Patrick Heelan's innocent eye
In 1816 William Hazlitt concluded a review of Frederick Turner's painting with the remark that "All is without form and void. Someone said of his landscapes that they were pictures of nothing, and very like."1It is doubtless in response to such jibes that John Ruskin wrote, in defense of Turner, that "the whole technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, of a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify, — as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight."2 In light of Western art's ancient aspiration to make a representation that could fool the eye into taking it for the thing itself, the conceit of the "innocent eye" denotes something of a departure. Basing himself on the sense-data psychology of the 19th century, Ruskin is asking what it is that belongs to vision as such, to what is "seen" prior to being interpreted in terms of what we "know." On this view, Turner would show us what the eye sees, unencumbered by the "prejudices of tradition."3 What makes this a departure from the classical ambition is that visual truth is no longer measured against the ideal of illusion; indeed, it is against the kind of illusionistic image mastered by painters in the Western tradition since the Renaissance that Turner's works must be defended. The painter's allegiance is not to the culturally and traditionally determined motif, but to something deeper that can be brought to light only with the help of art. As the poet Wallace Stevens phrased it, "The eye's plain version is a thing apart/The Vulgate of experience."4
Crowell, S. (2002)., Patrick Heelan's innocent eye, in B. Babich (ed.), Hermeneutic philosophy of science, van Gogh's eyes, and God, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 239-250.
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