Trompe L’oeil and the Conquest of The Senses

The practice of art was preceded by the art of language which communicates in symbols representing real or imagined things and ideas. The first artists drew symbolic images of animals imbued with the idea and behavior of the real thing, but still a fantasy. But with the advent of photography, video and now internet, audio-visual images have proliferated to the point where much of our lives is spent in fantasy. By fantasy I mean that a photo or video is not the real thing but a conjured image that looks real. As in painting, these fantasies often have a touch of reality. But many people are influenced by false images that have been “photoshopped”. The term “trope l’oeil” is French for “fool the eye” and refers to the way in which visual arts often give the perception of a three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface.
Much of our symbolic life is dominated by advertising, aided by government tax breaks. The universal themes are sex, violence, prestige and above all consumption. So “buyer beware!” Pop artists like Andy Warhol, explained how art and commerce are now united. Art has always been subject to patronage by the rich and powerful but only in the modern age are visual images available to all and also unavoidable. One can cling to the belief that “true art” is not commercial; however, the old masters usually painted scenes to support the reigning status quo such as religion, royalty, or wealthy bourgeois society. After all, the artist has to eat. Today there are true artists who use their creativity to seduce you to consume. One can say they have “sold out” but we cannot ignore their art. Every person now has access to this art.
In contrast, abstract and minimalist artists offer a real alternative and a path to experiential reality. They say, “Here is paint. Here is an object. Love it for what it is.” Primitive peoples are shocked when they encounter a photo of themselves. “How can one be in two places at the same time? Has part of me been stolen and trapped on paper?” These people are naive to the symbolic world of art but wise in the experience of reality.
To cleanse ourselves from our commercial audio-visual environment we would have to cloister ourselves in silence and prayer. We would still struggle in meditation with the myriad images that continue to reverberate in our minds. The Chinese scholars meditated on nature, one sure guarantee of reality. We need more of this.
In the face of the commercial invasion of our senses and manipulation of our thoughts, we artists can create our own reality. In so doing we set a path for independence and dignity. The artwork we create comes from our unique vision but also reflects the milieu in which we live.

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