Beauty is only skin deep. Can video go deeper?

Can we record anything more profound than the play of light upon surfaces, or is video doomed to remain forever skin deep?

The human race has often asked similar questions of its visual arts. Is a painting, for example, only a clever deception of our eyes, an illusion which those who pursue truth should avoid? Plato seemed to think so, and stood suspicious of the arts. So did his philosophical heir, St. Augustine, who struggled against the seductions of music. Those in the Aristotle-Aquinas tradition, however, felt that one could discover truth through the appearances of things. They gave a positive philosophical foundation to the arts.

The question has stirred far more than school-ish controversies. Cast in theological terms, it set factions at one anothers throat for over six centuries. The iconoclast controversy, as it came to be known, imprisoned, exiled, tortured and executed innumerable victims. One side held that images could represent heavenly realities; the other said they could never be more than idols.

More recent centuries have cast the question in scientific terms. Where the earlier age disputed whether an image could represent the divine, the present one wonders whether images can reveal the natural. Those answering in the negative either avoid or embrace the arts as purely illusory. They say the value of a painting lies in nothing more than the emotional response it elicits. Those answering “yes” however, have put forward a number of science-based aesthetic theories.

In the 19th century, the great landscape painters like Bierstadt and nature illustrators like Audubon portrayed nature in its effulgent diversity and minutia. Detailed observation was the touchstone of both the natural sciences and the arts of the time. Artists, wanting to reveal how things really are, painted nature in detailed realism.

Later, science sought the unifying geometry underlying natures many faces. The work of DArcy Thompson, for example, reveals a universal geometry at work in the forms of all species. In this, he was a modern Pythagoras seeking universal truths through the proportions of things. Image makers of his time and later dropped detail in their efforts to bring underlying structures to light: thus impressionism, abstract expressionism.

Still later, science dropped geometric beauty in favor of such guiding principles as mathematical indeterminancy (Heissenbergs physics) and randomness (Mandelbrots fractal and chaos theories). Artists now left the rational behind in their efforts to show the inner linings of nature. Cubism and surrealism tried to work straight from the sub-conscious; fractal art works from random sequences added to equations by computers.

We give credit and thanks to O.B. Hardison, Jr. who reviews the effects of the scientific ideas mentioned here so elegantly in his book, Disappearing Through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century.

Makers of moving images today have much to glean from the history of truth-based aesthetics. We can join with the visual artists of yesterday and today struggling to make pictures reveal the real. We might do well to apply the principles of iconography to our art. Though our pictures have a decidedly un-iconographic habit of moving, they do retain the iconic quality of translucence. Also, we might experiment with the science-based aesthetics. Though the photographic detail of our images lend them to an early 19th century revelation of nature, we can make special use of filters, special effects and timing to reveal structural geometry or the deep-down uncertainty of matter.

Can we make the TV screen project images that put people in touch with reality? Given the current TV fare, could it hurt to try?

Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.

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