Exploring the Evidence

The publication, in 2001, of Hockney's book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, triggered a firestorm of controversy among a large cast of architects, artists, art critics, art historians, cultural historians, optical physicists, philosophers and the public at large. The controversy continues and this web site, promoting the use of scientific inquiry to provide insight into art, invites you to participate. Here are some key questions:

Is Hockney correct?

Phrased in this way, this is a worthless question. It implies that Hockney is either completely right or completely wrong. Clearly Hockney's ideas cannot apply to every painting, painted since 1420! At best, they would only apply to a limited number of the paintings. Sweeping judgments are irrelevant. Each painting must be evaluated on an individual basis. The proper question is an answerable question, for example: Were optical devices used in van Eyck's "Arnolfini Marriage Portrait"?

How can we tell?

We tell by looking at a particular painting and by obtaining and analyzing evidence from the painting. Can our evidence only be explained by the use of optical devices or can it not? We must analyze evidence from the painting in question.

What can categorical statements contribute?

Here are two examples of categorical statements. First, concave mirrors were not available in the 15th century. Second, there is no written record of artists using optical devices in the 15th century. What do categorical statements contribute? Nothing. We have only to find one 15th century concave mirror and one 15th century optical manual to falsify both categorical statements. Our failure to find, say, the mirror or the manual, at this time, in no way implies that we cannot or will not find them in the future. But this is all irrelevant. Our underlying interest is the individual work of art, the look of it and how that look was achieved. Was this technique used or that one? The answer in no way compromises the worth of the work of art. Categorical statements distract us from the evidence in the painting and contribute nothing to our understanding of the art.

Did artists cheat?

Is freehand sketching honest and drawing from a projected image dishonest? Hockney wears a T-shirt proclaiming Optics doesn't make marks and it is the marks of the artist that makes the art. Artists use different means to set the perspective. Durer used a grid and Warhol a projector but the means of defining the perspective does not determine the quality of the art. The art is the art and the artist has not cheated.

Why is the debate so fierce?

Controversies do not become ferocious without cause and there can be one cause or many. Here we experience different disciplines, e.g. art history and physics, fighting over territory which each considers to be its own, where each considers its expertise to be the only one competent to pass judgment. The experienced eye of the connoisseur is pitched against the analytical inquiry of the scientist. Art historians, with no feelings of inadequacy, know nothing of science: scientists, lacking exposure to art, know little of art. The scene is set for some vigorous turf warfare, initiated by Hockney, in the role of turncoat artist, turning to optics to understand art.

The posturing is both offensive and defensive. Hockney uncovered this in 2001. Why was it not uncovered earlier? Hockney uncovered the problem because of his ability to see the problem as it really is. Solving a problem means gathering all of the relevant evidence and relying on relevant expertise to determine what the evidence means. Hockney puts that attitude into effect in his ongoing collaboration with Charles Falco, a prominent optical physicist.

Additionally, there are some other reasons for the fierce debate. The debate has engaged widespread interest. It is played out on the pages of the world's most respected magazines and newspapers. With such an audience and such limelight, the debate inevitably has attracted enlarged egos. And the flames of the controversy have been fanned by the press.

The players

David Hockney (artist) and Charles Falco (Professor of Physics, Optical Science Center, University of Arizona), both jointly and independently, have made the case that artists have used optical devices.. David Graves works for Hockney.

David Stork and Christopher Tyler have independently challenged the views of Hockney and Falco. Debates typically feature either Stork vs. Falco or Tyler vs. Falco. Stork is a physicist at Ricoh Innovations and Tyler a neuroscientist at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute.

Philip Steadman (Professor of Architecture at University College, London) has made the case that Vermeer used a camera obscura.

Evaluating the evidence

Our procedure is to study individual works of art, to examine them for evidence, to analyze the evidence and compare our findings with those of Hockney's supporters and detractors. Five paintings are evaluated here.

Copyright 2006 Brandeis University
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