on the difference between reality and art

Ever since Marcel Duchamp exhibited his wheel on a tripod and the surrealists installed the cult of the ‘objet trouvé’, there is no getting rid of reality in the temples where formerly reigned the much challenged ‘illusion’: from of Ben Vautier’s, Tim Ulrichs’ and Gilbert and George’s self-exposition, over Spoerri’s breakfast tables, Arman’s accumulations, Beuys’ fat-chair and ‘Wirtschaftswerte’, Panamarenko’s vehicles, to Kounellis’ burlap sacks and gas burners.

Endorsed by the cult of the margin and the widespread aversion to pigeon-holing, this conception caused a lot of confusion, not so much in the mind of the man in the street as in the mind of many a devotee of art.

Let us try to set things right.


That is not as difficult as it seems to be. Let us imagine Marcel Duchamp gaping at La Gioconda, the supposed model for the Mona Lisa in da Vinci’s studio, as she was so charmingly seated there on her tripod. Would not the master of the canvas - with a nearly concealed frown and pointing at his canvas - urge the master of the ready-made: ‘Marcello, it’s up here!’ ? And would he not enforce his warning with another argument than that, after all, also his painting was exhibited on a tripod, albeit this time an easel…?

Nothing so easy, then, as to tell reality from art. It is only a matter of asking the right question. And the question is not ‘ Does it have a meaning?’ (see: ‘Are Rubens and Beuys colleagues?’). It is neither: ‘Does it affect us or not’ (see: ‘Are da Vinci and Panamarenko colleagues?’). Nor is it: ‘Is it well wrought?’ (Are Pythagoras and Bach colleagues?’, in preparation). It is simply: ‘Is it real or not?’.

But there is a snake in the grass. Take Picasso’s saddle with handlebars. Without doubt, the bull’s head thus conjured up is not real. But are not the saddle and the handlebars real? Sure, but equally real are da Vinci’s paint or Michelangelo’s marble. And, just like Picasso’s saddle and handlebars evoke a bull, so da Vinci’s paint evokes the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s marble a pieta. We only had to accustom ourselves to stumbling on other real things in the museum than on paint or marble and bronze. There has always been tangible reality in the museum: as a ‘medium’ to evoke the world of art. Below we will analyse some borderline cases.


from way back, it has pleased man to create a second world alongside the first one: the world of art. Using a whole panoply of devices and tricks, the artist manages to conjure up an imaginary world before our eyes, so convincingly, that we often cannot help to stretch out our hand to touch it, not unlike the incredulous Thomas. Whereby the spell is broken at once – as with Narcissus reaching his hand to the beautiful face mirrored in the surface of the water. That is why we – not otherwise than the prisoners in Plato’s cave - should wisely refrain from wanting to touch and turning our heads to the real thing.

That is also why artists have equally developed a whole arsenal of techniques to clearly indicate the borderline between art and reality. This may be achieved through exhibiting or staging: whence the frame, the pedestal, the scene. Or the artist might highlight the use of a medium: he lets the canvas shimmer through or leaves the traces of the brush or the chisel. Or the puppet player lets us see the strings, or even the hands manipulating the puppets. And, as far as music is concerned: the sight of the instruments cannot fail to remind us of the fact that we are merely listening to some performance. Finally, artists are fond of evoking manifestly unreal worlds. They stage inexistent beings: gods, angels, monsters, centaurs. And when they derive their figures form the real world, they are so thoroughly transformed that every confusion with reality is impossible.

That is so true that the more a medium differs structurally from the real world, the higher it is rated: compare a coloured wax figure with a monochrome marble statue, or a coloured painting with a black-and-white drawing or a print. Also music lovers prefer the piano or the quartet to even the most extended orchestra.


from way back, it has equally pleased men to make fiction pass for reality. That begins with feigning feelings and ends with forgery. Here ends the world of art and begins the world of deception. Granted, many an artist enjoys his ability to deceive. Think of da Vinci, who painted frightening pictures in the dark corridors of the castle to scare the guests. Or of Apollodoros, who painted a curtain so life-like that an inconspicuous beholder tried to lift it, expecting to lay eyes upon the picture hidden behind it. These certainly are imitations, but they no longer belong to the realm of art: we have rather to do with reality that turns out to be false. That is precisely the problem with a figure of Madame Tussaud: we expect it to move and to address us. That it fails to do so, makes it even more uncanny than a real immobile person staring at us. Which is no to say that an artist might not bring things to a head, like the sculptor de Andrea, who wanted his nudes to be verisimilar even for the hand, and did not hesitate to attempt to warm up the already smoothened surface. Which cannot fail to all the more highlight the inability of the figures to move and to respond…

Needless to say that such ‘deceptive mimesis’ has nothing to do with the so-called ‘trompe-l’oeil’ in art. In the hands of genuine artists, this is an approved means of heightening the effect of irreality – not otherwise than the reverse accentuating of the stroke of the brush. That people are so keen to gaze through the looking glass to make sure that Van Eyck has rendered even the minutest details of the subject on his panels, only enhances their adoration for his unsurpassed evocative powers. Nobody expects his flowers also to smell. On the contrary: nothing is so ‘unrealistic’ as meticulously rendering something to the minutest detail. Van Eyck’s astounding ‘realism’ is rather indebted to the equally unreal – heavenly – reversed perspective or the golden aura wherein formerly god and his saints used to be staged. Artists who want their images to look real, prefer a totally different approach (Velasquez).


There are also reverse deceivers who would like to make reality pass for art. They so easily succeed because art has, of course, much ground in common with reality.

To begin with, they often call forth the same experiences. In spite of the meanwhile abundant literature on the subject, the real nude as well as its painted counterpart fuel the same erotic fervour (or aversion), even if the image cannot honour the expectations. Also the splendour of a sunset in Sounion does not differ in principle from a sunset painted by Poussin. And there is no crucial difference between the enchantment of the water lilies in Monet’s garden and those conjured up on his canvasses – which, by the way, differ dramatically from their supposed models. Or, to give a more dramatic example: there is no difference in principle between the experience of the real crash of the Twin Towers in Manhattan and its filmed counterpart.

Whether such experiences are aesthetic or not, does not depend on whether they are provoked through something real or trough something which is merely represented. It depends on whether we can adopt a pure ‘contemplative’ attitude. To fully ‘enjoy’ the experience of the crumbling of the Twin Towers, you should better stay away from the disaster or be sure that no relatives, friends or acquaintances are involved. For the same reason, our pleasure at the sight of a beautiful body is often spoiled through the knowledge that it is devoted to someone else, that it is forced to exhibit itself, or that our partner is jealously witnessing our taking pleasure in it. That is why it is far more easy to adopt a pure contemplative attitude towards mere represented reality, above all when, in addition, every tie with the real world is wholly obliterated. Therefore, and also because there are far more opportunities to adapt the world to our wishes when we have to do with a merely evoked world, art can justifiably be called the natural habitat of the ‘aesthetic experience’. But, ever since Hume’s story about the spectators leaving the theatre for an execution on the market place, we should know that, conversely, nothing can so deeply move us than real experience. That is why nobody will prefer a representation when reality surpasses fiction, provided it does not prevent us from enjoying it… Precisely with regard to these two issues reality tends to have its inherent shortcomings. Whence our predominant preference for art.

The confusion of art and reality is also facilitated through the fact that also reality may be exhibited or staged. Reality is often exhibited to prevent our inadvertently passing it by, or to fully do justice to its beauty – as when flowers are picked and put in a vase. Or, on top of that, reality is often staged because only the then created distance makes exhibition possible at all. Think of the striptease, which is only possibly when the stripper can be sure that (s)he will merely be looked at. Thus, exhibited reality may be detached from the real world – we are no longer allowed to urinate in Duchamp’s urinal…

Although the exhibition of reality isolates it from the real world and enables a contemplative attitude, it does not transform exhibited reality into art. An exhibited flower is as real as before. We have to do here with a borderline case between reality and design. The picking of flowers is a first step towards their refinement through cultural selection. And the exhibition of a body is a first step along the path of its idealisation: through the refinement of its postures and movements, the use of clothes and make-up, plastic surgery and so on. This is foremost apparent in the exhibition - the laying out - of a corpse. But, however much refined, also a selected tulip and an exhibited or laid out body are as real as before. Never does the flower pretend to be something else than a flower. Never does the girl that makes herself up pretend to be someone else. And, however great the effort to make up of Lenin’s corpse, never is it the intention to let him pass for someone else. Which does not prevent that making something up may resort to deceptive mimesis: as when red powder on the cheeks of the deceased suggest that the corpse is still warm. But, as we have seen, also deceptive mimesis is not art, but mere abortive reality.

Exhibition – or ‘dépaysement’ - is a first step on the pathway of a further transformation of reality, on the pathway to design, not to art. That is why the art of flower arrangement (ikebana) and the creations of a Goldsworthy* do not belong in the museum. That is why the dancers of the Crazy Horse do not belong in the theatre. And that is why Duchamps urinal, Spoerri’s breakfast tables, the bodies of Tim Ulrichs, Ben Vautier and Gilbert and George, or Manzoni’s signed woman do not belong in the museum. (This also holds when those exhibitions are read as ‘statements’: see ‘Would Rubens and Beuys shake hands?’). The reversed pedestal on which Manzoni exhibited the whole world, does not suffice to turn the whole world into art. Which does not come down to pretending that the ‘ready made’ or the ‘objet trouvé’ should be excluded from the world of art altogether: in many cases they are genuine art, as we shall see. The question is how it has been possible that meanwhile millions of art lovers have stomached the fact that mere reality exhibited is posing as art in the museum: so severe is the confusion that they did not immediately realise that real objects do not conjure up imaginary worlds and that, on top of that, the mere exhibition of objects is not at all a revolutionary gesture, but rather an age-old, honoured human activity. If there is something revolutionary in Duchamp’s ready-mades, then not the exhibition of real objects – that is as ancient as the picking of flowers – but the way in which he succeeded in making people swallow the idea that he had invented the picking of flowers and that exhibiting was all art was really about!

The case of Gilbert and George may teach us a further lesson. In the end, these ‘sculptors’ replaced their self-exhibition through photographs and self-portraits. They had to, for the same reason as why land-art and most of the constructions of Christo ended up as photographs in an exhibition or a book: good old mimesis is far more productive than sheer exhibition of reality. It is far more convenient to have the Eiffel-tower photographed than to build copies of it all over the world. And it is far more convenient to distribute a video of the attack on the Twin Towers, than to rebuild them again and again and let them be destroyed by a tele-guided air-plane. When reality is merely evoked, it can also be idealised, or entirely imaginary worlds, far more effective than real ones, can be invented.

Trying to declare art obsolete through reminding of the fact that one could as well exhibit the real thing, is no revolution at all, but sheer regression. It can be done, but in most cases it is rather superfluous and not productive at that. And above all, it does not provide enough space for ‘idealising’.


That reality is so easily mistaken for art may also be due to the fact that, quite often, reality is inadvertently transformed into a mere medium for an evoked world: this is the case with ‘found imitations’ or ‘natural mimesis’.

To begin with, there are the numerous sounds ascribed to all kinds of imaginary beings: the howling of the wind and the ghost, the cracking of branches and the sneaking thief, the cracking of wood and the poltergeist, the echo and the nymph, thunder and the roaring gods. Next, there are the countless three-dimensional shapes wherein we descry preferably living beings: the fata morgana suggesting the presence of a lake, clouds wherein we see animals or imaginary landscapes, the dunes in the desert that remind us of a woman’s body, a rock that looks like a skull (Dali), caves that are read as a vagina, sticks or roots that resemble dragons or monsters, clothes that we take for real persons, and so on. And finally, there are also two-dimensional ‘natural images’: da Vinci’s weather-beaten or moss-covered wall, or Max Ernst’s grain in wooden floors, not to mention the whole realm of shadows - of the moonlight in the woods, of the open fire in the castle, of the sun in the leaves (Dali).

To fully enjoy all these natural forms of mimesis, it suffices to persevere in the ‘mistaken’ perception. This can be favoured through exhibition in a becoming place, or through the intervention of a caption naming the similarity, or through weaving stories around suggestive sounds. This is already a first step in the direction of art. A further step is when reality becomes the bearer – the medium – of an image only when real objects are combined, as when fruits are combined to a head (think of Arcimboldo, who, in addition, also painted the whole assemblage) or when Picasso combines the saddle and the handlebars of a bicycle to the head of a bull, or when gas burners are transformed in arrows when Kounellis** combines them with the beam of a cross. This is the fascinating domain of assemblage and collage.

Needles to say that natural mimesis often leads to the production of genuine works of art: think of the rocks wherein the heads of presidents are carved, or the tree-stump that is transformed in a sculpture: Breton’s ‘objet trouvé interprété’.

Finally, we must remind of the fact that there is also something like a ‘found medium’. It is not difficult to see how drawing, painting and sculpting have originated in the making of pots, the carving with knives, not to mention urinating in sand or snow. And how man must have produced the first musical tones by using the bow and the blowpipe. It suffices to work out these ‘read-made’ media in view of their mimetic capacities.


The confusion of reality and art is further enhanced through the fact that real objects often call forth representations: think of souvenirs. Therein objects come to resemble poems. When reading poem, I am looking at letters, but what I see is representations in my mind. The letters I read – or the words I understand – function as signs that conjure up representations.

It is not always words that conjure up representations. Also real objects may do so. The sight of the remains of the bunker at Eperlèques in France, from where during the Second World World V-2s were launched on England, evokes many a representation in the mind of the visitors, and has, as far as this aspect is concerned, something in common with a poem.

In order to tell an object transformed into an image from an object (letters, things) that calls forth representations in the mind, we may discern direct and indirect mimesis, or better still: non-mediated and mediated mimesis. A stick that looks like a snake or Michelangelo’s marble that looks like a pieta, are examples of direct or non-mediated mimesis. Poetry (or a story) and the bunker at Eperlèques are examples of indirect or mediated mimesis.

Not only ruins conjure up representations, also other places bound to human fate can do so: think of ‘Flanders Fields’ or ‘ground Zero’ in Manhattan. Also buildings or rooms can conjure up the representation of the persons who have lived in it. Think of Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles or the Listz’s study in Bayreuth – honoured forms of ‘ready-made’. Also props and attributes defining a person such as the throne of the king, Chaplin’s stick, or Jimy Hendrik’s guitar. Not to mention Christ’s tailbone or the splinter from his cross. Special forms of an attribute are the relic and the fetish.

Just like da Vinci’s moss-covered wall, the bunker of Eperlèques is ‘mimésis trouvé’, ‘found mimesis’. Not only the local tourist office, also artists may exhibit found reality conjuring up representations. Think of Beuys ‘Wirtshafstwerte’: these racks filled with products form the former D.D.R evoke reminiscences of the meanwhile disappeared regime. As do parts of the Berlin Wall or the loom in the museum of folklore.

Artists can even go further and use real objects to conjure up imaginary worlds. As when they suggests a imaginary murder through a real knife and real blood on the floor. Also here it applies that the danger of ‘illusionism’ may be circumvented when the combination of the real objects is only possible in an imaginary world. Think of the Jan Carlier’s installation ‘Highchair with bazooka’.

In all these cases, exhibiting is not the first step in the direction of design, but of art. Even though it is still not the objects themselves that are art – we see right through them, just like we see through the letters of a poem - but the representations in our mind.


And to, finally, make our journey through the world of ‘object art’ still more complicated: even more confusing are the cases of double mimesis. ‘Double mimesis’ is when someone paints an object that conjures up representations, or when someone imitates Nelson Mandela’s cell or the debris of the Twin Towers. Some artists rebuild entire buildings and transport them from museum to museum, like Ilya Kabakov’s lavatory where people used to live in. That we are dealing here with imitated reality weakens the impact of those real things, just like a staged execution has not so strong an effect as a real one.

But a genuine art lover will condescendingly look down on such a verisimilar imitation, for the same reason as he looks down on a wax figure: mimesis threatens to be debased to mere deception. When he cannot lay eyes upon the original thing, the art lover will prefer less deceptive evocations. All the more since the artist then can change the original so that it becomes far more effective. Think of the countless ruins painted by artists, not to mention the painted attributes, relics, fetishes and traces: in short, a honoured part of traditional painting. And artists did no limit themselves to rendering existing objects and places: think of Brueghel’s ‘Tower of Babel’ or Piranesi’s ‘Carceri’. No longer are they obliged to summon up bulldozers and cranes to drag away tons of steel and concrete: apart from some talent, mere paint and a brush will suffice. Therein art will always surpass reality: it takes far more trouble to reshape a real body than to create a painted or sculpted figure.


It is apparent then that the exhibition of reality (a vase with flowers) or the creation of real objects that have to pass for real (deception) having nothing to do with art. On the other hand: the fixation of found ‘mimesis’ (‘objet trouvé’), the combination of found objects to a whole that conjures up something different from the constituent parts (assemblage and collage), and the use of real objects to conjure up representations in the mind, may justifiably be called art. But, even though a creative mind may work wonders through one of these three kinds of ‘object art’, it is mistaken to let this exodus to the twilight-zones of mimesis – if not the betrayal of art to life itself – pass for a new flight of art. On the contrary: it rather clips art’s wings. Even though real objects may save the artist the effort of creating something new, a properly trained and well-inspired hand knows how to effortlessly conjure up even the most impossible worlds.

He who wants to bite into the real apple nevertheless, might still try his luck in paradise.

© Stefan Beyst, July 2002

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