Imagine the effect on the first connoisseurs of the painted representation. In a way a picture was unlike anything they had ever seen before, yet in a way it was not. Seeing a person create an image on a cave wall was unprecedented, and must have amazed the more contemplative members of the clan.
It is pleasurable to gaze upon a distant view or an attractive person; but the pleasure of viewing a painting of a view or a person is different and, for some of us, actually more powerful. It is pleasurable to us to knowingly perceive paint and object at the same time. Watch a spectator approach a very realistic painting, closer and closer, squinting now. Is it a painting, or is it a photograph? Ah, now, when she detects the hand of the artist betrayed by the slightest wavering, it’s a painting! And she is pleased, more than she would be pleased by a photo.
Any magician will tell you, the magic is in your head. The magician suggests the illusion, but the magic is inside you.
A century and a half ago photography robbed painting of its position. The only flat representations had been paintings. Except for the occasional misapprehension of an image as the real thing, paintings were always identifiable as paintings, the more realistic the better. The photograph was too perfect, too easy, too immediate for painting to compete and it went through a crisis. Much of its role—and its business—was taken over by photography. Every major art movement of the late nineteenth and the entire twentieth century can be interpreted as a reaction against photography. Painters were seeking to create something that a camera could not, and abandoning tasks that the camera could perform. Many even disavowed painting’s original mandate: to create identifiable images.
An artist friend recently claimed that we do magic when we render a three dimensional scene into two dimensions. I disagree. The eye itself mindlessly performs this task by projecting an image from the light received through the lens onto the retina, a surface which mathematicians call S2, meaning the surface of a sphere that behaves like two dimensions when you work with just a small portion of it. In the case of rendering three dimensions, there is magic; but this magic occurs in the visual cortex, where two slightly different images are integrated into the very convincing perception of depth.
Representational art lives in the perceptual space between daubs of color and recognizable image. The width of that space varies—it is wide for Picasso and narrow for Wyeth—but just the same art loses its magic outside that no-man’s land.