When Paradigms Collapse

posted in: Painting | 1

In Thomas Kuhn’s classic “The Structure of Scientific Revolution,” the author considers our response to the failure of standard paradigms. We try to make the old paradigm work with modifications; we reject the evidence that the old paradigm (insert: child, marriage, painting, job) is failing; we adopt the new paradigm when the weight of evidence leaves us no other option. We had trouble with the paradigm that the Earth is not the center of the universe with its sun traveling around it. Generations had to die before we could generally accept the new paradigm, the Copernican idea of the Earth traveling around the Sun. But, the evidence from astronomy to calendars did not support the old model. Today, we refer to Bayes Theorem (an 18th century insight) as an equation describing the amount of evidence required to change our point of view and behavior. For ancient Egyptians the purpose of their hieroglyphic picturing was to communicate clearly. Their paradigm worked for them. There was no need for an individual point of view that was unique. This would be the basis of the Greek idea of beauty, the concept of the individual eyewitness describing the world from their unique vantage point, their particular angle. If Pharaoh’s is the only legitimate point of view, then we don’t need linear perspective. With the Egyptian model, all objects and figures would be rendered for information purposes only, iconically and repeatedly in exactly the same way.

When drawing a particular type of tree it will always be drawn the same way; this was true of a type of fish, or flower, or deity, or duck. And most things would be drawn the way you and I think of them – from the side view (think of a house, a tree, a car, a hat, a cat). But linear perspective puts objects in line with a particular individual’s point of view. The house or car or cat could be presented from a 3/4 view or some other. The ancient Egyptians only required legibility and durability, so when you look at the Egyptian picture above, notice that the trees are readable when set along the top edge of the pool and they are even readable when set sideways along the side of the pool. But, we can’t read upside down (try it); therefore, the trees are set upright again (see Ernst Gombrich’s “The Story of Art”). The second picture, the 11th century Last Supper appears comical to us because the painter was torn between two paradigms, the Egyptian map system and the idea of the Greeks with a point of view which suggested that every apostle can be shown seated at the same table. Da Vinci easily negotiated this problem with linear perspective. But, our 11th century artist ran into a paradigm in collapse with no viable solution.

  1. Loretta Sharpe

    I have been following the struggle with the paradigm shift in the Shakespeare authorship identity. Much of academia is unable to examine the idea without scorn. Your explanation that it will only shift when the weight of evidence leaves no other option hits truly. Old professors will have to die and younger minds without prejudice will prevail. One does not become an artist without work. I just finished reading Art and Fear by Bayles and Orland. You can’t be any further than you are. It doesn’t matter where you start from, it’s your beginning. No one is going to care if you do your work or not.

    “Artists don’t get down to work till the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.”

    Stephen DeStaebler

    Loretta Sharpe

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