions of these historic artists while paying no attention to the narrative content of their mostly mythlogical art?

Kemp then asks how his assumptions, hypothesis, and evidence relates to three other questions:

1. Why should there be so much shared ground between visual art and optical science in this particular period?

2. What is the status of the optical 'truths' with which our predominantly naturalistic art has been concerned? (i.e. were they conventions of the period, or truths, like gravity, waiting to be discovered?)

3. If a work of art is made on a scientific base, does it differ from a science? Are the artistic and scientific imaginations to be equated or separated?

To the contrary....

1. I don't think that Kemp's list of period books about the mathematics of projective geometry and physics of color amounts to much of a 'shared common ground'-- and certainly it's far less than the ground shared with books relating to Christian or neo-Platonic faiths.

2. I don't think that any of the artists whom Kemp discussed were 'predominantly naturalistic'

3. We can, of course, define the 'artistic and scientific' imaginations however we choose -- but I think that excellence in each requires keeping them separate, both as they are applied, and as the results are judged. (so Darwin's theory does not trump other theories because it is the most beautiful - and the sculptures in the Madame Toussard's wax museum are not the best because they are the most naturalistic)

So, I really don't want to join Kemp in these queries, which seem to be based on a need to fit the arts into the contemporary, science-dominated university.

My intuition when looking at the invention of perspective is to emphasize the striving for 'domestic' naturalism in religious art in response to new kinds of devotion as a necessary background condition for the notion that an illusion of how things appear was desirable. A key stimulus in determining that a precisely proportional system was used, rather than the highly effective but essentially non-mathematical method of Jan van Eyck in the Netherlands, was the annexing of classical aesthetic values, particularly the proportional system of architectural design and town planning.

Unfortunately, Kemp does not detail those 'new kinds of devotion' - but since a deeper, measurable, believable pictorial space was first introduced in churches built by the Franciscans, they should probably be the focus of our attention.

Regarding those 'classical aesthetic values' in the 'proportional system of architectural design', this might follow, as Norris Kelly Smith has suggested, a rebirth of the civic ideals of the Greco-Roman ancient world, built upon rational, measured deliberation instead of autocratic fiat. (even if that collegial deliberation was only a pretense during the imperial era)

The Sala Bologna in the Vatican enters the discussion as an example of the collusion required by the viewer, who must stand in a particular spot, or else the illusionary architecture painted high up on the wall will appear to be falling down.

Though, of course, some collusion is required to see any painted object, even if it's only to take it into the light and place your eyes at within a certain range of distance, and figure out which side is up - so I think the above example was only offered because it's so much fun to imagine a ceiling falling down.

BTW - Kemp does not believe that a 'primitive' human eye will fail to read the space and objects available to be seen in a photograph - but no evidence is presented to make that point.

According to these lines of argument - and I accept that they are presented in such a form as to remain statements of a loosely supported credo rather than a fully debated perceptual theory - the scientific techniques of naturalism we have been discussing can be at once period specific and non-arbitrary in perceptual terms

I wonder if Kemp only inserted this line after an editor told him that he was making nothing more than a statement of personal belief. It certainly is odd to place it within the concluding remarks of a book about 'science'.



Let us look at one of the most controlled, empirical works in our study, Jan van der Heyden's 'The Dam in Amsterdam' painted in 1667. For the painting to have arisen at all, the artist needed to be a party to a series of assumptions about the nature and function of painting, in particular the premise that the realistic depiction of actual, recognizable buildings is both possible and desirable. This notion of desirability rests on a series of intellectual and social foundations of an inextricably interwoven kind. In the making of this specific painting with this context of assumptions, a series of choices needed to be made. Someone, the artist or patron, has chosen this particular townscape as its subject. Perhaps civic pride in the great new town hall was a powerful factor in the choice; perhaps the artist wanted to juxtapose a classical building of the new order with a gothic building of the old; perhaps the visual qualities of the geometrical forms disposed asymmetrically was the dominant reason for the choice, or perhaps the reason was altogether trivial in the first instance. The historian is unlikely to be able to give a definitive account of such 'causes', and it is often to be doubted if the artist could have done so himself.

These two versions of Amsterdam's new Town Hall are especially interesting because the later version seems to correct a distortion in the lantern that sits on top of the great building. Recognizing this problem,the artist first attached a metal rod to the frame that would help the view assume the correct P.O.V. to see the lantern undistorted. But then - he decided to paint another version where the lantern appears less distorted.

Though it's also, of course, an entirely different painting.

I'm guessing that their colors are far closer than these two reproductions might suggest - but however inaccurate these reproductions may be, the older version probably does feel more like municipal flag waving- while the second feels more contemplative about the passage of time as the new replaces the old.

These are the last paintings to which this book refers, and like many of the others, they're quite interesting. But also like the others, Kemp has little of interest to say. He's just blathering away with acceptable art-talk to fill in the margins of each page:

In the realisation of the work, the very specific choices of viewpoint, visual angle, time of day, size of picture and so on need to be made. The execution requires systematic knowledge of what techniques - perspectival and painterly - will provide the necessary illusions of space and light to evoke the visual 'truth' of the scene. There is a quality in the aspect of the work's genesis that may justifiably be called experimental, in that hypotheses about the seeing and representing of reality (implicit and explicit) are being tested. In this case there are two variants of the experiment ---- Everything about the conception and design of Jan's picture finds a more or less precise analogy in science, even to the extent that two different scientific experiments can be designed from two distinct viewpoints to reveal two distinct 'truths' about a phenomenon. I think the analogy also extends into the essential untidiness and non-sequential nature of the choices being made.

Just as I may run experiments in front of the mirror each morning, deciding which shirt I am going to wear, contemplating which 'truths' I am going to be testing -- and definitely extending the query into my 'essential untidiness and non-sequential' nature.

Finally, we come to Kemp's concluding paragraph:

I am prepared to suppose that it may have been a historical freak that the functions of art and science came at roughly the same time to work on the premise that their job was to reconstruct in an orderly manner the truth of appearance as perceived by specific observers. But that premise, once established, opened the way for an astonishingly rich dialogue of means and ends in certain kinds of arts and science. That the imaginative and intellectual worlds inhabited by significant numbers of artists and scientists should have shared so many common features in the era of the 'science of art' is obviously worthy of historical attention. It may also possess an enduring significance in our continued quest for a wholeness of perception of man in the world

I don't think that any of these conclusions can reasonably be drawn from what was presented in the previous 340 pages. What 'common features' have been discussed other than the occasional use of projective geometry and the physics of color? And how often did any of these painters work on the premise that 'their job was to reconstruct in an orderly manner the truth of appearance' ?

What is especially puzzling about the second assertion is that Kemp here modifies it with the phrase 'as perceived by specific observers' -- though I don't recall that he has discussed any of those specifications.

I'm also puzzled by his historical notion of the 'era of science of art', since he hasn't distinguished it from the eras that came before or after. Did this era end with Seurat because he was the last major artist to be so closely identified with the technical literature of optics?

I didn't work out each of the geometric operations that he detailed throughout the book - so I can't tell whether those parts of the text were carefully construed.

But regarding both history and aesthetics, the thinking seems more like the perfume of intellect rather than the exercise thereof.

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