In this day of “false news,” alternative facts, and countless untruths told by our sitting president, it seems appropriate to turn once again to the age-old question of whether there is any truth in (of all things) art. At the very least it might help us recall that there is truth (and falsity) and that at times it hides its face but remains there for those who wish to take the time and trouble to look for it.
There are three ways in which something can be said to be true. In all three cases there must be corroboration by others. A statement can be said to be true if it corresponds with a fact. Thus “The president tells porkies” is true if, in fact, he does so. (And, as we all know, he does.) A statement can also be said to be true if it “fits in with” a body of known facts. Thus the statement that “humans and chimpanzees descended from a common ancestor” is true if it accords with a body of known facts — based on such things as the fossil records. This is known as the “coherence” theory of truth. And the third way in which something can be said to be true is if it is intuitively clear. We “see” it with the “mind’s eye,” as it were. This is the sense in which there is truth in the fine arts, including literature. Intuitive truth, which tends to be a bit subjective, must accord with common sense and be plausible.
To begin with literature, a good novel tells us a great deal about the human condition — its strengths as well as its foibles. I just finished William Dean Howells’ short novel about The Rise of Simon Lapham, for example, and he does a skillful job of depicting the pretense of blue-blood Bostonians and their tendency to look down their noses at all who are beneath them — which includes all who are not to the manor born, not themselves several generations of Bostonians. The novel tells about Simon Lapham’s attempts to be accepted by the more “cultured” Bostonians. He has become very wealthy but his money cannot buy their acceptance. He eventually goes bankrupt and this is the start of his “rise.” As the narrator tells us, in one of those flashes of insight that marks the exceptional novel (there being so many more important things than mere wealth):
“Adversity had so far been his friend that it had taken from him all hope of the social success for which people crawl and trickle, and restored him, through failure and doubt and heartache, the manhood which his prosperity had so nearly stolen from him.”
In painting the artist seeks to show us the soul of the person whose portrait she paints or the hidden beauty in the ordinary landscape we are presented with on the canvas. The dancer seeks to show us the grace of human movement while the actor draws us into the world of another to enable us to know ourselves and our fellows on a deeper level. Even the raised middle finger of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, who placed a urinal in a museum, reveals our own pretense as we wander through art galleries and museums and glory in our self-importance — instead of acknowledging our own ignorance.
In a word, the artist who creates is intent upon showing us our own world in a clearer and more detailed fashion. She opens our eyes to the world around us and takes us out of ourselves — at least for a brief moment. This is a good thing in a world in which we tend to get lost within ourselves and preoccupied with our own small selves. We need to be reminded that our world is a world of tender beauty along with the mess we have created with our attack on the earth, our crass business models, and our dirty politics. There is considerable truth in the works of the poets and novelists as well as the painters, actors, and even in the music that is created to open our ears to the sounds around us and quiet the storms within. We need simply to open our eyes and ears.
In a world in which truth has been reduced to subjective opinion and annoying facts are dismissed as fictions, it is good to remind ourselves that there is, indeed, a deeper truth available to us in the works of genius that are readily available. Those works abound and the truth they reveal is undeniable and lends the lie to the notion that all is whatever we want to make of it. Truth in art is not always pleasant, but it commands our assent if we simply attend to what the artist has to say.