Historically, art was the only means of recording images. So, as I see it, through innumerable generations, in the absence of photographic imagery, artists were undoubtedly relied upon to produce representative impressions of their subject as accurately as possible. This art often depicted or recalled stories of various types to a largely illiterate populace, providing iconic images in lieu of written communication. It also served to portray individuals for other viewers at a geographical or chronological distance from the subject, or served as representative statements of an individual’s or a family’s culture or wealth.
The degrees of “accuracy” and “representation” varied greatly, according to cultural expectations of the time and the purpose of the specific images. These were often influenced by the perceived importance of various aspects of the subject as much as by cultural expectations drawn from preceding works and cross-cultural influences. Paint was expensive and precious, having, until the 19th Century, been created manually from hand-ground pigments, so was typically applied in thin, smooth layers on any of a variety of grounds. What remained largely unchanged was the importance of artistic acuity—awareness of what was important to express through a work.
As photography became more widespread, and paints started to be mass-produced, artists began to feel liberated to apply their artistic vision in more expressive ways. As there seemed suddenly to be fewer constraints, a looser, more modern art came into being. This change from a long-existing norm became generally apparent in the mid-19th Century, with the developing Impressionist movement.
Artists began to play with concepts of impression and expression more than abiding by the strict interpretation of “accuracy” or literal representation of their subjects. The artists’ acuity changed focus—to whatever aspects of art cried out to them for investigation or exploration. Among various other approaches, artists experimented with the concept that the visual impression of a hue could be achieved through optical (as opposed to physical) mixing of other hues. Some began to recognize that even roughly suggested shapes with minimal detail could be inferred as specific objects. Thick, loosely applied paint didn’t need to be smoothed down and refined but could be allowed to lie as it fell in thick, irregularly applied patches of pigment, as an extension and expression of the artist’s emotional state.
Since then, innumerable additional artistic movements and approaches have developed, with much attention being paid, during the 20th Century, to the many varied approaches to abstraction. Much abstract work did not attempt to be representative. And even representative painting was often based on abstract or semi-abstract design. Artists’ acuity had turned from focusing on specific subject matter to the abstract elements of composition.
Today, representative painting runs a gamut. At one end of the spectrum is thoughtfully conceived, refined, and polished work, relying on the artist’s acuity, like that of the classic painters, toward what the image should express to its viewers. Farther along the spectrum is a looser handling of the subject (often referred to as a “painterly” approach) that both relies on the artist’s acuity about what specific aspects of the subject should be featured and trusts in the viewer’s acuity to discern the artist’s general concept and to apply a more personalized interpretation to the image. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it appears to me that artists seem to be abandoning a quest for any acuity at all, leaving (perhaps even in their own minds) an un-identified and unrealized concept open entirely to the viewer’s interpretation.