Travelling through a distant city, I entered through the back door of a gallery, only to find the dealer trying to sell one of my paintings. Taking a seat at the rear, I quietly waited for him to finish. Leaning close to the nice looking couple, he disclosed that I was one of the best investments in the country. My feelings of creepiness were compounded when he mentioned I had my own stud farm. He must have confused me with another artist, I figured, but no matter, the couple had horses and bought the painting.
Thinking about how art itself is a form of deceit, I didn’t blow much of a whistle on my dealer-friend. Painted mountains can be taller and more jagged, women can be even more beautiful, autumn’s reds can be redder, and horses can have longer legs.
Recently I’ve been reading The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Modern Life by Robert Trivers. Apparently all animals have deceit built in, and the higher up the food chain we are, the more likely we are to use, abuse (and detect) it. From the amoeba to the fine artist, “smoke and mirrors” is not a bad thing, and good stuff comes from illusion.
Trivers, an evolutionary biologist who once took courses in art, tells us that the most effectively devious folks are not always aware of their deceit. Apparently, the most intelligent people often excel in self-deception. There’s an unconscious process of selection and distortion, the better to believe our stories, the brilliance of our efforts, and our place in the world. Trivers revels in all kinds of human follies, the sort of things that make “The Emperor’s New Clothes” such a great parable.
Knowing all is not straight and true gives power to the idea that imagination rules. If everything was depicted as it is in total truth, then things would be dull indeed. Maybe art, or perhaps modern art, as some people think, is one big folly, but it doesn’t hurt anyone, and you’ll have to agree it’s a lot of fun.
Nevertheless, outright lies retard the progress of civilization. While I’ve ridden a few horses, even painted a small panel while in the saddle, the closest I ever came to a stud farm was when I had one of my old British cars pulled from the mud by a stallion.
PS: “You can fool just about anyone, but the easiest one to fool is yourself.” (Richard Feynman)
Esoterica: One of my relatives, deciding she needed a new husband, went online and found a decent looking fellow hugging a Golden Retriever. One phone call and she was on her way over to the fellow’s home. “Where’s the dog?” she asked when they met. “Sparky belongs to a friend,” he said. “I only used Sparky in the photo so I would look like a nice guy.” She married the guy anyway.
In love with ourselves?
by Jeri Haas, Balto, MD, USA
I find it hard to believe that a totally truthful world would be boring. We would still have our imaginations to soar to ever more challenging and beautiful places as yet unrealized by the human mind. This does imply another unknown world (or maybe an “unused” mind in another world), perhaps another dimension, but why not? What greatness might come from a truthful and soaring mind? Surely it would be steps up from this agitating and corrupt world in which we are currently living.
To me the problem lies in our tendency to “over-love” ourselves. “There’s an unconscious process of selection and distortion, the better to believe our stories, the brilliance of our efforts, and our place in the world.” My feeling is that we were conscious of, and did make a decision at some point in our lives to believe our lie, which only then allowed it to become an “unconscious” occurrence. Remember that all of the king’s people had their own reason(s) to deceive themselves… mostly Fear turned the trick. Not at all an unconscious decision.
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Nature is deceitful too
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
As Picasso said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” It can also tell lies. But the lies don’t reach out and grab you by the throat — or other vital parts of your anatomy. You know it when you see it. Speaking of even more beautiful women, when I was a kid I learned to draw mostly from Milton Caniff’s comics — Steve Canyon, Terry and the Pirates — in which the women all have large breasts and very long legs. Years later when I began drawing from life, I found I had to learn anatomy all over again. Real breasts are rarely that big and legs are never that long! The same thing was true with landscapes. Being from Florida, I wasn’t familiar with mountains, but later I discovered that real mountains are usually not as dramatic as painted ones. Drawing and painting people and things as they really are was a revelation. You don’t really see a thing until you try to draw it. Imagination is of course vitally important to creativity. But what I discovered was that nature is way more imaginative — and maybe more deceitful — than I am.
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Self-deceit lessens fear
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Unless the lies have negative and hurtful impact, it can be a lot of fun to dig for them in human behavior. I once started on this subject with a bunch of ladies. I stumbled on the subject by saying that I didn’t think that the face value of anyone can be trusted. This didn’t go well. The jolly gold digger and the sweet facelift beauty commented that I must be a very deceitful person if I think that way because most people are never deceitful. They put themselves as examples of this pure naïve honesty. I realized I chose a wrong subject. Not everyone is ready to face this concept in a playful way. This benign deceitful behavior is deeply embedded, but also socially accepted to the extent that really isn’t anyone’s business to point it out. Having said that, I am not sure that your dealer’s act was benign, but what do I know about salesmanship.
It’s also very interesting how self-deceit can turn out to be a self-prophecy. Sometimes we learn what we are missing, and trust ourselves that we can fill in the gaps to what’s needed. Self-deceit can be useful to bridge the gap with less fear.
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Harmless deception gets us through life
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
We paint on a flat surface and manipulate paint in such a way as to make viewers see things that are not there. That is if we have the ability to do this. What I find interesting is the viewer is willing to be fooled and enjoys the process of being manipulated by the artists. It’s part of the process of art itself. The same can be said of magicians, which in some small way we artists are a part. But this kind of lie is acceptable on a moral level because it takes some sleight of hand to get the message across convincingly when creating a work of art.
Harmless deception, if there is such a thing, helps us get through the tough times. Makes the unbelievable more palatable and therefore we can move forward though we know we may be on a slippery slope. It’s the adventure of life. As children, it’s why we put our hand in the fire even after being told we will get burned. I’m sure I lie every day; to myself and to my students as well as my wife. Deep in my heart, I always try to make my lie with some seed of truth or at least base it on some tenet of believability.
The fickle face of marketing
by Kim Slocum, Warren, PA, USA
Artists hold themselves in higher regard when it comes to deal-making and being told what to do, what to paint, etc., until it comes to the point where they just want to sell some artwork. In doing so, they find their audience and hence begin the life of an artist, but it does end in some ways. Either the artist has to stay stagnant (to what others have seen in his work) to continue to be sought after or, if he continues to evolve, he loses his fan club. He may find another but that is doubtful seeing as the art-buying crowd is small. What I find most interesting is the change that occurs once one indulges in the one-time hype, fraud or marketable mention to get bought or sold. It’s like Jackson Pollock crashed (figuratively) after his fame when Clifford Still came in and stole the show from him (Pollock wasn’t changing in the right direction, they said). Many artists at one time denounce the establishment but need it to do their deed… As in the current Guerilla Girls — once admired for being non-establishment, they became so sought after because of the show of force to not need the museums and the galleries. Not now! They are full in and have their own traveling exhibit thanks to the great old establishment.
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Big-prize art contest goes wild
by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia
South Australia is host to the world’s richest landscape prize with a first prize of $50,000. The winner of the main prize and the other $10,000 prize winners were announced this week. This bi-annual event started off okay several years ago, but it has slowly moved toward choosing finalists who painted non-representative work. Any essence of the meaning of the word landscape has all but disappeared. If you click the link you will see that the skill was not in the painting but in the description of it by both artist and judges.
The parable of the Emperor’s new clothes rings true here more than ever. I think in this case ‘modern art’ has caused hurt – hurt to art itself and the public perception of it with these clear acts of self-deceit by both artists and jurors. Readers might be interested in looking at this year’s winners and previous years… some of them will leave you speechless, especially the 2006 one.
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Smoke and mirrors not necessary
by Quin Barrie, ON, Canada
I’m somewhat inclined to think the business of modern art is akin to a cancer and is boundlessly pernicious.
Deceit, lies, pretenses, fraud, salesmanship… whatever it is called, is a symptom of a tragic disenfranchisement between art and people. Art should not require anything beyond its own manifestation to inspire a ‘sale.’ A person should desire a piece solely on the visual or emotional delights it evokes as they gaze upon it. No smoke and mirrors are necessary… nor should be the copious mythologies spun to convince artificial valuations of a work in the viewer.
It’s always the most rewarding when a person purchases a painting of mine simply on sight. It matters not to them who painted it… they have no concerns of it as an investment… and they could care less about what the artist or anyone else thinks it means. They simply find beauty and delight in the image, and have emotional affections to the point where they desire it for their own. That’s when painting is most rewarding for me.
When a client starts asking the gallery manager, ‘Who painted it?’ ‘Did he go to art school’ ‘Is he popular?’ ‘What shows has he done?’ ‘What collections is he in?’ ‘Has his work gone up in value?’ etc, then I know I’m dealing with a dilettante who is engaged in pretentious games that are wholly corrosive to the entire realm of art.
In extracting the critical component of a person’s tastes and reactions from the relationship with art, it becomes a realm of grandiose perversity, devoid of reference and anchorage. In that realm, monetary and aesthetic value are arbitrarily imposed judgments, inflatable to the limits of the imagination. Whereas this phenomenon may enable an artist fantastical profits and specious acclaim, such a system of disassociated valuation guarantees the discrediting and impoverishment of countless other artists.
When art was integral to a culture, it was simply the way the culture expressed and explored their character. The artist was the instrument and voice of the community, and they and their creations were valued as such. An artist was fulfilled, not because of monetary excesses and vainglorious accolades, but because they and their works were integral parts of the social fabric, and therefore simply had inherent value and meaning.
I would love it if art returned to a place like that in our culture. I know so many great artists who languish in strife and deserve a role of enriching lives with their talents. And people deserve to have a life and society so enriched. Artists are essential to a culture and should be functionally integral to the benefit and enjoyment of all. Everyone wins in the freedom from the monstrous judgmentalism, hideous elitism and pretense within the modern art world.
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Morning at Germich arm
oil painting 12 x 16 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Pam in Tuscaloosa, AL, USA, who wrote, “Chuckling over your letter, I wanted to thank you again for your gift. Sanity with humor.”
And also Nicco Ferraro of Florence, Italy, who wrote, “Who would have thought the most informed art voices heard today would be generated from over there.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The art of deceit…