Part One – Assignment 1: The Innocent Eye or Perspective

Part A

Look at the painting ‘The Innocent Eye Test’ by Mark Tansey (below). The phrase ‘the innocence of the eye’ was coined by the British critic John Ruskin in 1857:

The whole technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, of a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify, as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight.

Consider what Ruskin is saying and give an interpretation of Tansey’s painting in light of this. (1,000 words)

Before addressing the painting consider carefully what Ruskin has to say, and bear in mind he was writing in the Victorian era. Consider what the painting as a whole suggests. Is it making a point or posing a problem?

The Victorian era as the period of the reign of Queen Victoria between 1837 and 1901 has seen Britain as the most powerful nation in the world. The era was characterized as a wealthy era. The industrialization moved ahead. The elite applied strict moral values with a strong paternalistic view of society and family rules driving by rank and privileges. Charles Darwin evolution theory challenged Victorian values and beliefs. An emerging middle-class was fighting for its place in society against the elite with the idea of the self-made man. The individual, through hard work could achieve economic success based on equalizing principles and merit. Those middle-class values were promoted by policies and reform strategies and distinguished the middle class form the working class (BBC).

In this context merit, John Ruskin (1819-1900) was writing 1857 his book ‘The Elements of Drawing’ as an instruction for new drawing students to work hard and long.  And in this book he instructed the students ‘..that [everything] you can see in the world around you, presents itself to your eyes only as an arrangement of patches of different colors variously shaded.’  He argued for a hard-working approach to master the ‘power of painting‘ which for him was based on the human ‘innocent seeing’ of the world around them. Not to think or take any conscious precautions, but purely to see and to copy what the naked eye sees. For example, different sides of an object as color patches with variation in hue and value, not as a form or a specific object. The perception of such objects would stay with the eyes of the observer. This he called the ‘innocence of the eye’ of the artist (Ruskin, 1857a, 27)

Ruskin, born in a middle-class society, was a prolific and leading English critique. Ruskin was against the ‘pictorial convention’ favored by some artist at his time. He admired naturalism as expressed by the Pre-Raphaelite, romantic paintings and Gothic architectural design which became quite popular for its ‘natural forms’ in the Victorian era. He was a big admirer of J.M.W. Turner whose understanding of the truths of natural form he very much appreciated. He enforced artists in the context of romantic spirituality to ‘go to Nature in all singleness of heart…having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.’ (Shrimpton, 2008). Ruskin did translate his Victorian moral, social and spiritual values onto art. His focus was a Naturalist theory of visual perception and personal experience of nature to find a visual truth (Landow, 2000).

In his book ‘A Joy Forever’, 1857 he argues that ‘it seems to me that one of the worst diseases to which the human creature is liable is its disease of thinking. If it would only just look at a thing instead of thinking what it must be like…‘ (Ruskin, 1857b, 126). Ruskin addressed here the difficulty on making or seeing a painting without conventional visual vocabularies. People tend to see what they think they know and not what they see in front of them.

Ruskin asks for a ‘natural’ and ‘innocent’ perception of the world without conceptions or preconceived opinions. One should not think at all while making a painting. With great mastery one will achieve success and create masterpieces like J.M.W Turner.  In his words with ‘a sort of childish perception‘ (Ruskin, 1857a, 27). Ruskin emphasizes to learn to see versus imagination. But I would argue that to separate seeing from thinking and perception from conception would be like the Cartesian perspective of separating body and mind, just the other direction. And there are more realities that could be considered as visual truth, a main interest for the contemporary painter and art critique Mark Tansey.

His painting ‘The Innocent Eye Test‘, 1981 shows an interior scene, a museum, a cow is pulled towards the painting ‘De Stier (The Young Bull)‘, 1647 by the Dutch painter Paulus Potter. Tansey eradicated the man in Potter’s painting and placed at similar position the head of the left man in front of the painting, a visual remove of perceived pictorial reality. Alongside Potter’s painting one of the impressionistic ‘Haystacks‘, 1891 by Claude Monet is shown, demonstrating the subjective perception of light in a painting. Several men (art historians? no women) are there, even a scientist? Reminds me of Charles Darwin, contextual images to relate to Ruskin and his era?

Obviously, this painting demonstrates various perceptions of reality and Tansey confronts us with a representational painting of a representational painting, a reality within another reality. Ruskin’s appeal to apply a ‘childish perception‘ with an ‘innocent eye’ is contradicted by trying to understand a cow’s reaction. This scene reminds me of the question of what is reality and what is illusion expressed by Pliny.

Pliny (AD23 – AD79) describes in his ‘Natural History’ the discourse and competition between the two painters Parrhasios and Zeuxis that took place in a theatre. Zeuxis painted some grapes so illusionistic that he fooled a flock of birds who flew down to eat them but instead pecked at their picture. Parrhasios asked Zeuxis to draw aside a curtain to see his masterpiece. But Zeuxis realized too late that Parrhasios deceived him as it was a painted curtain. This story highlights the complexity of various degrees of reality and thresholds from pre-cultural as nature, culture as architecture, fiction as theatre stage, and a 2nd class fiction as painting. Cultural work could be defined as artifice, representation and simulation. Power is considered as the capacity to control reality, like Parrhasios and Zeuxis deceived others with their paintings (Bryson, 1990).

In this context Tansey fools, not only the depicted men in his painting but also questions us as the external observers like the Athenian audience in Pliny’s theatre. There is no ‘innocent eye’ as it exists more than one reality. The external perspective shows how deception and construction works.

In Tansey’s words one need to destroy the medium to ‘successfully achieve the real‘ (101Bananas), in context of Platonic formalism that to achieve pure knowledge one must eliminate ‘material embodiment and sensual awareness‘ in an apprehension of direct ideas (Taylor, 2010, 8-9). With our choice of medium we create and represent a pictorial reality. Tansey’s point is to rethink ‘the role of representation of painting in modern art as a method of revitalizing the tradition of painting‘ (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

(1071 words)

Part B

What are the implications of saying perspective was invented, and what are the implications of saying it was discovered. Assess these two possibilities and give reasons for the one you believe is correct. (800 words)

Make a list of things you know to be invented and things you know to be discovered. Consider what distinguishes them and where perspective is best placed. Try to be attentive to counterarguments.

The question what is invented and what is discovered can be explicitly discussed at the examples the Mathematics (Abbott, 2013). Albert Einstein remarked “How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?” And it seems there is no right answer to it.

So, what makes the difference between something been discovered or invented? Merriam Webster Dictionary defines to discover as ‘to obtain sight or knowledge of for the first time‘ (Merriam-Webster, 2017a) and to invent as ‘to produce (as something useful) for the first time using the imagination or of ingenious thinking and experiment’(Merriam-Webster, 2017b). The first as incremental knowledge gain or observation of new phenomena and the latter as a new device, process, or method. Inventions are often patented. A discovery may sometimes be based on earlier discoveries or ideas.

Typical examples of invented devices are e.g. computer or needles or tea; invented processes are e.g. paper making; invented method e.g. scientific method with empirical observation, analysis and inductive reasoning. Another example, perhaps not so obvious, is rational intelligence – invented by Plato. In general, one can say that invention are human constructions or ‘institutional facts’ as defined by Searle. They did not exist all the time and they can also disappear.

Typical examples of discovered items that increased human knowledge: fire, planets and stars, Penicillium, Caffeine, the Mount Everest or the brain. Those items or facts do exist also without human presence. They are ‘brute facts’ (Searle, 1996), innate and intrinsic features of nature. In a platonic perspective, also abstract ideas e.g. beauty could be considered discoveries. Those are objects that do not exist in space or time and are therefore entirely non-physical and non-mental. (Balaguer, 2016)

Perspective in Art:

According to Encyclopedia Britannica it is a ‘method of graphically depicting three-dimensional objects and spatial relationships on a two-dimensional plane or on a plane that is shallower than the original.‘ (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2003). Perspective is to be seen at a time and from a fixed position and it is known to Eastern and Western cultures. The linear perspectival system used in Western art for space and volume illusion is based on the observation that objects appear to shrink and parallel lines and planes to convert to distant vanishing points as they recede in space. All perceived from the naked eye at one standpoint. In Chinese art, parallel lines of e.g. building do not converge to vanishing points (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016). Perspectival illusion was already discussed as skenographia in Classical Antiquity for theatrical sets. The mathematical rules of linear perspective were later developed by the Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377- 1446) and codified by Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472).

Brunelleschi experiments with the mirror reflection of his painting in front of the Baptistery in Florence can be considered as an empirical observation and inductive reasoning. Thus, perspective is developed based on a scientific invention. The rules are constructed from a human perspective with a fixed eye standpoint. The method acts as a supporting device for artists and architects to create illusionistic pictorial images. In this context one would argue that perspective is invented.

One could also argue that the mathematical laws were discovered, and as mathematics in general and referring to above citation by Einstein, those structures are intrinsic to nature. Those would be true even without human presence. They are abstract ideas and in a platonic perspective independent of space and time. So, one could argue that perspective was discovered and re-discovered by Brunelleschi as knowledge gain.

Does it really matter whether perspective is invented or discovered? Looking on perspective, linear perspective in Western culture or parallel perspective in Eastern culture, and perhaps other systems of perspective, the question is related to what is true and what is reality. To discover something to gain knowledge means one has find nature’s truth, a physical reality beyond representation by human beings.

I find it tremendously fascinating that English language defines perspective also as ‘all that can be seen from a certain point‘ or as ‘a way of looking at or thinking about something‘ (Merriam-Webster, 2017c). Here, perspective is a subjective argumentation and interpretation. As the linear perspective is valid only from one single viewpoint, another viewpoint respective standpoint sees something different. I would argue that perspective is a human invention to represent the physical reality as it is perceived by the human naked eye.

Another issue with perspective as one true reality is its limitations. Limitations of linear perspective were overcome with the invention of new devices e.g. foreshortening and anamorphosis. The aim was always, since Pliny, to achieve a convincing illusion of space (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016). And is this nothing else than the human construction of the reality?

This brings my argumentation back to above painting by M.Tansey, who challenges the observer through the mean of a painted visual illusion of space and reality. What is left is the observer’s gaze and subjective perception.

(836 words)

List of Images: 


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