The Unfair Advantage

by F.

Investors in a company generally look for an “unfair” advantage the company has over rivals. And the smart company preserves its unfair advantage at all costs. This, I think, is the “secret” (if there is one) of the success of some of the largest technology companies. They focus more on preserving their advantage than anything else—“winning” means “not losing.” Their products may not generally be considered to be innovative, and many may feel they are of poor quality, but once these companies get an advantage, they hold onto it tenaciously.

I thought about this when reading David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge, the thesis of which is that artists have for centuries used the camera lucida as an aid to drawing. While this is an empirical question, and depends on whether artists—say, Franz Hals—had access to the device, it seems to me entirely plausible.

The issue apparently caused a kerfuffle. The entirely overrated Susan Sontag (according to The New York Times) mocked the theory, saying that “If David Hockney’s thesis is correct, it would be a bit like finding out that all the great lovers of history have been using Viagra,” Well, not really. It would be a bit like finding out that the master artists of centuries past used various mechanical means to create their products.

Which they did. To take an arbitrary example, Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) put pinholes in some of his portraits so he could transfer them to other media. He often reused the same portraits for different compositions. The examples could be multiplied. And what is perspective if not just another “device” to convey the human perception of the world?

Hockney says that around 1900, painters and draughtsmen began to respond to photography—began to differentiate their products. Again, this seems plausible and probably accounts for the sometimes ridiculously theory-laden experimentation of the early Modernists. The economic explanation is, to me, more plausible. The artists were responding to a rival—the camera.

And those who didn’t adapt to this fashion were left behind by critical taste, such as Sargent, whom I admire more and more the more I study his drawings. Here is a study I did of one of them:

Small Sargent

But where is the evidence? Why haven’t we found these devices among the artists papers? Why no references to them? Hockney suggests the artists hid this knowledge. Again, this seems entirely plausible to me. Why would, say, Caravaggio want to give up his unfair advantage?

Note: There is a “refutation” of the theory here, but I think it missed the point, which is that the camera lucida was an aid to and not the entire explanation of Renaissance verisimilitude. It also focuses on frescos and murals, while Hockney discusses all sorts of media. Just because frescos and murals couldn’t be painted with the camera lucida doesn’t mean that it wasn’t used in preparation of them.