|O.K., what's the deal? The little I know about art history I've learned from the very well informed people here. Alex, in particular has been quite a good teacher. And I know I learned all about the use of the "camera obscura" by many of the great painting masters (most notably Vermeer?) This was presented to me as a well known fact. But now I keep reading everywhere (here, here, here, here - links from here) that David Hockney has a new book out where he supposedly floats this "new" and "controversial" theory.
Is it really new? Does Hockney have any claim to this idea? Or is this just a rehashed controversy being trotted out to drive book sales?
Hockney's been floating the theory for a few years now that the camera obscura was in wider use by painters than previously suspected. Without reading the book, I'd say his painter's eye could be trusted to detect machine influence as well as or better than any art historian's. That said, so what? The camera (or camera obscura) is a useful shortcut for drawing, but ultimately it's the sensitivity and/or eccentricity of the painter's eye and hand that makes a "masterpiece." In fact, it's the little subjective distortions--as opposed to perfect point-for-point correlations between depiction and depicted--that make even the most "accurate" paintings interesting.
Which sounds unabashedly romantic, but even in a major "realist" work like David's Consecration of Napoleon I, it's the subjective decisions--the placement of figures, the rendering of surfaces, lighting--which work together to create an overwhelming, convincing fiction of Imperial Power. A painting (or even a photo) can be breathtakingly accurate but still be dead, as far as its effect on us. There are plenty of examples of French and Russian academic painting that demonstrate this. Anyway, all this is to say that the means of visual representation is ultimately less important than the ends.
This is a major nonissue for me (wasn't this already pretty well established with out the Hockney band name) but the newyorker listings dept provides this web address for add'l info about a conference on the subject.