George Washington, Captain Kirk & The Nature of Perception

Charles Willson Peale, Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale) (1795), oil on canvas, 89-1/2″ x 39-3/8″; courtesy The Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Zeuxis–you remember, from 5th century Greece–was reputed to have painted a still-life of grapes so convincing in its versimilitude that birds flew in to peck at it. Charles Willson Peale’s The Staircase Group (1795), a double portrait of the artist’s sons, is said to have fooled none other than George Washington, who–depending on what story you buy–either said “hello” to the boys when passing by the canvas or tried ascending the painted staircase.

I wonder how many citizens of the 21st-century would be fooled by Zeuxis and Peale. (I can’t speak for the avian world.)  Technology alters our capacity to perceive.  The invention of the camera changed the game in a big way. And we become inured to convention.  Take the moving image:  We no longer recoil from close-ups as audiences did in 1903 when they were “shot” by the outlaw in the final scene of The Great Train Robbery.

Digital technology has done a job on past cinematic fantasies. Did television viewers in 1967 marvel at the uncanny realism of the alien vistas seen in the original Star Trek? OK–so that’s a stretch, but you get the point.  Nowadays, we regard those amalgamations of cardboard and astroturf with kitschy fondness, suspension-of-disbelief having been forever ruptured by the advent of CGI.

Beaming up with the cast of the original Star Trek
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I was reminded of the changing nature of perception while reading an interview with the painter Trevor Winkfield published in PN Review.  Winkfield speaks to how perception changes not only because of culture, but because of biology:

“One thing we forget–or deny–is that, at different periods, artists not only view things differently, they also see things differently.  Medieval eyes–the actual optic nerves, the eyeballs themselves–were capable of seeing things that twenty-first-century eyes can no longer see.  Van Eyck obviously had very acute eyesight to see the extremely minute details in his paintings, and you can’t explain it away by claiming he used a magnifying glass, as science isn’t the answer to that kind of miraculous vision.”

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait (detail) (1434), oil on panel, 32.4″ x 23.6″; courtesy The National Gallery, London

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How will the digital revolution, with its bewildering array of infinitely malleable images, affect our (and our children’s) “eyeballs themselves”?  It’s a point worth mooting and, maybe, fretting over.

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