September 15 - December 14
Is it an imitation of appearance or of truth?
tromp l’oeil n [French tromp-l’oeil, lit.,
deceive the eye] 1: a style of art in which
objects are depicted with photographically
realistic detail; (fr. tromper v/t., deceive; be
unfaithful to; outwit + l’oeil n., the eye.)
“Art is a lie that tells the truth.”
You are standing in an art gallery looking at super-realistic works of art. Quite frankly, you are also eavesdropping on other gallery visitors as they admire these works. So effective is the artist’s tromp l’oeil technique that you repeatedly overhear comments whispered with hushed awe: “It’s so real!” “So life-like!” “It’s as good as a photograph!” Plato may squirm in his grave, and Picasso surely laughs in his, but these viewers are genuinely impressed. Even more, they are moved. And they stand looking hard far beyond the average 7.5 seconds typical of most viewers attending museums.
Two phenomena are acknowledged in these visitors’ comments. One is the abiding fascination humans have for ultra-precise reproductions of objects in nature, for what we so innocently love as “realism.” The other is that the photograph (or in Jud Nelson’s case, the hologram), not the thing itself, is so often cited as the highest standard in praising the handmade “realist” object, as if photography, not nature, is the gold standard for Reality and the truest measurement for skill. Why do we so love mimesis, imitation? And why is the photograph—a mechanical copy of the surface details of a thing—treated as the “truth” of the thing and therefore as the highest standard of measurement for the artist’s image?
Plato would have thought us fools for this. He exiled the artist who imitates from his ideal Republic as a dangerous deceiver lacking in virtue. Imitation, he claimed, was merely an artist’s copy of the craftsman’s honest and practical copy of the god’s ideal form. The artist’s image was thrice removed from reality, and though it seemed to require knowledge of the world to make, in fact, he said, the artist lacked understanding of things because he worked only like a mirror, imitating surfaces without having to grasp the full nature or truth of the thing. In doing so, argued Plato, the artist played, not to the “superior part of the soul,” which is the mind guided by reason, but to “the inferior part of the person,” which is the senses guided by pleasure or appetite. Because Plato believed that the senses are so easily deceived by appearances, but reason is not, he condemned the artist as a liar with the singular question, “Is it an imitation of appearance or of truth?”
Even so we stand amazed for long minutes examining the super-realistic sculptures of Jud Nelson in Bethel’s Olson Gallery. Only the crankiest stoic would deny the magic sense of presence created by these works. But the question is, do these astonishingly perfect renderings in stone and styro-foam offer us only pleasure? Or do they tell us more about reality’s truth beyond the fact that we can copy it? Especially when, after we have gotten past the initial amazement, we realize we are staring at very mundane things, from cheerios to hot dogs to chairs to baby bottle nipples? While Socrates admitted to loving such pleasures, Plato portrays his reluctant verdict as, “no.” Cast the artist-trickster out, Plato has Socrates say.
But this is not the end of the argument. Picasso reversed Plato’s verdict, boldly claiming that, “art is a lie that tells the truth.” He subverts Plato by agreeing with him that imitation is a deception; but he then points out that this kind of deception is a Good. Indeed, it is required for knowing the truth. In Jud Nelson’s case, the argument is a powerful one. For it is precisely because of Nelson’s astonishing imitation that we begin to doubt appearances and question our senses’ perception. It is precisely his deceptive use of mimesis that engages reason, forcing us to think through what we actually see and how we know what is there. Nelson’s works pose a question about how we process visual information, playfully warning us that we too easily make assumptions about what we see and its truth. The paradox here is real, and the brilliance of Nelson’s sculpture is that it leverages itself off the paradox.
What Plato feared was that imitation would distance us from truth. This may be accurate for the weaker practitioners of imitative art. But it seems to me that in Nelson’s case, it is his deception of the eye, his use of “photographically” realistic detail to outwit the eye that makes us realize the truth. Or better, by being relentlessly true to the object, he is actually unfaithful to the eye by positing one thing that is really something else. What the eye and habit tells us is bread is now translated into marble. A delicate teabag’s transience is now pure white styro-foam. A meaningless cheerio becomes stone on a giant scale. Nelson’s contradictions to the eye, his subversions of weight, density, and
material, delight and unbalance the senses. Rather than distancing us from reality, they compel us to search for it.
In practice, mimesis is vision’s empiricism. It is the means by which we look at the world, restate what we think we have seen, and then compare that statement back to nature and forward to other’s statements, all in order to test our perceptions. Mimesis offers a simple confirmation about where we are. When the artist hits it right, we
experience delight, but also affirmation. Mimesis is to vision and the senses what “naming” is to language and the senses. A child learns to speak by imitating the statements of his elders, until eventually that child understands and is able to speak intelligently from itself. Of course, some people never understand and only parrot what they hear. The same is true for some imitative artists. And perhaps these are the ones that Plato resented. But just as Plato imitated (recorded and taught) what his teacher Socrates said, until he discovered within those words his own vision, so too the profound artist imitates the world in a way that brings forward deeper perceptions and questions.
And what is the fruit of those questions asked by mimesis? Initially we are simply drawn to the surface appearance of these works. Obviously at that level we respect the artist’s skill, his capacity for sheer observation, patience and technical prowess in reproducing what is observed. But once accustomed to the shock of seeing something we
personally lack the ability to do, we arrive at a more interesting level. Through such realism, we are made to realize that we almost never really look at the textured, jeweled world of things all around us. We are stopped cold in our tracks; our headlong rushing through life, we are now given to understand, is literally a visual blur. By stepping out of the frantic maelstrom, the artist has actually seen something, and now we see it too. Or more precisely, we see the imitation of it; which sets into motion a radical process of comparison by which our minds move rapidly from our knowledge of the real thing to the artist’s copy, looking for flaws or differences. All knowledge develops only by way of this process of comparing and contrasting.
Through this process, for the briefest moment we forget ourselves. That is, we cease editing reality according to the rushing blur of our personal emotions and appetites because we now encounter something on its own terms; something disinterested, and therefore something “other.” This is a delivery from appearances and appetite. The surprise of it liberates us from Narcissus. And it refutes Plato’s fear that the imitation of appearances only leads people to embrace their self-serving appetites because it has caused us to doubt appearances.
During this process, we have forgotten ourselves and are transported by having been forced to see a visual truth. In most viewers the result is a smile, if not laughter because what enabled us to see this truth is, in fact, a kind of lie. For only by deceiving our eye has the artist made us see by showing us something whose “reality” is convincing
but which is not what it seems. Our awe-struck museum goers loved “realism” because it appears to be so transparent in its access to reality. Nelson’s work demonstrates that “realism” is not simple transparency. The style called “realism” is in fact an idea about Reality. It is an interpretation about seeing and about what exists beyond the body and mind.
If Nelson’s work really raises such philosophical questions, some might ask why use such trivial objects. I think one answer is that such objects are far less loaded (politically, socially, religiously) than the so-called “important” forms such as the human figure. The humble still-life object has long served the artist to show us the astonishment of simply being here. I think a further answer is that to experience awe before such ordinary things and such extraordinary skill in creating, brings us to humility. It teaches us that beauty and high creativity exist in the lowest places. We are asked to accept our proper scale in the world. And even more, we are asked this by way of a joke that fooled us and made us laugh at ourselves. We thought we knew and now ambiguity and paradox and humor have chastened our hubris. Some are offended by this call to humility. They chafe at being brought low by humor. It is too democratic, too embracing of everything and everyone. I, for one, would argue that without such humor, paradox, and ambiguity—without the artist to help us mock our own pride—the Republic will not be a healthy society.
Professor of Art History, Bethel University