The "Mindless Copying" Delusion

I shared this on social media this morning and thought that some might find it helpful here:

A small rant on “copying”:

There are a few individuals out there who continue to promote this idea that SOME observational representationalist painting or drawing efforts are an exercise in mindless or thoughtless “copying of nature”. Fortunately, these claims, often are not only childish in the contemporary contexts in which they are presented—in terms of delusion—they are on par with the idea of a homunculus (a little inner self that is “driving” the human machine.)

While we can indeed skillfully create a stimulus with the careful application and arrangement of colorants on a surface that successfully elicits an effective perceptual experience that can even be mistaken for a perception of nature at times—we are incapable of the mindless, utilitarian tasks alleged by some.

We have no direct perceptual access to the physical world. For even the most mundane visually guided task, there is no veridical perceptual intake any more than there is a static mechanical output for use in a utilitarian “copying of nature.” So no matter to what degree a target percept surrogate and the source percept elicit the same perceptual experience—all deliberate mark-making artists utilize the same perceptual, cognitive and motor resources to participate in the activity. There is just as much “human” contribution in the generation of a high-definition observationalist endeavor as there is within the most celebrated abstract expressionism.

Please get over it. There are far more effective ways to feel better about what is on your easel than throwing out fallacies to disparage the work that stands in contrast to yours.

Paint on my friends!


Zackley! No one has a right to call sny pirce of art a mindless execution. The results, the concept, and design of values and shapes attract collectors and the general public…my belief.


Anthony, I think you are definitely correct that both realist and abstract artists use the same cognitive functions of perceptual copying, but I also think that comments disparaging realism (as in the pursuit of depicting reality) stem from deeper philosophical standpoints within the history of modern art, which I’m sure you are aware of. I have included an excerpt from a final paper I wrote on art theory, which may shed light on this topic:

According to analytical philosopher John Hyman, there are two doctrines in art theory on reality. The first is objectivism: the value of an object is independent of a reaction or response from the viewer (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine) (Hyman, 2006, p. 3). The second is subjectivism: the value of an object comes only from the response it arouses or provokes (Descartes, Hume, Kant). Voltaire argued that the variety of styles proves the absurdity of universal standards, and Pascal argued that beauty could not be calculated by math or reason (Hyman, 2006, p. 3-4). One of the most influential art theorist/historians of the 20th century was E. H. Gombrich, whose book Art and Illusion, firmly cemented the subjective idea that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. The idea that pictorial representation was illusory influenced artists such as René Magritte to believe it was even treacherous (Fig. 7) (Schneider Adams, 1996, p. 2). Another prominent art theorist, Clement Greenberg, stated that art is not about any principles, but experience alone. Artists first created illusion, but now they have lost spatial rights (Chipp, 1968, p. 580). I believe the subjectivists’ contradict themselves. They state that there are no objective standards to know reality and evaluate art, yet they claim that abstract art is the only morally honest art form. Indirectly, the subjectivists hold to a secular worldview error of social progress, insisting that art increasingly moves to more accurate depictions of reality, even though there are no evaluative standards for testing. Philosopher John Hyman asks why we should agree with the subjectivist view that art critic elites discern taste, for if taste is subjective and if beauty is relative why should we believe it exists at all (Hyman, 2006, p. 5)?

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This “mindless copying” argument, I feel is on a similar vein to the “why not just take a photo?” one. To which I often reply, “would you honestly feel the same looking at this painting if it were a photo?”
“But why not make it look like a painting, as it is one?”
“I’m trying to make it look like the objects which don’t look like paintings!”

It inspired me to paint this homage to Magritte.


Brilliant (as always) Tom!!! :heart:

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I’m a bit late to the conversation but this reminds me of conversation, in reality an argument, I frequently have with a friend who is an aspiring comic artist. He firmly believes that all use of photo-reference is cheating. This seems like an absurd and poorly thought out philosophy but he is adamant. I guess I could go down the long lengthy path of explaining here why such thoughts are nonsense, but I am preaching to the choir here and its a useless argument with the aforementioned individual. I will say I find it humorous that we often become so bogged down in our beliefs, including those based on irrationality, that our opinions become inflexible fact. I guess we are all guilty of this form time to time.


Absolutely incredible article. I’ve seen this some time ago and I now have the chance to respond.

I think that you’re right in that abstract expressionists use the same mind, visual process, and motor system to depict what they produce on canvases or any surfaces, but if I’m not wrong by what you mean and correct me on this, I think they don’t use the same cognitive processes and skills as the realists painters, i think you meant that by writing “no matter to what degree”? Because the degree of what we draw and paint is the most important factor in determining what’s art or not. Do you consider this art, considering the process he or she utilize and the result?

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It would depend on the definition of art of the criteria being used, but colloquially speaking–the image shared may indeed qualify as art with only present information available.

To be clear though, (and to your question) yes–the wide range of activities that we describe as “art-making,” by definition, requires a mind. There is no such thing as a “mindless copy” of anything in this context. The phrase does more to demonstrate the ignorance of the person wielding the descriptor than it does aptly describe an actual object or process.

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