Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Is "Truth" Overrated?

You all know by now that I won't pass up any opportunity to climb up on that soapbox and wail away about the difference between propaganda and "Art" (just enter "propaganda" in the search box above and I'm sure you'll find plenty of examples). The thumbnail version of my argument is that what happens when someone sets out to promote an agenda is they compromise their work by consciously or subconsciously leaving out certain inconvenient truths (or simply don't seek out those truths). That compromise is antithetical to the work of making "Art" in my opinion.

Somewhere hidden in those gigabytes of my pontificating on the subject, though, is the caveat to all this that sometimes, with time (usually after the issue at hand has ceased to be relevant), a work of propaganda can pass into the realm of "Art." I recognize how problematic that little out of mine is, but it's the only way I can account for works like the one Simon Schama highlighted in his
ongoing series on PBS last night: Jacque-Louis David's "The Death of Marat" (seen above).

As Schama noted, in annoying detail (Bambino can't stand the way he bounces all over the screen while talking [the jittery habit does kind of remind you of an early 80's music video]), Jean-Paul Marat was not the sort of heroic martyr David depicted him as, but rather a bloodthirsty cheerleader for Robespierre's Reign of Terror. Not only did David gloss over his friend's horrendous crimes, he also air-brushed his pruritic, blistering skin disease. The painting is political and biographical fantasy of the most offensive order in which "truth" takes an extended holiday.

But is it good "Art"? There can be little debate that David was a talented painter. Even the rigid, statue-esque nature of his figures can be spun to be just what his subjects required. His use of light and space are breathtaking (if a tad too melodramatic for my taste), even as they suggest he was more fond of big ideas than he was of actual people.

But none of the definitions of "art" that I've read (and I've read plenty) that include the notion that one of its central roles is raising mankind up have suggested that doing so, if it requires lying, is OK because doing so is an end unto itself. The problem with using lies to attempt this is that even if a lie makes one feel momentarily exhilarated, the mistrust and confusion that follow the exposure of that lie can do more harm than any temporary euphoria, no?

So we're left valuing David's work, not for its humanity (could the man who supported the executions of tens of thousands of people ever convey "humanity"?), but its formal accomplishments. Or is humanity actually more than just the best of mankind...is it also comprised of our darker deeds? What's truly "human" must be a true portrait of our duality, no? Perhaps David's work is truly "art" because, now that his lies are exposed, we can learn much more from them than we would have if all they offered were heartfelt, but naive, political ideals. Perhaps, with the wisdom that comes with time, propaganda can pass into the realm of art.

Or perhaps I'm full of it. Perhaps "Art" transcends "Truth." I hate to think so, but what do you do with an artist like David, then?

Labels: politics


Anonymous jason said...

fantasy of the most offensive order in which "truth" takes an extended holiday.

Funny, I've always thought of the near entirety of the Italian Renaissance as something like religious propaganda (which I don't mind, because I don't have anything against be persuaded). Indeed, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling and Last Judgment paintings read like awe-inspiring advertisements for the Catholic Church.

I really think you've opened a can of worms with this post, and you may have to ditch the "propaganda" exclusion once and for all. The history of art is littered with thousands of examples almost exactly like the Marat painting. Go to nearly any room in the Met and you'll find heroically-portrayed tyrants and blatantly inaccurate history paintings (e.g., nearly any painting in the American wing!). Also, sometimes artists set out with an agenda and actually tell the truth. Why isn't this possible? I still don't see why Guernica doesn't fit this characterization, for example, as perhaps the most obvious example among many.

7/17/2007 08:51:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Leni Reifenstein, Karl Rove, it's a long list. Do we make the effort to delve into the background of an image or any information/news? Over the years I have looked at and in school copied the Murat picture and only had a vague knowledge of it's history.

Reminds me of my first visit to Versailles, I was nauseous, despised the bastards who resided there in oblivian, but had a new found appreciation for Marie Antoinette, go figure.

7/17/2007 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger RichardTScott said...

Was it Picasso who said "Art is a lie that reveals the truth"?

Though it seems obvious that David's intention wasn't satire, Picasso's statement applies amply to something like Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"

The idea that art is contingent upon truth is tricky, because many paths may lead to the truth. And as you pointed out:

"What's truly "human" must be a true portrait of our duality, no?"

It depends on what truth you are seeking and the perspective from which you view it.

What if David had painted "The Death of Marat" in precisely the same way, but had intended it to be satirical? Would that change whether or not it was art?

7/17/2007 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I really think you've opened a can of worms with this post, and you may have to ditch the "propaganda" exclusion once and for all.

Nah. In general it still works for me. At least it explains why most art with a political agenda behind it rings entirely false to me.

7/17/2007 10:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan T D Neil said...

I think T.J. Clark's chapters on J-L.D. and Lissitsky in 'Farewell to an Idea' take very seriously these questions, and do so by adding the necessary ingredient, not of time, but of history: especially the propaganda question with regard to Lissitsky's abstract sign board's 'failure' to speak to the working class at which its 'message' (of a new life, and a new consciousness) was directed.
I think the problem is less one of politics than of form, or rather how politics becomes differently integrated into the formal strategies of art at different times. The work with a 'political agenda behind it' 'rings false' because it fails to evolve an adequate formal shift, or vehicle, which can carry its political content.
Francis Alys' practice strikes me as one with a 'political agenda' that does not ring false.

7/17/2007 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous jason said...

At least it explains why most art with a political agenda behind it rings entirely false to me.

Ha! Well, I guess that's a significant enough shift from when you used to write things like "art with an agenda is not Art" -- so I guess I'll have to take it. Anybody ever tell you that you're awfully damn stubborn? ;-P

Maybe you have such a problem with art that wears its agenda on its sleeve because such art leaves itself so vulnerable to being wrong. That is, when an artist's intention is obvious, it's easy to see when the work fails at its purpose. Art that doesn't have a recognizable purpose other than to "deepen the mystery" is safer in that respect, because you can't criticize something for specific failures when it's not trying to do anything specific in the first place. Maybe this at least partially explains why so many young artists are saying things like "your interpretation of my work can't be wrong because I intended to leave everything up to the viewer."

Also, agenda-driven art usually asks something of the viewer; it makes a challenge to one's orthodoxy. This can be incredibly painful for the viewer, as opposed to artwork that aims to please, and especially so when the work fails. However, such work can also be effective at spurring positive social change, so I don't think it's fair to disqualify an entire practice just because it sometimes fails.

7/17/2007 11:25:00 AM  
Anonymous David (not Jacque-Louis) said...

EW, I have to agree w/ Jason on this one. In fact it was precisely the Sistine (along with the rest of the Italian Renaissance) that popped into my mind when I read your post, before I even saw Jason's comment. You've wiped out all religious art, Velasquez (and other court painters) and the Hudson River School all in one sentence.

7/17/2007 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Jon S. said...

I'm reminded of an article I read long ago:

"All art, political or not, must make everything more beautiful in order to fulfill its most essential function, that of seizing and holding the viewer's attention. Any political artist who aspires to be more than a cheerleader for the converted must first learn this lesson, and learn it well. A boring work of art cannot convince anyone of anything, not even that we should believe what it tells us about the world in which we live. And nothing is more boring--or less believable--than a story with only one side." (When Drama Becomes Propaganda)

While David's painting is certainly one-sided it is deinitely aesthetically pleasing which is more than I can say about other political works (like, for example,Richard Serra's piece in the last Whitney Biennial, Stop Bush)

I too agree with jason here.

I'm going to go out on a limb here: Aesthetically it's a work of art. But politicallly it's an artifact for anthropology. (Too simplistic?)

7/17/2007 11:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

for all its politics it could still just be a dead dude in a tub.
That's the truest thing about it for me.

When an artists conveys humanity successfully--even if its one evil, inhumane mofo's humanity--he's shown some kind of truth, I suppose.

7/17/2007 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Anybody ever tell you that you're awfully damn stubborn

You have no idea. Ask Bambino.

I'm actually going to backtrack and become more so as well, back to the idea that if the intention of making a work was to persuade someone of something, it is not Art while that is still possible. That leaves me with the somewhat embarrassing assertion that only when it can no longer be persuasive can it then become Art, but I'm comfortable with that (for the moment).

For me it boils down to the viewing experience, and whether what stirs in me is somehow universal or merely political. Context is everything, then. Consideration without a specific call to action or other such temporally limited matters IS the Art experience, to my mind. That doesn't limit subject matter if, regardless of one's political stance, the piece still rings true. But when the message is actionable in terms that affect how one's politics affect one's experience of it, the piece can't also be "Art." This is why I think a good deal of religious art (most of it in this context from the Counter-Reformation, which for my people [Pentecostals] was entirely political when it was made) is now widely seen as "Art." That central question of whether the Catholic way is the only way has faded in urgency. The secondary questions of historical accuracy have faded as well, as many folks have made peace with the metaphorical messages as opposed to the literal ones.

In other words, no one is going to launch a new crusade or oppress Protestants because of the Sistine Chapel. They might because of some other message, but that one has lost its historical/political relevance and become merely an expression of what it was to be human during Michaelangelo's time.

In fact, the more I mull this over, the more comfortable with it I become (can you hear my heels digging in?).

Consider "Triumph of the Will." When it could rally the Germans to surrender their better selves up to the service of a monster, it was propaganda. That specific potential response precluded any meaningful appreciation of the work at that time. Those with objections to what Hitler represented must reject it. After the Third Reich fell, though, and enough time had passed that that specific response was no longer possible, it became feasible to consider its artistic merit. Some folks still are not ready to do so, and that's wholly understandable.

But until the point that one can consider it without weighing whether it was moral or not, it's NOT Art.

Yeah, I think I'll stick with that.

for all its politics it could still just be a dead dude in a tub.
That's the truest thing about it for me.

And I think that kernel of truth will eventually (when no one is going to kill someone else to avenge Marat's death) shine through if its there, despite the artist perhaps, even.

7/17/2007 12:40:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

But until the point that one can consider it without weighing whether it was moral or not, it's NOT Art.

So Michelangelo's paintings weren't art when he created them? They only became art centuries after his death?

7/17/2007 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger aurix said...

Perhaps you are equating Truth with mimesis/literal representation.

I'm not sure what truths can be conveyed by David's Marat--perhaps none? Personally I'd say art transcends truth.. and.. yes.. perhaps "Truth" in art is overrated.

But to be fair, just because David didn't depict Marat the way he truly was shouldn't make the painting not "Art." There may be other criteria for deciding what constitutes art, but "Truth," in the mimetic/literal sense shouldn't, I think, be one of them. Otherwise there might not be much Art left in this world.

If anything, shouldn't David's vision, the way he treated his subject, the way he imagined the drama, be precisely why his work may be considered art?

7/17/2007 12:59:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

So is the difference between art and propaganda like the difference between film (art) and movies (entertainment)? Art films started out as films but movies can become films after they become classics?

7/17/2007 01:02:00 PM  
Blogger aurix said...

Ed-so something is "Art" only when it's lost all potency, when it has become just another pretty object?

7/17/2007 01:03:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Art films started out as films but movies can become films after they become classics?

ML, I think they're movies if they come out in the summer, and films if they come out in the fall :)

7/17/2007 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger Henry said...

But until the point that one can consider it without weighing whether it was moral or not, it's NOT Art.

I've never liked Marat, either as a painting or a conceptual piece. I like your definition, but you're straying too far from the original topic of propaganda.

If you want to exclude certain works for moral reasons, then okay, but a general statement like this might be throwing away all of conceptual art. Someone less careful than you might restate it, "until the point that one can consider it without weighing its non-visual components." Because the discussion of morality might be a slippery one.

The real problems with propaganda are that it's simplstic, antagonistic and short-lived. If I were a gallery owner or collector, I wouldn't want something that didn't take full advantage of an artist's talent, that might negatively affect my clientele or colleagues, and that was not going to be valuable for very long. Morality is a different issue, and so is the idea of whether a work is effective for non-visual reasons.

Ideas can be as universal as images. One can argue about whether Marat is a good painting, the same as whether its ideas are universal, and whether it still works as conceptual art. Whether or not it's still "untouchable" for moral or political reasons is I think a different discussion.

7/17/2007 01:39:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Art? <-> Propaganda?

Remove the artwork from the political context, does it still work as art?

If you don't know who Marat was, does this affect how you see David's painting?

How much of our philosophical or critical assessment is a fad of the age?

7/17/2007 01:42:00 PM  
Blogger RichardTScott said...

"But until the point that one can consider it without weighing whether it was moral or not, it's NOT Art."

According to your logic, you exclude many of the artistic contributions of the past hundred years. Balthus, Nabokov's Lolita, Mapplethorpe, Jeff Koons (I agree with this one - but for different reasons), Henry Darger, etc...

Unless you mean morality only in a political context. However, nothing is apolitical... even apathy is a political stance, and (especially now) something that people get pretty pissed off about.

7/17/2007 01:44:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I know this gets tricky, but to my mind its the best working defition. Not all work that deals with political subject matter is propaganda (I'm being sloppy here conflating "propaganda" with "political"). Also, not all work that dealt with reglious subject matter failed to be "true" in the sense that the artist still conveyed something extra-religious in the work (consider Giotto's Judas).

7/17/2007 02:09:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

OK, so I'm too busy to do this right now...too many typos and sloppy thinking...I'll process this later when I have more time and, who knows, possibly change my mind.

don't hold your breaths.

7/17/2007 02:27:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

While I can understand Ed’s point of view, I don’t think it’s quite correct. The issues of propaganda or religion are not necessarily related to what makes an artwork produce that special experience in the viewer.

I think that it’s possible that devotion to a cause, a focus of thoughts or emotions, can affect how an artwork is made manifest. I don’t think the ‘ideas’ reside in the artwork, they lie latent and come into existence in perceptions of the viewer.

Part of my thinking on this was recently reinforced at the Fra Angelico exhibition at the Met. Regardless of how pious Fra Angelico may have been, regardless of all of the religious symbolism, what came across for me was something quite different. This was a sense of oneness with the artist that comes from directly experiencing the paintings. It is difficult to say precisely what is communicated, it may be a sense of his inspiration, or an awareness of his intentionality to make something special.

I realize this is a bit vague, but it does not exclude the possibility of propaganda. It does suggest to me that ‘propaganda’ or any other ‘reason’ or ‘about’ is only peripheral to what makes something great art. These things can get in the way or they can serve to inspire the artist.

7/17/2007 02:30:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Perhaps "Art" transcends "Truth."

Horrors! You don't really mean that, darling, do you?

As aurix tangentially points out, there are many ways of understanding Truth, and the literal, physical Truth of Factual Event is perhaps Truth of the lowest order. There are meta-truths, and meta-meta-truths, which become increasingly more subtle and universal as you proceed; I would say Art becomes increasingly more substantial, the more of these meta-truths it is able to intimate.

Political art, to my mind, grounds itself in a meta-lie, which is that Only One Perspective is the Correct one, which is why it rings so hollow.

7/17/2007 02:38:00 PM  
Anonymous -j. said...


Can we stop all this philosophical dry heaving? Please?

Such sloppy thinking at work here.







Objectivity 1

Objectivity 2

Objectivity 3

After browsing all that, please consider these two assertions:

a.) Unless isolated since birth, all humanimals are political by nature.

b.) There is no such a thing as an impartial and objective work of art. And if there was, it would prolly suck.

7/17/2007 03:15:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

Perhaps the cause of a lot of sloppy thinking on this topic has to do with the Myth of Art With a Capital 'A'. For True Believers, Art With a Capital 'A' is a primary belief system, whose Purity must be defended at all costs (including highly-dangerous intellectual back-flips). A cynic might say that this is because Art With a Capital 'A' relies on Myth in order to sustain its rarified market relationship, enabling it to bestow unfathomable Prestige and Cultural Wealth on its possessor (which would explain why the Possessors wouldn't want something like confrontational political content screwing with their Prestigious Possession). Or, maybe it's true that the Myth of Art With a Capital 'A' has evolved into something like a Faith-Based Belief System in order to fill the spiritual void left by the waining influence of the Church on western secular society. Either way, I think there's a lot of mythology muddying up the conversation here, and it's worth considering who's interests these mythologies serve.

7/17/2007 03:46:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

It is evidently true that the Disease of Excessive Capitalization seems to be infectious.;-)

7/17/2007 08:27:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

And -j, linking to Wikipedia strikes moi as a rather ironic method of calling for intellectual rigor, to say the very least.

7/17/2007 08:29:00 PM  
Anonymous -j. said...

And -j, linking to Wikipedia strikes moi as a rather ironic method of calling for intellectual rigor, to say the very least.

*shrug* They seem to articulate much more clearly some basic concepts (such as most propoganda contains truthful information) than I've seen in this discussion today. You don't get too far constantly reinventing the wheel.

(And yeah, I get it. I get the irony--me going after Ed's "black-and-white fallacy" with an "appeal to authority." So send in the clowns and sue me...)

7/17/2007 10:24:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

The gift of wisdom is often a package deal.

Actually Marat had a painfull skin condition. he is holding in his hand the bill for a years worth of skin cream. Poor bastard.

So when I "read" a painting like that it might not make me spray insecticide in my armpits, but it does make me itchy. Is that not propaganda, mild though the rash may be?

And now that you have received my wisdom, remember, take a right into the trash compactor and save me a lot of time.

7/18/2007 03:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Truth"?!? Such romantic idealism. Truth is a human invention. Truth does not exist outside a human value system. And even if there exists some transcendent truth, it would be beyond the capacity of humanity to understand it as such. Only an omniscient being can identify a truth and I am not aware of any of those, are you?

7/20/2007 04:16:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Truth"?!? Such romantic idealism. Truth is a human invention. Truth does not exist outside a human value system. And even if there exists some transcendent truth, it would be beyond the capacity of humanity to understand it as such. Only an omniscient being can identify a truth and I am not aware of any of those, are you?

Truth is hardly romantic idealism or a human invention or beyond human understanding. When you throw an apple up in the air, it always goes one place.

Humans do intervene, complicate, obscure or influence "truth" all the time, and often make truth impossible to discern...

.,.but they certainly are not inventing truth.

7/20/2007 06:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As to your apple, so which is more truthier Newton or Einstein or some "theory" as yet undescribed. None of them are The "truth". Truth is a spiritual concept. Not a scientific one.

7/20/2007 07:34:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I'm not talking about how one describes the fall of the apple, I am talking about the fact that it does.

Humans intervene on truth all the time--to explain, predict, assign value... Newton and Einstein are equally "untrue" because they are equally coming from one person's point of view, which is necessarily limited. Each theory will only predict or explain what the predictor/explainer has in mind.

But why does it follow that we have to assign "spiritual" status to the fact that apples do always fall toward the earth?

Wouldn't it be simpler to say that truth is an occurence, fact, event, etc...

that simply stands outside human intervention? That isn't about us, but that we can observe?

7/21/2007 07:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To simply observe something and then declare it a truth, seems to me to miss the point of what it is to understand something to be true. If you can't fully comprehend, describe it wholly, be able to defend it securely from any other possible (future) explanations, you can not declare a truth. Only an omniscient (all-knowning) being can identify a truth. Human beings are incapable (non-omniscient) of identifying or verifying a truth. They are unknowable. Mythologically, truths come from Gods (omniscient beings). This is why I defined truths as spiritual (from a human perspective). It takes faith to believe a truth.

Apple falls to the ground? truth? Hardly...

7/24/2007 04:33:00 PM  
Blogger kevin said...

"At least it explains why most art with a political agenda behind it rings entirely false to me."

and then

" when an artist's intention is obvious, it's easy to see when the work fails at its purpose."

All images have an agenda, that is, a point of view. Images imply empathy, on some level, with the viewer. By accepting the illusion of an image, we are empathizing with the image maker on the most basic level. We consider their point of view and judge wether or not we think it to be true. To assume that there are images without an agenda is just not true. There are, however, images that have a weak agenda, and those that have a strong agenda. Another way of thinking about this is to think of powerfully emotive images (with a strong agenda wether you like it or not) and images that emote very little (the weak images that tend to fade quickly from our memories).

In terms of politcal images and propoganda, there we get into a grey area. Propoganda could mean any image that tries to sway you to one side or the other of an argument, but i think it is more concise and conventional to use propaganda to refer to images produced en masse by an institution. When i think of propganda, i don't tend to think of a single artist producing images that support his own views. Second, 'political' shouldn't imply a form of coercion, an image will never really change someone's views on an issue. More often than not, people will interpret an image to support their own views, no matter what the intention of the image maker. When you think of political, think of Picasso's 'guernica' painting of the brutal destruction of an entire city. This painting deals with intensely political issuses, but we seem to pass over that fact because we share picasso's view on the issue. An equally powerful painting supporting the opposite view (mainly, the righteousness of facism) would be instanly recognizable as political and probably marked as propoganda. If 'political' art rings false to you, it's probably because you are interpreting it as contrary to your values (while the images that support your values probably don't seem political at all).

8/09/2007 09:32:00 PM  

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