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Opinion The dazzling lies of art

John-Paul stonard argues that the most powerful art is often based on elaborate untruths

Cindy Sherman
Untitled A (1975)

Art – is it a source of truth? Is making art a search for truth? The answer to both of these questions must surely be – well, yes. When all else fails (and how often it does) we turn to works of art for the deeply felt insight we can’t find elsewhere.

Facts, it seems, are at a premium nowadays. The traditional sources of sure-fire truths seem to have crumbled, overtaken by commercial and political interests – summed up in the word ‘advertorial’, the blurring of distinction between advertisement and editorial text in print newspapers. The role of social media in undermining truth judgements hardly needs to be explained.

It certainly seems that we live in a time of great earnestness of art. Works of art are used to throw light on political issues, to highlight identities, to be socially engaged, to try to change the world for the better – to do the virtuous work of reform.

The intentions are good, but the reality is that such earnest truth-telling doesn’t necessarily lead to particularly engaging art.

What really engages and jolts us into awareness, it seems to me, is a dazzlingly good lie. Not the shabby untruths of politics and commerce that surround us, and which the internet is particularly good at reproducing, but the brilliant and audacious lies of art. Politicians do not lie, Oscar Wilde wrote in his essay ‘The Decay of Lying’ (1889, 1891), since ‘they never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation’, incapable of the fine lies of a true artist. Wilde was lamenting the decline of ingenious lying among artists of his own day – young artists, he writes (in the form of a fictional dialogue, itself a masterly fabrication), have developed an ‘unhealthy faculty of truth-telling’, and write novels ‘so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability’. Even the newspapers have become unreadable, Wilde complains: ‘They may now be absolutely relied upon.’ ‘If something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify, our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile, and beauty will pass away from the land’, he writes.

There is no shortage of dazzling lies in art throughout history – and not always as a shortcut, as Wilde suggested, to beauty. The ferocious bison on the cave wall might well be an audacious boast on the part of a prehistoric hunter. And what are the ideal bodies of classical sculpture if not brilliant and beautiful lies? Often what appears to be a grand search for truth turns out to be an elaborate fiction. Rembrandt van Rijn’s self-portraits are masterpieces of direct, unflinching observation – they look detached and truthful. But in reality they tell us nothing about what Rembrandt was actually like. The ‘reality effect’ is just an effect. And what of his most famous painting, The Night Watch 1642? A group of noble soldiers embarking to defend their city… turns out to be a gang of carousers in a drinking club, fancy-dressed for a parade. As in his self-portraits, the dazzle comes from the scintillating sense of visual capture and painterly technique. We are totally taken in.

There are many more such examples. Think of Édouard Manet’s posing actors, or Pablo Picasso’s audacious reordering of the visible world. And there is much, besides the earnestness, in contemporary art: Cindy Sherman’s identity-shifting photographic self-portraits (which might be compared with those of Rembrandt); Peter Fischli & David Weiss’s ordinary rooms full of diverse objects, all, however, cast from polyurethane. These are just two brilliant, jolting fibs that spring to mind.

‘Nothing can be beautiful which is not true’, wrote John Ruskin. Lies can be beautiful too, if not more so, in the mouths and hands of artists. Go deeper than beauty and you find something that tells the truth about truth itself. This is what the dazzling lies of art can do.

Untitled A is currently on display at Tate Liverpool as part of Constellations: Cindy Sherman.

John-Paul Stonard is a writer and art historian. He is currently writing a book about the story of art to be published by Bloomsbury.