Rinus Vermue examined the reception of various image techniques with the help of memorable expressions (topoi,commonplaces) that offer qualitative descriptions of these techniques’ realism. He will defend his dissertation on November 2 at Utrecht University.
The image techniques in question are perspective painting, the novel, photography, television, and film. The commonplaces under discussion consist, respectively, of comparisons of works of art to mirrors and windows, associations with Zeuxis and his selection method, the ‘condemnation’ of images as lies, and the appropriation of pictured reality.These commonplaces derive from Renaissance theorists no less than antique writings and are alike in the manner in which they arise, fall out of use, and are then reintroduced. Vermue tried to trace and explain this development of the commonplace.
Art imitates nature
Every newly invented image technique is approached with the same enthusiasm and approving metaphors. Images are compared to windows and mirrors and, in the case of the photograph, to shadows, to depict their exactitude. These comparisons implicitly contain the promise of total representation, the bringing forth of the perfect illusion of reality in color and relief, and later also in movement and sound.
Too much realism
Although initial reviews are not always positive (too much realism is regarded as a potential danger for mental health), the procedure is widely embraced and adaptations are made. One of these adaptations is the method of selection made famous by the legend of Zeuxis: since a single model did not contain all the desired features, the artist combined separate fragments of different models into one whole.
Nature imitates a lie
The notion of exact representation recedes into the background, and the images begin to be compared to lies. Less and less can the artist point to the window through which he/she looked in making the image or fragments for it. More and more the image becomes an unreconstructable collage of many models or artefacts of nature. But drawing a parallel between an artwork and a lie is not detrimental to the reputation of the arts. To the contrary, by selecting and combining typical things the artist penetrates to the essence of reality. The public recognizes this. In the end the public appropriates the images, unconsciously, into their mental set and their behaviour. This is what is meant by ‘life imitates art’.
Apart from being a re-examination of old and established art-theoretical convictions, this dissertation is also meant to contribute to the discussion of media-archaeology. It will not be a ‘polishing and perfecting of the great archaic ideas’ (Zielinski) nor will it fall into ‘the temptation to clean and polish [the story] until it will sparkle in the unambiguous light of certainty’ (Huhtamo). The ideas and stories in this study are not clear and distinct, still less immutable. The reception of each new image technique seems to resemble that of an older one, irrespective of cultural period, art-historical theories and historical movements. Furthermore, the reception of digital social media seems to fit within the structure demonstrated here. Therefore this study should be a constructive contribution to the discussion of old and new media.