Art and Truth


Though not traditionally a major topic within aesthetics, the relationship between truth and works of art is of considerable interest in the context of Theory of Knowledge.


There are those who argue that artists (and we are still using the word “art” in a wide sense to include literature, music, and other art-forms) have a special responsibility to convey the truth. This responsibility derives in part because the impact of their work gives them unusual power, but also from the special position of art - at least the visual and many of the performing arts in transcending language The feelings conveyed by Rodin’s Thinker or a great ballet are not restricted by language. One example of this is the way in which Picasso’s painting Guernica (1937) alerted the world to what was going on in the Spanish Civil War by depicting a village and its people destroyed by bombs. Alexander Solzenhitsyn, in the moving speech in which he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature (the speech was read on his behalf as he was not a allowed to leave the Soviet Union to give it in person) argued passionately for the way in which the truth expressed by the artist can defeat ‘the lie’. “One word of truth outweighs the whole world”.


Few would deny the power of language to convey a feeling or an idea. Winston Churchill’s stirring calls to the people of Britain and the Commonwealth in the darkest days of the Second World War depended not only on his message, but on the way it was delivered. As John F Kennedy said of him, he ‘mobilised the English language’.


Nevertheless, the claim that art can ‘convey the truth’ needs some examining. Of course, factually true statements can be found in a work of literature and a painting can give us correct information about the clothes, furniture, even the games of the era it is depicting. From Constable’s Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816) for example, we can learn something of the layout of parks and the breed of cattle kept in the period, and so on. But, art is not unique in this respect - truths of this kind can be transmitted in many ways.

The claim that art ‘tells the truth’ surely means more than that true statements are made in literature or that simple factual statements can be correctly deduced from observing a paintrng? There is a suggestion of something deeper, something unique to art However, we need to ask what is meant by ‘truth’ of this kind. What kind of truth is it, which cannot be expressed in the form of an empirical statement? And if a truth can be so asserted, it must be possible also to assert the falsehood, which would contradict it. And what sort of truth can be derived from music or a dance?

What about a photograph or a film? Is the old cliché that ‘the camera does not lie’ really true? In one sense it is, but we all know that the photographer and the filmmaker are selective in their choice of subjects. The photographer covering a violent demonstration can concentrate either on the demonstrators hurling missiles or the police vigorously making arrests. If a set of pictures is published showing only one of these activities, can it be said to be ‘true’? And does not the caption beneath the picture or photograph contribute to the ‘truth’? In the second chapter of, ‘Art and Illusion’, E. H. Gombrich gives a number of examples of misleading captions or titles of pictures.

Even if the greatest of care were to be taken in painting a fair, unbiased picture, is it possible to do so? Could two artists looking at the same scene produce identical paintings? Our experience tells us that, even if they could, they certainly do not. And of the two pictures, which one is the ‘true’ one?


Why, in any case, is there a need to find truth in art? Our age is so addicted to facts, to finding out the ‘truth’ about things that we are in danger of overlooking the true value of art. By trying to reduce art to a series of truth-statements, are we not diminishing it? Is there not a value in art of all kinds, which goes far beyond the passing on of ‘truth’?

As Douglas Morgan wrote, in a paper entitled ‘Must Art tell the Truth’ in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol 26, 1967:


Remember, if you can, that breathless final mooment when you have moved intensively with heart and mind through a quarter of Brahms or Bartok You have hoped, expected, feared, been lifted, lowered, fulfilled and disappointed, and now, inevitably, the voices together sing one rich, climactic chord. You as a person vibrate, suspended, with the vibrating sound,


Now imagine your neighbour leaning towards you anxiously and expectantly to ask “Quickly, tell me what you learned from that music. What information did it communicate to you? What knowledge do you have that you didn’t have before? Such a neighbour deserves only an icy glare of disdain. He is projecting learning, knowledge and truth into an area of human experience where it has no natural or necessary place. Learning and knowledge, and truth are no less valuable because their value is not exclusive. There really are other goods in the world than these, and there really is no need to confect such bogus kinds of truth as poetic or pictorial or even musical truth for works of art to wear as certificates of legitimacy.