Unreal Nature

December 8, 2014

The End

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… The end of the work of art is in a sense to return selectively to the visual starting point in such a way as to exploit a special kind of controlled ambiguity in our perceptual processes …

This is from the ‘Coda’ at the end of The Science of Art: Optical themes in western art from Brunelleschi to Seurat by Martin Kemp (1990):

… [in contrast to science] the sum of [a work of art’s] effects must ultimately be its end. The artist can control the means by which we perceive the end to a greater or lesser degree … but the painting must ultimately stand as a perceptual object which is necessarily subject to an untidy mix of intuitive and conscious reactions, outside the kind of control exercisable through a written text. This untidy mix is analogous to that which went into the making of the work, and it may be that the most compelling art is that in which the artist is able to present the ambiguous richness of the invented compound with sufficient control that it remains to be acted upon by the spectator’s set of responses as a form of directed perception. Such directed perception would share the quality of variable richness in our experience of sensory ‘reality,’ but would operate selectively within the full spectrum of this richness.

The ultimate difference in the relationship between means and ends in art and science explains why the concept of ‘progress’ in the history of science has a different status than in the history of art. I do not wish to suggest that some aspects of the making of art can not be described in terms of progressive success in meeting definable ends.Indeed, the achieving of verisimilitude as one of the ends of perspectival techniques is obviously amenable to description in terms of progress, and much early art history (Vasari’s sixteenth-century Lives, for example) was founded on this notion. But there has been a general modern acceptance that the achievement of such progress should not in itself constitute the ultimate value we place on the results of an artist’s activity. Because, for instance Jan van der Heyden is achieving effects of perspectival verisimilitude that lay beyond the powers of even Masaccio, we do not consign Masaccio to a limbo of artistic obsolescence — even though Jan himself might have so consigned his Renaissance predecessors.

In science, by contrast, the scientific text loses its intended primary value once it has been superseded as a means of achieving its stated ends. To be sure we may look at the text in historical retrospect with admiration for its original insights and for the beauty of its vision. We may analyse it in its social and intellectual context with effective results for our understanding of the text. We may even adduce lessons still to be learned from it. But its dominant original intention in establishing an explanatory model for a phenomenon can at any point be subsumed or superseded within a constantly changing body of knowledge. Its primary intention does not now possess any necessary value and the text does not retain its primary function outside its historical context. A work of art is comparably vulnerable to the constantly changing contexts — mental and physical — in which it appears, but it can still assume a primary value with respect to the way in which its visual effects retain their efficacy in serving an end of essentially the same perceptual kind as it was devised to serve. I do not of course wish to imply that these effects will be perceived in a manner identical to that intended by the artist — if such intention is reconstructable at all — but I am speaking more pragmatically of the continuing primary value which a work of art can potentially and actually possess outside its original context.

… The end of the work of art is in a sense to return selectively to the visual starting point in such a way as to exploit a special kind of controlled ambiguity in our perceptual processes, while the end of the scientific endeavor is to present the reader with a completely defined explanation of the causes behind the vagaries of particular appearance.




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