The following is adapted from the plenary address given at Image’s Glen Workshop in Santa Fe in August, 2018, on the conference theme of “Telling Truths: Art, Honesty, and Community.”
I HAVE WRITTEN THIS TALK as a partial alphabet: it starts with A (for art) and goes through T (for telling truths). For alphabetic languages, the alphabet comprises all that can be said—or rather, all that can be said is said with the alphabet. An abecedary is analogous: it comprises bits that can be meaningfully combined in many ways, just as letters themselves can be. The alphabet, like art, is deeply limited and permits everything.
What does it mean to pursue art that is truthful—art that tells truths?
I have to admit, I struggled with this theme over the last few weeks.
There were days when the task of putting together my thoughts about art and truth seemed quaint—an evasion of some more basic conversation the world needs to be having about truth given our political order’s seeming disregard for the distinctions among truth, error, and lies.
And there were days when putting together thoughts about truth and art seemed overwhelming. Does art generate knowledge? Does art tell eternal truths, or the truths of the day? And if truths of the day, the day in which the art was produced or in which it was perceived? Is it philosophically defensible to say that art tells truths? Haven’t postmodernism and intercultural theory taught us that art is about resonance rather than truth? I wondered these things as I avoided writing this talk.
I felt defeated before I even began, until a few weeks ago I remembered having heard somewhere that the word truth is etymological kin to the word tree. That was delightful to think about.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who has lapped up recent books like The Hidden Life of Trees, about the new arboreal science, which shows us that trees are much more interested in mutuality than we once thought. The old wisdom used to be that trees competed for light, for water, for minerals in the soil—but now scientists think that trees talk with one another, have friendships, and are deeply invested in the survival and indeed flourishing of other members of their tree community.
Maybe that’s one way to think about art’s way of telling truths: that art speaks arboreally, with an eye toward the flourishing of the community. Art is nutritive and cooperative.
When I think about art telling truths, one artist I think of is Barbara Kruger.
After studying with Diane Arbus at Parsons School of Design, Kruger worked as the chief designer for Mademoiselle. After a few years, she took the images that had been her stock in trade at Condé Nast and pressed them into art, exactly to reveal the sexism and violence of the visual vocabulary of pop culture. Her art slaps words onto images, thereby showing something about the images and the culture that produced and consumes them. The words “I shop therefore I am” appear on a credit-card sized placard in an open hand. “I will not become what I mean to you” is arranged on a woman’s perfectly made-up face.
The standard thing to say about truth and art and Barbara Kruger is that she interrupts our gaze in order to show us what consumerist graphic design is; she forces images to tell the truth about themselves. But what I like best is neither any specific ideological exposé she’s after (though I tend to agree with her) nor the theoretical frame that nourishes her art (she’s much influenced by Walter Benjamin). What I like best is something she once said in an interview: “I always say I try to make my work about how we are to one another.”
Maybe that’s just another way of saying she makes images tell us the truth about what they’re doing, but I think it also says something more capacious.
I try to make my work about how we are to one another.
We could do a lot worse than that, and not much better, as a way of measuring the truthfulness of our art—the extent to which it’s about how we are to one another is the extent to which it’s true.
A student of mine is finishing her first book, a memoir, which will be out in the fall. I just read a penultimate draft, and it’s very good.
In one section, the narrator tells a therapist about a flirtation she is having with a married man, and her therapist suggests that she might be a sex and love addict, and the narrator starts going to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.
This was the one part of the book I didn’t understand. What motivated the narrator? It seemed to me that this flirtation was not ideal for her marriage, but it wasn’t obvious SLAA material. In my comments I wrote: This is the one place where I wouldn’t be able to play this person on stage. I don’t understand why she so readily starts going to meetings.
In reply, my student said she started going to SLAA because she wanted one place where she didn’t have to lie. Some one place where she could tell all the truths.
Since she told me this, I have thought of all the spaces in my life where I feel I have to lie, or where I choose my truths carefully. The idea of a space where I could tell all the truths appeals.
I wonder whether art can be such a space, and if not, why not.
I now think I could play my student on stage.
Of late, I have thought a lot about the categories agitprop and political art. When is art pleasingly, jarringly political, and when is it propaganda? And is this dichotomy—art and propaganda—in fact defensible? That is, can propaganda be, or have qualities of art?
In his 1926 essay “Criteria of Negro Art,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:
All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.
Perhaps it is the privilege of those who don’t need political change to worry about someone sneaking into all the museums and bookshops and studios and concert halls and swapping agitprop for art.
Yet surely there’s a condescension even in that suggestion. Clearly, many artists who have wanted political change have also wanted to distinguish art from propaganda.
Two years after Du Bois wrote, Howard University professor Alain Locke published, in the pages of Harlem, a pointedly political critique of propaganda:
My chief objection to propaganda, apart from its besetting sin of monotony and disproportion, is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it. For it leaves and speaks under the shadow of a dominant majority whom it harangues, cajoles, threatens or supplicates.… Art in the best sense is…self-contained.
“[Expressionism is] telling the truth about individual feelings.”
Flower and Song
I have read that, before European conquest, the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of Mexico and Central America believed that it was through “flower and song” that one came to know the divine and could return one’s knowledge to the divine. In this highly aestheticized account of truth—an account that suggests that truth is beauty and beauty truth—participating in “flower and song” (that is, singing and painting) is a way of disclosing and embodying the divine. Because the song-poem was the most revered genre, the apex of creative achievement, singing and performing was the fullest way for people to participate in the divine’s own creativity. Thus, the wise people of the community—the sages—spoke in lyric and melody rather than in analytical discourse. Only a person whose heart had been made pure for divinizing performance could offer songs and poems, flower and song, and, circularly, it was by participating in flower and song that your heart was divinized.
I did eventually read scholars of conquest-era Aztec life, but I first read about Nahuatl theological aesthetics in books by progressive Christian theologians, who favorably contrasted the Aztec approach to truth with what they saw as traditional Christianity’s overly rational abstractions.
But the more I read, the more I came to think these theologians’ depictions of traditional Christianity were more convenient than accurate. With the caveat that I may not really understand the Nahuatl approach, it seems to me that the theological aesthetics embodied in “flower and song” is quite similar to at least one traditional Christian mode of thinking about truth and beauty. After all, Christianity speaks of the convertibility of the transcendentals, a lovely phrase that simply means that the transcendentals—truth, beauty, and goodness—are all exchangeable with one another. Something is good and true to the exact same degree it is beautiful because, on this theory of conversion, goodness is truth is beauty is truth is goodness.
Green, the Color of Truth
Because of etymology: vert, verus. Thus, in English, verity, verisimilitude, and veridical, but also verdigris, verdure, and verdant. Thus, literary representations of truth as green, as in the allegorical four daughters of God—Justice, Truth, Mercy, and Peace—who first appear in Psalm 85. By the time they feature in the medieval play The Castle of Perseverance, they are chromatically clothed, with Truth sporting chartreuse.
Will we make art in heaven? There are, I think, two schools of thought on this, and they boil down to: if you think art-making is a product of the fall, then we won’t, and if you think it is not, but was something Adam and Eve did in the garden, then we will. Or at least we might.
But if art-making is a product of the fall, and if therefore there is no art in heaven, does that mean no music, no angels singing Holy Holy Holy?
Perhaps their singing isn’t art, an artifact, a made thing. Perhaps it is just what angels do, the way that tuning forks sing their pitch.
“[Impressionism is] telling the truth about individual perception.”
Given Christian ambivalence about art—and the old prohibition against graven images—could there ever be Christian art? The early church wondered: What might Christian art look like? And how should Christians look at it?
Communities resolve ambivalences by appealing to an other—by displacing their own worrying behavior onto that other. From antiquity on, Christians answered questions about art in no small part by repairing to discourse about Jews—discourse that insisted that it was Jews who preferred the flesh to the spirit, who could not see divinity in the material person of Jesus, and who would see only superficial meanings in statutes and paint. Christians’ right engagement with art was mapped by contrast. Christian insistence that Jews saw with the “eye of the body” allowed Christians to describe themselves as those who saw with the “eye of the heart.”
Kintsugi is the Japanese art form whereby broken pottery is repaired with veins of gold, on the theory that the broken and repaired object is more beautiful than the object before it was broken. This seems to me to be the artistic instantiation of that puzzling Christian doctrine known as felix culpa: O happy fault! This is core Christian doctrine, and it’s appealing and troubling in equal measure. It is the doctrine that holds that the damaged world in which we live will be even more beautiful after God finishes redeeming it than it was before the fall. God’s creation, in other words, was perfect; God’s redeemed creation will be pluperfect.
I do not think that art has to illustrate a slice of Christian doctrine to be true, but if Christian doctrine is true, then a piece of art’s concordance with that doctrinal shape might be one index of the art’s truthfulness.
Something that is truly beautiful cannot lie to you—but something that seems beautiful can. That’s because it’s hard for fallen creatures to distinguish between things as they are and things as they seem. This, perhaps, is the problem with sentimentality. Sentimental pictures might look pretty, but they’re lying. Sentimental pictures communicate a sense that things are already ordered as they should be. And they’re not.
We wouldn’t say that Picasso’s Guernica is pretty—but it is beautiful because it’s true. So are the bellicose woodcuts of Käthe Kollwitz and Félix Vallotton: women raped, bodies caught in barbed wire, explosions, lament. What’s beautiful, rather than sentimental, is the painting or sonnet or aria that shows those of us in a fallen world what a fallen world is like.
Last week I went to the Magritte exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. One of my favorites was Lyricism (1947), which depicts, in loose brushstrokes, a pear-headed man leering at a pear.
Supposedly, the pear-person was an invocation of Louis Philippe I, monarch of France in the 1830s and 1840s, who was famously caricatured as a pear. But “why would Magritte have reprised these caricatures?” asks one of the essays in the exhibit catalogue. “Was this choice determined by Louis Philippe’s identification with and enrichment of the powerful bourgeoisie—nemesis of all Surrealists—and the belief that such images fostered the 1848 uprising that led to his overthrow?”
But when I looked at this painting, I thought of the famous scene from book 2 of Augustine’s Confessions (translated here by Sarah Ruden):
Stealing…. I wanted to commit this crime, and commit it I did, though destitution didn’t drive me to it—unless I was starving for what was right but turning my nose up at it anyway, and at the same time stuffed and swollen with my own sinfulness: so I stole a thing I had a better sort of in lush supply already; and I didn’t want to enjoy the thing my hand grasped for—the actual stealing, the transgression, was going to be my treat.
There was a pear tree in the neighborhood of our vineyard, but the fruit weighing it down offered no draw either in its look or its taste. After playing in vacant lots clear till the dead of night…we young men, full of our endless mischief, proceeded to this tree to shake it down and haul away the goods. We filched immense loads, not for our own feasting but for slinging away to swine, if you can believe it. But in fact, we did devour some pears; our only proviso was the potential for liking what was illicit.
Look at my heart, God, look at my heart, which you took pity on at the very bottom of the abyss.
Any pear tree in art, maybe, makes me think of that pear tree. Further, Lyricism plays with an Augustinian axiom—that what you seek after, you will become. In the painting, the one lusting after pears becomes a pear—although we know from Augustine that what the pear-seeker wants isn’t the produce, but the sin itself.
Which is to say, the pear-seeker, seeking sin, seeks nothing (pectatum, nihil).
And here is an Augustinian defense of the idea that some people are not, at the end, restored to God’s company and God’s mercy: seek after nothingness all your life and eventually you will become nothing.
In the New York Times, Holland Cotter wrote something apt about the Kehinde Wiley portrait of Barack Obama:
His engaged and assertive demeanor contradicts—and cosmetically corrects—the impression he often made in office of being philosophically detached from what was going on around him.
That is to say: you can make a certain kind of impression, and an artistic distillation of or response to you can correct that impression. The art can know you better than sometimes even you know yourself—or at least can show you something that would otherwise be hidden.
We have come to the Glen Workshop this week to do something the world does not value. I don’t mean to say we are heroic; I simply mean to state a fact. And I don’t mean that our culture does not value art. Rather, the culture values kinds of art that are not what most of us make: art that is monumental and will be displayed in museums or public parks; art that is highly lucrative.
I recently read an essay by the Israeli poet Rachel Tzvia Back about Israeli protest poetry. She begins by stating that we live in an era when language is willfully manipulated by those in power. (Has there been a time when that was not true?) Then she comes to poetry: “Because poetry has been marked as marginal, it has a certain advantage—let’s call it the advantage of the underdog: the resistance of the listener is less pronounced; the listener hasn’t already decided not to hear.” This is not the only reason poetry can convey truthfulness—in fact, it is not the focus of Back’s essay—but it got my attention. I think it extends to many forms of art.
If Käthe Kollwitz’s art is beautiful and good because it shows us something true about the fallen world, how does one distinguish between art and the pornography of violence? The answer cannot lie in the intention of the maker; it must lie in the work itself. But, still, I do not know the answer.
If it is the case—as Augustine thought—that most people can distinguish harmony from discord, and that we can do so not because of acculturation but because we are perceiving something real (that is, we are perceiving that the beauty of the harmonic chord is true, and what we’re able to distinguish when we distinguish harmony from discord is that harmony participates in the order of things), what would Augustine say about Schoenberg? Maybe he would say that twelve-tone musical artifacts are based upon an abstract theory and that, tautologically, if the abstract theory is right it is also beautiful.
If the problem with propaganda is that it wants to make us do something (specifically, to do only one thing), what is the difference between propaganda and devotional art? Again, I do not know.
“We live in a time in which reality is almost daily warped in ways that were unimaginable even eighteen months ago. We have swiftly entered an era where the very notion of truth, or facts, is considered fungible. As we reassess the various power structures that landed us here, it is stabilizing and reassuring to look at the work of an artist who is clearly in control of her craft, who is able to depict a reality that is material and grounded in recognition—of seeing, in the Facebook age, a painting that looks like who it is meant to.”
—Dushko Petrovich on portrait painting
The New York Times, February 12, 2018
“Sabbath Lie” by Yehuda Amichai (as translated by Glenda Abramson)
The speaker of the poem is a child, on the evening that opens Shabbat. “[T]he smells of food and prayer rose from every house / And the sound of the Sabbath angels’ wings was in the air.” On this evening, the child:
started to lie to my father:
“I went to another synagogue.”
I don’t know if he believed me or not.
But the taste of the lie was good and sweet on my tongue
And in all the houses that night
Hymns rose up along with lies
To celebrate the Sabbath.
What a strange and striking portrait: the lies intermingling with the hymns. Are the lies, then, a necessary part of the Sabbath celebration? Later in the evening “lovers put mouth to mouth, / Blew each other up until they floated upward, / Or burst.” Are the lovers kissing, or are they breathing lies into one another, or are those gestures synonymous?
There are scriptural echoes in their osculation—God’s breathing the breath of life into Adam, the Song of Songs’s “kiss me with the kisses of your mouth.” The lovers are breathed into, and so is the poet—afflated, inspired. And using the breath that has been given to us to speak or write or paint always entails reshaping the thing we’ve been given.
And since then the lie has been good and sweet on my tongue
And since then I always go to another synagogue.
And my father returned the lie when he died:
“I’ve gone to another life.”
Does a gift hide in the lies exchanged? To be sure, the falsity is not gift, but perhaps the temporary peace—the construction of a narrative that allows the father to have Shabbat, instead of a familial conflagration—is. (But, we want to say, what sort of peace is a peace that is predicated on a lie? The poem suggests that sometimes we do want that kind of peace, and surely there are times when, given only imperfect alternatives, we do.) Perhaps the gift is the poem, with its recognition that lies are “good and sweet” on the tongue; its recognition that sentiment—sweetness—is what we want.
On the surface, the phrase “telling truths,” when followed by a colon and the word “art,” implies, “telling truths is something that art does.” Art communicates things of veracity. Art communicates what’s really there.
But the words have other meanings as well. “Telling” can be an adjective, meaning “striking” or “revealing,” as in, “It’s telling that she left early.”
And the noun “truth” can mean “loyalty”—as when, in Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son, Florence thinks, “He was so honest and warm-hearted, that to see him again and be assured of his truth to her in her distress, was a joy and comfort beyond all price.” Florence is not comforted by accuracy, but by loyalty.
So the phrase “telling truths” can mean “communicating accurate things” or it can mean “striking loyalties; revealing loyalties.”
To what are we loyal?
That is a question I will carry with me into this week: Not just “What truths am I telling?” but “In telling them, to what person or principle or community am I being strikingly loyal?”
Sources for this essay include, but are not limited to: Ana Balona de Oliveira, “Jam Life into Death: The ‘Cold War’ of the Stereotype and the ‘Ethics of Failure’ in the Art of Barbara Kruger”; Jenni Drozdek, “Looking to the Left: Politics in the Art of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer”; Laurie Fendrich, “Why Abstract Painting Still Matters”; Richard Grant, “Do Trees Talk to Each Other?”; Herbert L. Kessler, “Shaded with Dust: Jewish Eyes on Christian Art”; Miguel León-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind; James Maffie, “Aztec Philosophy”; David Nirenberg, Aesthetic Theology and Its Enemies: Judaism in Christian Painting, Poetry, and Politics; Ron Rosenbaum, “Barbara Kruger’s Artwork Speaks Truth to Power”; Don E. Saliers, “Aesthetics.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.