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Posts Tagged ‘likeness’

It has been said that all good art is imitative, if only because it is a rendering some real object in a different medium. Art is a wonderful thing.  And it is a mystery.   It is wonderful because we wonder why we do it ; why on earth should we make an imitation of something when the thing itself already exists?  and when the thing itself is better than our imitation of it?

Suppose I were to paint a portrait of somebody ; my efforts at imitation amount to no more than some lines drawn on a piece of paper or canvas ; perhaps I might add some coloured paints to try to make the portrait more lifelike.  To a viewer, my effort is obviously artificial.  Nobody is fooled into thinking that it is the real person.  It is obviously art.

I might be unsatisfied with my effort so, in order to achieve a more lifelike portrait, I might take a photograph.  This portrait will likely be much more lifelike ; but a viewer will not be deceived into thinking it is the real person, if only because he will see the edges of the photograph and the sheen of the paper.  It is obviously art.

But there are ways of displaying a photograph which conceal such giveaways as the edges and the sheen ; you can display the photograph so that the image does appear somewhat lifelike.  In this case, the portrait and its setting are trying to pass themselves off as real life ; as something other than art.  It is not obviously art.

You can imagine that, with a really good photograph and a really clever display, it is possible to deceive a viewer as to what he is really looking at.  You can, in effect, tell a big lie to the viewer, so that he thinks he is looking at a person when, in fact, he is only looking at a picture.

There is a general saying in art, “The better the likeness, the bigger the lie.”

Our mediaeval ancestors knew this better than we do.  That is one reason why they made their pictures with deliberate mistakes in them.  For example, they knew that God is pure spirit and that it is ridiculous to try to make an accurate portrait of Him.  So, to avoid making silly mistakes, to avoid supreme idolatry, they painted God as a man (suitably old and therefore wise!).  Also they knew that the spiritual world was not this everyday world ; so they drew the Old Man high in the sky to make that point quite clear.  But the main point is that everybody knew that these representations were metaphorical.  Nobody in those days ever believed that God was an Old Man in the sky.

The Church also encouraged artists to avoid trying to portray angels as they believed them to be.  That is why many mediaeval paintings portray heavenly angels as ordinary-looking people in ordinary dress ; no white robes, no wings, no luminous eyes.  Thus they avoided being drawn into falsity.

Today then, much art is a mystery that needs explaining.  Our ancestors would be puzzled at why we need such explanation.

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