You may remember my last letter was about deception. This one’s about truth. I’ve always found that anyone who waded in and proclaimed the “truth” was asking for instant excommunication for someone else’s cult. At the risk of deletion, my cricket and I are going for it. We’re also remembering Josh Billings’ remark: “As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.”
I’m talking artistic truth here. Artistic truth is different from real truth. Folks are looking for another type of truth when they look at works of art. For those whose brains are not cluttered with what they have been told to look for, there’s an intuitive grasp of truth. It’s sometimes glimpsed across a crowded room. It’s frequently caught in the blink of an eye. I love to hear about clear-sighted, ordinary people wandering into art galleries and discovering it for themselves.
What is artistic truth? My cricket and I look at it this way: In every one of our works there are elements that ring true, just as there are other elements with the faint smell of falsehood. I’m not just talking about a human likeness or the colour of a lake or the rendering of a daisy; I’m talking about “humance” and “lakelihood” and “daisyness.” Something inexplicable, something often beyond words, inhabits our best work and has the capacity to reach out and grab another person’s humanity, memory bank, or sensitivity zone. The buzz of connection is made. Neurons reach towards one another, begin a dance of understanding, and then make love.
Sadly, though we may actively seek these finer, connectable truths, we cannot always put our finger on them. At other times an unbidden truth falls from our brush or chisel like a gift from an omnipotent being. We ourselves often don’t even recognize the blessing when it’s fresh from our hands and hanging out in front of us. Such is the mystery of “truth.”
The question that artists of all stripes and peculiarities ought to be asking is: How can I score my fair share of this commodity for my own work? The answer, pure and simple — and this is the truth: “Be there.”
PS: “There is neither painting, nor sculpture, nor music, nor poetry. The only truth is found in creation.” (Umberto Boccioni) “It is not realistic, maybe, but art doesn’t have to be realistic. Romeo and Juliet is not realistic, but it is true; it shows the essence of falling in love. (Jan Harlan)
Esoterica: Perhaps you get my point that deception and truth are closely related. “The real truthfulness of all works of imagination; sculpture, painting, and written fiction, is so purely in the imagination, that the artist never seeks to represent positive truth, but the idealized image of a truth.” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton) “Nothing is true and everything is permitted.” (William S. Burroughs)
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Name withheld by request
The trouble with most would-be artists is that they are not willing to go the extra mile to “be there” as you have suggested. Being an artist requires a 24/7 indulgence in one’s own direction. It requires a degree of focus that most people are not able to achieve. Artistic truth cannot be found or even approached by dilettantes. It is reserved to the dilettante to recycle and repeat the artistic truths of the precious few.
Truth and deception two sides of a coin
Regarding “truth” and “deception” in art, as perhaps in many or most things: when the artist and the viewer undertake, in the momentary spirit of energetic inspiration, that “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment,” as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, when they let come what may, as much as they can or will, and enjoy the journey, without undo regard for strict definitions, perhaps in this mutual effort, the distinction between “truth” and “deception” is not necessarily relevant. The two sides of a coin are as imperfect expressions of the thing itself as are “human” and “nature,” “day” and “night,” “life” and “death.”
Painting their truth
Terri Steiner, Princeton, MA, USA
I don’t think I’m the “greatest” artist by any means, yet people seem to love the commission work I do for them, whether it is a portrait of a person or animal. The key that I found is to paint their truth. I spend time listening carefully to their feelings about the subject to be painted, listening to their heart. Then I paint it. Oftentimes the likeness of the subject that is painted is quite a stretch from reality, but it always elicits an exclamation and sometimes even tears, “Oh my God! That’s him/her exactly!!!” It is then that I know I’m an artist.
Problems with being objective
The making of a realistic, or naturalistic artwork means an assembling of information that the artist has seen. Just as a camera’s lens takes in the information and records it on film, the artist serves as lens, film and printer. When the little cricket asks for more than the ‘realistic representation’ of a subject, perhaps it is really asking for the artist to be authentic to herself. Even as the lens of a camera (In German, the objectiv) is not capable of being objective (each stage of the taking of the photograph involves subjective choices, the type of lens, the filter, the film, the aperture, the aiming of the lens, the printing…) neither can an artist be objective. Experience, age, cultural expectations and orientations, emotions, preferences, tendencies for colour, texture, sensation all add to the lack of true objectivity.
Something in the fruit she found
Kathleen McCallum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
One night I painted some pomegranates. The ones I used for models had little stickers on them. I remembered as a kid, stickers came on Dole bananas, but now these PLU’s (Product Look-Up) were on everything! Each time I painted more produce, I found new stickers. Drove me nuts. No, there was something there. I started to glue the actual fruit sticker on the fruit or vegetable subject once I had painted it. A little commercial… but that’s how I think. I’d use fun puns for the painting titles, of course relating to the stickers used. I’d sew on beads, instead of painting them, for a fabulous, dimensional look. I’d frame with an Italian wooden profile that would become part of my unique look. Next, I traded a number of paintings (and lotsa chocolate) for an awesome web design. Two talented women helped me create the strongest site possible to advertise my adorned paintings. We’d art direct it to death — e-mail each other for weeks — improve, improve, improve — until it was ready to unveil. A Grower in Ecuador saw my site and mailed me 300 organic banana and mango stickers. (Finally I could spend more time painting and less time hunting for his stickers in the grocery store.) He also bought a piece. Nancy White, a folk singer from Toronto, Ontario, saw it and gave me permission to use her fruit sticker song lyrics. My site allows me to “talk” to people that enjoy my work from around the world. I have lots of stickers sent to me, in hopes that they will inspire a piece. I still have so much fruit to go.
Making the switch
I’m an art teacher. I’m sitting at the computer trying to write schemes of work for the next term. I find putting into words what I do with kids extremely difficult. I love the creative bit but not the required paperwork. I guess I am one of the many art teachers who would like to be making a living from my art.
(RG note) Teaching is a noble and dedicated calling that has its own parameters. Being a freestanding artist is another kettle of fish. I recommend “zoning” your life so that you can look forward to a significant period of time (at least six months) where you can indulge in your heart’s desire. For this period I recommend changing your environment and a vast simplification of socialization and obligation. It’s tough for some artists to do, but you find out, believe me, you find out.
Loss of friendship
I had a friend for many years who is an artist. She has achieved some success, and poof, no more friendship. She won’t communicate with me to tell me what I did wrong, so I am left to wonder. Could you write your thoughts on artists who take themselves too seriously? I can only guess the success has gone to her head.
(RG note) It may have nothing to do with what you might have done “wrong.” There’s a natural ebb and flow of friends and competitors in and out of every life. So be it. It’s your own lantern that counts. Let it shine where it will be accepted and leave those others to go about their own business.
Shirley Erskine, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
I had a breakthrough while attending a working seminar. I thought it was time to get off by myself and indulge in deep thought and work. It came to me like a bolt out of the blue. A floating shape that just appeared on the canvas. Expanded, it became a whole. It felt like I had been given my life back.
First of all I would like to express my deep appreciation for receiving your letters twice a week. I read them with great pleasure. Now I wonder if you could help me. I am 57 years old and I have been painting for the past two years. I am very serious about my art. Let me tell you that I am a figurative painter and I like very much to paint in the Old Masters’ style. Last spring I participated in a local fine arts festival and my two paintings were rejected. I thought “all right, no big deal” but since that time, exactly four months, I have a hard time to paint. Actually I cannot paint at all. Do you have any advice?
(RG note) Rejection ought not be a negative event for any artist. I recommend that highly sensitive artists do not enter juried shows. As you have found, it interferes with the muse. The art of painting for personal joy ought to be your focus. Live in your own world, paint for yourself, take courses from someone you admire if you must, study books with more examples of the Old Masters. They will be around longer than the jurors who rejected you.
Lure of the bucks
Rita Monaco, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I have always had a problem with galleries and the public’s expectations that a painter will produce recognizable work. By this I mean recognizable at the art-lover level, usually a subject, not a style. Art is becoming commodity and galleries cater to buyer taste. This should not influence the artist to the point of stifling the creative process, but many times it does. I know painters that are stuck on a subject because that is the one that sells and they are struggling every day to produce variations of it. I think that this is sad and the public will soon tire of a particular subject and turn his attention to a new subject, a new fad. In the meantime the artists will be stuck with a subject that nobody wants (remember the flowers?) and it will take time, sometime a long time or never again, to come up a new subject that the public will like. Being an artist also means exploring, expanding, discovering new subjects, new ideas, new meanings. It is very difficult to resist the lure of the bucks… but becoming a producer of fashionable images should not be the only occupation of an artist.
Truth at Ground Zero
Nic East, Hill Home Forge, Jim Thorpe, PA, USA
All is now quiet here at Ground Zero. The ambulances and fire trucks have all packed up and gone away. Grass now grows where ashes and human remains once commingled. Today, pigeons and other birds peck about in that same dirt and alight nearby in search of food. Dogs bark distantly. Clouds stroll across the sky like great airships. Those who come here still speak in whispers. As they gaze about, feeling the colossal energy of this place, they are grateful that they still live and are able to come here at all. This scarred city dreams its summer visions as quiet traffic passes by, intent upon keeping its commercial mission alive. The people stand about, heads together, glancing sideways at the landscape, marveling at the peace they feel here within this former locus of horror’s expression. They seem to see again the crashing planes and raining debris, smoke and ashes blotting out the sun. They relive the roiling thunder of that morning last September 11th, and again find themselves amid the echoing screams of bodies falling like organic rain. Life goes on and the crowds disburse, going back to their lives, yet carrying the freight of recognized empowerment that comes from shared sorrow for those who’ve died and sympathy for those who labored here to heal this mighty scar. The American Flag still flies above this place, forever symbolizing our shared grief and resolve that this place will remain hallowed ground forever. Together, we bid our final goodbye to those who perished here. To those heroes who worked so long and hard to clean this wound and bind it up, we silently give our humble thanks.
Me and my art
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002. This includes Dwayne Jacobson who says, “The truth is more true than what is true.” And Trevor Sale who quotes Manet: “Art is the lie which tells the truth.”
Quotable quotes about truth
“Paint what you are, paint what you believe, paint what you feel.” (Ben Shahn)
“No artist is bound by the truth.” (Monroe Spears)
“My great longing is to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodellings, changes in reality, so that they may become, yes, lies if you like—but truer than the literal truth.” (Vincent van Gogh)
(RG note) The Resource of Art Quotations is one of the most popular features on our site. Artists and art students looking for opinions and insight turn to this page regularly: It’s the largest of its kind anywhere.