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In the arts - from painting to photography to film to writing - perspective is the way in which the artist transforms observation into metafora, either through personal or systematic means. When we look at a work of art, we see a world filtered through the artist's perspective. In the dialog that emerges between the artist, the medium, and the audience, a transformation takes place. This transformation enables the discovery of ourselves in the work of others. Perspective manifests itself differently in each of the arts, but in general we can say that perspective is the act of orienting oneself to the world.

In order to understand perspective, we can start by examining photography since we are so accustomed to looking at photographs and believe that their way of rendering the world is correct - to the exclusion of all others. Nevertheless, a photograph is a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space, and is no more correct in its observation than a realist painting that follows the same rules. The false assumption that photography is 'correct' leads us to the equally false assumption that styles of painting that do not mimic photography (especially non-Western painting) is 'incorrect.' The human eye does not see as the camera does: our sense of vision is generated from two eyes and complicated neural pathways that produce our experience of vision. Unlike a single lens that creates a two-dimensional picture, we see by creating a three-dimensional dynamic image that constantly changes as our eyes move to survey the scene in front of us. A photograph is a flat, unmoving image that lacks the full range of tones of human vision. The photographic process is a contrivance that can be as false as any other type of representation. In fact, photography was just a way for chemically fixing an image, which had been described as early as the eleventh century by Alhazen (Persian-born scientist, 965-1039).

The instance of there
being more is an
instance of more. The
shadow is not shining
in the way there is a
black line. The truth
has come. There is a
disturbance. Trusting
to a baker's boy meant
that there would be
very much exchanging
and anyway what is
the use of a covering to
a door. There is a use,
they are double.
- Gertrude Stein (American-born writer, 1874-1946),
Tender Buttons

Much as we take it for granted today, the development of linear perspective was one of the most significant paradigm shifts in the visual arts. The perspective we see when we look at a photograph has its roots in Europe in the period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was in essence the application of a rigid set of mathematical rules, an algorithm, to the act of painting. Starting in the thirteenth century, concepts of an infinite, systematic, and therefore measurable world began to develop, and continued through the Scientific Revolution. Viewing this world was the new individual, who stood outside of a scene to observe it. In the early 1300s, Giotto di Bondone (Italian painter, c.1267-1337) began to paint with an intuitive perspective, placing figures in scenes which suggested a three-dimensional space. By 1420, Filippo Brunellesch1 (Italian architect, 1377-1446) had demonstrated the rules of linear perspective, which were later formalized in Leon Battista's (Italian author, philosopher and architect, 1404-72) "Della Pittura." Western artists used a variety of devices, from mathematical calculations to mechanical devices like the camera obscura or the camera lucida. So powerful was this idea of representing space (and by correlation time, since paintings in linear perspective portrayed a single instant), that it was by far the most common form used for nearly 700 years.

There are a variety of methods for rendering a scene on a canvas, many of which do not depend on the emulation of the optical rules of photography. Several non-Western cultures developed alternate, yet equally rigorous constructions of pictorial space. This is not to suggest an ignorance of the rules of geometry or optics; rather it represents a conscious disregard for them. The Chinese saw no need for an individual to be detached from the environment, though they had highly developed notions of mathematics that would have enabled them to easily construct a system of perspective if they so desired.

Western linear perspective presented the landscape as potential, a vista to be explored. The observer of a European painting stood outside the frame peering in, while the observer of a Chinese landscape floated in the scene. Fan Kuan (Chinese painter, 990–1020) worked in the monochromatic landscape style around the turn of the first millennium (1000 CE). His paintings exemplified the Neo-Confucian notion that the self should not be detached from nature: "A reaching outward to imitate Creation/And a turning inward to master the mind." Kuan's construction is one in which the work seems to have been painted from every point of view at once: there are a series of successive eye levels from top to bottom.

Image: Hokusai, not titled, c. 1815-1820
Hokusai (Japanese artist, 1760-1849), c. 1815-1820

Centuries later, Japanese master Hokusai's (Japanese artist, 1760-1849) "Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji," began to abandon the prevailing Chinese perspectival constructions in favor of Western ones. He retained multiple views by presenting thirty six separate images. Hokusai's work was distributed throughout a nineteenth century Japan that was captivated with printmaking. His thirty-six views were reproduced in massive quantities. In each print, the viewer is taken through the landscape, appearing in front of one feature in each print. The combined experience of viewing all the prints is related to cubist work, which attempts to move the viewer around the portrayed object in one canvas.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the telephone represented another shift. It enabled people to cast their voice across vast distances, to reach loved ones who had traveled afar by train and steamship, and later by automobile. The great speeds of these new modes of transportation devoured space and expanded the individual's reach. Passengers on trains saw the landscape rush by them, their point of view changing second by second, while the hot air balloon allowed a bird's-eye view of the world to be captured by the newly invented camera. Speed itself blurred the horizon. Linear perspective came into question as painting turned to more abstract modalities and toward an inward, more subjective point of view that complemented a new, modern experience of vision.

This mobility of body and voice was expressed in the new "isms" where the work of art became a thing to look at, rather than a window to gaze through. Paul Cézanne's (French painter, 1839-1906) canvasses show a world that seems to shimmer, and defied conventional representation of reality. Cubists—Pablo Picasso (Spanish-born painter, 1881-1973), Georges Braque (French painter and sculpter, 1882-63), Max Weber (Polish-born American painter, 1881-1961)—created pictures that appear constructed from many perspectives at once. The futurists—Giacomo Balla (Italian painter, 1871-1958), Carlo Carra (Italian painter, 1881-1966), F. T. Marinetti (Italian ideologue and poet, 1876-1944)—showed the viewer a landscape in dynamic motion, a vision transformed by the experience of railroad travel. Concurrently, Hermann Minkowski (Lithuanian-born German mathematician, 1864-1909), Albert Einstein (German-born theoretical physicist, 1879-1955), and other physicists laid waste to the Cartesian grid with theories such as the General Theory of Relativity, which postulated that the universe had no absolute system of measurement, save the speed of light. Sigmund Freud (Austrian psychiatrist, 1856-1939) debunked the view that we have control over our thoughts. He saw the mind as a dynamic system in constant conflict with itself and the outside world. (Dadaism and surrealism were a reflection of this psychological perspective.) Concurrently, the 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx (German-born philosopher and economist, 1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (German-born philosopher and social scientist, 1820-95) analyzed the world in terms of conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeois classes. The early twentieth century art movement of constructivism, epitomized in the work of Vladimir Tatlin (Russian painter and architect, 1885-1953), translated this economic theory by rejecting art for art's sake in search for the utilitarian values of materials and ideas. Into the twenty-first century, representational art-making has doggedly tried to re-imagine how we look at the world, thus changing our perspective.

The birth of modern cinema reflected still another notion of time and space, one based firmly in the twentieth century. Filmmakers began to use editing techniques and radical shifts in orientation, where a scene was shot from several vantage points at once, then edited and spliced together, creating a sequential analog to cubism. One need only think of Orson Welles's (American film director, 1915-85) Citizen Kane to experience the great agility of the medium in the compression and expansion of time, as well as incorporating a psychological perspective into the development of the characters. Today, filmmakers can instantly change perspective with techniques that include as many as 100 different cameras arranged in the scene. These images are then collaged together and give the appearance that the camera itself is moving.

Even seemingly staid classical music has seen changes throughout the twentieth century. In linear perspective, all lines converge to a single vanishing point, while in music the tonic (the primary melody) is the loadstone to which all harmonies in a melody (and by extension the entire composition) converge. Secondary harmonies in the composition imply being pulled back to the tonic. Early twentieth-century composers tried to find a way out of the tonal system, as in Igor Stravinsky's (Russian composer, 1882-1971) 1913 symphonic ballet The Rite of Spring. Here, Stravinsky started to play the primary and secondary chord at the same time to lessen the distinction between them. Pantonalism, as this is called, is a deliberate attempt to destroy harmonic perspective and harmonic movement. After the Second World War, serial (or 12-tone) techniques would completely discard any use of the tonal system.

Parallel to the visual and performing arts, literary perspective underwent enormous transformation toward the end of the second millennium. Moving beyond the conventions of the eighteenth-century novel that depicted a fixed and unchanging world, early twentieth-century advances made way for modernist authors such as James Joyce (Irish-born writer, 1882-1941), who incorporated a "mixed" objective/subjective narrative strategy known as free indirect discourse, in which the tone and style of narration, while remaining essentially in the third person, is influenced by what is being described as well as by the perspective of the protagonist. Joyce uses this technique in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the narrative, though it remains in the authorial third person, is subjective and character driven in approach. This style, which fuses external narration with interior monologue, was perhaps influenced by the emerging field of psychoanalysis and the increased attention to the role of the unconscious in conscious experience. Although the technique of shifting narration is as old as Petronius's (Roam writer, c. 27-66) Satyricon, its use by Joyce and others mirrored modernist attitudes about the relation of the self to the increasingly unknowable and shifting exterior world.

Anna Deavere Smith (American playwright and actress, born 1950) wrote her groundbreaking play Fires in the Mirror in response to the events surrounding riots that engulfed the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in New York City. The 1991 riots were sparked by racial and religious tensions that had been smoldering for years between Hasidic Jews and Caribbean residents. The innovative nature of Smith's play was that it refused to take sides or to moralize. Rather, she interviewed the inhabitants of Crown Heights, enabling them to tell the story in their own words. In many senses, this play embodies the "death of the author": it has no authoritative perspective, no single point of view. It is de-centered and chaotic, like the world that produced the riots that shook New York City. Referring to Smith's play, Cornel West (American philosopher and scholar, born 1953) wrote: "Not to choose 'sides' is itself a choice—yet to view the crisis as simply and solely a matter of choosing sides is to reduce the history and complexity of the crisis in a vulgar Manichean manner." This is a situation we are faced with every day in the contemporary media world, where news stories compete with 'spin' and the multiple voices available on the World Wide Web.

Today's window-based operating system has transformed the computer monitor into a pre-Renaissance canvas. Before the Renaissance's engagement with linear perspective, paintings in Europe were composed of many panels or frames within a canvas that told a story. Linear perspective transformed these frames into a single window. Similarly, in early computer operating systems, the screen could only show one process at a time. Beginning with Xerox's 1973 Alto system, and perfected by programmers at Apple Computer in the 1980s, today's window-based operating system transforms the computer's screen into a pre-Renaissance painting. No longer is the screen a window to look through, it contains objects to be looked at, allowing us to multi-task, to split our attention among many things at once. It also offers the ability to show a scene from many points of view at once, as some 3D design programs do, extending the multiple viewpoints of Cubism over time. The computer program RasMol, for example, enables scientists to rotate models of molecules in real time.

Image: Punk Rockers
Development of new genres of music, such as punk, represents a new perspective on existing forms. Charles H. Traub Japan, 1980

Chatrooms and other online multi-voiced writing spaces are transforming how we use the written word. No single voice dominates, and many conversations occur at once. Presenting answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) and the use in the programming world of requests for comment (RFCs) asks for the contribution of multiple voices in presenting a point of view.

Because the computer is able to synthesize media, Western linear perspective can be combined with other forms of perspective. The integration of mediums, itself so much an agile part of digitization, can broaden one's perspective of an experience. The ability for the user to manipulate any component of the experience to suit his or her 'angle' of need may change not only the narrative itself, but also the very stability of the conventions of authoritative perspective.

Perspective is, after all, only a filter through which an author allows the reader to engage in the tale, or in the case of the news media, it is an editing of a complex situation (although this filtering is not without bias—overt or subtle). Today, almost any user has control over the filters that once belonged only to the so-called experts or authorities. What is creativity if not the constant re-imagining of perspective?