Nowadays it doesn't take much to stir up a controversy. The all-seeing media eye is always on the lookout for something that resembles conflict. In the arts, though, and in the visual arts in particular, such conflict generally occurs across expanses of time or involves ideas that lend themselves poorly to the heroic narrative shapes of journalese - it's hard to make a story out of a painterly contrivance or conceit. Any attempt would have to be set in the context of that most rarefied of all stories, art history, and with the heroic tale of modern art now exposed as just another myth, art journalism must scrounge in the muck like the rest of us to find a good story. Hence its fixation on pseudo-controversies.
This may be one reason that the media likes to cast artists as either angels or devils. To make a good story, the artist must rise above the level of us miserable mortals. When they're good, they're brilliant, shining examples of human genius; when they're bad, they're base, despicable fakes. The equation of the beautiful and the good, as we know, goes back to Plato. Thus most important of all is that artists not deceive us about how hard they work. It messes up our calculations and upsets our moral calculus of the meaning of work.
Every now and then, however, there comes around a juicy bit of artistic muckraking that newspapers can really sink their teeth into, a story not just of artistic genius or of dastardly deception, but of both combined. Such is the case with David Hockney, who three years ago publicly announced his theory that some of the great masters - among them van Eyck, Caravaggio, Lotto, Chardin, Vermeer, Ingres and others - used optical devices such as the camera obscura to achieve their remarkable realism. The idea has been floated before, but Hockney rolls the dates back all the way to 1430, when the Quattrocento was just getting going.
The story is irresistible: Hockney as detective (or, if you prefer, as investigative journalist), ripping the veil from the titans of his own profession (an irresistible drama of Oedipal conflict, of a mob lieutenant turned state's witness). All the newshounds have to do is write it down. And that is largely what they've done, beginning with an article in the New Yorker by Lawrence Wechsler in 1999. Now Hockney has published a book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2001), which lays out his evidence picture by picture. In December 2001 Wechsler also organized a two-day conference, 'Art and Optics', brandishing 25 big art world guns - including Susan Sontag, art historian Svetlana Alpers and critics Rosalind Krauss and Jonathan Crary.
Hockney's case is as convincing as it is circumstantial. Close study of the paintings themselves reveals, he claims, the presence of effects that can only be optical, not based on geometric perspective or use of grids. The patterns on a carpet in Lorenzo Lotto's Husband and Wife (1543), the chandelier in van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage (1434) and Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus (1596-1601), in which St Peter's outstretched arms are remarkably foreshortened, all point, Hockney claims, to the use of the camera obscura, lenses and reflecting mirrors, all of which create their own distortions and light effects. In this he is supported by optics expert Charles Falco. But the chief problem with Hockney's argument is that it is ultimately circular: the paintings themselves cannot prove how they were painted. They are fascinating artefacts, but without hard documentary evidence of the use of optics his claims amount to little more than visual ventriloquism.
In any case, it's not entirely clear what to make of Hockney's 'discovery'. Even if true, how does it change the way we view the works? Hockney is hardly trying to topple the great names of art history. It's now accepted by many people that Vermeer used some sort of optical device in his works, and the 19th-century American painter Thomas Eakins is also known to have used optics. But while we now may take a fairly relaxed attitude to the use of such aids, earlier periods would have regarded it as something of a scandal. Nicolas Poussin, in a backhanded acknowledgement, once claimed that Caravaggio had come into the world to 'destroy painting' by mastering it so completely. For Poussin, Caravaggio's naturalism was true to life, but false to the subject of the painting.
Even in the mid-20th century Clement Greenberg once claimed that opticality as such, despite being a driving engine of Modernism in painting, was ultimately foreign to art. In 'Modernist Painting' he comes very close to disowning his own brand of self-reflexive formalism because Op led out of art into science. 'That art should confine itself exclusively to what is given in visual experience, and make no reference to anything given in any other order of experience, is a notion whose only justification lies in scientific consistency ... But this kind of consistency promises nothing in the way of aesthetic quality, and the fact that the best art of the last 70 or 80 years approaches closer and closer to such consistency does not show the contrary.' For Greenberg, opticality foreclosed aesthetic judgement. It became an experience of the eye, no longer a judgement of the mind. It made criticism unnecessary.
Of course, this may be one of Hockney's unstated goals, conscious or not. If optics have always been around, then his own brand of photograph-based realism gains renewed validity. It turns out that he does what the great masters were doing all along. Killing the father is, as we know all too well, the best way to make oneself into a father. This is speculation. What is not speculation, however, is that Hockney behaves as if the question of the relation between art and mechanical reproduction is a new one, whereas it's been around since at least the time of art historian Alois Riegl, whose early 20th-century study of Roman art concluded that the Romans cast Greek sculpture in concrete. And of course, in a now canonical essay, Walter Benjamin (who had read Riegl) described a shift in human perception caused by 'mechanical reproducibility' and what he saw as its political promise.
It is a terrific thing to discover the 'lost techniques' of the masters if those techniques really did not exist. In truth, however, our entire media sphere is dominated by opticality. What we need from artists is less the discovery of technology that already permeates our culture but reflection on its significance. Hockney's discovery, if it turns out to be true, has many consequences for how we look at art. Whether or not the newspapers ever pick up that story remains to be seen.