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)