return to homepage A Return to the
A Return to the
In 1999 David Hockney first conceived the idea that the flowering of realistic painting, from before the time of the Renaissance, was caused by the use of lenses and other optical devices. The great leap from wooden Medieval representation to Renaissance naturalism needed a cause, and for Hockney this was it. Especially in studying artists like Van Eyck and Holbein (and later Ingres), Hockney could not believe that such heights of realism were attainable without technological help. Hockney could not “eyeball” such precise drawings himself, and if he could not do it, how could they?
Very soon Hockney had enlisted Charles Falco, a condensed matter physicist from the University of Arizona, as scientific ballast for his theory. He then published a book in 2001, Secret Knowledge, which explained this theory in greater detail, as well as illustrating the theory with drawings and paintings Hockney had done with the help of some of these optical devices.
As for the public, they were, as usual, in no position to judge. They are helpless before any PR campaign, and the PR campaign of modernism has been one of the most successful in history. As just one recent example, take the 2003 film Girl with a Pearl Earring. Most would say this film promotes old-fashioned art, but much of it has the reverse effect. After being hypnotized for a half hour by Scarlett Johansson’s lips, the viewer is shown Colin Firth, as Vermeer, using a camera obscura. Firth puts Johansson’s pretty head under the coverlet, where she sees an image of the nearly finished painting. She gasps and asks if the painting is really in there. Firth laughs and tells her it is just an image. But we have a rather large problem here. A camera obscura is not a camera as we know it, so there can be no image when there is no painting. In other words, the camera obscura would have to be pointed at the painting for there to be an image of the painting. No image could be stored! The invention of the proper plate and emulsion and so on were still centuries in the future, so there is no way there could have been any image in that box.
Beyond that, there is no conceivable reason that Vermeer would have needed an image of his unfinished painting in a box. The whole point of the camera obscura, supposing Vermeer had one, was to transfer a three-dimensional image—life!—to two dimensions, so that it was easier to draw. But Vermeer’s painting was already in two dimensions, so it would be pointless to aim the camera obscura at it. That is quite literally taking a picture of a picture.
Neither the director nor the actors nor the editors nor the writers nor the producers nor the audience ever understood that. Here they were striking a very public blow for the Hockney-Falco thesis and probably not even realizing they were doing it. Now the worldwide public can say they saw Vermeer using a camera obscura in that famous movie, so it must be true. A popular belief is always more powerful than any truth, despite what we are told.
That is all very bad, but it gets worse. The nearly decade-old debate of the Hockney-Falco thesis has been just as absurd as the thesis itself. The counter-argument has been led by David Stork, a professor of computer science at Stanford. Dr. Stork has given many lectures and published many papers attacking the H-F thesis. He has done some good work, and he happens to be correct, for the most part. But the problem is that the question has never been decided by the correct experts. The debate has been between fake artists, physicists, and computer scientists. So we once again have a tempest in the wrong teapot.
The first mistake in the scientific response to Hockney is the assumption that Hockney’s thesis is scientific. It isn’t. Hockney’s thesis isn’t even a thesis, it is just very bald propaganda dressed up as a thesis. In treating it as a scientific thesis, the academic community confers upon Hockney’s idea a legitimacy it doesn’t merit. You only seriously debate things that may or may not make sense, but in this case there is no “may” involved. These scientists and historians immediately began looking for evidence for and against, but they forgot to ask if the question was mainly evidentiary. They forgot to question why Hockney was proposing the thesis: what the proposal might mean in the current milieu and for the current art administration. They forgot to ask how the proposal might act as a compensatory act for Hockney, as an individual, and as misdirection for modernism. Because these scientists and historians were not active players in the field of art, they didn’t allow for the existence of all these variables. Despite the ubiquity of Deconstruction, no one thought to deconstruct Hockney’s intentions. What was needed was not a cadre of physicists or historians or computer scientists; what was needed was a team of psychologists.
As simple proof of this, go to the illustration from Hockney’s book (above), where he uses all these cheating tools and still fails to draw well. This is because Hockney is a bad artist. He can’t draw. So of course he is going to wonder how it is done. Short people don’t really understand how to slam dunk, and slow people don’t really understand how to run fast, in the same way. But if they want a lesson in how it is done, they go to tall and fast people to see it done, directly. They don’t go to other short or slow people with bigger mouths, or to physicists or computer scientists or historians or critics.
In any other century this debate would not have been possible. Only at the end of the 20th century, when art had been nearly destroyed and the artist nearly wiped out, could this question become a serious question. Art had been taken over by the non-artist, and here he was, Hockney, the rich and famous non-artist, asking publicly how art could be done! He really couldn’t understand it. It had to be some kind of trick, right? We have been taught that all art is some kind of pose, so this old art must have been a different sort of pose, a different sort of lie. The Getty Center taught us that talent doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t, right? It is just smoke and mirrors, like modernism, right?
In this way, the debate was, from the beginning, misdirected into the wrong fields. The wrong questions were asked, so even when they were answered correctly, they did not lead to a resolution. Not only was the tempest in the wrong teapot, it was in a misdefined teapot—a teapot that could not whistle even when it was boiling.
For example, let us look at some of Dr. Stork’s postulates. Just to be clear, I say “postulates” on purpose. A postulate is an assumption you have before you enter a debate. It is not one of the points you will debate: it is one of the things that all sides agree upon. The ground rules, if you like. He says, “Hockney’s claim is first and foremost historical.” This is something that we may assume both the physicist Falco and the computer scientist Stork agree upon.
But no, Hockney’s claim is first and foremost artistic. It is a question of ability, not of history. It concerns art history, yes, but it is an artistic claim. As an artistic claim, it can be disproved with no reference to history. Hockney’s claim is not just that artists used optical devices, but that they used them because they needed to. If they hadn’t used them, they wouldn’t have been able to draw so well, and their paintings would have looked like Medieval paintings, or Hockney’s paintings. That is not a historical claim, that is an artistic claim, because it must mean that living artists could not draw so well if they did not use optical devices.
Because Hockney’s claim is not a historical claim, it means that even if Hockney proves that Vermeer or Ingres used optical devices, he would not have proved his thesis. In that case, it could be argued against him that the devices were used for the sake of convenience or speed, not need. If it can be proved that artists can draw to any precision they desire, then it does not matter what shortcuts artists in the past may have used: Hockney is still wrong. If artists can draw to any precision they desire, this must mean that the historical advance in naturalism in the early Renaissance was not due to optical devices, but was due to other causes.
Let us look at another postulate of Dr. Stork:
A range of expertise is needed to make and evaluate claims about Hockney's thesis. Someone without firm educational foundation and professional experience in several of these areas is likely to be unreliable.
Dr. Stork then gives us a list of “scholars who have published in scholarly publications.” This list is divided into “scientists/technologists, historians of art or optics, and curators.” Notice anyone missing there? We get a lot of emphasis on scholars and scholarship, don’t we? You may ask yourself, are artists scholars? Could they be considered scholars, under any contemporary scheme, without getting a degree in art history? Could they get published in “scholarly” journals of any type? Say that we brought one of these artists that Hockney is talking about back from the dead: actually transported him into the early 21st century. Could he, based solely on his abilities and achievements, qualify himself for publication or qualify himself as an expert? Would Vermeer himself qualify as a scholar?
We also get this postulate:
The most important scientific discipline required is computer vision, pattern recognition and image analysis.
Interesting that the most important requirement of Dr. Stork, the computer scientist, is that the expert be a computer scientist. But really, do these postulates contain any logic? Are scientists, historians and curators likely to know the most about this topic? Let me put it another way, are scientists, historians and curators the most likely to know the most about basketball, or are the best basketball players the most likely to know the most about basketball? Basketball players do not have advanced degrees, a “range of professional expertise”, nor have they published in peer-reviewed journals. But if I have a question about basketball, give me Michael Jordan. Specifically, if I have a question about what basketball players can do, and if I see Michael Jordan do it, then I will know that basketball players can do it. Michael will not have to present to me a week-long symposium and a hatful of treatises. He will do what he does, and say that is how it is done. If Hockney still claims it cannot be done, we will know he is mad.
In closing this section, I want to look at one final claim of Dr. Stork:
I've never said we've "disproved" Hockney's theory—just cast great doubt upon his claims, surely enough to refute his and Falco's claims they've "proven artists as early as 1420 certainly did use optics—of this there simply is no doubt."
Exactly my point here. Because Dr. Stork treats Hockney’s claim as a historical one, he cannot finally prove or disprove it. He can only show factual or logical or historical inconsistencies in Hockney’s claim, and hope to overwhelm the claim by a preponderance of evidence. But I can disprove Hockney once and for all, since, as I show, his thesis stands or falls on ability. He says something cannot be done, I do it, and the argument is over. Not proof by a preponderance of evidence, but proof by display. Proof by the existence of what is claimed not to exist.
Why is this proof not accepted? It is not accepted because there is no way to publish such a proof in a scientific journal, an art journal, or a mainstream publication. You will say it is quite easy to videotape a thing and have it verified by an independent third party, but you are missing my point. It is not a matter of videotaping the event. It is a matter of getting published. Realist artists cannot get published anywhere saying anything. I know this from experience. They cannot get published in scientific journals because they are not tenured scientists. They cannot get published in mainstream journals because mainstream journals have prejudged all opinion on art in favor of modernism and against realism. They cannot get published in art journals because they are not famous modern artists. You will say that if they are not famous, that may reflect on their abilities. But that is to miss a central fact of modern art: realists are not allowed to be famous. It is a pre-established fact, a rule, set in stone before you even enter the field. And who makes the rules? People like Hockney, people who don’t want to be inconvenienced with talent or skill.
So you begin to see how it is. This question can only be answered by real artists, but art moderne disallowed real artists decades ago. Hockney is allowed to propose asinine theories, since he is an insider; but, even though his theory concerns the ability of artists who can draw very well, no artists who can draw very well are allowed to give testimony. And we find the same thing in science. Scientists do not want expert testimony from artists, because if it is admitted that artists are capable of giving expert testimony, scientists are no longer needed to decide this question. For this reason, everyone involved must be very careful to keep artists who can draw out of the debate. Because once we get into the debate, it is over very fast and everyone’s little agendas, whatever they are, must immediately end. As you can see, several people have built careers on this question. Hockney extended his faltering career, and several scientists and historians and writers have gotten their names into Wikipedia based on this alone.
Just to prove to you how transparent this all is, I will relate to you an email exchange I had with Dr. Stork. I wrote him after coming from his art site, where he says these things I have quoted above. Nonetheless, I offered him an alliance and pointed out to him a lot of ammunition he was failing to use. But we soon got crossways. It became very clear very fast that he considered himself the Pied Piper, and I was just a rat or a child expected to follow quietly. I finally told him I was going my own way, and would publish my own thoughts on the matter. He replied, "Great. Where do you think you'll publish? (Online won't make a dent, I'm afraid.)" Here was the subtle turn of the blade, the hiss of the snake. He might as well have said, "Poor boy, don't you know that we have all publication roads blocked? If you want a mention in this, you need to follow my lead and do what you're told."
Well, I won't turn the reverse knife so subtly. Dr. Stork, what you fail to understand is that, as the real artist here, I cannot lose. I am the one that produces the real art and the real writing. In two hundred years, my paintings and my words will still be alive. They are alive now, and they will live on. But you produce nothing. Your computer models will be forgotten in ten years, and this whole argument would dry up and blow away, except for my part in it. From any distance, the only artistic content of this debate will be this paper. So all your blocks will come to nothing. You can only block me in the short term, but in the long term the Muses will tend to my interests. If you knew anything about art and art history, you would know this to be true.
That no one finish this paper thinking my main foe here is Dr. Stork, I will conclude by thumping Hockney a few more times. What most people still have not understood is that Hockney’s “thesis” was never a thesis to start with. It was a faux-thesis, a small and pathetic piece of agitprop posing as a genuine idea. And it became a famous public idea because it was, at bottom, just more propaganda for modernism and against realism. Hockney brought in Dr. Falco to make his propaganda look scientific, but Hockney’s opinion never had the slightest thing to do with condensed matter physics, as I have shown.
The Hockney thesis did not just happen to arrive in the year 2000. By the year 2000 we had seen a decade-long rise of realism and a corresponding fall in modernism. Even first-rank critics like Robert Hughes had begun to attack modernism. Some of the old lies had lost their luster with age: the horrible wrinkles began to show through the make-up, and many began to lose their lust for the old whore. What to do? Well, set the presses in motion again, of course. Pump up the volume. If people weren’t buying the old lies anymore, tell new lies at higher decibels. If the old whore was past her prime, hire a new young whore and keep her in fresh lipstick and clear heels. Anything to maintain the prices at auction.
And so, concurrent with Hockney’s book, we got articles in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal and a thousand other places telling us that modernism was still a great investment and that realism was just a haunt of downmarket sluts. I have written about these articles on this site. We also got a billion dollar upgrade for the flagship of modernism in the US: MOMA. We got a lot of noise and flutter meant to convince us something was still happening, but nothing was really happening except the beginning of a long and inexorable deflation and decline. Yes, Duchamp’s slightly clever joke of 1917 was being told again for the millionth time, by comedians who lacked all sense of timing. Damien Hirst was still trying to find something that hadn’t yet been put in a museum, so that he could put it there and then be found clever. Ditto for Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread and the Chapman brothers and a thousand other fakes and phonies.
For Hockney this deflation was more than a historical trend, it was a personal tragedy. He was getting old and his fame was dissolving. If he had been Elizabeth Taylor he would have come out with another perfume, but, being Hockney, he couldn’t do that. No one wants to smell like a modern artist. So Hockney did the next best thing: he wrote a book. And he had a theory. As in the famous Monty Python sketch with the theory of Anne Elk (Miss) on the brontosaurus, Hockney had a theory, that he had, that was his and which belonged to him, which was as follows and begins now: a theory that all artists in history had the same ineptitude he has. The only difference was, they had discovered tricks he hadn’t yet mastered. Yes, they had machines.
Just savor that for a moment before we move on. Artists from 500 years ago were better than us due to machines. I could chew on that all day.
To spell it out, we have much better machines now, so shouldn't we be able to draw much better than the Old Masters? Hockney doesn't need to use camera obscuras or camera lucidas. Someone should tell him that we now have actual cameras, with storable images, and high quality projectors of all kinds. If he wants to cheat, he can cheat with all the fruits of modern technology. Why doesn't he talk about or use this technology in Secret Knowledge? Because he had already been using it for decades, and even with it he couldn't draw for sour apples. But he couldn't put that fact out in the open, since it would undercut his "thesis" in a second.
This theory was so infantile in so many ways it will be impossible for future historians to believe it ever made the papers, but Hockney happened to be a member of a sect that thrived on infantilism. Modernism had been accepting artwork based on a purposely upside-down set of criteria for a full century. It wanted and demanded non-artistic art, so that it could deconstruct the entire category. Modernists have been stating this in clear declarative sentences at least since the time of Futurism, around 1909. Clement Greenberg gave us the most influential codification of these criteria in the 1940’s. So why should anyone in the universities or journals or institutions of modernism balk at accepting historical theories that were just as absurd as the art and the political justifications for the art? No, the correct modern thing to do is accept them because they are absurd, because they are infantile, because they are lacking all sense. Those who incorporated the Hockney-Falco thesis into the universities never asked for proof of the thesis or the least evidence for it. They have never followed these debates because they don’t care if the thesis is true. They only care that the thesis is useful to their careers.
Like Anne Elk's theory of the brontosaurus (small on one end, large in the middle, and small again on the other end) Hockney’s theory is so devoid of rational content that it is little more than a pasting together of holes. But let us—just so the future may continue to laugh—look for a moment at another of the larger of these holes. We now have a decade of commentary on the theory, but no one has yet commented on the irony of a modern artist proposing that Medieval artists painted the way they did because they couldn’t do any better. Doubtless, future historians will, in the same way, judge cubism. They will not realize that cubism was a choice of Picasso. They will think that Picasso caught a bug sometime around 1905, destroying his ability to focus his eyes and move his limbs.
You see, Hockney’s thesis is just as ridiculous. Hockney knows that modernism was a choice. He knows that 20th century artists quit drawing well on purpose, for political and theoretical reasons. But he cannot apply the same logic to Medieval artists. It never occurs to him that Medieval icons look like they do because the artists (and the church) wanted them to look that way. He cannot ask himself the obvious artistic question, because he cannot think like an artist. The obvious question is this: would a Medieval icon be more powerful—as a religious icon—if it were painted realistically? Of course not. Medieval icons don’t look like photographs because the Medieval artists didn’t want them to look like photographs. Reality didn’t have the requisite mystery for the desired effect, so it wasn’t attempted.
An analogous question is this: would Picasso’s Blue Period paintings have the same effect if they were painted in correct colors, with correct lines, in a naturalistic manner? Again, No. Picasso didn’t paint his Harlequins that way by accident, or because he couldn’t achieve a Bouguereau-type realism. He painted them that way with full artistic intent.
Just so, the Medieval painters. Medieval painters weren’t influenced by technological considerations, like the availability of lenses and so on. They were influenced by creative considerations. They were influenced by church and social doctrine, which naturally impelled them into certain styles.
Remember that the basic question Hockney is trying to answer is "why would the Medieval painters paint that way?" If a lot of people hadn't asked themselves that question, Hockney's thesis would never have gained a foothold. "If human talent is a constant, why would the Medieval painters have chosen to paint that way? Why would anyone who could paint like Raphael choose to paint wooden icons instead?" That is the question that most people cannot answer, and Hockney seems to answer it. The Medieval painters hadn't discovered the proper tools for looking at the world. Their hands and brains were limited by their lack of technology. That is his answer. But the towering irony is that Hockney will not ask the same question of the 20th century. Why would a culture that could produce Leonardo and Michelangelo decide to start exhibiting slashed canvases and ballpens and lotto tickets as art? Because, for some reason, they preferred it, just as Medieval society preferred wooden icons. You have to remember that people are crazy, and entire cultures can go crazy for decades or centuries. We are living through one such time: why should it be hard for us, as a deranged culture, to understand the derangement of the Middle Ages? The answer: deranged people are even less empathetic than normal people. There is no brotherhood of derangement, only a psychotic isolation. This is what I meant by my claim above that what we need here is not a debate of physical evidence, but a thorough psychological analysis. We do not need a shadow analysis of the Old Master paintings, we need a shadow analysis of Hockney's brain, literally.
You would think this would be obvious to anyone who did any amount of freethinking about these matters, but I have met almost no one who has. Just as the Medieval artists were compelled by the church, modern people feel compelled by society to take one of the two given sides in any argument or debate. They cannot strike out on their own and take a third side, even when the third side is clearly better, since they wouldn’t have as many friends sitting with them there.
If you take Hockney’s side you have all of modernism sitting with you. All the universities will be your friend and all the other institutions, too. If you take Dr. Stork’s side you will have a goodly portion of academia on your side and sizable portion of the public. If you take a third side you are on your own. You may have the satisfaction of being correct, the satisfaction of not looking like a complete fool to future artists and other sensible people, but what good will that do you now?—now, when sensible people are outnumbered by whooping cranes.
What both sides of this debate are constitutionally unable to do is to look at the question from any elevation or distance. Both are caught up in banal, quotidian, careerist currents, narrowly defined by their own inabilities and misunderstandings. This is not surprising, since we are all limited by our own abilities and understandings. How could it be otherwise? The difference is, because we are in the arena of art with this "thesis", everyone has lost every last vestige of self-control. Physicists and computer scientists could not unilaterally appoint themselves authorities in basketball—to return to my earlier analogy—because they would immediately be laughed off the court. But unlike sport, art is a field that has been razed. It has been cut down to bare ground: it is a desert. It has been forcibly depopulated. The natural inhabitants of this ecosystem have been wiped out by decades of genocidal policy, and the only critters still around are the subterranean vermin, scurrying through dirty burrows and pits—the fake artists and fake critics and other fake beings of this cratered ghostland.
Because this desert appears to be empty of sentient life, it allows for its temporary resettlement by any passing party, be they a party of physicists or computer scientists or journalists or social workers or critics or historians or theorists of any kind. Anyone with any new religion can set up an outpost here and begin passing out fliers, with no threat of contradiction. Everyone who claims to be an expert is an expert, since no one is at hand to say otherwise.
So I can understand that it is a shock to all concerned when I poke my head from the dust and dregs, fully armored and in a blaze of health, and begin lopping off people’s arms and legs. They can only find it a bit unfair. They had been told this ground was deedless and ownerless. They did not expect to see so much as a skeleton, much less a fiery sword. They had thought the ancient castle undefended; the gold free to the passing crows and vultures.
Let this writing stand as a signpost then. I am here. The sword of Cellini is not lost. The dagger of Caravaggio is still sharp. Trespass at your peril. This land was bequeathed to me in a long line, in clearest deed and name, and I will not suffer it to be defiled any further. Keep your effluxes and effluents on your own lawn: my desert will be swept clean by the winds, blown by the unsoiled Muses and by the gusts of my ventricose pen. I will nightly drive the maze of tunnels, and when I come upon the creatures crawling there in their own muck and ooze, I will slay them—slay them with as little guilt as St. Michael, slaying the ancient sinners.
If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.