Artistic truth


Dear Artist,

This letter’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.”


“Horizontal Volumes” 1912
painting by Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916)

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 toward one another, begin a dance of understanding, and then make love.


‘States of Mind III: Those Who Stay” 1911
painting by Umberto Boccioni

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.”


“The City Rises” 1910
oil on canvas, 78 x 119 inches
by Umberto Boccioni

Best regards,


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)

This letter was originally published as “Artistic truth” on August 30, 2002.


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“One cannot be precise, and still be true.” (Marc Chagall)




  1. Artistic Truth? Educate yourself. At some point- leave all your teachers behind. Make work that comes directly from your inner connection to the universe- your soul- god. Nothing else matters if you want your work to tell YOUR truth. Only you know your truth. There is no other truth. A few people will get your truth- but most won’t. Don’t care about either. If you care what other people think you will always try to make work that pleases someone else. You want that acceptance to matter. It doesn’t. Especially if you’re making art that doesn’t fit into convenient boxes. Trash all boxes. Be subversive to the truth. Create new truths. Own that. Scare the hell out of everybody. Be disruptive. A higher truth will always settle after you disrupt the truth. Always. And there are always higher truths. Why? Because 3-D is an illusion.
    Where does the truth come from? “Know thyself.” Again- why? Because there isn’t anything else. If you find your artistic truth- and you create work that comes out of your core being- your work will stand the ultimate test- the test of time. Creativity is truth. Creativity is a primary reason for existence- maybe THE primary reason. Which is exactly why it is NOT supported very well in our culture- because TRUTH sets itself apart from all things that are false. And everybody hates to look in the truth mirror- because it shows them just how false they are- and they hate that. Ego? False. Religion? False. Personality? False. ART? CREATIVITY? “Now that’s the truth.”

  2. F. Armstrong Green on

    Artistic truth is a higher truth than mere agreement of subject with predicate or is bandied about in the world at large. It is vision fleshed out by craft that finds meaning beyond ordinary ken. It is the sort of thing that Sister Wendy can reveal for us in a painting or a literary critic can unfold for us in his action of recreating what the author created but doing so in literary terms so that we can be sure what the author intended consciously and subconsciously. Getting at the truth in sculpture is what the likes of Eric Neumann did in the Archetypal World of Henry Moore. It is what Robert Johnson did in He and John Sanford did in The Man Who Wrestled with God.

    • Sister Wendy is a fraud. She taught me English, Math and Biology when I was a schoolgirl, what she pretends to be and the persona she has carefully built up has no truth!

    • Ditto your feelings, Allan. I morned for a man I only knew thru his writings. Public radio likes to talk about the “Driveway moments” when you sit in your car in the driveway to listen to the end of a story they are telling on the radio. Many a time I had an ‘Ah ha’ moment when reading these letters. And now they continue through his daughter. Thank you Sara.

      • Ken MacFarlane, Exactly. I was in my driveway too, many a day, waiting for that final piece when wrapping up a NPR story. Again and again, after reading one of Robert’s Letters, I feel the same way.

  3. I wonder if feeling divinely guided, I mean really letting go, and allowing the guidance to come through, putting a brush or pen in the hand and just beginning is a way of finding truth. Low points come at all junctures. When I find those, I force myself to remember the truth of my being. I am not separate from source. That is the only truth. I have only but to ask for that divine guidance, it has always been there, and always will be. Sharing it through the gifts are my joy.

    • Ditto Alan, Ken and Sharon!
      Robert was a great human being, loved people and loved the truth! And he was full of it, which i believe was Divinely inspired. Every generation has its prophets, teachers, lovers and leaders. It was our pleasure and blessing to have Robert as one of ours! And the same Spirit continues in Sara.
      Thank you Robert and Sara for years of sharing….the truth!

  4. Is artistic truth, following or being lead by the process of creating. Being created not being the creator. Lyrics from a Robert Hunter song proclaims ‘Where the music plays the band’ is akin to that. Quote Emily Carr ‘“When you really think about your hand you begin to realize its connection, to sense the hum of your own being passing through it. When we look at a piece of the universe we should feel the same.”

  5. “Truth reveals itself in angles”, a phrase that stuck with me from a philosophy class of decades ago. This has been a guiding principle for me in understanding people, particularly artists.

  6. Thank you ,thank you all for these beautiful truths…I needed them to remind me…
    What if you have been painting for years for other people ( decorate and commisions)
    and you don’t know what your truth is any more????
    I inherited a talent .. I can paint anything… But “Truth”…. It eludes me… Ever since I was very young and didn’t know there was a question… Then, I was painting truth.. And I felt somehow connected to all the painters who came before me.. My spiritual teacher back then said we manifest out of creation..
    Again, thank you Sara… And Robert, always…

  7. Nice one! I always suspected that there was someone behind the curtain. I think human decency is one of the lost truths of our time.

  8. Truth in expression, goodness in action, beauty and terror in perception, insight in intelligence, understanding and comprehension in intellect, compassion and kindness in consciousness, toughness against evil, resilience against tyranny….. these are the vital and essential ingredients that constitute the moral universe – the highest dimension of existence.

  9. sometimes I think that the reason we love truth and see it as one of man’s profound basics is because TRUTH IS.

    When we strive for truth, we are creating a lot of fun and maybe making an improvment in ourselves at that moment, but “in truth”, since our truth is what IS, then the awesome moments are those when we enjoy that momentary insight.
    Then it is always so prodigious that , from respect, or fear, or wisdom, we skip off like a little girl and do something else.

    But it’s nice to know that truth IS and is always there, only waiting for our insight and personal powers to perhaps allow us to STAY for a bit, this time.

  10. A well done reflection on something so deep and intangible, yet, as your Dad said …is at the core of a good painting. Loved this article. It will be placed in my saved file of newsletter favorites! Big thanks for sharing it with us!!

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