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Nymphs and Satyr, by William Bouguereau (Detail)
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  • Truth and Art

    by Brian K. Yoder

    truth and art

    Brian Yoder: I trace the ultimate foundations of modernist errors back, not to photography, but to Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer. They developed the (thoroughly flawed) theoretical basis for the position that there's no such thing as truth (or at least that if there is we can never know it) and the rejection of truth in the arts and humanities followed as a logical consequence.

    Mani Deli: I disagree.

    If these philosophers had much to do with modern art, critics would constantly mention them.

    I don't think that follows. They didn't take on the exact positions of the modernists, they just paved the way.
    MD: The only philosopher I can relate indirectly to modernism is Rousseau.

    He certainly played an important role, but where would he have been had not the ground been paved by Hume and Kant denying the validity of reason?

    MD: To the question 'do we determine the truth by rationality or emotion', Rousseau sided with emotion and the Enlightenment came under attack. With this conclusion, emotion became the basis for romanticism, the outlook that slowly led to the disasters of modernism.

    No doubt he was an important (negative) figure in that respect, but Hume and Kant supposedly "proved" that reason cannot lead to knowledge of the truth. If reason is incompetent then the field is wide open for what we should use instead, whether it's emotion, genetics, fate, will, social consensus, nothing at all, or who knows what else.

    MD: Art is a combination of technique and subject matter. The use and study of technique is a rational act that cannot be divorced from art.

    True, though the attempt to achieve such a "divorce" has been part of the modernist project for 100 years.

    MD: As the 19th c. progressed both technique and the subject matter in fashion came under ever increasing attack. By the 20th, fashionable 19th c. subject matter (somewhat metaphorically speaking) was defeated. That in of itself didn't bring on the deterioration of fashionable modern art. The responsibility lies with the deterioration of technique. When we cite the incompetence of modern art, we are really referring only to technique.

    Actually, I blame both ignorance of technique and also a complete misunderstanding of the whole point and means of achieving it in art. It's not that they didn't know how to draw, paint, sculpt, compose, and so on. It's that they had no idea what to do with such skills even if they had them (or perhaps more to the point, they "knew" that if they had them they should pervert them rather than use them).
    MD: Attacks on truth have almost nothing to do with the matter. Most painting has nothing to do with truth. Subject matter in Art is the result of fantasy. Art is the proper place for the irrational; the only place in my opinion. The creation of subject matter here is the opposite of technological invention. We criticize CÚzanne, etc. not for subject matter but for incompetence.

    I very much disagree. A good painting requires an understanding of the truth and it expresses truth as well. It requires it because a rational understanding of perspective, optics, proportion, chemistry, physics, etc. is important in making the image conform to the mental desires of the artist. And it expresses truth by a rational identification of some aspect of reality (usually an abstract one like justice, revenge, motherly love, or a spring morning) and association of that abstraction with the concretes in reality which are to be portrayed in the work of art. A rational approach might express an abstraction like motherly love by painting a woman tenderly holding a baby. An irrational one might express the same abstraction by portraying an old shoe with a fish sticking out of it. I agree that creating art is different from creating technology in many respect but its dependence on rationality is a common feature of both.

    MD: What counts is how subject matter is presented, not whether it is truthful. Subject matter in art is self-expression. That combined with superior technique makes the foundation of fine artwork.

    I agree, and that selection of subject matter and form of portrayal is (if done well) guided by rational thinking.

    MD: Indeed, self-expression without technique is self-delusion.

    I agree, and technique guided by irrationality is rudderless and incompetent.

    --Brian