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Art+Lies=Truth (?)

Perhaps you've never considered that art is a form of lying.

I'm pretty sure I hadn't, not before reading Ian Leslie's piece, "Are Artists Liars?" in a May 24, 2011 posting at Intelligent Life magazine.

Focusing mainly on various types of story-telling, Mr. Leslie explain that artists - novelists, short-story writers, dramatists - use lies - made-up stories - to impress readers and viewers with true insights about life and themselves. In this respect he maintains that "art is a kind of lying", both of which, he explains, "spring from a common neurological root."

I should have seen that neuroscience thing coming, but I didn't. The entire middle section of Mr. Leslie's article is devoted to explaining a psychiatric condition called "chronic confabulation" which causes people to make up stories in response to questions, situations, or just about anything.

Mr. Leslie seems to suggest that we are all afflicted with this to some degree, because we all lie. But we're also bent toward creativity, and when the two of these come together - art+lies - truth often results. He explains, "Evidently there is a gushing river of verbal creativity in the normal human mind, from which both artistic invention and lying are drawn." Our creativity leads us to enjoy story-telling, but this can become problematic when our stories become lies in an effort to conceal or reshape truth.

But cast your lies in art, and very often truth breaks out. I think we can see that in the parables of Jesus, no? Except that I'm not willing to say Jesus "lied" when He used made-up stories to communicate spiritual truth.

Mr. Leslie wouldn't say that, either, because, in the case of story-telling, "the rules are laid out in advance: come to the theatre, or open the book, and we'll lie to you." He conjectures, "Perhaps this is why we felt it necessary to invent art in the first place: as a safe place into which our lies can be corralled, and channelled into something socially useful."

Right there is my real interest in this article. How can we account for all these contradictions? Human beings want to be "socially useful." We need to do good. But, doggonit, we can't help ourselves, we love to lie. So we turn to the arts as a vehicle through which we can have our cake and eat it, too. And this is how it happens that "Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth."

I would be very interested in hearing an evolutionary explanation of this. How does a secular anthropology account for this mixture of good and evil, this inability not to lie, and this creative fervor in the human breast? The late Denis Dutton made a pretty good stab at explaining part of this in his book, The Art Instinct. However, his argument for an evolutionary origin for the arts is entirely conjecture and, while elegant, not persuasive.

The Christian can account for this: Art: Made in the image of God, we cannot help but want to be creators like Him. Lies: Fallen into sin, we can't not betray truth (non posse non peccare). Social usefulness: God's grace and steadfast love are never failing, even toward His enemies.

The Christian worldview does not dispute Mr. Leslie's observations, or those of many other secular thinkers. It simply makes it possible for us to understand them.

And to improve on them.

Additional related texts: Genesis 1.26-28; Psalm 14; Matthew 5:43-45

A conversation starter: "Have you ever considered that art is a kind of lie that we use in order to communicate truth? Why do we do that?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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