Art as Illusion or Reflection?

Art is the projection of reality through illusion – and you’ll perhaps agree that’s about as accurate as you can get with such short a definition standing for what I hold to be the epimyth of some thought-provoking story I stumbled upon in utterly serendipitous manner.

Regardless its grades of enhancement or focalisation, art reflects- and the anecdote I’m about to share invites to ruminate on exactly that.


It all concerns an ancient, highly metaphorical contest between two radically dissimilar artists, a Chinese and a Greek respectively, whom Alexander the Great once commanded to decorate opposite walls of a vault so he could flaunt, in good old Western fashion, the creative superiority of his race.

Only the denouement thwarted this purpose.

Medieval poet Nizami relates how, when the time expired, a curtain previously placed down the middle of the room was elevated to disclose the duo’s work. Since the Chinese polished his wall, while the Greek took to painting his, the first perfectly mirrored the latter with no disparity in drawing or colour, save for the fact that “one was giving and the other receiving”.

Naturally, Alexander’s bemusement prevented him from giving a prompt verdict and the curtain was lowered for an interlude of pondering – at which point he realized the Chinese “picture” was mere deceptive reflection.

Does this enigmatic story imply, as a few Met curators believe, that “the active production of images and the passive reception of visual stimuli are both aspects of artistic activity”?

Alexander resumed to declaring a tie, considering each superior in his metier.

But have the hustle-avid synapses of our ever sedulous brains genuinely been satisfied by it?

Can’t we add more flash to Nizami’s anorexic conclusion?

And to further prolong the rhetoric Cicero-like:

Is art more reflection than representation?

fleuronPatricia Beykrat – the Roving Aesthete


13 responses to “Art as Illusion or Reflection?

  1. Classic questions Patricia! My 2 cents is that Alexander was (apocryphally?) wrong … since the receiver does not originate. The source of art is always the superior. The deeper question is thus where is the source of our art? Where does the spark of human creativity originate from? Is it a gift from the cosmos, or a banal result of quantum mechnical neural disjunctions which filter up to higher consciousness? Yet there is one way in which maybe you can think of the Chinese artist as better, but it’s not as an artist.

    Nice imagery the way you put it that Nizami’s conclusion was “anorexic”. I think you’re right about that. Art has to “get out” to be art, i.e., has to emerge from an artist’s mind, to be revealed, otherwise it’s hidden beauty and is not art IMHO. You can defne “art” how you like, but this objectively appreciable aspect is IMHO paramount. What might confuse some folks is that the beauty in the art which is revealed does have the subjective aspect “… in the eye of the beholder…”, but this is in no way a contradiction to the fact that art needs to be represented in some objectively discernable way.

    Alexander’s Chinese artist was not exhibiting art per se. She/He was exhibitng something greater (perhaps?) which is the human quality of humility — in the sense that she/he assumed they might not be able to produce better art than the Greek artist. And so what was perfect to her/him (the Chinese artist) was to acknowledge this confession of humility — a hard thing to do for any artists. Who knows if that what was really going on in their mind, supposing the annecdote is based on reality. It’s just my gloss on it. Thanks to you Patricia, and Nizami ,for re-telling. πŸ™‚

    • The way you put it you’re perfectly right but I believe this particular story leaves way for more interpretations. I personally came to see it as a sort of a metaphor for the dual nature of all great artists, who should excel in both the Chinese and the Greek’s work.

  2. Too true. I like your interpretation, more holistic than my gloss. I guess, to be truly great, all artists need to reflect upon their work. How can art be truly great if the artist themself does not love their own work? That’s getting into the fable of Narcissus. But the artist is their most fearsome critic I beleive, I do not know any calssic referecne for that.

    • Well, since the ancients didn’t think much of artists, at least not in the modern sense, they don’t really have legends concerning them. Perhaps the closest you get to the idea of creator as his greatest critic is with the myth of the flood, when Zeus decided to drown mankind.

      • πŸ™‚ Yeah, that’s a god one about Zeus. But I think you are best making a modernist interpretation then, since obviously you value art and artists immensely. I don’t think I could improve much on your interpretation. I will remember this discussion I think and use it some time in my work.

      • I’m equally intrigued by both views of the artist. Lures me into swirls of thoughts about how we’ve got our conception of the creature.
        πŸ™‚ But all in all, I’m very glad to have sparked some inspiration for your work -no wonder I sometimes fancy myself a muse rather than an artist, note my modesty.

      • Haha! Yep. U r modest! Perhaps u r too modest? I like your poetry. But you can be both —- a muse and an artist. πŸ™‚ You are a beautiful muse. So that helps. And you seem to think very deeply and philosophically, and write in English, which I figure is not your first langauge(?) So you are pretty darned amazing. And I really like your “Vertigo” and “Empire of the Mind”. SO you can probably fancy yourself as anything you desire.

      • Oh, if only I were fitting your description of me. Alas, I’m neither beautiful nor genuinely talented – that’s merely a projection I’ve managed to polish in time. Anyway, I don’t deny having enough good taste to take flattering photos of myself, produce some interesting works or even write in English (which, you were right, is not my mother tongue). I do, however, have the the knack of weaving illusions (to a certain extent) and that’s about the only quality I admit to possess. So, I can fancy myself anything I want but I’ll most probably never be either – the muse or the artist. Which makes the subject of a post I’m currently in the act of conceiving.

  3. Good story! My take on it is that the creation has to come first, otherwise what is there to reflect?
    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I’m glad you liked it.

  4. If reflection was all there is, any mirror-maker qualifies as an artist. You cannot fill a museum with mirrors and expect it to advance the humanities. Nor is photorealism mere reflection. Chuck Close, for instance, did much more than merely report his photo source. He used scale and emphasis to evoke reactive thought in his viewers. One time he did a monochromatic much-larger-than-life self-portrait using nothing but his thousandsfold-repeated thumbprint as his “paintbrush.”

    PS–Patricia, thank you for reviewing and “Like”ing so many of my posts this morning. Gave me a big smile!

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