When I was a kid I liked to draw, and when I was a professor in Boulder Colorado in 1980, I took a group drawing class. One day the teacher gave us a transparent wine bottle to draw. I had tried drawing glasses or bottles before, and I realized that what made my drawings recognizable but so unrealistic (in terms of transparency) was that I was using too much cognition. I ‘knew it was a glass or a bottle, I “knew” its shape, and that knowledge was preventing me from drawing it well.
So what I did that day was consciously turn off my cognition. I tried to forget what I knew about the object in front of me, about what was background and what was foreground and what was visible through the glass. Instead I tried to turn myself into a recording and copying machine that looked at the scene in front of me, observed little spots of light and dark, as finely as possible, and transcribed that light and dark onto the paper, irrespective of what it represented.
It kind of worked, though I felt like it was cheating and unartistic.
The movie Tim’s Vermeer is about someone’s attempt to reproduce a Vermeer, The Music Room, by hand, using ingenious mirrors and lenses to get each spot of color correct. It takes years. The movie argues, charmingly, for a melding rather than a separation of art and technology, which is certainly what happens all the time — photography, lithography, Hockney’s iPad paintings, etc. Van Eyck, the protagonist comments, was very secretive about the technology of his oil paints — he wanted no one to copy his inventions.
It’s arguable whether this kind of transcription is “really” art, but what is clear is that sometimes switching off cognition, stifling assumptions about the way the world appears, becoming blind to common categories, not seeing the boundaries between things, is a very good idea.