Modern Art and Spirituality: Hockney

Focus and Distraction

Fix your gaze for a while. It’s hard. Your eyes scan. They take in their surroundings. As they move around various objects shift in and out of focus. Any kind of sustained focus is difficult. We spend much of youth cultivating concentration. Despite our efforts moments of singular attention are rare. While we strive for attentiveness, at the same time, others attempt to distract us. Advertisements everywhere seek our attention at all cost. One may even wonder if regimes of focus and distraction are not connected. Many believe these aspects find their common ground in cultural capitalism.

As we have seen in previous posts, perspective is an essential component of any Zeitgeist or spirituality. Here David Hockey enters the maelstrom. Together with Charles Falco, Hockney reconstructed how Renaissance painter strived for more detail by producing a fixed perspective through lenses, mirrors, and camera obscura. The resulting Hockney-Falco hypothesis theorised artists from the Renaissance onwards used lenses to hyper-stabilise scenes. Even the most astute artists since the Renaissance had to resort to artificial layers to fake their way to a single perspective.

In the process, they painted an overly static picture of a human’s being-in-the-world. Their focussed perspective became the normative measure of realism — even up until today’s photography and videography. Per definition, however, such perspectivism is a reduction, one which is not an accurate representation of how we experience the world.

Warping Space Through Time

Look at any of Hockney’s paintings, and you’ll see many perspectives drawn out through time. From his career’s onset, he portraits himself as continuing Picasso’s project of distorting the pictorial space by adding time. Like Picasso, the Englishman believes paintings infused with the temporal, better represents our experience of the world. His paintings challenge us to follow their timelines. Each artwork also reveals, constraints, and invites viewers into a perspectival time-space made somewhere between themselves and Hockney. His aim? Shaking us from our axiomatic single-perspective space flatness. One never looks at his paintings, one looks around in them, travels with, against or parallel to the flow they suggest or do not suggest.

A Spirituality of Structured Distraction

What kind of spirituality does Hockney’s work imagine? He exhumes the tacit underground optics dominating spirituality today — the static perspectivist reduction. One example is a single truth focality protected by religious hierarchies. Another is meditative focus which finds serenity in the sea of thoughts floating pass it. Hockney invites us to ask: how would spiritualities change if we lived them as constrained scatteredness or structured distraction rather than focussed and hierarchtical? We still await his suggestion’s full development. Maybe such a spirituality can transform cultural capitalism from the inside out.

Author Details

Calvyn du Toit

Calvyn C. du Toit is a PhD-candidate in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and a Research Associated in the Department of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Pretoria. He lives in New York City, where he is h(o)us(e)band to Christine, and 6PM Music Director at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

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