Truth in Art: a Necessity

Recently I advised a group of actors that they needed to be honest in their characterizations and portrayals, which was essentially asking them to be truthful. That, on the surface of it, seems a rather strange request to make of actors, whose business it is to portray persons other than themselves. Yet we all have seen performances that were not truthful, that were not honest, that were not very good.

It had never occurred to me to generalize this idea to other arts until I ran across this quote by Stephen King in the Afterword to Full Dark, No Stars: “But when it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart. It won’t always be the reader’s truth, or the critic’s truth—as long as he or she doesn’t truckle, or hold out his or her hat to Fashion—all is well. For writers who knowingly lie, for those who substitute unbelievable human behavior for the way people really act, I have nothing but contempt.”

Not long after that, I was reading a short article about novelist, Julian Barnes. “He said about literature: ‘It’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts.’ And he said that a great book ‘is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths — about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both.’”

So I thought about it. It seemed to me that, of course, the artist had to be truthful, had to be honest or otherwise produce art that was somehow fraudulent. Interesting theory, but was it valid? In the verbal arts, that was far more easily seen than in visual arts or arts that are considered more abstract, further removed from words. Did that exempt those arts from this requirement of truth? My instinct was that it did not. I found that others agreed.

In Darren Aronofsky’s recent movie, The Black Swan, choreographer Thomas Leroy comments to dancer Nina Sayers as they watch alternate Lily’s dancing, “Watch the way she moves—sensual—she’s not faking it.” The movie comes to be about, among other things, Nina’s search for that truth in herself that will enable her to dance the role of Odile without faking it. In ballet, at least Aronofsky’s version of ballet, truth is evidently important.

And then I found a CBS News article that quotes renowned street photographer Joel Meyerowitz talking about Vivian Maier: “She’s ruthlessly honest about what she sees. And I think she should be taken seriously.”

In his essay, “Art, Mere Things, and Truth Requirements” Michael Brady takes a more general approach as he discusses the necessity for truth in visual arts. While I have problems with some of Brady’s conclusions, he makes the point that visual art does indeed have a truth component, does, in fact, requires a truth component. With this I agree.

Not just writers of fiction and ballet dancers and street photographers, but all artists worthy of the name, must tell the truth as they see it. Whether it is some variant of verbal art, performance art, three-dimensional art, or visual art, it should be imbued with the artist’s truth. Although some approaches to art may make this honesty difficult to see, it still needs to be there. Part of what makes art worth our time is the artist’s truth that it displays and the connection that we, the audience, have with that truth. It’s a necessity.

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Date: Sunday, 30. January 2011 23:54
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Aesthetics, Audience, Creativity, Photography, Theatre

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