Fiction and Reality in Modern and Contemporary Art

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Fiction and Reality in Modern and Contemporary Art
11.12.2019
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Up to the present time, it remains hard to understand the role of the aesthetic illusion in art. The question is in the dependence and interconnection between illusion and reality. All the time, artists try to draw and paint realistic images. This realism tends to be the “only truth.” At the same time, it becomes to be the “pure illusion.” The moment of transformation of the reality to illusion and vice versa is still undetermined. The scholars who did research to determine this notion perceived the role of fiction differently. However, most experts who were studying the concept of art as a combination of illusion and reality paid attention to animals’ understanding of illusions in painting. Animals are most similar to humans among other beings and things of the material world. Like humans, they can see, hear, and react to events and actions. They have instincts and the ability to make simple conclusions due to mental activity. Existing similarities let researchers make conclusions about possible human behavior in different situations based on animals’ behavior. The same can be said about the reaction of animals to paintings and illusion in them.

Mitchel (1995) presents in his essay the understanding of illusion by different authors and explains his point of view on this problem. The aim of this paper is to examine the presentation of fiction in art and its use as a source of influence. Moreover, the current work connects the concept of pictorial illusion, highlighted in the essay, with social, political, and cultural issues of nowadays.

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Mitchel (1995) claims that the problem of understanding the aesthetic illusion should not be observed from one particular side. There are different points of view about aesthetic illusion, depending on the period of time, beholders, and artists. “Illusion is a natural, universal phenomenon, transcending cultural boundaries and historical epochs” (Mitchell, 1995, p. 329). The issue is that it is not always possible to distinguish illusion from reality. In order to support this idea, the author uses the picture from a cartoon that presents two fish that discuss a lure. The fish see that the lure is artificial and understand that this is a trick. In this case, the fish are cleverer than the fisherman. It would be reasonable to return to this example later, after the discussion of all the issues of this paper.

Realism is known as the truest way of picturing the outer world. In all times, artists tend to make real pictures of the things that they see. They picture everything in clear detail to achieve the maximum similarity with the original. At the same time, Mitchell (1995) states that “realism is absolutely conventional and artificial – that realism is a question of tricks, devices, and other lures and not of any universal standard.” He gives examples from ancient times that illustrate this statement. The essence of this statement can be discussed in different ways.

Firstly, it can be discussed by observing people and nature around them. Before the invention of photography, making portraits of the upper society was quite a popular kind of business. Painters like Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, and others were the masters of this genre. Many other painters pictured scenes from real life, real people, and animals. Still, life and landscapes also strive to maximum realism. This way of art has been claimed for quite a long time, and it is present now. In order to make pictures more realistic, artists used many devices like mirrors and camera obscura. All these tricks were directed toward making an identical, but not alive copy of the object. On the one hand, it was used for documenting the state of things. On the other hand, it was used for making an illusion for beholders.

The most impressive in these paintings is the illusion that lasts for times. Due to this people can nowadays see great paintings of masters from all over the world in different museums. There are many beautiful paintings, including portraits. When a person looks at them, a real person is looking from these portraits in return. When the look at this person is pictured in the painting, the viewer communicates with the image and most likely does not have in mind the idea that this image is not the truth. On the contrary, this image is an illusion, and a person pictured in it is not really alive for a long time. But still, the people in portraits look at beholders as if real and alive. The beholder stays bewildered, and the illusion of the painting is at work.

In realism, an artist deceives others with the help of illusion. In other words, the artist deceives people by the “truth”. As Mitchel (1995) correctly writes, “the “truth” in painting is verified by its ability to deceive animals, a power which can also be exercised over human beings,” A person cannot be deceived with the help of surrealism, for example. The person can be masterfully deceived with the help of realism like it can be done with animals. If the lure is not realistic enough to fool a person, it will not be good for fish as well. It is not the error of the artist but the viewer.

There are many cases when still life is pictured in such a quality that a person has a desire to take one of its objects and eat, or the appetite gets evoked in minds. By this illusion, the instincts are growing in human beings. On the other hand, it is just an object very similar to the original. Moreover, there are cases when an artist can picture objects in a condition better than it is in reality. With this, double deceit takes place: firstly, when a person sees the object as a real thing; secondly, when a person sees the object which is pictured better than it is in reality.

The question about the truth of reality has arisen from the above-mentioned arguments. As a matter of fact, there is a huge possibility that all the reality around us can be just an illusion.

Mitchel (1995) distinguishes two types of perception of art. It is a self-other relationship. It is characterized by inequality in power, self-consciousness, and self-control. The Self, from his point of view, is “that which sees, not only the truth in an illusion, but that is to be seen as an illusion.” The Other is the one that is influenced by the illusion, “failing to it (truly) as an illusion and mistakenly taking it for the reality it (truly) represents.”

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The pictorial illusion depends on the social diversity of the beholders. Mitchel writes that “painting is presented as a restraint and discipline of power as well as an instrument of it, a way of introjecting the master-servant relationship into the sovereign” (338). The examples used in the previous paragraphs show that the perceptibility of the things that can play tricks is based on personal experience. Moreover, the situations mentioned above prove that animals and people can be tricked by the elements of fiction. Furthermore, the author of the essay states that the observation of animals deceived by humans may help understand fiction that deludes people (Mitchel, 1995). The fact that people use animals to test things for the benefit of humans proves that there is some resemblance between humans and animals.

According to Mitchel (1995), there are two ways to perceive fiction in paintings: to recognize and understand it or be “caught” by it. The author uses the image of animals as a metaphoric notion that one should use for observation of human relations. Therefore, in his research, Mitchell (1995) transfers the meaning of the man-animal relation to the man-man one. In fact, it helps show the supremacy of one person over the other. Consequently, it is easy to manipulate the people who take any information that they get for granted, graphical one in particular. It this case, some persons’ inability to distinguish fiction from reality makes them vulnerable to the influence of those who use illusion techniques as a way of mass manipulation.

For this reason, Mitchel insists that perception and the ability to perceive depend and are based on social inequality. It depends on structures of power and social otherness. There are different points of view of slaves and masters, who are the people from other social groups and classes. Animals are discussed here as the lowest class who receives information from the image and analyzes it only as an image without involving any intellectual activity. Animals here demonstrate how radical this otherness can be. They see what they really see, and thus can be deceived by it. From Mitchel’s (1995) point of view, “animals have a special, almost magical relation with humanity.”

Animals are the picture of people in a very clear sense, in the sense of main instincts. To live, eat, and reproduce themselves are the main things for animals and the main issues for people who have minimum cultural education. Mitchell especially points at it by saying that “animals stand for all forms of social otherness: race, class, and gender are frequently figured in images of subhuman brutishness, bestial appetite, and mechanical servility.” Since a person is a social animal, these things can distinguish humans from animals or make them similar.

Mitchell describes the “man-as-animal” figure that embodies the level of cultural development. He states that “this reduction of the animal is part of the same process as that by which humans have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units.” Modern society is the society of consumers that is very influenced by illusions. People have stopped analyzing things, studying, and striving to develop, including the cultural one. Members of this society need others’ opinions, others’ life and desires. They do not need to think by themselves. Everything that they need is to watch television, consume news that is given to them, buy goods that were advertised for them, and live this other life dictated to them. These people prefer to live in the illusion which is given to them by others. They are living in deceit. They do not have their own opinion and are controlled by others. From this point of view, these people are like animals that are caught by an illusion given to them. They are slaves of modern society. They are just consumers dependent on everything. Therefore, they are living in fiction. Mitchel (1995) points that “aural fetishism is a relatively rare disease, confined to a few audiophiles, while visual fetishism in a culture of television, propaganda, and advertising is endemic, not to say an epidemic in advanced industrial societies” (343).

Then, Mitchel (1995) uses Leonardo da Vinci’s examples of animals that perceive the portrayal of humans and other animals to be the real ones. Here, the human is the one who tricks. The first picture contains an illusion because it describes fish that look like intelligent people. The second example depicts the normal behavior of animals that did not recognize fiction in reality. Therefore, one cannot say exactly where illusion ends and reality begins.

One of the most interesting examples of illusion in modern art is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). This creative piece of art was made after World War I. This time, many people were disappointed about the society, its rules, and the absence of justice. Artists tended to an unreal, irrational world. Marcel Duchamp was the main theoretician of the Dada movement as the mainstream of that time. This movement was an attempt to cross the borders of people’s thoughts about the world in general and art in particular. Marcel Duchamp was one of the first who expressed the protest against social rules. His Fountain (1917) shocked and impressed the society of the time. In it, the fountain is the porcelain urinal with the words “R. Mutt” at the side of it. A person looking at it can see clearly the only thing – the urinal. There is nothing more but an illusion. The meaning of the picture is hidden.

In his essay, Mitchel (1995) gave a similar example of an illusion. The picture of grapes successfully produced by Zeuxis was covered under the realistic picture of the curtain produced by Parrhasius. By this, the real meaning of the picture was hidden with no chance to return the original image of grapes. It can be seen as a metaphor for modern art where the real meaning of art pieces can be hidden under the cover. From this example, Mitchel made a conclusion that “the difference between animal and human judgment is the difference between the grapes and the curtain: in the one case, the lure is what is depicted, the illusion of grapes presented by the painting; in the other, the lure is precisely what is not depicted, what remains invisible in the illusion, forever concealed behind the curtain.”

That is the same thing as with the piece of Marcel Duchamp. In the one case, the lure is what can be seen, i.e., porcelain urinal with the words on it. On the other hand, the lure is something that is not seen. It is hidden. The illusion here is in the fact that people can think whatever they want. They can analyze, discuss, and make their own conclusion. They are considering the illusion by themselves, already not by the image presented by an artist. There are common trends in contemporary art, including expressive abstraction (Fauves); geometric abstraction (cubism, futurism, constructivism); dreams, fantasy, and pursuit of the irrational.

The illusion is possible in all the senses and media. One should mention the role of fiction in social, political, and cultural issues of nowadays. According to Mitchell (1995), “Pliny repeatedly emphasizes the social and political function of illusionistic painting, its role in the continuity of the state and the social order.” Pliny wrote about illusionistic painting as a cultural practice. According to him, Roman emperors used art not only to get the aesthetic pleasure but as a means of political influence and propaganda (as cited in Mitchel, 1995, p. 338). Today, art has the same functions.

Politicians all over the world use art as a means to achieve their goals. In the period of elections, pleasant and smiling men and women look at voters from numerous billboards. There is a sunny and happy atmosphere. Everything is beautiful. The illusion is made to influence viewers. The same can be said about advertising that is used to deceive people by different means. The main aim of the advertisement is to force a person to buy goods or services independently from the real need for it. It makes an illusion of the necessity of these goods and services, and it tells a person what to buy or do. Advertisement rules people’s minds and desires. There is a huge range of ways to make this influence. Professionals widely use many psychological techniques to make this kind of fiction. There are separate sciences that deal with making proper photography, using proper colors, and other things. Everything is made for the illusion. Professional and purposeful deployment of effective “decoys” and “lures” in advertising has its place.

Advertisements communicate with people through the use of dominance and superiority. Due to the illusion made by advertisement, ordinary people can become victims of the “advertising horizon” and see excellent-looking people with all attributes of rich life such as brands, new techniques, etc.

Human images and their bodies in advertisements are also part of the illusion. Beautiful people are wearing good clothes. Emotionally, a person feels perplexed and thinks that that is the right thing to look like people presented in advertisements and buy clothes that can make them beautiful. Moreover, many images show beautiful bodies, male and female, sometimes in provocative poses. It gives the etalon of the way how to look. This illusion is represented by people in a sexual context and influences them emotionally and unconsciously.

People use fiction tricks to make other people believe, buy, and vote for the things that look realistic only in the pictures. Fiction is frequently used in advertising as a source of mass influence. The techniques of illusionism make it possible to create the image of products that can trick people into thinking that the exact product has the features depicted. Moreover, one applies fiction in political propaganda to make people believe that this exact candidate or party will help people live as illustrated on the agitation leaflet. Regarding cultural issues, illusionism plays a significant role in the development of modern art, the one that is focused on the society of consumers.

The main issue of modern society is materialism. Mitchel (1995) points to the fetishism of materials and names it “a new kind of illusionism in which money replaces men” (338). The parameters of the market are everywhere. The market is at home, in college, university, and streets. Modern life is made by the market: all commodities, houses, traffic, etc. It is a market-made reality that is just a human-made illusion.

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However, some painters use illusionism to depict the problems of the modern community. The works of Steve Cutts illustrate the issues of nowadays people. The picture All Aboard! describes blind mice in human clothes at the underground station (Cutts, 2015). It is not only an example of the contemporary art that presents reality with the help of fiction, but rather another metaphorical representation of human relations.

It is necessary to discuss aspects related not only to illusion but to illusionism as well. The illusion is the opposite of illusionism. According to Mitchel, illusion relates to illusionism as forgery to imitation, errors to similitude, realism to surrealism. The illusion is the sheer deceit. Illusionism is the free choice of the beholder to slave. Mitchel writes that “illusionism is a specific cultural practice, valued only at certain special historical moments.”.

Illusionism concerns humans and not animals. It is the thing that distinguishes animals from human beings in the understanding of art.

Mitchel (1995) points that “the proper use of painting among free citizens is as a “liberal science” …, an art of illusionism, not illusion, which frees the beholder’s faculties, transmits power to the beholder so that he may “conquer himself,” enslave himself. This is what we could call “aesthetic illusion”, or … “self-referential illusion” (339). The painting shows the identity of an artist and the climate in society as well as the attitude of the artist to historical events. By painting, an artist expresses such feelings as happiness, joy, sorrow, love, kindness, and so on. Painting is the thing that affects society with the help of illusionism. It is a deep insight into life and its sense. With the help of illusionism, painters have forced a viewer to use imagination, collect different pieces in one common picture, and be creative and artistic. It makes art a mystic thing. With the help of illusionism, the world around becomes a fairytale where everything is possible.

Many painters used illusionism in their works. Among others, it is necessary to pay the attention to such great illusionists of all times as Salvador Dali, Maurits Cornelis Escher, Victor Vasarely, and others.

Some artists used to make collages. One of them is Max Ernst who made different collages based on illustrations from magazines and old engravings. His works describe the inner world of a person, tending to access unconsciously. For example, his Surrealism and Painting (1942) shows the process of painting with the use of an “automatic” technique that let’s go deep in the inner world of a person.

Salvador Dali is the master of surrealism. All his life, he was a shocking society and lived not an ordinary life. He was one of the inventors of the Surrealism movement that can be described as the world of super-reality. Artists of the movement expressed in art their feelings and dreams. The main source of inspiration for them was Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Salvador Dali used illusionism in his works. Unreal people and places, melt things everywhere, ants and donkeys, and strange creatures are walking through mysterious landscapes. Dali’s work The Persistence of Memory (1931) is a great example of illusionism used in the piece of art. Another illusionistic piece created by Dali is situated in the Dali Museum in Figueras, Spain. It is the Mae West Hall, where a viewer can see a woman’s face from different things of furniture. Among the furniture is a sofa in the form of lips, which is named “Dalilips.” The original of this thing is the lips of the actress Mae West, the portrait of whom was made by Dali. The eyes of this illusionistic woman are two paintings; the nose is a fireplace. This is an example of illusionism, where a person looking at the hall can collect the whole image of a woman in the mind. Imagination here plays a huge role.

Maurits Cornelis Escher is another great illusionist. He is a Dutch artist who used to make mathematically inspired graphic pictures. With the help of different techniques, he made images that were visually impossible. His ladders go up and down simultaneously. His buildings have many doors and windows that are changing all the time. His characters go somewhere and nowhere, and in different directions at the same time. Escher makes illusionism that places a viewer in the unreal place and directs toward the shock of beholder’s brains.

Victor Vasarely used to draw different kinds of illusion. He worked with geometry and used to paint a lot in black and white. Vasarely’s piece Zebra (1993) is an example of illusionism made with the use of added space. The picture was made with a great understanding of a person’s way of seeing and thinking. Vasarely artistically rules the glance of a viewer in a proper direction.

The mentioned examples of illusionism in the painting show a wide range of opportunities for people to go outside the box that is made in people’s minds by society. It is the enemy to the modern society of consumers with its films, advertisements, and other connected things. Art is the reality in imagination.

After the information mentioned above, it is a proper time to return to the discussion of the cartoon mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Having discussed all the above arguments, the following conclusion can be made. Any fisherman makes every effort to reach realism. They make highly realistic lures to create the illusion of a real fish. In the cartoon, the fisherman overdid and got nothing. The fisherman gave the fish not an illusion but illusionism. The fish as animals or slaves could not understand it, and due to their intellectual and cultural level, they did not get a lure. Mitchell wrote that illusion relates to illusionism as realism to surrealism. The hidden sense here is in the question of the level of art perception. This level depends on the intellectual and cultural development of the beholder. Not everybody can understand illusionism. As for animals, they can understand illusion but never illusionism.

In conclusion, one can say that there is no strict division between fiction and reality in art. Modern and contemporary pieces of art prove the fact that the means of illusion can influence people considerably. The role of fiction in the life of people can be traced back to ancient times. According to Mitchel (1995), who examined different points of view on the problem of determination of the fiction measures in art, everything is an illusion. It enables people who understand it to influence those who cannot distinguish reality from fiction. Moreover, this means of art plays an essential role in the social, political, and cultural development of the modern community. Fiction is still used to manipulate people, and animals mark the real relations between the members of society.

Mitchel (1995) argues that the only weapon against illusion is illusionism (344). From his point of view, this is a game for which the rules are now being invented, and one rule might be that the reality is excluded. Illusionism is the place where fiction becomes reality. It uncovers the person’s inner world and lets the individual find something deep inside. Illusionism is not fiction. It is a great invention of humanity that tends to be the real truth, the truth of imagination and the unconscious.

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