UNDERRATED The case for Magic Eye books : One in the eye for connoisseurs

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
What art books have sold three-quarters of a million copies in Britain alone, and have devoted fans all over the world? No art critic is likely to give you the correct answer, which is: the Magic Eye books published by Michael Joseph. Ignored by t he artestablishment, adored by a huge following, Magic Eye is a genuinely popular form, the folk-art of our time. And it's international; the images are spread out in virtually every city of the world.

It's an updating of the old concepts of 3-D, made technically perfectible by the computer, exploiting human stereoscopic vision. The pictures are created by patterns of coloured dots which our brains can resolve (not at first glance - the images come after a bit of experiment) into three-dimensional shapes. This is a perfectly legitimate artform, no more gimmicky than say, Bridget Riley's huge geometrical Op-Art canvases, which depend for their effects, their disappearing, undulating and re-forming patterns, on the tricks our vision plays.

Bridget Riley recently merited a retrospective at the Tate, but critics don't take Magic Eye seriously. Some reasons: the process of learning how to look can leave you looking very undignified - you have to peer at the page until the dots make sense, andthis procedure does not fit into the usual art-snob jargon about the refined "gaze" of the connoisseur.

You have to throw away your notions of the artist and the original work of art: the artists are computer programmers and the pictures are infinitely reproducible, so who cares about owning an original work of art? The artists in the field are mostly Japanese or American, and the few British practitioners, such as David Burder and Phil McNally, are experts in film, anaglyph, or holographic imagery rather than art-school products - but they are perfectly entitled to be called artists.

Getting the knack of "seeing" a Magic Eye picture gives a thrill of pride - and you don't have to be young to do it - it can be learnt in a few minutes at any age. And it's no more tricksy than learning to look at a Monet and interpreting the effects of brushwork as form and mass.

Throw away your ideas of cultural correctness and learn to see Magic Eye with a friend - cries of "I've got it!" make for a companionable form of art appreciation, and once you've got it, you're in a whole new world of brilliant colours and crystal-clearimagery, of experiences as intense as anything generated by a conventional painting. "Fish-tank" images give especially intense delight to beginners.

If you want unaffected pleasure from art instead of the usual effusions of the higher exhibitionism which dominate our limited cultural horizons in the galleries, acquire a couple of Magic Eye books.