Tag Archive: truth


Art, Truth, and History

            I know I’ve touched on ideas of art and truth before, but it’s something I frequently find myself returning to.  I suppose as someone who’s read “The Origin of the Work of Art” three times now it’s fairly well ingrained in my mind.  This time I’ve been thinking about history paintings and truth.  History paintings were a huge source of commissions for artists for a long time.  Yet for many of the subjects being depicted the artist was not present or even alive at the time. So how can these pieces contain the truth?

            Indeed it seems almost impossible for these paintings to contain the truth.  They were created by people who weren’t even there and often commissioned by people who planned to use the piece in some way to promote their own personal and/or political agenda.  Doesn’t sound like there’s much truth there.  I think the key lies in the difference between “truthful” and “the truth.” So yes, many of these paintings are not “truthful.”  They may represent people and events that actually existed/occurred, but the scene itself is the invention of the artist’s imagination.

            But this does not mean that the painting doesn’t still contain “the truth.”  A good history painting, while perhaps not historically accurate, should still capture the spirit and essence of the time/scene/event it is representing.  And it is there in which the truth lay.  Did Washington really look like that crossing the Delaware?  Probably not.  But does the painting capture the spirit of the American Revolution?  Absolutely.  There’s an essence to that painting that captures the truth of the time.  It is not truthful, yet it still contains the truth.

            The danger arises (and I suppose I’m getting a bit Platonic here) when people take these pieces as historical fact.  The truth of the spirit gets confused for the truth of the scene/historical accuracy.  Appreciate art for capturing the truth of its time.  But don’t assume the piece is truthful.  It seems that far too few people really know/understand how much and for how long art has been used as personal and political propaganda.  Even when not intended as propaganda, as long as it’s being produced by a human being, every piece of art carries with it some kind of bias.  And it’s so important to remember that when looking at art.  Not that these biases necessarily take away from the truth the piece may contain, in fact it may even add to it.  But it can effect and possible take away from the truthfulness. 

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851, oil on canvas.

“Almost done with this painting?  I’ve got places to be!”

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Picasso vs. Heidegger

          “We all know that Art is not truth.  Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.  The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” – Pablo Picasso

            When I stumbled upon this quote from Picasso on www.quotegarden.com I immediately thought of Heidegger.  For it is Heidegger who believes that, “Art is truth setting itself to work,” (in “The Origin of the Work of Art”), and this would seem to be in direct conflict with Picasso’s view.  One says art is truth, the other that art is a lie.

            However upon further contemplation, I don’t think the two views are as contradicting as they first seem.  Picasso says that art is a lie, but that it is a lie that helps us see the truth.  So there is still truth in art, just a selected truth.  For Heidegger art opens up a world, whereas for Picasso it seems more that a world is presented.  Heidegger has art opening, while Picasso has it revealing, which are similar concepts, but still different.  Revealing implies that things were hidden, and that some things perhaps still are.  This is different than opening, which to me at least, implies a gaining of access.  The things are always there, you just might not have access to them all the time. 

            I think these views also differ in the role the artist plays in truth.  For Picasso the artists plays a larger part in the truth art may reveal.  It is up to that artist to decide how much truth their art reveals and to convince the viewer of this truth.  For Heidegger it seems the artist plays very little part into the truth revealed by art.  The artist is important in that the artwork would not exist without him or her, but the truth is dependent entirely on the world opened by the piece.  One could say that the artist controls the world that is opened up, but Heidegger does not say that, and he is who we’re talking about in the first place.

            Overall, though seemingly contradictory, at the heart of it, Heidegger and Picasso agree that there is truth in art.  They may differ in their views of how the truth is presented, but the truth is still present in art in some way or another.  It makes sense that Picasso would put more importance on the artist than Heidegger.  Heidegger dismisses artists fairly early in his search for the origin of the work of art.  Picasso sees artists as key for showing the audience the truth, whereas for Heidegger the work speaks for itself. 

Picaso, Violin, 1912

Truth or Lies?