ARTH 200 | Assignments | Glossary

The Power of Perspective

James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed, pp. 76-77: Following the discovery of perspective geometry, the position of man [sic.] in the cosmos altered. The new technique permitted the world to be measured through proportional comparison. With the aid of the new geometry the relative sizes of different objects could be assessed at a distance for the first time. Distant objects could be reproduced with fidelity, or created to exact specifications in any position in space and then manipulated mathematically. The implications were tremendous. Aristotelian thought had endowed all objects with 'essence', an indivisible, incomparable uniqueness. The position of these objects was, therefore, not to be compared with that of other objects, but only with God, who stood at the centre of the universe. Now, at a stroke, the special relationship between God and every separate object was removed, to be replaced by direct human control over objects existing in the same, measurable space.

This control over distance included objects in the sky, where the planets were supposed to roll, intangible and eternal, on their Aristotelian crystal spheres. Now they too might be measured, or even controlled at a distance. Man [sic.], with his new geometrical tool, was the measure of all things. The world was now available to standardisation. Everything could be related to the same scale and described in terms of mathematical function instead of merely its philosophical quality. Its activity could also be measured by a common positional relationship with the rest of nature. There might even be common, standard, measurable laws that governed nature.

Meanwhile, the confidence that the discovery must have raised in the Florentines began to make itself evident. If man [sic.] ere the measure of all things, then all things must surely related to the measure of man [sic]: his experiences, his observations, his points of view.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing, p. 16: The convention of perspective, which is unique to European art and which was first established in the early Renaissance, centres everything on the eye of the beholder. It is like a beam from lighthouse --only instead of light travelling outwards, appearances travel in. The conventions called those appearances reality . Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything converges on to the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God.
According to the convention of perspective there is no visual reciprocity. There is no need for God to situate himself in relation to others: he is himself the situation. The inherent contradiction in perspective was that it structured all images of reality to address a single spectator who, unlike God, could only be in one place at a time....
p. 18: The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings). What you saw depended upon where you were when. What you saw was realtive to your position in time and space. It was no longer possible to imagine everything converging on the human eye as on the vanishing point of infinity.

Michael Ann Holly, "Writing Leonardo Backwards," New Literary History, 1992 (23), p. 198: It might be argued that that supreme strategy of one-point perspective, with which Leonardo was so enamored, provides a similarly deceptive model of interpretation. It implies that a spectator or a commentator can stand outside a field of vision and from that deified position get things literally straight, see through into something else. [Compare this last statement to Albrecht Dürer's illustration of a perspective machine.]


W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology:
p.37: The revolution I am thinking of here was, of course, the invention of artificial perspective, first systematized by Alberti in 1435. The effect of this invention was nothing less than to convince an entire civilization that it possessed an infallible method of representation, a system for the automatic and mechanical production of truths about the material and the mental worlds. The best index to the hegemony of articifical perspective is the way it denies its own artificiality and lays claim to being a 'natural' representation of 'the way things look,' 'the way we see.' or ...'the way things really are.' Aided by the political and economic ascendance of Western Europe, artificial perspective conquered the world of representation under the banner of reason, science, and objectivity. No amount of counter demonstration from artists that there are other ways of picturing what 'we really see' has been able to shake the conviction that these pictures have a kind of identity with natural human vision and objective external space. And the invention of a machine (the camera) built to produce this sort of image has, ironically, only reinforced the conviction that this is the natural mode of representation. What is natural is, evidently, what we can build a machine to do for us.

p.38: ...I am arguing for a hard, rigorous, relativism that regards knowledge as a social product, a matter of dialogue between different versions of the world, including different languages, ideologies, and modes of representations. The notion that there is 'a' scientific method so flexible and capacious that it can contain all these differences and adjudicate among them is a handy ideology for the scientist and a social system committed to the authority of science, but it seems mistaken in both theory and practice. Science, as Paul Feyerabend has argued, is not an orderly procedure of erecting hypotheses and 'falsifying' them against independent, neutral facts; it is a disorderly and highly political process in which 'facts; derive their authority as constituent parts of some world model that has come to seem natural. Scientific progress is as much a matter of rhetoric, intuition, and counter induction (i.e., the adopting of assumptions which contradict the apparent facts) as it is of methodical observation and information gathering. The greatest scientific discoveries have often followed decisions to ignore the apparent 'facts' and to look for an explanation that would account for a situation that can never be observed.

Victor Burgin, "Geometry and Abjection," in The Cultural Politics of 'Postmodernism, ed. John Tagg.

p. 15: Although dependent upon Euclid's Elements of Geometry, perspective in the Renaissance took its most fundamental concept from another work by Euclid, the Optics. The concept, of course, is that of the 'cone of vision.' It is this same cone which, some two thousand years after Euclid, Brunelleschi conceived of as intersected by a plane surface - the picture plane. By means of this model, something of the premodern world view passes into the Copernican universe - a universe which is no longer geocentric, but which is nevertheless homocentric and egocentric. A basic principle of Euclidean geometry is that space extends infinitely in three dimensions. The effect of monocular perspective, however, is to maintain that this space does nevertheless have a center-the observer. By degrees, the sovereign gaze is transferred from God to "Man." With what Foucault calls the 'emplacement' of the Medieval world now dissolved, this occular subject of perspective, and mercantile capitalism, is free to pursue its entrepreneurial ambitions wherever trade winds blow.

Donald Preziosi, Rethinking Art History, p.56 history parallels the perspectival, re-presentational art of the Renaissance wherein the painting, sculpture, or building became a means of rendering the world as legible.

p.57 The historian analyst occupies a discursive position of centrality analogous to the perspectival eye of painting as a single, central view.... While the Renaissance painting displays a scene, it simultaneously puts us in our place, fixing us as subjects for certain meanings. In the words of Nichols, "The painting stands in for the world it represents as we stand in for the singular but imaginary point of origin; we recognize the identification marks of the world re-presented while this very identification marks our position, our capture and appropriation."

p. 57 [speaking of anamorphic images] it can be argued that such curious liberations from the fixities of central-point perspective nonetheless ceaselessly confirm the importance of steady, center position. The wit of anamorphism is a constant reference to a rational and stable system that it assumes in the very moment that is parodied or questioned. In short, anamorphism functions both as a critique of the discursive apparatus of linear perspectivism and as its support: an oblique validation of its power and naturalness.

p. 58: The discursive space of the Albertian ideal painting is composed of a unity of form and theme (compositio), wherein the body of the viewer is reduced to a punctual site of reading. That this is an ideal locus is clear: It depends, in fact, upon a foveal centrism in relation to a veduta that, contrary to the circumstances of actual vision, is rendered totally clear and distinct even at its margins. In other words, the entire field of vision is measurable and visible.
The system incarnates a viewer, rendering him tangible and measurable: a Subject in a composed space, not merely a random witness. Subject and object are captured and fixed along the centric ray passing back and forth between point of view and vanishing point.

pp. 67-68: The realism of the Albertian Window, the perspectivalism of artistic practice inaugurated during the Renaissance and constituting the mainframe of aesthetic praxis up into the modern era, was perforce an ideological fabrication. It was a powerful format of representation that a society gave to itself, fixing the relationships by which individuals would represent themselves in their world of objects, their signifying universe. As an ideology, it functioned by putting the individual at the center of structures, making this subject the place where ideological meanings were revealed.

Andrea da Firenze, The Way of Salvation, from the Spanish Chapel in Sta. Maria Novella, c.1365-67.

Piero della Francesca, Brera Altarpiece, after 1472.



Typus Cosmographicus

ARTH 200 | Assignments | Glossary