Accurate Representation

07.09.30 / 13.01.20

Today I painted. I had not painted on K___’s painting in about 6 months. During that time, I interacted with the piece regularly. I haven’t known where it should go next. So I’ve been content to observe it and contemplate the possibilities. Today I saw where it should go. I began adding to the composition. As I painted I thought about the abstract nature of the piece in general, but then specifically in contrast to paintings with compositions exhibiting a more true-to-life aesthetic and in contrast to representations of larger social and environmental systems. It seems that photorealistic representation of a composition has been a goal and benchmark of technical achievement of sorts for paintings for a very long time. As a gloss, this amounts to an ability to accurately represent the physical qualities of surfaces, materials, and light. Artists have been able to produce photorealistic quality compositions for some time. More recently, with movies, photography and computer graphics, realistic representation has achieved more exacting qualities than humans are capable of using traditional media, and (as importantly) it is becoming ‘easy’ to do. It is becoming cheap. Such a fine degree of representation is, ironically, also perhaps becoming recognized to be less accurate than we once assumed. That is, it is just as flawed and incomplete as any other representation.

 To clarify this point, consider abstract art. Abstract art is a different endeavor. It is (for me) not about precise re-presentation of a scene or object, if by precise we only mean an understanding of three dimensional perspective and the physics of light and surfaces. Rather, abstract art can be about developing precise insights into the underlying nature of a subject and bringing them forth. This is dependent on exploring ways of seeing and processing environmental and cultural phenomena. Put another way, the idea that photo realistic representation represents the environment is debatable. It represents the environment to the extent that we can perceive it with our limited sense of vision. But there’s more there – more to the subject than the visual. And those felt or heard or sensed but unseen or difficult-to-represent-visually qualities factor into fully and accurately representing the subject as much as the visual does. Given this, in a twist of logic, presumably, an abstract piece can be more accurate than a photorealistic piece that fails to capture the subtle, ephemeral, multi-modal, or latent ….. that is, the complexity, dynamicism, and experiential layers of the subject.

 Furthermore, while fully appreciating and capturing the totality of a subject is difficult in painting, whether realistic or abstract, doing so when representing our actual societal and ecological environments and their structures and systems, as well as ourselves as individuals, no matter the methods or media, is unfathomably more difficult. To the extent that it is accomplished at all, much trial and error is required – and therefore time. For complex phenomena such as societal and/or ecological phenomena, the unknowns and the ramifications of adjusting them, especially on a large scale, rapidly or across a broad range of environmental elements simultaneously, becomes significant and difficult to manipulate well if we are to maintain stable, resilient and sustainable social and ecological environments for a large population.

 From this perspective, our capability to quickly adapt our ways of seeing and processing our societies and environments are (arguably) not nearly as refined as our ability to represent two dimensional representations of the physical environment. So the (polemical) thought occurred to me that perhaps if the last few thousand years of humanity’s artistry have been spent studying and learning how to represent/recreate the visual characteristics of our physical environment, then perhaps the next great artistic/cultural task is to learn how to see our societal and ecological environs — both the structure and dynamics — in ways which allow more accurate and useful representation and adaptation.

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