This is a review about a distinction that characterizes all arts. Basically, it's a distinction between "content" (what the art seems to be "about") and "manner" (how the message is conveyed). Sounds simple, but this distinction actually subverts and revolutionizes the terms we just used to describe it. After looking at the artifact/representation distinction for just a little bit, one begins to understand how art's "about" is usually just for openers and how the "manner" of conveying things becomes more important than what is conveyed.

For an at-home laboratory of the ideas in this lesson, visit the museum page and muse on paintings from the collection of the PennState Palmer Museum of Art.

We get into this subject by comparing artifact and representation to forces that can be diagramed as "vectors." If you've never had math of any kind, this may be new stuff, but just think of a work of art as being pulled in two directions that are at right angles to each other. The desire for representation pulls the work across a space littered with obstacles; these are obstacles to the desire of the main character, problems with representation, and so on. The force acting at a right angle to this is like a steering mechanism, a rope that keeps the horse's head pointed straight ahead so to speak. Being at a right angle, in math, means that two elements are "independent." We see this in art. You're not supposed to pay attention to how something's made, but to the story it tells or the picture it shows. Like a carpenter concealing the nail-holes in a piece of furniture, the artist doesn't want you to see him/her sweat. Usually.

"Usually," that is, because at some point the artifact, the "manner," comes back into play. The artwork as artwork comes back to speak of itself, to speak of art's real relationship to life, not just a relationship manifest through the representational function where art portrays some feeling, event, or quality.

This lesson sets you up to notice a distinction that art wants to keep hidden. This lesson is a pair of night-vision goggles. Don't leave it without understanding the analogy of vectors and being able to distinguish artifact and representation on your own!


Zeuxis and Parrhasios

For a full account of this story, read Chapter Three in Art 3: The Third Way to Study Art. Here are the basics. Two painters (names above) agree to enter into a contest to see which is the better artist. They each take a section of a wall and, working in secret, preceed to paint their best. Here's how it goes.

If you got the point of this story, you got the point of the artifact/representation relationship. Parrhasios won the contest because he knew how to use artifact. Everyone was expecting a representation, and Zeuxis gave one to them: a representation of a bowl of fruit. Thinking in terms of the illusion of representations, the crowd thought that you can't get any better than to fool a bird (who is, after all, unbiased) to see real fruit instead of painted fruit.

Parrhasios knew his audience. He knew that humans expect a trick, also that they prefer mysteries and concealments. Expecting to see a curtain anyway, they thought the painted curtain was real. Even the artist, Zeuxis, thought it was real. They thought it was real because they thought it was simply an artifact, a part of the presentation apparatus. This lured them into complacency, and they were easily fooled.

Because Parrhasios knew his audience better than Zeuxis, he deserved to win.

Now, do you know what Parrhasios knew?

vectors: just playing around

Let's go back to the math part. We are using "vectors" to portray the relationship of artifact to representation in a work of art. Let's use the model to bone up on just what an "artifact" and "representation" are.

On a standard algebra-type graph, the axes are at right angles, or "orthogonal." This means that the x axis can change as much as it wants without affecting the y axis, and visa versa. In a certain formal sense, artifact and representation are independent from each other and can be shown as "orthogonal."

Remember physics? The motion of an object could be divided into component forces, as for example when an object like the moon is in orbit around the earth. There is a force that pushes it forward (the inertia, the original motion of the body) and a force pulling the moon towards the earth (gravity). Together, these two forces define the moon's circular orbit.

Now, think of a work of art as an object in motion. Its direction and speed are determined by two component forces, represented as vectors at right angles from each other: artifact and representation. Different works vary in the proportion of these two components they use. "Realistic works," like some novels, emphasize representation and conceal the presence of artifact. You aren't aware of the writing; it seems a "natural" description of life-like, ordinary events. If we drew a graph of this kind of artwork, it would be a line drawn very close to the "representation" vector.

Consider, on the other hand, a work like a fairy tale. It doesn't represent anyone we know, or could have known, but takes place "once upon a time." Its plot is formulaic; its rhythms are primordial; its characters are archtypes. It doesn't care about representation but instead reflects a timeless order common to all fairie tales. We would say that the line drawn to show this work's direction would be drawn very close to the "artifact" axis, because it is the nature of the artifact (fairie tales in this case) that is calling the shots.

It's a bit simplistic to say that "representation" is always "realistic" and artifact has to do with fantasy and the imagination, but the idea is that the fairie tale, like Parrhasios's painting, depends on known relationships between artworks and audiences rather than relationships between art and external objects or events.

directly drawing on things

We could, in fact, draw the diagram on the Zeuxis/Parrhasios story.

Representation as a dimension. Where is the dimension of representation? It extends from the viewers to the illusion, as if the viewers were looking out of a window (the surface on which the painting rests) towards a scene containing the objects in the painting. If we go up close, the paint starts to look like paint and not so much like fruit. The space "behind" the paint is virtual: it only seems to exist.

The representational dimension is "scopic": it shoots from our eye to the objects of our fears and desires. Things that substitute for those objects intersect this dimension and offer substitutes: illusions, descriptions, maps. Got it?

Artifact as dimension. The dimension of the artifact has to be at a right angle to this dimension. So where should we put it? The first place to try is the wall itself: the surface that holds the paint in position and guarantees it some permanence. We can't go past the wall, we only imagine that space "behind" the painting's surface exists, and to do this we imagine that the painted wall surface is transparant.

To make this make sense, we have to change the artifact from a vector (a line) to a surface (the painted surface of the wall). No problem. It still represents matters that are independent from the representational act. This is how Parrhasios won: he used the artifact to represent itself. A curtain should have covered the painting, but he painted the curtain instead. He fooled men not birds by reversing the usual relationship between artifact and representation.

This relationship between dimension has long been recognized by artists, who like to play around with its metaphoric possibilities. Consider this quote from Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Pale Fire:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the window pane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate;
Uncurtaining the night, I'd let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
and how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

The bold-type terms correlate to the Zeuxis/Parrhasios story. How?

  1. waxwing slain
  2. false azure
  3. window pane
  4. reflected sky
  5. exactly stand
  6. crystal land

The brighter among you realize that these terms provide an anatomy of the artifact of art. They are a list of parts with which all artists work to create their illusions.

Theater Building. An example that might make everything clearer still is that of a theater, roughly shaped like the letter 'T', with the audience on the vertical stem and the stage on the top cross-piece.

Which is artifact? Which representation? Well, the audience sits along the line of representation for an important reason. Why? The artifact space extends to the left and right of this line of representation. Why? How does this relate to the need to conceal artifact?


giotto: mural and theater

For those who are still a little hard of hearing, a final example may do the trick. In a very famous chapel in Padova, Italy (the "Arena Chapel"), Giotto painted scenes out of the Bible, from Creation to Judgment Day. The wall was his representational surface, his artifact. To tell the story, he had to combine the qualities and capabilities of the wall to serve as a narrative space.

Churches by this time followed a formula: the important part, the altar, was located on the east end; the entrance was at the west. This allowed the worshipers to re-play their redeption in terms of the cardinal directions. They came in from the "evil" west (place of death and tragedy, right?) and proceeded towards the origin of all good, the east. Giotto had no trouble adopting this system. He used the ceiling to begin, since the "top" was as good as the "east" in terms of establishing an origin point. He then spread the tales of the Old Testament out so that they read like cartoon comics -- not in frames exactly, but divided into zones so that stories could be unfolded.

At the rear was — you guessed it? — the apocalyptic judgment day. The building as artifact became a perfect container for the representation of the story of creation. What if Giotto had not payed attention to the "ratio" between the building and the painting and just treated the wall and ceiling surfaces as "room" for painting?

You guessed it: he would have gotten the sack.


Here are the things you should know:

  1. What representation and artifact are and how they work in art.

  2. How vectors can be used to show how representation and artifact work.

  3. What a "ratio" between representation and artifact is.

  4. How "artifact" can be anything from structure to the physical support of art.

  5. How representation can be "contaminated" by artifact.

  6. Why Parrhasios won the contest.


Copyright © 2004 by Donald Kunze.

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.