Emptiness for Art Historians

All phenomenon arise because of ever changing causes and conditions.  Phenomenon include what we perceive as things and events. These causes and conditions will change because their energy, their momentum, will dissipate, and because they result in new causes and conditions, in an infinite feedback of changing conditions resulting in changing phenomenon resulting in changing causes and conditions resulting in changing phenomenon…..

No essence, no fixed meaning or substance.

Yet we reify with concepts. We try to freeze and categorize reality. We try to capture it so we can deal with it on our terms. When the convenient tool of language distorts our appreciation of reality it is a (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle) form of delusion.

A painting or a photograph that attempts to render a scene, whether a landscape, still life or portrait is a frozen approximation.

It is not how the world is really experienced.

We scan a scene with our eyes, the constantly fluctuating light and movement creating an ever changing tableau we couldn’t possibly keep up with.  Movement is pieced together, time is knitted into a flowing substance in our brains. We project our memories expectations, hopes and fears on to a scene. We fill in the blanks left by our blind spot and poor peripheral vision and our limited perspectives with projections of what we think (or worse, hope) is there.

What you experience in the conscious mind, that is, the words you might say to yourself about a scene, or the efforts you might make as an artist trying to paint or photograph the scene to “capture” it, are the tip of the iceberg.  A third of your brain was used integrating and evaluating the energy changes your eyes sensed into a “coherent” narrative that became those words and perception and “conscious” awareness of the scene. Just the tip of the brain iceberg.

You reify the scene.

Western artists who are interested in rendering a scene have attempted to capture the ever changing barely imperceptible fluctuations of energy that are shared with total intimacy between what we classify out of convenience into perceived and perceiver to re-create a scene that in a sense never existed.

That’s why in a recent film “Tim’s Vermeer” they speculated on how the artist Vermeer got his effects with mirrors (magic is always done with mirrors!), gimmicks they say he needed because the human eye does not see a scene how he painted it. Whether they are right or not about his gimmicks, Vermeer’s genius was to transcend how we usually see and transcribe that visual experience on to a painted surface.


We understand as artists and as scientists that there are no “outlines;” they are a convention, an illusion. Edges have softness from being curved, from diffraction of light, from reflected light off surrounding surfaces bleeding into the shadows.So Leonardo Da Vinci invented sfumato.

Impressionists tried to capture the fleeting nature of perception. 400px-Claude_Monet,_Impression,_soleil_levantPointillists experimented with the nature of color perception.


Cubists tried to deconstruct how we see images, shifting our awareness over ever changing surfaces, particularly with movement.


But I think the best presentation of emptiness in the Western cannon is:


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