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

    by Brian K. Yoder

    Brian Yoder: In short, there are some things about the way the moon looks (or can look) that a good artist can capture in a painting. If the goal was to paint a romantic scene, one might paint the moon very differently, perhaps larger, perhaps with a warmer light, perhaps in a different compositional relationship with the other objects in the scene.

    Mani Deli: So what does this have to do with truth?

    The artist's understanding of and selection between the various actual ways that the moon may appear in certain situations allows him the power to control the look and meaning of a particular painting. He need not be a slave to the recording of exactly what is before him like some kind of skin and bones camera. He can select the things that express his desired idea and leave out the things that don't. How can it be unclear to you that realism need not be slavish, meaningless, and unimaginative?

    BY: In other words, painting realistically doesn't mean abandoning the idea of selectivity in service to artistic goals.

    MD: I don't see that this addresses the question.

    Why not? It seems pretty obvious to me. What are you not getting?

    BY: If so then the fish and shoe painting is still meaningless and the woman with the baby is still ineffectual. A rational idea that is ineffectually expressed is still rational.

    MD: What's rational about a picture of a mother and child?

    Because it (unlike the picture of the shoe and the fish) actually portrays a certain point of view about what maternal love is all about while the picture of the shoe and fish does not. Consider these two artists:

    Artist A: I think I will paint a picture today. I would like it to express my heartfelt emotions about maternal love. As the subject of my painting I choose to paint a mother drying off her baby after a bath.

    Artist B: I think I will paint a picture today. I would like it to express my heartfelt emotions about maternal love. As the subject of my painting I choose to paint an old shoe with a fish sticking out of it.

    You tell me, which of these people is being rational and which is being irrational?

    BY: [...] (thought flawed) and an incoherent idea expressed with flawless technique is still irrational. Is that not obvious?

    MD: As I said, Art is the proper place for the irrational, because irrational ideas can be expressed beautifully art. Is a painting of Zeus Rational, True? Alice in Wonderland?

    A painting of Zeus can indeed be quite rational... if it is an effective way of putting forward the idea you seek to express. Ditto for Alice. I think that you are being highly literalistic in your interpretation of what rationality requires in this sense. There's nothing irrational about fantasy, as long as you aren't taking it and journalism rather than art. Of course there's no big powerful guy in the sky hurling lightning bolts at his enemies. That doesn't mean that his image might not be a perfectly rational way to express some idea (like power or violence for example). Would it be "irrational" as you see it to paint Zeus hurling thunderbolts on the nose of a bomber aircraft? I don't think it would be at all. It would be a whole lot more rational than painting an old shoe with a fish sticking out of it, that's for sure.

    MD: The fish and shoe painting is no more "meaningless" than that of the mother and child.

    Of course it's meaningless. I picked it specifically because it has nothing to do with mothers, children, love, or anything remotely like that. Your position here seems to be that there can be no such thing as meaning in art and that the only thing it can convey is a sense of technical accomplishment. Is that really what you are trying to say?

    MD: A Dutch still life, a Memento Mori, had some meaning to those who were familiar with the symbolism. That meaning is forgotten in most cases.

    That may well be, but that's not the point I was making. Even if something is no longer understood by anyone that doesn't mean that it doesn't contain the meaning. If we unearthed a poem written in a dead language that nobody understands anymore, that doesn't mean that there's no meaning in the stone tablet. With a lot of work and research that meaning could again become understood (look at our understanding of Egyptian writings over the past 200 years. At first nobody understood anything, now there are people who can read them quite adeptly. The meaning was never lost, nor was it ever arbitrary (which is what you seem to be implying).

    MD: So what's left is the fine execution, same as in the "fish" you mention, not rationality or truth pertaining to the subject matter.

    How do you claim that what's "left" is merely the technique used to make it? Merely asserting that there is no such thing as meaning is hardly a proof that it doesn't exist. You must have at least SOME argument to justify your assertion, no?

    MD: However, in speaking of subject matter, is a picture that you call rational any better than one that is, as you claim, irrational? Yes. One expresses the desired meaning. The other doesn't. That's what makes the difference.

    Creating a painting of a shoe and a fish to express the meaning of maternal love is as irrational as any choice can be. If I felt hot so I moved closer to the fire to cool off that would be irrational. If I wanted to take a girl on a date so I murdered her that would be irrational. If I wanted to go north by walking south that would be irrational.

    MD: Even assuming that some art expresses truth does that make it better than that which doesn't?

    Of course it does. Expressing true ideas leads to understanding and the achievement of goals. Expressing false ideas leads to confusion and failure. How can you claim that one is no better than the other? Why would you want to go around telling lies? Why would anyone think that's a good idea?

    --Brian