Which Came First: The Painting or the Artist?

It probably seems pretty obvious that the following evolution occurs:

  • The artist first conceives of the idea, perhaps in the artist’s mind’s eye.
  • The artist selects a suitable medium.
  • The artist creates the masterpiece.

In the previous ordering of events, the artist clearly came before the painting.

How can it possibly be any other way?

Please allow me to present a fascinating alternative. I’m not asking you to change your beliefs. You may consider this to be just for entertainment purposes, if you will. (However, if you want to incorporate this into your own philosophy, feel free.)

Consider this possibility (or impossibility, or whatever you may prefer to call it):

  • The Mona Lisa is transcendental. It always has been and always will be.
  • The Mona Lisa selected Leonardo Da Vinci as a suitable medium.
  • The Mona Lisa channeled itself through Leonardo Da Vinci, bringing the artist to life.

Is it really such a stretch?

Perhaps I worded it the wrong way. Using the word ‘channeled’ probably wasn’t the best idea. Let’s consider something simpler for a moment.

How about a triangle or a dodecahedron? These geometric shapes have always existed, right? They weren’t ‘invented’ by the first human to draw them.


A painting consists of shapes, colors, and textures put together. Can you insist that a triangle existed before geometricians, but that a painting doesn’t exist until the artist paints it? What if the artist paints a cube?

Another point to consider is that every artist has human experience. The ideas and visions that we have are very much shaped by our experience. So a painting is not a totally brand new vision, but a product of the artist’s human experience. Even if we paint something that seems out of this world, it’s inherently affected by our experience in this world. In a sense, the art has been developing within the painter for many years before it ever touches the canvas.

If I could paint, I would try to paint a picture of a Klein bottle in an Escher-like fashion such that it looks like both a chicken and an egg transforming into one another. It would have been the perfect image for this post. Instead, you’ll just have to envision that in your mind. Perhaps someday an artist will paint this picture. If so, remember that I already gave birth to the idea. Or has it always been there?

Chris McMullen, author of The Visual Guide to Extra Dimensions and A Visual Introduction to the Fourth Dimension (ironically, perhaps, these are conceptual geometry books, not philosophy books)

5 comments on “Which Came First: The Painting or the Artist?

  1. I like that idea. The ‘parts’ are there and only need to be put together if I read that correctly. I wonder about the channeling idea with fiction authors too. Maybe our minds are jacked into the other world’s wavelength.

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