Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What is Truth in Art?

Thanks to all who posted comments on my previous post! Looking at your thought provoking remarks, two basic questions emerge, which may be fun for us to consider.

1. Are there really such things as masterpieces – art which is recognized over time and across cultures as being great?

On this point, the art scholar Kenneth Clark said that masterpieces exist “by the extraordinary fact that they can speak to us, as they have spoken to our ancestors for centuries.” He also suggests that although we may disagree about the reasons for it, “the impact of a masterpiece is something about which there is an astonishing degree of unanimity.”

Will you consider for a moment a painting suggested by the Lone Beader, Sargent’s painting, The Daughters of Edward D. Boit? While it may not have the general recognition of a painting like the Mona Lisa, it is a draw for art museums and acclaimed by critics of the day. At 124 years old, it stands the test of time in an Anglo cosmopolitan world. But would a Kuna native of South America see anything in it? Would a young girl of a Transylvanian village look at the two daughters in the background and identify with them in any way? Would she find them a bit peculiar and wonder about their future? Would she perceive that these two sisters would suffer mental illness and isolation for their entire lives?

It is questions like this that fuel the debate about whether there is or is not such a thing as a masterpiece, whether those works considered by many as masterpieces may simply be engineered by the shapers of public opinion. Let’s for the purpose of today’s post take the position that, for whatever reasons, some art works will stand the tests of time and location, to be considered by many as masterpieces.

Do we care? Do we want to create a masterpiece? Like me, most of you probably think creating a masterpiece is totally out of the question, way beyond anything you can imagine about your own art.

Yet I’m willing to bet that most of us want others to enjoy and appreciate our art. We want to grow as artists, to improve, to feel pride in our work. As Jackie y/il says, “To me, it is very rewarding/encouraging when others like my work, but the reason I do it and keep on trying to improve is that it makes me feel good and that is what, to me, is important.”

I believe that to improve and feel good about our art, we can benefit by understanding some of the reasons why certain art works might be called masterpieces, and then strive toward those elements in our own work. In the previous post, I paraphrased Kenneth Clark about one characteristic of a masterpiece, saying that it should not aim at art, but at truth. And, this brings up the second question that emerged from the comments:

2. What is truth in art?

Lane savant says, “The point to any honest endeavor is to pry a small chip of truth out of the face of the black wall of chaos,” yet he questions the availability of universal truth to us mere mortals.

Sharonb says, “I come undone because the word truth infers a universal truth – that truth stands for all time across all cultures- which I do not believe in.”

The Lone Beader says, “Realism in the visual arts is the depiction of a subject as it appears in everyday life, with no interpretation. This may also include depicting the unpleasant. In life, many people choose not to see the truth. So, I feel that expressing myself in this manner is a way to show others exactly what I see.”

Vicki says, “It seems like a bit of a philosophical question, but I'm wondering if we can EVER make art that is anything BUT our truth?”

I think there are some artists who believe they can tap into some universal truth, that they possess a gift of perception and that their mission is to reveal truth through their art. Perhaps Kenneth Clark leaned in this direction, believing that there is some form of universal truth in the great themes of mankind – birth, death, love, revenge, family, war – to name a few.

While I respect this opinion, what seems more important to me is the notion of personal truth. Like Sharonb’s recent post about bloggers who write with a genuine voice, I believe that personal truthfulness is a necessary and perhaps inherent component of art... that the artist is attempting to convey something important (to them) and truthful (from their own perspective). Maybe this is too obvious to be of significance. But it's helped me, especially when I'm stuck, to be mindful of my truthfulness rather than to ask what should I add or do to make my work look better. In other words, to aim at truth rather than at art.

Vicki seems to agree, saying, “I also have had the experience of trying to help my art more fully express my intention, rather than trying to make it more complete visually. The former was so much more satisfying on a soul level!”

I began yesterday’s post with a reference to The Divas, a piece in progress by the Lone Beader. To my eyes, it seems entirely authentic. Even at this early stage, it rings true of Diana’s love for dogs, her poignant attachment to the story of these particular dogs. The Divas is a good example of how telling personal truth raises the bar on one’s art, making this piece more than a cute picture of four dogs, making me curious about the story and highly interested to witness her progress.

3. Here are a few questions for you to consider:

  • What do you think about the concept of personal truthfulness and authenticity in your art work?
  • Is this something for which you consciously strive and plan? If so, how?
  • Vicki comments, “Art has such a subconscious component, like our speech or our dress, that even when we're doing it "intellectually" our inner being is always being voiced in a variety of choices - colors, shapes, composition, topic - that are somewhat beyond our rational control.” How do you feel about this? How is your subconscious truth revealed in your art work?
  • Suzyq comments that Van Gough was an artist who told his own “truth,” despite the negative reactions of others. What is your experience with fear of criticism or self criticism blocking the expression of your personal truth?

Although I’ll soon return to beads, treasure bracelets, dolls – pictures and process, I’m hoping you will stay with me and contribute to the current discussion for a little while longer.


  1. We cannot escape ourselves. We cannot express any thing but ourselves. Each of us is one truth. We can only express that one truth. Sometimes our truths overlap, we find these connections through art. The more universal the connection the closer to masterpiece.
    When we are all connected
    we will probably blow up.

  2. I agree with a lot of what lane says. I think the best we can do is express our own experience. And this isn't a minor accomplishment, since so much in culture pressures us to conform to other versions of life and experience--for example, to learn to draw a seagull as an "m" in the sky, versus as something else. "Masterpiece" is a designation that reflects a cultural appraisal of value that may or may not affirm an authentic vision. In any age things that are declared masterpieces fall into oblivion, so it's not a universal nor a timeless label.

  3. I am totally against the notion of art as personal expression, if that means art must be generated by the ego. The ego is predictable, boring, and ultimately unsatisfying.
    I never think of what I make as personal expression. The thought is quite off-putting to me.
    As a dialogue of the soul with its Creator...that is where art has meaning to me. When one's art attains the state of creator/creation/and the act of creating all in one, so that the ego state is blessedly absent: that to me is the precondition for a masterpiece in art.

    (And thank you, Robin, for this discussion...;-)...)

  4. Yes I agree a personal truth rather than a universal truth is the only authentic way to live. It does not however mean turning inward and representing just your life/ego. I think you can look and observe the world - tackle the big topics such as war, peace, life, death etc but in an authentic manner. If that makes sense

  5. The ego is just one part of the whole truth of a person. To consider the self one must consider all the parts, the animus, duodenum, central nervous system, instep, predjudices, taste in clothing, prefrontal lobes, the six glutei, (minimus, median, and maximus)
    For a complete listing, see Gray's Anatomy
    PLUS you must consider that the whole
    to be greater than the sum (compare a live person to a dead one)

  6. I love this! Your comments are making me feel it was worth my time (5+ hours) and effort (whew!) to write this post. Several times I thought, "This is way tooooo pedantic... I need to get back to my beads." But now, after reading your comments and seeing that this is a viable discussion, I'm feeling much better about it.

    My quilting friends turn up their noses at blogging (saying they'd rather be sewing), and they're not interested in hearing about anything I've seen or read in blogland. Ok... different strokes for different folks. I happen to enjoy reading your blogs, finding them stimulating, encouraging and fun (even funny). Thanks for the comments too!

  7. I tried to answer this question in my post entitled "The Truth about Bailey". :)

  8. To the Lone Beader ~ will you please post a link to "The Truth about Bailey." I couldn't find it on your blog. I'm sure others will want to read it too.

    You can use these HTML tags to create a link within a comment to a post:

    1. <
    2. a href=
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    5. type the name of your link - this part will be visible to your readers.
    6. <
    7. /a>

    Just type the above code all on one line, without the numbers, periods or spaces. You need to put the URL for your link between the quotation marks. Try it, please!

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  10. Simple thoughts on complex subjects.

    (a) To me, a "masterpiece" has stood the test of time. I don't think we can say any recent work is a masterpiece -- it may be great -- but only time will truly designate it a masterpiece.

    (b) Art has to be a personal expression. It is, after all, a person doing it. Try as we might, our whole life is a part of the art we create.

    My humble opinions in the late hours of the evening.

  11. That self-criticism is a biggie for me. I've probably stifled ten times more art than I've actually made due to that. Each piece comes through a long tunnel of gremlins with sticks beating at it. It's surprising my art doesn't have a more distressed look about it! :-)

    And somehow, my focus is all on what others think and how they evaluate my work (that's great ammunition for my critic)... instead of being centered in the satisfaction I receive in doing the work, like Jackie expressed so clearly.

    The irony is that I don't value the proclamation of an expert with a particular point of view writing about a particular body of artwork as though that was the only work that exists in the world. (Leaving out Romanian beadwork and Inuit sculpture and African American quilts and tagging...)

    So why would I listen to my inner critics (yeah, I think I have a flock of them) and give a darned hoot about what some external sort of voodoo authority has to say about the truth or value of what I create?

    Just make the darned stuff, and put it out there as a piece of conversation or an offering or thought, or not, ENJOY THE PROCESS, and if others find value in it, that's only the sauce, it's not the main dish.

    Thanks Robin and all for writing.

  12. I posted my response in my blog as well:

    The Truth and Nothing but the Truth

  13. Anonymous8:16 AM

    Oh I wish I could go edit what I said. Actually, I don't mean that I don't value expert and learned opinion. I have authority issues so equate experts with my own inner critic. That's an important distinction. Experts are not necessarily critical of my work, but my inner critic can put the nameless faceless "them" in a position to try to squash me. Oh, enough of this. I really like T's post. Go read it!

  14. Very interesting questions and answers...I think lane probably has expressed my opinion, as well as well as barbara c.
    I don't get up in the morning and ask myself if I'm going to lie today or tell the truth and it's never occurred to me to ask that question about my art work. I get up and I make art because I have to...and I hope to give someone who sees my work the same pleasure I get from looking at a flower or a tidepool...I try to stay away from most value judgements and just ask myself if the piece "talks" to me or not...

  15. A few months ago, in response to a friend who was totally stuck with her art, I wrote three articles about the inner critic, and posted them here on my website.

    Vicki's and Teantae's comments have made me rethink this issue a bit. It's definitely not a simple subject, is it?!

    Thanks to all of you for adding to this discussion and for your honesty about it.

  16. I disagree with lane. We escape ourselves and express what is not ourselves all the time. If we didn't, why would it be necessary to discuss what is authentic in art? On the other hand, too much self expression is self indulgent. As a writing teacher, I taught that writers need to consider their audience or there is no communication. This doesn't mean they have to be dishonest or inauthentic. But not considering the audience can produce a pointless rant that interests or speaks to no one except the writer. (I'm not talking about journals daily writing, of course.) Surely visual art is parallel to writing in this regard. Much of it is a way of communicating how we see the world and sharing this with others.

    Thanks for the discussion

  17. I have come to realize that my work does reflect myself. Recently a friend pointed out that my work has a voice. I tend to work in dusties, or purples. I feel comfort in these colors and it is very hard for me to venture outside my boundries and create with colors which aren't my own. I do try it on occassion, but it takes me much longer and I get frustrated with it not flowing as usual.I rarely plan a project, it just happens.I guess I create from the heart.My crazy quilting reflects my love of nature and family.


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!