Vicious Circle / Paradox
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Illusion, Delusion, Collusion, and Perceptual Paradox
'There is only one thing that is certain, namely that we can have nothing certain; and therefore it is not certain that we can have nothing certain,' Samuel Butler once said, expressing in that mindbloggler all the elements required to form a classical paradox. Throughout the ages wise men and jesters alike have been intrigued by such mental twists and riddles which defy common sense and yet appear to be true.
* In principle I am against principles *
Frank Gelett Burgess was an artist, art critic, poet, author and humorist. An important figure in the San Francisco Bay Area literary renaissance of the 1890s, particularly through his iconoclastic little magazine, The Lark, he is best known as a writer of nonsense verse.
As the poem suggests, the oval wheels of Gelett Burgess will not give regular movement. Burgess’ wheels draw our attention to the difference between reality and our perception of it. The wheels in pictures after the invention of perspective are oval to accord with our perceptions rather than our conceptions. The camera’s perception of circles as ovals joins the contradictory terms “ellipse” and “wheel.”
In times gone by, apprentice wheelwrights made wooden oval wheels to demonstrate their skill. The surrealist André Breton had one in his collection.
The Treachery of Images
Magritte’s best known work by far is of course his drawing of a pipe with the text Ceci n’est pas une pipe. He made several versions over the years, but the work originated in 1928 or 1929. The title Magritte gave to this painting is La trahison des images—the treachery of images.
In the same year, Magritte published an intriguing article in the surrealist journal La révolution surréaliste, entitled “Les mots et les images.” This article, “words and images,” shows that the phenomenon so playfully taken up in La trahison des images was only one element of a larger set of problems in verbal and visual representation occupying Magritte.
Magritte’s article offers 18 panels dealing with different aspects of the relation between words, images, and reality.
Magritte often represents pictures in which a painting overlaps with the image of the real world, confusing with it and revealing itself as a representation only through the aid of small traces, such as the appearance of the edge of the chiseled canvas on the chassis. Magritte in this way multiplies the game of reflections between reality and its representation: the painting in the picture that spreads the representation of the landscape is itself a representation. Situations of this kind, besides making the idea of representation more complex, contribute to questioning the solidity of reality.
* Every exit is an entry somewhere else *
What is it about the delusion of trompe l'œil that makes such works interesting? After all, there is nothing fascinating in a trompe l'œil painting until the delusion has been dispelled; and once it has been dispelled, the work is most often of no more than minor aesthetic interest. We enjoy examining an object endowed with the power to throw us into a delusory state of mind after it has divulged its secret to us; looking at it sends a shiver down our metaphysical spines much in the way we shiver when we think about an accident in which we were almost involved; we stare at it much as we might stare at the carcass of a wild animal that almost got the better of us. A trompe l'œil picture is an epistemological close call, a reminder that Descartes's evil being that continuously fills us with error may be disguised as a benevolent painter. The point I wish to make therefore is that what is interesting about a trompe l'œil painting arises in our minds after the painting has ceased to trompe our yeux; it is when we have ceased to be the unwitting targets of a practical joke, and we have decided to reflect upon the experience we have just gone through, that the painting acquires its meaning.
* What is the sound of one hand clapping? *
We find our two types of verbal self-reference—where the verb agrees with the noun and where a thing is related to its own self—in visual self-reference. In Raymond Savignac’s Astral Peinture Émail a painter paints a painting that in turn is painting the picture of the painter. For a painting just to paint would not be enough; to make this point there has to be some circularity. - Patrick Hughes, More on Oxymoron
* Living means dying *
Man Ray’s Iron
There is a form of visual contradiction without direct self-reference in some art objects. The flat iron with tacks is a blatant contradiction. Meant to run smoothly. It would stick. Meant to improve clothing, it would ruin it. However, there is a sense in which this contradiction is self-referential: in opposing tacks to the surface of the iron, Man Ray has chosen opposite ends of the same continuum, that of texture. There is nothing smoother than a smoothing-iron, and nothing rougher than tacks.
* Hasten slowly *
A fuller form of self-contradiction, though without vicious circularity, is found in ‘The Treachery of Images.’ This painting depicts a pipe, with the legend ‘this is not a pipe.’ true, it is not a pipe, you cant smoke it. False, it is a pipe, it is not a cabbage. A picture of a thing is not the thing, it represents the thing. It is and is not a pipe. The ‘Cloakroom Ticket’ also contradicts itself.
* Extremes meet *
Vicious circularity is present in Escher’s print ‘Drawing Hands.’ The hand is drawing the hand which is drawing the hand first mentioned. E.H. Gombrich said this of a similar drawing by Saul Steinberg: “There is a charming drawing by Saul Steinberg in which a drawing hand draws a drawing hand which draws it. We have no clue as to which is meant to be the real and which the image; each interpretation is equally probable, but neither, as such is consistent. If proof were needed of the kinship between the language of art and the language of words, it could be found in this drawing. For the perplexing effect of this self-reference is very similar to the paradoxes beloved of philosophers: the Cretan who says all Cretans lie, or the simple blackboard with only one statement on it which runs, “the only statement on this blackboard is untrue.” (Art and Illusion, 1960, p239). It is interesting that the logical paradoxes attack rationalism, using the forces of reason: here Escher attacks realism, using the forces of realism.
In both images, two hands hold a stylus. Each hand draws the other and it just seems that they act at the same time. The two images are then frozen in a sort of circular paradox: each hand is together ‘cause’ and ‘effect’, object of drawing and active subject. There is no beginning or end in the action that is represented; the observer is involved in a narration of time free from the common categories: the perpetual development of the action represented makes it impossible to see a beginning and a fulfillment.
* If you think you're free, there's no escape possible *
The paradox, in other words, is played in accentuating the credibility of the image and its contemporary absurdity, between its plausible and unbelievable being together. The picture describes an acceptable, coherent form that, in spite of the first impression, cannot be transposed into the world of phenomenal reality, of physicality. Something very similar to Steinberg’s synthetic designs that represent stylized human figures that, holding a pen in their hand, trace their contours in the air. Like the Drawing Hands, these images directly represent an impossible situation, that the simplicity of graphic language—(although it may seem paradoxical) like the elaborate pictorial technique of Magritte or the amazing technical expertise in the lithography of Escher—aims to disguise.
Representation, in our common experience, is usually used to describe the reality with which it has a relationship, so to speak, of ‘conditioned specularity’. Likewise, it can describe an altered form, one part, can represent an obvious overturn, conceived to disturb us and make us suspect in our everyday reality. Representative forms of this kind - such as those experienced by Escher and Steinberg - mislead us: our confidence in the relationship between representation and our world is crushed. But it is so deeply rooted in us that even in the face of the absurdity of the image we have before, if it is realized in a just convincing way rather than rendering it as absurdity, we can easily imagine the existence of impossible worlds or end even to subtly doubt the solidity of our reality.
* Your imagination, my dear fellow, is worth more than you imagine *
An ‘amiable vicious circle,’ where the closing of the circle creates a reciprocating structure with everyone supported in a sitting position without any furniture.
* Only the ephemeral is of lasting value *
Vicious Circles and Infinity: A Panoply of Paradoxes
Please ignore this text. Everything written here is both true and false. It is a paradox. If you take it seriously you may, like Bertrand Russell, spend two years in a state of complete intellectual deadlock. A paradox is more than a simple conundrum: take a piece of paper and on it write: "the statement on the other side of this paper is false." Now turn it over and write: "the statement on the reverse side of this paper is false." Mathematicians beginning with Zeno are responsible for most of the intellectual culs-de-sac so gleefully assembled here by the authors Patrick Hughes and George Brecht with paradigmatic Peter Goodfellow cover art. But literary men have not been exempt—remember Alice's communications problems in Wonderland and the catch in Catch-22. Of course sometimes paradoxes spring forth quite spontaneously. Some people find this sort of thing more fun than bridge or Scrabble. The moral is that it doesn't pay to be too logical.
The English artist Patrick Hughes (b. in Birmingham in 1939) has established an international reputation as a painter of paradox. The perception of illusion and reality as well as optical irritations are the main themes of his art.
Patrick Hughes’s methods seem paradoxical, yet they are marked by impressive consistency. His works surprise, irritate, inspire to think and sensitize the consciousness for space and movement.
Between 1963 and 1973, Leeds College of Art and Leeds Polytechnic were at the forefront of an experiment in art and education where "all that was forbidden was to be dull". With Jeff Nuttall, Robin Page, George Brecht, Patrick Hughes and John Fox on the staff, students pushed the freedom and facilities offered further than anything before or since.
It was whilst at Leeds, that Patrick made two of his seminal works, Infinity, 1963, inspired by standing on the railway station at Leeds and looking at the railway tracks, and his first reverspective, the Sticking-out Room of 1964. In 1968–69 Patrick was giving lectures about paradoxes and jokes in Exeter and London and Leeds with George Brecht, the Fluxus artist. Several years later, in 1975, they were to collaborate on Vicious Circles and Infinity, A Panoply of Paradoxes, the first ever book on the paradox.
* "Be spontaneous!' *
George Brecht, The Paradox Shirt - Verona, Italy: Edizioni Francesco Conz, 1989
If everything is equally important, wouldn’t this also mean that everything is equally unimportant? And if so, wouldn’t zooming in on a particular “unimportant” event in one’s life reintroduce precisely the hierarchy Brecht was attempting to abolish? All of Brecht’s work revolves around this dilemma, which he posited as both central and insuperable, more acutely than any of his peers. What he did not consider—and here he remained within the Cagean universe—is the unabashed idealism of his position. From his early lament about the inadequacy of language as a conveyor of meaning to his dream of an “unmediated perception,” from his insistence on the “now” to his adoption of the flow of natural processes as a model, Brecht developed what could be called a form of ascetic (though humorous) mysticism (and this includes his seclusion and near-total silence over the past two decades). This is a maximalist position that is necessarily marginal, and that draws its force from this marginality. Its force, but also its weakness, which is to court invisibility (and thus a concomitant lack of recognition). Two Exercises, a brilliant score of 1961, epitomizes this paradox:
Consider an object. Call what is not the object “other.”
EXERCISE: Add to the object, from the ‘other,’ another object, to form a new object and a new “other.” Repeat until there is no more “other.”
EXERCISE: Take a part from the object and add it to the ‘other,’ to form a new object and a new “other.” Repeat until there is no more object.