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 Wyatt Mason
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The AK Wrap-up: Smakdown!

It's always interesting to witness the thin veneer of civility that governs human interactions stripped away, particularly when the participants are wearing ties. Case in point: this past weekend, in Manhattan, The New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University hosted a symposium devoted to a discussion of artist David Hockney's theories regarding the use of optics in western painting over the past six hundred years. ArtKrush readers first read of Hockney's ideas in Lawrence Weschler's AK special report, "Through the Looking Glass," a portrait of an idea that reads like a high-wire act. Weschler, not content to leave the debate to the page, turned pen to sword and cut the ribbon on the conference that he organized as director of the institute. To say the symposium provided an outlet for a lively series of conflicting opinions would be a way of putting it: it would be more accurate to say that things got delightfully out of hand.

On both Saturday and Sunday mornings, in the pre-dawn streets of Greenwich Village, people lined up as if for World Series tickets. At nine a.m., hundreds were turned away as the auditorium overflowed. There, abetted by his scientific accomplice Charles Falco, Hockney presented his theory with all sorts of neat visual aids including a 75 minute BBC film and a live demonstration of a camera obscura. It was all proceeding with the smoothness of a dream. Then, the panels began, In the intellectual equivalent of a WWF cage match, art historians, scientists, scholars, and artists began to hold forth. Susan Sontag: "If David Hockney's thesis is correct, it would be a bit like finding out that all the great lovers of history have been using Viagra." David Stork, an optical expert from Stanford University, ripped Hockney's theory to shreds in fifteen power-pointed minutes only to see it resurrected by responses from Falco in the Q and A. Walter Liedtke, curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, argued that Hockney's theories were telling us less, not more about the painters in question: "Mr. Hockney, please step aside. From where you're standing, I can1t see Vermeer." The artist panels, populated by luminaries like Philip Pearlstein and Chuck Close ("This conference really should have been subtitled ÎLook back in Ingres1") brought a brief return to reason, before the art historians like Svetlana Alpers wrapped things up in a bloody bow. A Professor Emerita of the History of Art at U.C. Berkeley, Alpers lost all sense of composure and decorum as the final panel spun down: "Can't we talk about anything else? I can't think of any less interesting question we could be discussing! This has nothing to do with art!"

In fact, it all had to do with art, and the mystery behind technical mastery. As Hockney concluded: "The paintings are absolutely magical. We will never actually know how they were done." It didn't really matter. Though little was proven and even less agreed upon, several things became indelibly clear. Paintings and painters continue to fascinate more people than just scholars in the chilly climes of the academy. However contentious the panels often became, the audience remained fully engaged, filled with people of all ages there to listen, look, and think. There could be worse indicators of the state of civilization than capacity crowds listening to tales of how the dead gave their gifts to the living.

Wyatt Mason
for ArtKrush
December 2001

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