the contest of zeuxis and parrhasios

[from D. Kunze, The Art 3 Idea: A Third Way to Study Art, 2000]

There were two famous painters in ancient Greece, Zeuxis and Parrhasios. Each was at the pinnacle of his abilities, no one knew how to choose between them. They, however, decided to resolve the issue for once and for all, with a “painting duel” held under strictly controlled conditions. They assigned themselves two areas of a wall, each invisible from the other so that they might work in private. Each artist was to paint a mural, a fresco of pigment in wet plaster. A carefully assembled audience-jury was to view both paintings and award one the prize, ending forever the tedious and insoluble rivalry.

Zeuxis was actually thought to have the edge in this contest. While his paintings were not ultimately judged better than Parrhasios's, they always had a strong initial effect. They could “knock your eyes out,” as they say, by using the tricks of trompe-l'oeil, or super-realism. Parrhasios knew the same tricks but was more subtle. You got to like his paintings because of their time-release effects, which sometimes made them less likable in the beginning. Parrhasios, subtler and probably more talented because his works took time and endured, was ironically less likely to win out over Zeuxis, who was a master of initial surprise. The contest was really about Parrhasios's ability to think his way through this dilemma.

When it came time to judge the freshly completed paintings, the audience of select critics assembled, and, behind them, a large crowd of onlookers. Zeuxis was outwardly calm and confident. He had produced, he seemed to think, his best work for this crucial occasion. Behind the curtain (it was important to reveal the work all at once) was his life's masterpiece.

The spokesman for the jury asked Zeuxis to draw the curtain. When he did, the crowd and jury gasped to see a bowl of fruit, plaintive and simple. How could a great painter be content, in a situation such as this, to paint a bowl of fruit? It was admittedly a finely painted still-life. The glint of light off the pale green surface of the pears made them seem moist and firm. You could practically taste the pomegranates.

After a long period of silence, a bird flew down from its vantage point on the top of the wall, straight into the painted bowl of fruit, from which it had hoped to steal a grape. Hitting the wall with a smack, the bird fell to the ground, a victim of illusion.

Without a doubt, this proved what the jury and audience could scarcely conclude: that the realism of the painting had made it escape its limits, as artificial; the real judge had been the bird, whom no one could accuse of favoritism. When the gasps of the crowd died away, Zeuxis was sure he had won, no matter what Parrhasios's entry. For what better demonstration could he have hoped? Zeuxis's confidence now caused him to straighten up, breathe deeply, and radiate a newfound humanity, which he turned on to Parrhasios who was standing at the edge of the open circle of onlookers. “Now, let's take a look at the undoubtedly excellent work of Parrhasios. “Now, let's take a look at the undoubtedly excellent work of my esteemed colleague” he suggested, with a tone that suggested he would be magnanimous in his victory, always sending a bit of work Parrhasios's way if his own studio got too busy.

Parrhasios feigned or honestly exhibited (one could not say which) a meek but genial tone. Slightly bowed, he did not speak but turned slightly towards the area where his mural was to be revealed. The crowd shuffled and murmured. Zeuxis by now had become their leader.

Now standing around Parrhasios's wall, the crowd grew impatient. Even the curtain began to look a bit dowdy. Zeuxis, not wishing to over-embarrass his rival, came forward after a longish interval and directly addressed the painter. “I think,” he said, “it is time to see what you may have done. Would you honor us by drawing the curtain?”“

Can't be done,” Parrhasios replied. The jury, audience, and Zeuxis thought that Parrhasios was at the breaking point, that he was emotionally crushed by the nearness of defeat. “Surely,” Zeuxis put in, trying to soften the blow of the inevitable, “we would be very happy to see your work, but we're getting a bit impatient standing in the hot sun. Just show us the painting.”

After a pause, Parrhasios replied, “You're looking at it.” The onlookers focused more carefully on the wall, realizing at last that they were looking at a painting of a curtain.

You don't have to be Greek to conclude that the prize went to Parrhasios, or that the reason was that, while Zeuxis had tricked a bird, Parrhasios had not only managed to trick human beings, but his fellow-professional at that.

A subtler truth within the story is about human perception versus animal perception. The bird went for the food, and was dependent upon the appearance of the grape which it would, in some eternal moment in bird-heaven, be able to eat: a sort of behavioristic “operant conditioning” situation where stimulus and reward follow each other in close succession. The human situation is different, in the evidence of this anecdote. The humans saw not a grape-like thing, but the cover of that which they wanted to see. They were tricked because they were expecting a concealment of what they wanted. They automatically valued only what was invisible, inaccessible. Used to concealments,
they did not inspect the painting of the curtain closely. They were tricked by their own expectations, even if the curtain had been painted poorly.

The first moral of the story might be called the audience's take-home truth. Good artists can fool our natural selves, great artists fool our cultural — our real — selves. The deeper moral is for artists and student-critics of the arts. This has to do with a rule to follow. When it comes to tricking humans, you can rely on them to help you with their own expectations. And, humans expect tricks! — In this case, a simple curtain. The good artist therefore gives a good trick: a painted grape that fools our natural selves. The great artist gives a great trick: a trick2, as it were. The great artist anticipates our predilection for trick1 tricks, and tricks the trick, making a trap for humans.

The bolagram contrasts the transitive relationship between an audience and an illusion (suspension of disbelief remains silent — the audience 'knows' that the painting is an illusion) with the 'intranstitive' relationship between the audience's impatience and their gullible consumption of the painting of the curtain. The anecdote strikingly demonstrates the 'two-screen theory', since there are 'two walls', the Zeuxis wall, supposed to disappear through the collaborative consent of the audience willing to be sucked in by the illusion ($) and the Parrhasios wall, that really DOES appear although it (with the curtain on it) doesn't exist. The small object of desire, impatience, the surplus of the event, returns to the 'center' of the Other that the audience has constructed, the authoritarian basis of the painted illusion.

Compare this story with the opening lines of Nabokov's 'fictional' poem (a poem supposedly written by one of the characters of the novel, Pale Fire). The poem clarifies the anecdote in a strangely coincidental way.

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!

© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved