Seeing with Your Eyes and Not Assumptions

Artists work hard to lose their assumptions about what they are seeing, and truly observe the scenes before them. This is known as nurturing an “innocent eye”.

East Pediment of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum

Seeing with an Innocent Eye

Most of us at one point learned how to draw an apple by starting with a circle and then adding a line from the top to represent a stem. But this is a symbol for an apple. It in no way looks like any actual apple found in nature. For one, the stem emerges from inside the contour of the apple, not on top of it.

Atelier-trained artists are constantly battling these types of assumptions in order to hone what is known as their “innocent eye”.

It is easier than one might think to allow assumptions to interfere with visual truth. A story comes to mind of an American acquaintance who was teaching in a very wealthy school in the Middle East.

Cooking Seagull

One day after class, high-ranking officials came to his on-campus residence and demanded that he come with them immediately. They needed him to cook seagull for an important event, they informed him.

He protested in earnest, telling them he did not know how to cook seagull, that he never made seagull in his life. The officials would hear none of this, and continued to insist that he come to this event to cook seagull. 

Upon arrival, he was introduced to the distraught cook who had attempted to cook seagull and failed. The cook eagerly handed the task over, and my acquaintance quickly realized the truth of the situation. “Seagull” was, in fact, bacon. 

Being a pork product, bacon is banned from import into some areas of the Middle East. As my acquaintance discovered that night, bacon was called “seagull” due to some workaround where it was acceptable at this event to eat (and import?) bacon if it was called something else.

Attendees appeared to enjoy eating the “seagull”, as it was described as a special American delicacy at this event, and the label of “seagull” superseded the attendees’ judgement about the visual truth of what they were seeing in front of them.

Or perhaps they were willfully choosing not to see it. Either way, the visual truth was obscured by language and labels.

Expert Bias

Experts are not exempt from making similar erroneous visual conclusions. In fact, when it comes to art, there are many “experts” who have little to no observational training used by the artists who originally created the artworks in their collections. And yet, they are responsible for safeguarding some of humanity’s most important artworks.

The So-Called “Elgin Marbles”

In the late 1800’s, Lord Elgin struck a questionable deal with a government official controlling Athens to secret away, in the middle of the night, numerous marbles from the Parthenon. Now known in Britain as the “Elgin Marbles“, and elsewhere as the “Parthenon Marbles”, these sculptures – considered by many to be some of the most important in the world – have suffered a horrendous fate due to “restorers” seeing with assumptions instead of their eyes.

In the mid-20th century, it was believed that these marbles were dirty. The “common sense” knowledge at the time was that of course all the sculptures in Ancient Greece were pure white. In fact, much of Ancient Greek sculpture was garishly painted, including the Parthenon from which the marbles in question were removed.

Tools used to clean the Elgin Marbles. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Shockingly, to these British restorers, the “Elgin” Marbles showed signs that there was all kinds of “dirt” that looked remarkably like paint all over the marbles. The “restorers” went to work to “clean” these sculptures, scraping off all that nasty “dirt”. This extensive and invasive “cleaning” destroyed the surface layer of the sculptures in the process, and did irreparable harm to the shape and beauty of the originals.

Ironically, the argument of the British Museum which continues to house the Parthenon Marbles despite Greece’s continuing objections is that the British must take care of them because Greece does not, in their view, have the ability to do so in a way that protects the art. Of course, the Greeks managed not to destroy their collection of marbles by scraping off the so-called “dirt” and thus have preserved the art by seeing with their eyes, and not assumptions.

The Need for Atelier Training for Restorers

We put all art in harm’s way when we train our experts in science and history, but not in visual literacy. Without atelier training similar to what artists had when creating a work, it is highly unlikely that restorers and other experts working in our museums can actually see what it is they are doing to a work in a nuanced way when they are “treating” it. 

Over-cleaning is still a very common practice in many major museums in the world, and once these layers of paint or sculpture are removed, it is impossible to ever restore them to their original state because the knowledge becomes lost as soon as the surface is removed from its context.

I know of one artist who started copying a painting in the National Gallery when it was removed for “treatment”. Upon return to the wall, the original painting was so altered that the artist decided it was not worth continuing copying it as much of the nuance of the form had been lost during the “cleaning”.

I’ve seen more than one Bougereau painting hanging in museums that had its nuanced turning of form in hands and feet reduced to mostly outlines.

An Innocent Eye is Priceless

Seeing truthfully is challenging because there is misinformation and labels constantly thwarting us from viewing things honestly and clearly. This is why atelier-trained artists are always doggedly pursuing visual truth. They train their eyes carefully in order to eliminate bias and assumptions, whether visual or political, that interfere with their ability to see with their innocent eye.

What do you think? Should restorers be required to have atelier training to work on artwork by atelier-trained artists? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. The marbles taken off the Parthenon are commonly, and correctly, referred to as the “Parthenon Marbles.” I would also argue that ALL people could benefit from Atelier training thereby aiding their ability to see and experience more clearly. It would be hugely beneficial in schools and arts education. Thank you for all you do to make it accessible!

      1. The idea is not innocence, in my opinion, but objectivity and knowledge. We strive for better information. I simply cannot draw accurately what I don’t understand.

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