March 24, 2008

"The Lie that Tells the Truth"

I was recently reminded of this article that I wrote last year for an art exhibit in Calgary.

A lot of it is me exploring my attitudes about art and why it is important.

Here it is:

“Art is the lie that tells the truth.”

-- Pablo Picasso

If you’ve ever spent any time studying art, you probably have come across the famous (infamous?) painting by René Magritte entitled “La trahison des images” (“The Treachery of Images”). It is a picture of a pipe and underneath the image are the words “Ceci n'est pas une pipe”. (“This is not a pipe”)

Of course it isn’t. Any three year old can understand that.

And yet, what we are supposed to think on in that highbrow manner is that the picture is a representation of a pipe. (Although, I’m more curious about why he chose a pipe. I mean, did he paint that pipe first and then decide, “You know, this is NOT a pipe.” Or did he say, “I think I’ll make an artistic statement about art that will echo down the halls of art analysis for decades -- and the best way to do that is a pipe.” But that’s just me.)

The artist himself commented about how his painting of a pipe could not be stuffed with tobacco and such. As realistic as the painting may be, it will NEVER be a pipe, barring some sort of Twilight Zone-esque miracle.

Again, this is obvious, but bear with me.

Instead, in looking at the painting, one is looking at a statement the artist makes about the world. This is where the truth comes in.

In Magritte’s case, he made a statement that said, “This is not a pipe.” And that’s the truth. And the Truth.

Yes. I added a capital “T”. Again, bear with me.

You see, I believe that all art is a lie. Because art cannot represent reality. It can only reflect the artist’s perception of reality.

The artist’s truth.

And in that, the Truth.

I believe in an absolute Truth. How can conflicting statements BOTH be true? How can there be two truths that are in diametric opposition? I do not believe that we all have “our own truth”, rather I believe we all have our own perspective of Truth. I also believe that as long as I am looking through my mortal eyes and processing information with my mortal brain, I cannot hope to fully comprehend the Truth of the universe.

But I can get some glimpses. Where?


Art. The lie that tells the truth.

In art, we find an artist’s perspective of the world. The artist, when putting pen to paper or brush to canvass or fingertip to keyboard, is about to create a window into their view of the universe. And the artist cannot lie. The artist is completely incapable of lying. Because even in their lie there is a reflection of the truth.

If Magritte had titled his pipe painting “This Really Is a Pipe”, he would have been lying. But he would have been lying with the knowledge that it was not a pipe, and those who understood the lie would get a glimpse of truth.

The artist, in trying to lie, gives a view of the truth.

And a view of the Truth.

The artist cannot help it. That’s just the way of things. Even artists who are actively trying to make statements against Truth, in their own rebellion against Truth, are acknowledging Truth. Revealing Truth.

The Truth is revealed in the lie.

As a writer who believes in absolute Truth, I find myself drawn to other writers who believe in absolute Truth, C.S. Lewis is one.

C.S. Lewis loved the myths of the North. As an avowed atheist Lewis believed that God did not exist. (Then again, his first book -- a book of poetry called Spirits in Bondage -- comes off as a possible example of “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” He spends much time exploring how God does no exist, but just in case he spends some more time exploring how ugly and evil God is. Oh, and Nature is beautiful and good.) Meanwhile, his good buddy J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic had been trying to “evangelize” Lewis. (Much to the chagrin of many of Tokien’s fans, the writer of The Lord of the Rings was a VERY religious man who believed in God. And Jesus. And good and evil. And sin.)

One evening, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were discussing myth. Lewis said, “. . . if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself. . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it,” as in the tales of Balder, Adonis, and Bacchus, but of course they were not true. Tolkien, surprisingly, disagreed, saying he believed “myths, like everything else, originated from God, and they preserved, sometimes in a disguised or distorted form, something of God’s truth.”

The Norse myths, like all art, are lies. Obviously. And yet, they tell the truth.

In my own life I sang in a band called The Whispering Loons. The songs I wrote were about the evils and pain of love. They were angry and funny and sarcastic and, generally speaking, untrue. But that was the joke. And in the “lie” of “Buzzards of Love” and “Gold Digger” and “Manipulator” was a truth: that boy had never experienced real love.

The lie revealed the truth.

Incidentally, one of the partners in that band was an artist named David Zimmerman. Dave and I collaborated with each other by proxy. We fed each other creative energy: I, as a writer, drew on his creative energy to fuel my writing, and he, as an artist, drew on my creative energy to fuel his artwork. While we worked, many times on different projects, it was still collaboration as we pushed each other to grow and get better with each new artistic endeavor.

Together, as college students, and then as adult professionals, Dave and I learned about expressing the truth of the world as we saw it and explored finding Truth in our own work and other people’s. Dave’s work began getting less and less realistic and more and more symbolic. And yet, as he strayed away from photo realistic “truth”, his presentation of “Truth” became more potent.

As his artwork became more like a “lie”, it revealed more of the Truth.

“Art is the lie that tells the truth.”

If we truly want to understand the world around us, we must look in many places. In science, we find the mechanics of the universe. In art, we find the Truth behind understanding those mechanics:

Where the mechanics came from . . .

Who set it in motion . . .

And most importantly, what is our place in this celestial machine . . .

And now, if you will bear with me for just a moment longer, I’ve borrowed liberally from masters of art and writing, but I choose to end with something decidedly more lowbrow: “The truth is out there.”

~ Ben

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