How Good Can You Get?

When I talk to people about Impressionism and other movements that created awesomely abstracted art, it’s often seen as a matter of course that the advent of the camera made painters quit even trying to portray reality and veer off into all sorts of abstract experiments as a sort of last resort. Well, that might be partly true, but I’m not all that happy with this explanation. For instance, the view that all that artists have ever wanted to do is to represent is a flawed premise. Furthermore, it is obvious that representative art can hold its own against photography. Look at that famous portrait of John F. Kennedy and try to find a photograph that captures his public persona better. The painting wins every time.

What I think people mean when they say cameras killed representative painting is that it is impossible to create the amount of detail in painting as it is on film. That might be true as well, but one might also say that painting is not a medium that lends itself to great detail in the first place. There is something ridiculous in the vedute of Canaletto, something that makes you chuckle in awe, if that’s possible. Take, for instance, this view of Venice he painted around 1740:

Source: Wikipedia

Ironically, pictures don’t do justice to the amount of detail in his painting. It is simply staggering. But, as I said, it does seem excessive, overdone, and comically so. Not only did he paint ridiculously detailed postcards of Venice, he also worked in England. And the change of scenery did not change his habits.

Source: Wikipedia

This is pretty much as detailed as it gets and, furthermore, he didn’t have to worry about focus and the like. Everything could be crisp within the bounds of the illusion of depth. There’s tons of these things, and he’s not the only painter painting in this style. The pictures show that photographic representation is just out of reach of painting, but that also means that this limitation must be obvious. You can push the medium this far, but it’s limitations have always been known, even before photography.

So, what are people talking about when they make the claim that photography made abstract art? I think, and this is the theory part and hopefully my point, that they are reverting to a mode of speaking that stems from an older question. It concerns accurate representation as truthful representation and therefore we have to speak philosophically for a while. It’s about where the truth is, much like people used to try to locate the soul, how we get to it, and how we could create a universal method to getting to it. One of the more famous debates of this kind goes back to Vico and Descartes where Vico famously argued that the truth must be constructed through reasoning (verum esse ipsum factum), that it is not something “out there” for us to discover. It is a typical metaphysical criticism (indeed, I sometimes think this is what metaphysics finally is) where it is argued that for truth as it presented in the theory criticized to even exists, some other state of affairs must logically precede it. In addition, Vico’s argument also places a high premium on practical wisdom and calls Cartesian scientific thinking quite useless in all things practical — this is something generations after these two might want to dispute from evidence.

Anyway, what better illustration (get it?) of this topos than the clash between painting and photography. In painting, the truth or the image of the world is constructed through art as artifice. In photography, the picture is drawn by natural forces on a plate or film. In the first, it is the artist’s work that deserves to be emphasized. In the second, the truth is drawn passively and the image appears shot by light onto the screen. Vico is never mentioned in these debates, or at least I haven’t heard him mentioned yet, but it is good to remember that this topos and its rules are playing in the background. Noticing them shining on our discourse gets us one step closer to the truth yet again.

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