Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

Artist and Picture by J.W. Dunne

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Excerpt from The Serial Universe by Dunne, J. W. (Book – 1938) page 29

 A certain artist, having escaped from the lunatic asylum in which, rightly or wrongly, he had be confined, purchased the materials of his craft and set to work to make a complete picture of the universe.

He began by drawing in the centre of a huge canvas, a very small but very finely executed representation of the landscape as he saw it. The result (except for the execution) was like the sketch labeled X1 in FIGURE 1.


Figure 1.

On examining this, however, he was not satisfied. Something was missing. And, after a moment’s reflection, he realized what that something was. He was a part of that universe, and this fact had not yet been indicated. So the question arose: How was he to add to the picture a representation of himself?

Now, this artist may have been insane, but he was not mad enough to imagine that he could paint himself as standing in the ground which he had already portrayed as lying in front of him. So he shifted his easel a little way back, engaged in a passing yokel to stand as a model, and enlarged his picture into the sketch shown asX2 (FIGURE 2).


Figure 2.

But still he was dissatisfied. With the remorseless logic of a lunatic (or genius— you may take your choice) he argued thus:

This picture is perfectly correct as far as it goes. X2 represents the real world as I—the real artist—suppose it to be, and X1 represents that world as an artist who was unaware of his own existence would suppose it to be No fault can be found in the pictured world X2 or in the pictured artist, or in that pictured artist’s picture X1. But I—the real artist—am aware of my own existence, and am trying to portray myself as part of the real world. There pictured artist is, thus, an incomplete description of me, and of my relation to the universe.

So saying, he shifted his easel again, seized his brush and palate, and, with a few masterly strokes, expanded his picture into X3 (FIGURE 3).

Of course, he was still dissatisfied. The artist pictured in X3 is shown as an artist who, though aware of something which he calls himself, and which he portrays in X2, is not possessed of the knowledge which would enable him to realize the necessity of painting X3—the knowledge which is troubling the real artist. He does not know, as the real artist knows, that he is self-conscious, and, consequently, he pictures himself, in X2, as a gentleman unaware of his own existence in the universe.

The interpretation of this parable is sufficiently obvious. The artist is trying to describe in his picture a creature equipped with all the knowledge which he himself possesses, symbolizing that knowledge by the picture which the pictured creature would draw. And it becomes abundantly evident that the knowledge thus pictured must always be less the than the knowledge employed in making the picture. In other words, the mind which any human science can describe can never be an adequate representation of the mind which can make that science. And the process of correcting that inadequacy must follow the serial steps of an infinite regress.

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Author: KC

I am Katarina Countiss, a multimedia designer. I like blogs, games, art and technology. I am curious about how things are made.

One thought on “Artist and Picture by J.W. Dunne

  1. Pingback: After&Before:ArcadeCardiff08-25/03 – Richard Higlett

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