I picked up this book while I was taking a drawing class. I struggled to wrap my head around the idea that artists from different eras truly saw the world differently. The author lays out these explanations beautifully. Before the camera existed, there was no conception of photorealistic images. “When I look at a scene as a human, I know exactly what is behind a tree because I can move my head and look. So, why, when I draw the scene, shouldn’t I draw what is behind the tree?” Only in this modern art world do we feel the need to be photorealistic, as this artifical snapshot didn’t exist in the past. Ways of Seeing provides beautiful explanations of how artists see and think about space, gender, religion, and money.
When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words and no embrace can match: a completeness which only the act of making love can temporarily accommodate.
An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved – for a few moments or a few centuries.
This difference can be illustrated in terms of what was thought of as perspective. The convention of perspective, which is unique to European art and which was first established in the early Renaissance, centres everything on the eye of the beholder. It is like a beam from a lighthouse – only instead of light travelling outwards, appearances travel in.
Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything converges on to the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God.
The inherent contradiction in perspective was that it structured all images of reality to address a single spectator who, unlike God, could only be in one place at a time.
The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings). What you saw depended upon where you were when. What you saw was relative to your position in time and space. It was no longer possible to imagine everything converging on the human eye as on the vanishing point of infinity.
The uniqueness of every painting was once part of the uniqueness of the place where it resided. Sometimes the painting was transportable. But it could never be seen in two places at the same time.
The bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art, and which is ultimately dependent upon their market value, has become the substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible.
What the modern means of reproduction have done is to destroy the authority of art and to remove it – or, rather, to remove its images which they reproduce – from any preserve. For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way as a language surrounds us. They have entered the mainstream of life over which they no longer, in themselves, have power.
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.
A painting could speak to the soul – by way of what it referred to, but never by the way it envisaged. Oil painting conveyed a vision of total exteriority.
Consequently the confusion remains on the walls of the galleries. Third-rate works surround an outstanding work without any recognition – let alone explanation – of what fundamentally differentiates them.
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