Thursday, June 30, 2011

Art: A Big Fat Lie

"Art is not truth; art is a lie that enables us to recognize the truth." -David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

Manipulation. Calculation. Scrutiny. Precision. Editing. Revising. Reworking. Re-imagining. Removing. And taking away, and away, and away.

The art of making art--no matter the medium--is more scientific than many artists would care to admit. It's about a vision (i.e., a hypothesis), and the working out, playing with, and truth-testing of that vision (i.e., lab work). Even if that vision is nothing in particular, or concrete, or even known to the artist him/herself, it's still there. It's a still a vision; a vision blind to the work that invisibly lays before it.

Like science leads us to facts through evidence, and hints at truth through its exhaustive testing (and re-testing) of its hypothesis, art's process is somewhat similar. It creates (sometimes from nothing and sometimes from too much of nothing) a reflection, a window, a portal, a tiny shaving of sight for the viewer to see. To hear. To touch. To smell. To taste. To ponder. To wonder. This is art's incredible potential. Yet, art's end result subtly (and not so subtly) hides its complicated and calculated and consuming labor. This is one way art lies so well (and why it's necessary for it to do so). For example...

When you're sitting in a darkened theater watching images unfold before you as if they were seamlessly one collective story, one effortless film, you're not thinking about the 7,459 people it took to make it. You're not imagining the 10 different takes an actor had to make before he got the line right, nor the make-up artist who stood just off to the right of the camera to make sure the blood would stay in the right place on the protagonist's forehead. In a way, your eyes are covered--blinded, even--to the glorious masquerade that is, in truth (and mostly lies), the nature of art...which is the editing of all things (tangible and intangible) to make a lie appear true. Gut-level true. Like, you-see-it-and-you're-heart-is-shocked-and-surprised-at-the-revelation-you're-seeing-for-what-seems-like-the-very-first-time-kind-of-true. It's about the emotional, the visceral, about touching (for better or for worse) fragments of the physical, emotional, and spiritual self. Basically, art is so non-holistic in its process (so detached and dislocated and dislodged), it transforms (or appears to transform) into something holistic (and holy) in the eyes of the viewer once it's finished.

At the end of the day, all the lies appear true. And the most provocative thing about this revelation is that you can't reach this truth without understanding the necessity for lies in art, without failure to put on the make-up right or screw up miserably those first 9 takes of a scene. If art really set out to be true (and truthful) we'd be forced to digest the whole artistic process--all 750 hours or more--and it would be excruciatingly dull, painfully monotonous. I'm not saying this wouldn't be a good thing to experience on occasion but I am saying that if this was art's norm, art's primary method, primary praxis, few would have the patience, the cognitive stamina to reach any mini-truth-epiphanies after watching the film Avatar, if what preceded it was 7,983 hours of interviews, and documentation on just how it was all done. This would be the 'truth' (or rather, the facts) but it wouldn't be art, nor would it enable us to recognize the truth any better I think.

This is why the statement, 'art is the lie that tells the truth' is so powerful (and so true). David Shields and Richard Walter and Madeleine L'Engle and Picasso and many others artists over time have said the very same thing (in their own way, from their own artistic medium perspective). The necessity of lies (not just in art, but in life) is what makes art possible. Without lies, art would cease to exist. For how can we see truth if we can't see the importance and value and beauty of lies?

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