Greenberg’s presented his thesis on the specificity of abstract art in two famous articles . According to him, abstract art develops a unique connection to the visual: a visual experience that is unique even for painting. Greenberg called this phenomenon opticality : "The Old Masters created an illusion of space in depth that one could imagine oneself walking into,(…) but the analogous illusion created by the Modernist painter can only be seen into; can be traveled through ... only with the eye."
Critics such as Greenberg and Michael Fried were decisive to the development of the abstractionist movement, moved by the metaphysical search for the being-of-painting, pursuing and de-legitimising all mimetic and objectal connections to the world. An art where the integrity of art was revealed in its thing-in-the-world (rather than its thing-to-the-world) being. Since both dimensions are at the very core of painting, opticality is the fundamental reference to the building of a painted space in which the integrity of the flat surface can be kept. Opticality is therefore a concept that is meant to name the unique (purely visual) dimension of painting and be opposed to the immense tradition of illusive spaces where form, object and materiality appear in a tridimensional way, yet merely as effects of the jugglings of mimesis.
This dimension of opticality may be a key to read the flatness of cave engravings. In a Greenberg-like reading, if the essence manifests itself at the origin, then the prime property shown by the ancestral examples of stone-engraved art contains and reveals the being-of-images. The flatness of the engravings seems to reduce them to the single dimension of opticality and therefore demands its celebration not as a manifestation of a new way for humans to experience the world, but as the appearance of a new experience in the world: images. However, this Mallarmean search for the autonomy of the works of art that has so obsessed artists such as Ledgerwood , who also postulated the independence of the senses, is neither problem-free nor legitimated in prehistory with no contradictions.
Can optics now fundament an integrality of painting, an authenticity that is clean and free from the malignant properties caused by mimetic illusions, if these developed within optical devices?
The aftershocks of David Hockney’s research led together with Charles Falco, a physicist from the University of Arizona, can still be felt to this day. In a series of studies, Hockney and Falco tried to demonstrate that ever since 1420 (the early days of what is known as perspectiva artificialis of the Quattrocento), the masters of painting have used optical devices to show images that imitate life.
Perspective has always been presented as a set of mathematical and geometrical techniques that are able to recreate illusively (mise-en-abîme) on a bidimensional surface the real proportions of the objects the carnal look may see. Hockney showed that perspectiva artificialis is not independent from the use of optical artefacts, and that even Brunelleschi (who was the first to demonstrate perspective on the steps of Florence Cathedral) used an optical artefact. According to Hockney, opticality was a secret tradition of the masters of painting.
The use of optical devices by the master painters was probably a secret at least until 1646, when Athanasius Kircher acknowledged it in his famous essay Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae.
In his essay, Kircher not only developed the idea that the wonderful secret of painting is available to anyone through optical devices, but also explained the functioning of an optical machine called “Pantatometrum Kircherianum”. Kircher probably used lenses to draw his famous anamorphosis, to demonstrate great art was the work of light and shadow effects made available to the eye and the hand by a concave piece of glass in a dark place.
The secret had already been revealed in popular literature by Giovanni della Porta in his book Magia Naturalis (1558), yet was rarely included in books by the masters of painting.
Della Porta himself only included the secret of camera obscura in a later edition of his book Magia Naturalis, in 1589. The way the invention was presented by Della Porta reveals there was a secret: “I shall now reveal what I have so far concealed and intended to conceal forever. If you put a small piece of crystal in the hole [of the Camera Obscura] you shall see clearly the faces of the passing men, colours, clothes, all the things as if you were before them”
The fact that the inventions that were used by painters were kept a secret probably accounts for the minorisation in the west of the studies by the great master of optical devices Ibn-Al-Haitham, who invented the pinhole, which preceded the camera obscura. Ibn-Al-Haitham’s books, especially Opticae Thesaurus (Book of Optics) were written between 1011 and 1021. Kepler’s studies, who resumed the research and the knowledge of Ibn-Al-Haitham (known in the west as Alhazen), were only published four centuries later, in 1604.
According to Greenberg, with modernist abstractionism there was a shift from the invisible structuring opticality of classical painting towards a hyper-visible opticality as the authentic shape of the “being of painting”. Opticality, which had for centuries raised painting to Olympus of the arts, was finally rehabilitated through pure works, free from the malign artifice of illusions. Yet such shift did not happen without the metaphysical support of the word. Even before it is a technique, opticality is a concept, a word. This leads us to another complex paradox. It seems perspective, supported by optics, helped image (through painting) become autonomous from the word, which paved the way to a possibility of experimentation using only the look. To Leon Alberti painting really was the window where things immediately become visible and explicit. Now, the word returned to the centre of images by the hand of optics.
In his Seminar XI- The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan demonstrates painting operates within the same trap as the word: the ontology trap. Lacan gives the example of the Greek competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, two famous painters who claimed the title of best artist. The active image is not with Zeuxis, who made such a perfect painting even birds came to nibble on the painted grapes, but with Parrhasius, who painted a veil that deceived even Zeuxis, who asked him to raise it so that he might see what was behind it. According to Lacan, an image does not act for that which it shows, but for the questions raised by it. The question “What is it?”, will come up before any painting: words will be mobilised around it from then on. There is no separation between Images and the Word. There is politics. Images operate within the debilities of words and vice-versa.
Opticality mobilises painting both as technique and as word/concept. It triggered expressionist abstractionism as well as the strong artistic currents that later contested it. Opticality can even be used as an argument against materiality, the corporality of works. Yet it cannot become autonomous from the word, from narrativity.
Is there any sense in seeing prehistoric engravings from a modern point of view and then applying the current keys of aesthetic criticism?
I shall sum up the complexity of the answer in a simple story.
In 1960 a young Englishman, a BBC television director, went to Australia in search of the secret of prehistoric engravings. At that time, to young David Attenborough there was only one way to come to understand what made the men from the Palaeolithic carve drawings and paintings on rocks: to study the Australian aborigines. To Attenborough, the aborigines were the only people alive that maintained an identical lifestyle to that of the Palaeolithic. They still painted engravings identical to those their ancestors carved in caves thousands of years ago. As he was sitting by one of the painters, who repeated on a tree bark a shape that was identical to others that could be found everywhere in the area, Attenborough asked: “What is it?”. Mugarnee, the painter, became restless and mumbled to him: “Secret!”. He did not explain to him what it meant, but he invited him to watch a ceremony during which the secret of the engravings would be revealed. After the ceremony Attenborough concluded: “I was forced to recognise that the paintings are only a part of the ceremony. They do not exist by themselves. The music and the story that is told are integral elements. To abstract painting from the entire narration would impoverish it.”
Although Clement Greenberg is the reference in the field of opticality due to his development of an in-depth theory, the coming of this notion as concept should be attributed to Konrad Fiedler, who wrote in 1887 : "The sole aim of artistic activity is to be found in the expression of the pure visibility [Sichtbarkeit] of an object.” in Konrad Fiedler, "Der Ursprung der kunstlerischen Thatigkeit (1887), quoted in Francesco Dal Co, Figures of Architecture and Thought: German Architecture Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990)
1420, as this was the year architect Filippo Brunelleschi formulated the idea of perspective, named perspectiva artificialis, executed according to a costruzione legittima.