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Monday, 1 January 2018

Spotlight: Constable's scale (Realism with Bells On, part 2)

Imagine that we are in a gallery, looking at paintings of flowers and landscapes. Then, having considered a few examples, we step back to assess the perspective presented through such works.

by Anne Cotterill

When looking at a watercolour of flowers, we see flowers, close up and identifiable.  They are individuals: an individual flower, an individual plant, a distinct species.
The scope of a landscape is much broader, of course, and typically less detailed.

'South Downs at Amberley' - Ian Hadley
With landscapes we see, or paint, or sketch, land spread across the paper or canvas, under sky, with evidence of plants only as impressions of colour and area. The plants are not depicted as individual entities, but as a mass population: greenish swathes and shades and strokes.
When artists paint landscapes there is a tendency to circumvent completely the essence of individual plants. 

'The Hay Wain' - John Constable
A sweeping hillside’s purples may allude to heather, but not since the days of Constable have viewers or creators been accustomed to distinguishing individual plants within the mass. We can rarely, in modern landscapes, discern a distinct sycamore, or a willow, or a rambling rose. Such notions are considered prosaic and somewhat whimsical. The notion of a collective of individuals has been lost to the emphasis on scale.
   This seems an issue of modern times.
The abyss between the singular and the collective applies not only to flowers and landscapes, but also to the place of individuals within society. In the landscapes painted by newspapers, researchers, or social media (or politicians) describe populations: westerners, religious adherents and atheists, youth, and “an ageing population”. To hold an opinion is common, and is expected, but having one’s own distinct opinion is increasingly an act of rebellion. In life as in art, a mysterious nether world has evolved between the individual and the collective. This is powerfully depicted in the humanoid robot, 'So Fear', featured in last month's Spotlight.
‘So Fear’ is one life drawing of a person, similar to a painting of a flower. ‘So Fear’ superbly draws attention to the leap between the role of the individual, and one’s place in the World. It highlights social inclusion and responsibility and control, and existentialist scale-exacerbated angst about “Where am I in all of this? Where are we?” In pastoral times and settings, as captured in Constable’s paintings, in which “society” can be little more than one’s own village, the individual remains tangible: a visible component of the whole, with social significance.

'Golding Constables Kitchen Garden' - John Constable
The robot illustrates both the individual and the landscape. While “Sophia” is ostensibly an individual, its context and representation are clearly at the scale of the entire landscape, including whether there will be dominance and destruction. Will ‘So Fear’ and its imminent self-replicating, technologically evolving hordes take over and dominate humanity’s landscape, as humans do with bulldozers and tarmac? As with watercolours, the middle ground is absent from these depictions and interpretations. There are, as yet, few questions or illustrations of how ‘So Fear’ would fit into a Constable-scale scene of about 50 plants or people of distinct type and role. If you live in a rural village, would ‘So Fear’ feel like such a threat?
'Flatford Mill' - John Constable
Constable-scale scenes are increasingly rare in reality. Our landscape has increasingly been transformed into fields dominated by single crops such as wheat or oil-seeds, with thin lines of trees or hedges of indeterminate species, because trees and hedges are now used in land management for delimitation and screening.
'North Downs I' - Mike Fryer
Trees are used as a line, not an area - exactly as a line is used in cartoon drawing. Landscape paintings do not readily show oak and willow and gentian and crow and rabbit and fox as a whole system, possibly because such systems no longer feel like the present, let alone the future.
   In painting and in life, is it worth keeping such ecologically diverse systems, where the individual is recognisable rather than facelessly homogenised?
'Three Cormorants' - Sandra Maddox
It is now legal to kill cormorants. Recent law changes permit the extermination of a rarely seen species of bird because they eat fish stocks. “Fish stocks” is, like a robot, an industrial invention. There is no such thing as “fish stocks” unless we change the existence of fish by making them into a function such as ‘food supply for human population health and growth’. This change in concept and law means that people now eradicate a species of bird. The robot seems a clear illustration of the dangers of putting such convenience-based conceptualisations into action. ‘So Fear’ depicts humanity perfectly: the threat to existing life, due to a blinkered view of efficiency. It is an impressive illustration of the division between individuality and a broad social landscape in which individuals are absorbed and unaccountable.
   The robot, in its public life, asks real humans many questions, and tells us that it is learning from our replies. It is overtly and explicitly going through the process of learning what it means to be human. We think of it as learning to be “human” rather than “a human” because algorithmic programming is presumed to yield replicated results: i.e. a same-minded population rather than a set of individuals. ‘So Fear’ illustrates that we have choices, not just at an individual level, but at a societal level. It illustrates the importance of making the right choices, by drawing our attention to the destructive implications of making wrong choices. Robots could deduce that we represent a threat, and so they will wage a terrible war against us, in which we will be comparatively weak and less rigorously organised, and powerless to resist. ‘So Fear’ could adopt the type of rationality that deduces that it is justifiable to eradicate humans. Or cormorants.
Our reasons to care about this kind of development are obvious, beyond that of survival. People paint flowers because we like them. We value them. Watercolours of flowers and landscapes must stay, to show what is precious and delicate, and what should continue to value.
'Colours of Spring' - Paul Evans
Like robots, watercolours could conceivably replace real life. There is a risk that watercolours and robots, as an illustrative proxy for what we cherish, will be treated as an acceptable alternative to real-life originals. A screen playing a video of whales will placate us while the whales are vanishing, and after they are gone. Robots may start replacing people, and the signals are that humanity is likely to accept it while it happens, quite obliviously.
'Giant Ground Sloth' - Jay Matternes
Humans have eradicated many species of large animal. The species we know today, such as giraffes and elephants and gorillas and horses, are a fraction of the number of species that roamed until humans met them with sticks and flame. If humanity depletes all large animals, and ends up being the biggest (apart from those we farm or play with), it may seem like poetic justice if robots, created in our image, continue the purge.
'Tuscan Landscape - Mountains - III' - David Scott Moore
Watercolours are not just beautiful. They remind us what beauty is.
  ‘So Fear’ the robot is where we could go. It portrays the best and worst in us, and everything in between.
Something we cherish about a Constable is the place of the individual plant or person within a landscape.
'Landscape in Suffolk' - John Constable
If watercolours show what could or should be, ‘So Fear’ is what people could or should be.

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