Distinguishing the Human Artist from the Machine
A Lesson from Italian Renaissance Masters
There are two types of terrible artists today: the “artist” who only aims to shock and gain attention and the “artist” who copies from photographs, or worse, older paintings, and believes that simply because it is done in a traditional medium it is “real art”. Neither of these people are artists. The former is a politician and the latter is a technician. Neither understands or cares about what Art really is as a humanities subject and what makes someone an artist.
It is said that realistic art has lost its appeal because the exercise of rendering the real world became futile when a camera could not only do it faster, but with greater efficacy. The camera has indeed replaced something, but it is not the artist, it is the technician.
This is the type of work that often gets called “Art” today. The first is a copy of a photograph and the second is a copy of a master painting, which is no better than a photocopy (and perhaps not even as good as one). The people who make these are not artists, they are technicians. They are human beings who have suppressed their human abilities in order to degrade themselves to the functions of a machine. With the proper training, these people too could be artists, whereas a machine can never be trained to do what a real artist can do. But in order to do that, we must remember what it is that a real artist does.
The humanities did not always include the fine arts. In fact, for much of human history, the fine artist did not exist--he was merely an artisan. The humanities were invented at the beginning of the Renaissance, and it is here we must travel to also understand the invention of the artist. The lay person has been corrupted so deeply by Marxism that he has given up believing that there is a definition of “ART” at all, and devolves everything to subjective opinion. Nevertheless, we all feel that lack of awe and wonderment when we see fake art today and we find it expressed in full spectacular power when we make pilgrimages to see real works of Art from the Renaissance. Artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were real artists. What made them real artists?
In this essay, I will explain exactly what is missing from the work of modern politicians and technicians who call themselves artists and hopefully capture that quixotic figure of the “Real Artist”.
The Invention of the Artist
The Humanities were the study of those things that didn’t offer utilitarian value, but were rather related to the higher faculties of human beings. They included subjects like moral philosophy, mathematics, rhetoric, poetry, history and literature. The Fine Arts such as painting and sculpture in the 13th and 14th centuries were considered low-brow trades, similar to the work of blacksmiths and cobblers for example. Indeed, the medieval artist’s main role was copying existing images for utilitarian ends such as Church altarpieces.
Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was one Renaissance writer who led the charge in creating the concept of the Artist. In his treatise On Painting (1434) he compared painting to the study of language, mathematics and history. The composition of a painting was not merely a mirror to reality, but required an intellect to compose the story that would be represented. The interpretation and visual rhetoric involved in this endeavour set painting apart from other artisanal pursuits. Painting was not merely a representation of reality on a two dimensional surface, it also told stories. Stories, by definition have a point of view, a conflict, a beginning, middle and end, they have eternal truths and illusions.
How can a fixed image possibly tell a story except by using the conventions of a comic book? Consider this painting of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velasquez (1650). The painting is simple, and the ring and costume tell us that this is the Pope, but the way that the face is designed tell us what he was like. This is something that a machine cannot perceive and therefore cannot translate. The furrow of his brow and the annoyance at the corner of his nose would be smoothed out in the split second that a photograph would have been taken. But Velasquez who likely watched him for hours captured the famous enigmatic expression that could be impatience, demure-ness, curiosity or frustration! Capturing the complexities of his personality and the story of the man painted here comprise a formidable intellectual task.
Disegnio: the Human Quality that Separates Technician from Artist
Florentine artist Cennino Cennini (1370-1427) wrote a manual for artists which many of the budding geniuses of the Renaissance would read and learn from. Cennini wrote about the concept of Disegnio which at once means to draw and to design. For Cennini, to draw was to combine the imagination with the skill of the hand. He wrote, “In order to discover things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural objects and to fix them with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.”
Where there is imagination, there is intellect; where there is design, there is philosophy. It follows that where there is both imagination and design, there is an artist and not merely a technician.
Cennini believed that artists could learn technical skills from copying the master drawings and paintings of masters, but in order to make real art of their own they would have to draw from nature. In the 1430s, paper became more easily accessible and affordable, so the artist’s sketchbook was born.
Notice that these writers did not discard the importance of technical skill in creating artwork, but rather added an intellectual layer on top of technical mastery. Technical mastery suffers under photo-realism and copying because the technician who merely copies, does not understand the lines and colours that he puts to paper. As such, if he makes a mistake, as the hand is ought to make, the piece will break from reality, and not from design or purpose, but from clumsiness. To understand the curve of a line from the bottom of an ankle to the middle of a woman’s leg is to have watched that leg move in real time, studied anatomy and know that muscles and fat that build up that structure.
Technicians who copy can be replaced by machines because machines do not invent, think or design. In a world where machines become better and better at their tasks, it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of what human beings can do that can never be replaced. Of course, this means we must study the humanities.
“The painters after the Romans...always imitated each other, and from age to age, continually brought their art into decline. After these came Giotto, the Florentine, who (not content to imitate the works of Cimbaue, his master) and being born in the solitary mountains inhabited only by goats and similar animals, and being guided by nature towards his art, began to draw upon the rocks the actions fo the goats of which he was the keeper. After much study, he surpassed not only the master of his own age, but all those of many centuries past. After this, art receded because all imitated existing paintings and thus it went on from one century to the next until Tomasco the Florentine showed by perfect works how those who take for their guide anything other than nature--mistress of the masters--exhaust themselves in vain.”
Leonardo Da Vinci, On Painting
Imitatio Christi and a New Way of Telling Stories
Medieval thinkers distinguished two different categories of picture: the historiae, which depict stories from the Bible and were used as manuscript illustrations, and the imagines, which depict images that don’t really have a story, but are images that one may use to focus prayer and adoration. Neither really altered the conventions of the iconic image and the painter was merely a technician who increased the number of copies for use.
In the mid 1400s, the most widely read book after the Bible was called “The Imitation of Christ” by Flemish theologian, Thomas Kemphis. In his book he encouraged readers to not look for sophisticated symbols in religious narratives but to practice devotio moderna, that is, to immerse themselves emotionally in stories and connect themselves with the protagonists and the ideas therein. This idea eroded the boundaries between historiae and imagines and formerly iconic and stagnant compositions were subject to inventive and creative variations. Painters and sculptors thought of new ways to tell the same stories, thus invigorating them with new life. By adding intellect and design on to their technical skill, these artisans became artists.
An excellent example of this is a portrait by Antonella da Messina, “The Annunciate Virgin” (1476). The image of the annunciation usually follows the formula of showing the Virgin and the angel Gabriel from the side so that they are both in the frame. In this image, it is as though we are standing next to the angel Gabriel and looking at Mary as she receives the news.
Because the spectator can examine the scene from this perspective, he can engage with Mary’s emotions rather than just with the plot of the story itself and consider the significance of her character through her response. The black background also emphasises the focus on Mary’s face and hands, where her emotions can be best read. This piece of art shows technical mastery in the shadows on Mary’s face and the foreshortening of her right hand, but also shows an intellect that considered how best the story behind this scene could be told. In this way, Antonella da Messina was one of the first Renaissance Artists.
Leonardo Da Vinci on how realism gives power to strategic abstraction
Leonardo Da Vinci’s invention of colour theory further revolutionised the artist’s ability to tell a story and practice the art of rhetoric in his representations. There are nine values of colour intensity, ranging from almost white to almost black. Each colour can be mixed with different amounts of either white or black pigment to create the whole range of values. Leonardo did something radical when he mixed his colours: he mixed each colour with the exact same ratios of white and black to create the seven values. In this way, each colour in his palette had the same intensity at the same value. The technical term for this is that the tones were unified.
As a result, when he painted the effect of a certain light source in a painting, all the colours in the subject would respond in the same exact way to the light, thus making the light seem more realistic because of its consistent effects on the environment in the image. We can see this in the portrait by Leonardo, “La Belle Ferroniere” (1496). The subject’s dress and skin all respond in a consistent way to the light source on the left, making it more realistic.
But does this realism consist an intellectual exercise that makes Leonardo an artist as opposed to a technician? Indeed modern cameras and digital art are much better at the task of rendering light than a human hand. Look closely...there is something that Leonardo does with light that is unnatural and is precisely imperceptible because the rest of the execution is so perfect.
The artist executes the light perfectly except at crucial points on the face such as the corners of the mouth and the eyes. He blurs together colours and obscures lines that would normally be clear, and thus abstracts the physical reality in order to capture the spiritual one better. This is called the sfumato technique. Its effect is to obscure the emotions of the portrait sitter so that her expression becomes more enigmatic. This tells us a different story about the sitter than if just her one static expression had been captured at one moment in time as a camera does. The artist captures multiple expressions and distills them into one using abstract techniques that become powerful through the perfection of the realistic ones.
Toward an Objective Standard
The humanities are about the things that human beings have to say about the world. The real artist has something to say, some story to tell, that a machine simply does not because it has not and cannot live. This is why real art also takes courage: you must capture something real that has never yet been captured in physical form—you must make corporeal the imagination.
The Italian Renaissance Masters and Scholars teach us that if we want to distinguish the machine from the artist, we must simply look for design and rhetoric. Some may argue that an unmade bed or a pile of garbage can “tell a story” as well, but these works always require an essay in accompaniment to tell their story because they cannot tell the story themselves, except one that we may project onto it. This is what makes it politics and not art. An objective standard for real art is that it can stand alone.
And of course, there is an element of beauty to art. Even as it tells harsh and ugly truths about the world, it does so with a flare that often makes the deepest tragedies somehow beautiful. But that is another essay, for another day.