Art: The Lie that Tells the Truth

Christopher Willard
24 min readSep 24, 2019


I was talking with a colleague the other day about movies and they told me about one that was, “based on a true story.” I replied, “That’s too bad.” Whenever I see that phrase, I wonder, Why weren’t they creative enough to embellish the truth to make a more interesting story? What makes a bad story that is true better than a good story that is false?

When I was little, I read a lot. One of the stories that I found particularly haunting Brother’s Grimm, The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats. Basically it was this: Mother goat goes away for the day. The seven little goats are at home. The wolf appears with a voice softened by honey and a hand dipped in flour. The little goats think it is the mother and let the wolf in. They are gulped down, all but the littlest who hides in a grandfather clock. The mother goat returns home to find the wolf sleeping. She takes a big pair of scissors and snips open the sleeping wolf’s stomach and rescues her children. Then she fills the wolf with stones, sews him up and dumps him in the river.

I found the story engrossing and I read it over and over. I was mostly impressed with the way the wolf used simple materials to alter its appearance in a way that was convincing enough for the goats.

Illustration by Otto Ubbelohde to the fairy tale The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats, 1909. Wikimedia Commons.

I’m leading into a famous quote.

Pablo Picasso stated in a letter of 1923 to Marius de Zayas, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.

In exploring this statement, I will raise a number of questions for which I may not provide answers. I will discuss lying in art, and I will have to likewise discuss truth in art. I will also draw upon the works of numerous artists to demonstrate possibilities as artists have recognized the questions that I will touch upon.

Take a look at works done by Picasso in 1923. They’re easy to find on line. He painted portraits and a number of seated harlequins. The paintings are certainly well done but we may not fully yet see in them what he means by his quote.

First, before we can explore his meaning, we need to see if we can work toward a definition so that we are speaking the same language.

What is a lie? Generally people consider a lie to be a false statement with the intention of deceiving someone else. If you ask me what I’m doing right now and I say that I’m swimming to France, you will most likely suggest I am telling a lie, especially if you know I’m sitting at the computer typing and that I am currently nowhere near France.

In accepting a definition such as this, we generally take it that the person stating the lie knows the statement is false. So I am not talking about repeating a fact we take to be true, that is later found out to be a lie. Purposely misrepresenting some fact is I would argue the most common sense and usage of the word lie.

When we are not aware of the lie, or when we make a mistake and inadvertently lie, we can obtain humor as in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail 1975. To cross the bridge of death one must answer three questions truthfully.

Bridgekeeper: Stop. Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.

Sir Lancelot: Ask me the questions, bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.

Bridgekeeper: What… is your name?

Sir Lancelot: My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.

Bridgekeeper: What… is your quest?

Sir Lancelot: To seek the Holy Grail.

Bridgekeeper: What… is your favourite colour?

Sir Lancelot: Blue.

Bridgekeeper: Go on. Off you go.

Sir Lancelot: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.

Bridgekeeper: Stop. What… is your name?

Galahad: Sir Galahad of Camelot.

Bridgekeeper: What… is your quest?

Galahad: I seek the Grail.

Bridgekeeper: What… is your favourite colour?

Galahad: Blue. No, yel…

[he is also thrown over the edge]

This is funny because we generally believe that a lie is purposefully deceiving someone, we, the liars, know we deceive.

Picasso also added, art can make us realize truth. What sort of truth can art make us realize? So we must again pause. What is truth? Here, we have a long history of philosophical inquiry.

In an extremely simple reduction, philosophers G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, truth is correspondence with a fact. Thus, G.E. Moore when asked to prove the existence of the external world, could say, here is one hand, here is another hand. That is the truth, the proof, of the external world.

That darn old lying art and it’s problematics.

We might start with a life size, extremely realistic sculpture by Duane Hanson is truth, because it corresponds with facts of the world, namely that the sculpture at first glance looks very much like a person. There are many stories of people going up to one of his sculptures to ask a question.

“Man on a Bench” by Duane Hanson, 1977, Polyvinyl Polychromed in Oil, and Mixed Media With Accessories. Saatchi Gallery London. Wikimedia Commons.

The group Improv Everywhere found an actor who looked like the painting of King Philip the Fourth of Spain, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a 400 year old work of art painted by Velazquez. The actor then stood near the painting and signed autographs. People including one guard asked if he was the real person in the painting, not yet understanding the painting was so old. Finally a guard came and demanded they leave, which they did. No need to get arrested for lying to make art.

Superficially, we can say this work of art represents, or depicts in a realistic way, in this case a once living person of the real world.

Pliny the Elder in his book Naturalis Historia described a competition between Parrhasius and Zeuxis. We don’t have their paintings today but we can see get the idea from the work of others. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistically a bird flew down to eat them but only pecked at the canvas. They then went to Parrhasius’ studio and Zeuxis asked him to pull the curtain back to show him his own work. But the curtain was painted on. Parrhasius considered himself the winner because in the first instance the painter had fooled the bird. In the second instance the painter had fooled another painter.

Adriaen van der Spelt (Dutch, 1630–1673) and Frans van Mieris (Dutch, 1635–1681) Trompe-l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain, 1658. Fair use.

But what if we do not recognize the reality that the work of art is supposed to correspond to?

Let’s think of a Modernist painting by Barnett Newman titled Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue that consists of planes and lines of color.

What exactly is the fact that the art corresponds with? Certainly it is a fact that in oil pigment pigment is ground with linseed oil into paint? Is this truth? Is the truth found in the pigment is put upon a surface of the canvas? Here as in a brush stroke. Is some sort of reality and truth.

If we begin to agree with the above, that truth is found in the pigment and the mark, is this painting a collection of facts? Would we walk into the museum and say, “Come look, this painting by Newman is astounding for its truth, which is also so amazingly moving, because I see clear evidence of the pigment ground with oil and applied with marks. Wow!” On the contrary, it was attacked with a knife.

Berlino, DEU — Nouveau realisme und zero — Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV (1969/70) by Barnett Newman (1905–1970). Neue Nationalgalerie. Wikimedia Commons

Eugene Delacroix recognized this tension between material and truth. He once said, “I can paint you the skin of Venus with mud, provided you let me surround it as I will.” He understood that something of a fact was embodied in the pieces of colored mud, for lack of a better word I suppose some people call it paint. The way the marks came together could build to something, in this instance Venus, the goddess who represented love, beauty, and seduction.

In arguing for the marks of a paint’s application I think of Harold Osborn, writer on aesthetics of art, who called a focus on marks the syntax of the painting. This is no small matter in the world of contemporary art.

Jason Martin, an artist from the UK, talks about the brushed marks in his sensuous metalic paintings. He speaks of their tempo, their shifting quality. There is little concept behind the work beyond his interest in mark making. For him, that seems to be the truth of the art.

Jason Martin painting

Think of a later work by Van Gogh. A field of hay doesn’t for most people look the way he painted it. His own style, his signature marks take over. So has Van Gogh lied in making this painting. Well, I believe he purposely misrepresented facts and so I believe he did lie.

At first glance the world seems to look less like a painting by Van Gogh and more like a work by Pedro Campos, a photo-realistic artist who has painted soda cans so realistically the work looks like a photograph. However, the fact his work is tighter, more specifically depictive may not absolve him from accusations of using paint, i.e. lying to obtain reality. In fact, I’d argue this is exactly what makes his work compelling to many as opposed to simply a photograph.

Artist Alyssa Monk, another photo-realistic artist, says speaks works in the bathing series explore the tension between reality and invention. She says she has to make water out of paint, and that part of the challenge is to figure out what to use from a photograph and what to invent. Note her words carefully. Clearly for her it’s not just a copy but it includes invention, lies.

Many artists say they paint what they see as though this solves all the problems. This is correspondence with reality is seen as an entirely sufficient answer. But I wish to interrogate this line of thinking too, and to suggest that to paint the world as we see it becomes problematic very quickly.

One out of ten men, and one out of 100,000 women who do not have normal color vision. We are aware of deteriorating vision, as with cataracts, which might cause the world to appear yellowed.

There are further problems. We know the retinal cones, simply the color sensing cells of our eye, fatigue as we look at things over a period of time. As a result, color change the longer we look. we see flickers of other colors, halos of color around bright objects. In fact two artists specifically focused on painting the fleeting auras that occur when colors are adjacent, namely Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Look closely at the edges where colors meet and you’ll see how the color are modulated. They get lighter next to dark colors, darker next to light colors, redder next to greens, and greener next to reds.

Georges Seurat. Evening, Honfleur. 1886. Wikimedia Commons.

Josef Albers set up conditions in his Homage series of paintings to force colors to interact in a way that caused some colors to perceptually radiate, flicker, or even disappear.

Graphik nach: Josef Albers, Homage to the Square (Huldigung an das Quadrat), 1967, Öl auf Hartfaserplatte, 78x78 cm, Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas / USA. Wikimedia Commons.

What each artist recognized is that colors become unstable upon prolonged viewing.

The world of color then, as something stable is disproven. Our perceptions of the world are changeable and unreliable. The truth of the world in a universal sense, cannot be, then, as we individually see it. Artists often say, “I paint the world accurately, as I see it” and I have all these questions, How do your eyes work, For how long did you stare at the colors? How did you decide upon one of the many variations in that changeable color you stared at?

Once we recognize this, we come across instances in which we often cannot even agree upon what we see.

ABC, 12, 13, 14 Illusion

Things can get worse as with the Rotating Snakes of Akiyoshi Kitaoka in which we see eye-bending brain busting movement in a non moving configuration.

Rotating Snakes by Akiyoshi Kitaoka. Wikimedia Commons

OK, before we head into some new ideas, let’s recap where we are currently at.

We may accept some degree of truth in marks or some degree in a compilation of marks. But certainly we can also reframe this discussion as one of lies. The marks are all little sorts of lies that add up to one big lie.

I remember standing before a Monet painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Up close it looked like a cat had vomited. But as I moved back, the various dips and daubs of color began to coalesce and the configuration of painted marks turned into an image of the Cathedral at Rouen. It wasn’t a cathedral, nor was it a photograph of a cathedral, but it was definitely something about that cathedral in a very specific lighting condition. To describe this fact, I will use the last words of Raymond Carver in his brilliant short story titled Cathedral, “It’s really something.” Magic always is.

Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral. The Portal (Sunlight). 1894. Wikimedia Commons.

Now what I enjoy doing, in a Platonic manner, is to establish a sort of groundwork and then begin to test it. This is where I smile to make help the medicine go down.

Maybe art does not capture the truth, by which I mean some form of ongoing, lasting, unchanging truth. That seemed clear with respect to the changeability of human perception. Perhaps our answer is this: Art is just a momentary glance. And in this nanosecond of capture, we get some sort of momentary reality. I think Dutch still life paintings are much like this because we are aware that the food will rot, the dog, the monkey and the parrot will leave, and so forth.

Artist Mark Tansey has played with this notion, suggesting that artists are able to permanently solidify the moment although he pushes the idea to absurdity. In Action Painting II a painting class stands with easels and brushes painting the space shuttle as it lifts off.

But perhaps there is another route. Even if we paint the world as we see it, we may accept that others see it somewhat differently. Even so, we may suggest that there is still something important that is shared in the art. Considering Monet’s cathedral we get a feeling of the day, of the light he captured from his apartment window as he looked across the square to the building. I have pointed out what I think is the Platonic view versus the Aristotelian view of the world. On one hand Plato said an artist was “an imitator of images and is very far removed from the truth” (Republic X, 27). On the other hand Aristotle said, “The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” (Attributed to Aristotle by Seneca in On Tranquility of Mind).

I think that often art does function metaphorically, and we realize some truth through it. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a obvious example. The truth is in a way the story of the animals, but we also know the truth is the individuals the animals represent, Stalin and Trotsky and we know the farm is meant to be the Kremlin.

Even non-artists probably know the famous work by René Magritte. He depicted a pipe and yet he added words saying this is not a pipe. He wrote: “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!” Magritte recognized that the image was a lie because the image was a painting, a picture, and not a real pipe. In this sense he was grappling with the notion that art was often easily talked about as though what it depicted were a thing of the world, which it was not.

But as Magritte noted, people easily suggest the fake is the real all the time, with various levels of belief and colloquial language. And so the discourse is further opened.

Irish Poet, Paul Muldoon in a recent Paris Review magazine wrote, “Oh, I think one of the great things about being a writer is the extent to which it allows us to invent ourselves. It’s like being in a witness-protection program. A very, very dear friend, a woman I went out with briefly, years ago, said to me once, How’s May? I said, Who’s May? She said, May’s your sister, isn’t she? So then I got it. There’s a poem called “Cuba” in which there’s mention of a sister called May, who doesn’t exist. And yet the poem, in many ways, is historically accurate and in some ways happened. But not quite in the way that’s suggested. There are dangers, of course, with inventing people, including oneself.” (Paris Review)

Now lets all climb into some tricky and contemporary territory with a nod to Pere Borrell del Caso and his painting titled Two Laughing Girls in which a hand appears to extend beyond the virtual world and into our world.

We can imagine that art’s correspondence with the real world is sort of realism that allows us to consider the possible confusion.

Pere Borrell del Caso, Two Laughing Girls, 1880. Photo by Feriarte, 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

In his fable called On Exactitude in Science, Jorge Luis Borges wrote about a magical kingdom in which cartographers created a map so big and detailed that it lay perfectly over the existing land. This idea lead Baudrillard to think about the relationship of reality to models of reality.

To remind us, for example.

Imagine a painting, Mona Lisa. Now imagine that somehow the original was destroyed and that people then forgot about the original. And instead, all that existed of the Mona Lisa were many digital files, without any single original digital file, and that these files were used all over the place to create various forms of art. Baudrillard wondered, what would the world be in such a situation, what would art be in such a situation?

Not only are we recognizing the illusory and problematic nature of art, we will now find artists who not only mentioned the problems as did Magritte, but who actively made the problems the subject of their art.

Artist Robert Gober created a sheet of plywood, an individual, hand-crafted layered and laminated piece. The hand-crafted artifact is presented as the industrially made object. The lie and the truth are slippery.

Playwright, Harold Pinter from his Nobel lecture in Art, Truth & Politics, 2005 wrote “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” Truth is elusive, it may be glimpsed and the search for it is always the task of the artist.

On January 16, 2019, The artists The Yes Men created a fake Washington Post newspaper with the headline, “UNPRESIDENTED: Ending Crisis, Trump Hastily Departs White House,” that they handed out to D.C. commuters. Lies and conscious deception. And yet our thinking is directed to the truth, the truth found in or revealed by art.

Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth. In the face of art censorship is a hollow gesture.

In 1998, artist Liza Lou finished her installation of Backyard. Quite a beautiful backyard. Quite a bit of reality. When I say finished, I mean she completed a work made of 30 million glass beads. 250,000 beads are used in the grass alone.

Tom Friedman worked, according to the artist, on an art work between the years of 1992 and 1997. What did he do? He spent 1000 hours staring at a piece of paper. The work now resides in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Tom Friedman 1000 Hours of Staring (1992–1997). Wikimedia Commons.

Artist Joseph Beuys claimed to have survived a World War II airplane crash that was the impetus for many of his works. He said his plane was shot down on the Crimean front and he was rescued by the Tartars who wrapped him in felt and rubbed him with animal fat and fed him milk and honey. The events and the crash were accepted as fact for many years, but then the accuracy of events surrounding the crash and his eventual rescue began to be doubted, (e.g. Buchloh, Krauss, & Michelson, 1980; Knöfel, 2013). The artist died in 1986 having never cleared up the debate. Today there is a good deal of skepticism as to whether any of his account actually occurred, however as Borer (1996) wrote,

“The legend of Beuys must be held for the truth, not because the facts at its source may be true (they have never been completely substantiated) but because a legend is neither ‘true’ nor ‘untrue’ […] but Joseph Beuys’ legend must here be taken for the effect of truth, indispensable to any analysis of his work, and as such should be sung: in this way it is truthful.” (p. 12–13)

One way to consider this is that although the facts provided by the artist were without reliable justification, at times one was required to suspend justification in order to read the work in the manner that the artist intended, in this instance within the realm of myth. So much for justified true belief as the defintion of knowledge.

The artist is a liar, the fabricator of stories. The artist’s lies cannot be separated from the truth. The artist cannot be trustworthy on this account, they are unreliable narrators. We will never know whether Friedman told the truth or not.

There is a famous painting by Rubens titled Helen Fourment in a Fur Coat which is if anything a strange and interesting painting. Fourment was the wife of Rubens. She married him when she was 16 years old and he was 53. Poet Jan Caspar Gevaerts said her beauty surpassed Helen of Troy. Well beauty is in they eye of the beholder. This portrait has been analyzed by those who understand anatomy and the conclusion is that her body above the hips faces away from us, while her legs face toward us. The only way this could occur would be through a broken back. Clearly, Rubens has presented a lie.

Peter Paul Rubens, Helen Fourment in Furs. Wikimedia Commons.

Giangiorgio Trissino (1478–1550) in his treatise on poetics published posthumously 1562. tells this story. The priest Arlotto was in Florence on a road and as a very beautiful young woman passed by him he said to his traveling companion, “This is a beautiful woman”; and the young woman turned and said: “I cannot say the same of you.” Arlotto immediately answered, “Yes, indeed (you could), if you wanted to lie about me as I lied about you.”

Here are a couple examples of lying in art that are fairly fascinating. The first is attractive and the second and second somewhat shocking. I urge you to trust me and not get too upset before you read the entire story.

Here’s an example of art that philosopher Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise might call sublime. What a landscape. Here we see mountains, and clouds, and trees following a fast moving storm. This is a work by artist Kim Keever.

And here is how it was done. He built the entire scene from plaster and fake trees, with paint and he submerged the entire miniature landscape in an aquarium. He directed spotlights with colored gels upon the scene. Then he injected in a milky substance that in the water looked like clouds. It’s amazing tom foolery.

Kim Keever.

“You’re telling a lie in order to tell the truth.” Those aren’t my words. They are the words of Wolf Koenig, Canadian film director, producer and animator, who died in 2014. He said about his film, “Every cut is a lie. It’s (which I think he means life or the scene) is never that way. Those two shots were never next to each other in time that way.”

On to the second example.

Guillermo Vargas, a Costa Rican artist had an exhibition in which along with some other controversial works, he exhibited a dog tied to a wall. On the wall written in dog food was Eres Lo Que Lees, or in English, you are what you read. Photographs like this one appeared all over the internet. It was said that people showed up for the opening, and ate and drank, and that ultimately the dog starved to point out the greed of people in the face of poverty. Here is what the artist said:

“Hello everyone. My name is Guillermo Habacuc Vargas. I am 50 years old and an artist. Recently, I have been critisized for my work titled “Eres lo que lees”, which features a dog named Nativity. The purpose of the work was not to cause any type of infliction on the poor, innocent creature, but rather to illustrate a point. In my home city of San Jose, Costa Rica, tens of thousands of stray dogs starve and die of illness each year in the streets and no one pays them a second thought.

Now, if you publicly display one of these starving creatures, such as the case with Nativity, it creates a backlash that brings out a big of hypocrisy in all of us. Nativity was a very sick creature and would have died in the streets anyway”

I know, this is all worrisome, but just hang on a bit longer.

Once notice of the show hit the internet petitions appeared everywhere. They called for banning the artist from any future shows. There were petitions. More than a million people sighed one of the petitions urging the organizers of a big biennale Vargas was to appear in to stop him from showing in it.

The imge from the petition. Protest “Starving Dog “ Artisit Guillermo Vargas from recreating it at the Arts Biennial. Signers of the petition bought the fakery hook, line, and sinker.

Now let’s look at reality. Vargas was not 50 years old, he was 32 at the time. Secondly, according to The Guardian, the dog was tied up for the three hours of the exhibition and fed regularly with dog food that the artist himself brought in. The dog was not starved. It was a lie.

The problem rests on our assumption that the artist is truthful, reliable, and in fact many contemporary artists are not, or we might even suggest that no artist is. Even a realistic, highly depictive painting is nothing but spots of colored mud on a flat surface.

Because we presume the artist is reliable and we get upset when the artist seems to breach normative ethics.

This is the power of art. It somehow, through its artifice, taps into something human, something deep and meaningful, real and undeniable.

Here are a couple more examples.

Kijong-dong, Peace Village, is a town on the border of South and North Korea. One can see houses, a school, a flag pole, the water tower, a hospital. It is claimed 200 residents live there. And yet, the village has been claimed to be completely fake.

According to Grigory Potemkin, a facade of a village was constructed for Russian Empress Catherine the second’s journey to Crimea in 1787. The reason it was constructed is debated, perhaps to show that economic prosperity thrived where it did not, perhaps to reassure as she went to sleep at night about the possibility of people in an uninhabited area. Kijong-dong is a Potemkin village according to people who have scrutinized the buildings. Buildings appear empty, sometimes the sidewalks are swept to give the illusion of habitation, lights are on timers.

A view of the North Korean village Kijong-dong, also known as “propaganda village”. 1987. Photograph by Don Sutherland. Wikimedia Commons.

We do the same thing in movie making, for example in a western town on the back lot of a movie studio.

Let us recall for a second that Beuys said his plain was shot down on the Crimean front. Did he know the history of the Potemkin village?

Here’s a question for us….Is this fake town of Kijong-dong art?

The protagonist of Cather in the Rye, Holden Caufield said, “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.”

However, Holden also despises people who he says are phony, or insincere. Yet in reading the novel, we realize he is the fictional story teller, and as he admits a liar. He is a phony too.

The great Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa said in Making Waves, “Literature extends human life, adding the dimension that fuels the life deep within us — that impalpable and fleeting but precious life that we only live through lies.’’

Llosa in his book Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter tells a complex story of Mario, an 18 year old student who falls in love for his 32 year old divorced aunt. He wants to be a writer and he gets a job at a radio station where each day the station runs soap operas imported from Cuba that are frequently of a terrible, low quality. So they hire an eccentric man, Pedro Camacho, to write the soap operas. However Pedro is overworked, he writes 10 half hour serials a day, and because he is eccentric, he is unable to separate fiction. Soon his afternoon serials begin be about his own problems: his hatred of Argentina, his constipation, and about anything that enters his surrealistic imagination. Those who listen to the show are both intrigued and confused. So now we have the writer Camache, confusing reality and fiction, although the “reality” is actually a fiction created by the writer Llosa which was based on the reality of his own life.

Visual artist Cady Noland, American artist, who apparently doesn’t create art anymore is in part known for a wonderful installation with the name This piece has no title yet from 1989, at the finale of the rah rah era of Reaganomics. It is a construction of beer cans, scaffolding, and flags. It references bunker walls, a cannon. We discover the way in which American patriotism is mixed with six packs, American drinking, a construction site, good Old Glory red, white, and blue that at times looks completely military, red white and blue. Evidently beer drinking, a limp flag, and militarism build a strong America. Noland’s work has been called excellent at presenting the taboo underbelly of the American dream, her work has been called contemporary and timeless, she has been cited as an installation wizard.

Cady Noland. This piece has no title yet. 1989. Installation. Wikimedia Commons.

Oscar Wilde said, wrote, I’d like to get it right so I’m not accused of lying, “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.”

We have seen many variations of lying. But do we agree with Wilde. Is lying the proper aim of art? I suggest that artists cannot do much else but lie. The slide mud around on a surface, they react to a changing vision, they put the world some sort of subjective, often arbitrary manner. Then they present their lies to the world and everyone speaks of truth and reality. Isn’t it all one big lie? Even with the camera the world is framed, distorted, reduced, shifted in color, and so forth. There is nothing here closer to the truth either.

So we can see, artists tend to be liars on nearly every level. They can’t help it. They are forced to.

Can an artist escape lying? What might art look like if it were, or could be just truth, as they say in courts in the United States, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? We are now post-post modern, plural. Anything and everything can be art. To add a dose of sobriety to the discussion, it was in 1990 that Jean Baudrillard wrote in The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena that art had a “fundamental break in the secret code of aesthetics….No matter how marginal, or banal, or even obscene it may be, everything is subject to aestheticization, culturalization, museumification.” In otherwords anything and everything is or can be art. In other words, there an be no differentiation between the truth and the lie, or the lie and the truth.

I suggest one artist as a possible example, this is Tehching Hsieh. He did two projects that seem fairly truthful. The first was a one year performance in which from April 11 until the following April 11, he punched a time clock on the hour every hour. He shaved his head at the start and then every time he punched the time clock, he took a picture of himself.

The second was another one year performance. In this work, Hsieh locked himself in an 11.5 x 9 x 8 foot wooden cage. He had a washbasin, lights, a pail, and a single bed. He did not talk, read, watch television, or listen to the radio. A friend came once a day to deliver food and remove the artist’s waste and to take a single photograph. The work was open to public viewing twice during the period of his confinement.

Tehching Hsieh. Cage Piece. Photograph by Timothy Vollmer. Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t quite see these works of art as faking, or lying about anything. But, we do get to suggest that for a specific amount of time he has delimited his reality, he has chosen specific parameters to create art within, and in a way this has a lot to do with reality just as it has little to do with reality.

Artist David Kemp made a boot dog.

Artist Jeff Koons made a balloon dog.

Company Oscar Mayer made a hot dog.

Is any of this stuff real or true?

George Santayana wrote, “Truth is only believed when someone has invented it well.”

In his Satire on False Perspective of 1754, Hogarth using demonstrated the machinations of the illustrative lie and in doing so showed that viewers have to be convinced of the lie first, to begin to realize the truth.

William Hogarth. Satire on “False Perspective”: Whoever makes a Design without the knowledge of Perspective will be liable to such absurdities as are shewn in this Frontispiece. 1753. Wikimedia Commons.

We are now in the position to understand another painting by Mark Tansey. In it a woman has painted a still life. The painting done, she is throwing out the real flowers. The real is trashed, the fake is kept. The lie of the painting is now said to be the real of the flowers. It is a still life. It is also, life, still, non-moving and it is still, as in continuing, life, found in the depiction of the lie, the painting.

I think in asking what the relationship between art lies and truth is, we are really asking: What is the power of art that allows it to exist, to move people to laughter or tears, to be sublime, to be evident? It is just this. Art contains truth. Art contains lies.

Art contains reality. Art contains myth. As Paul Muldoon said, the main function of art is to “brilliantly delight us again and again.” In making art we discover something about ourselves in the world. In sharing art we show the world something about ourselves. Artists may be liars, true enough, but would we have it any other way? I hope not.



Christopher Willard

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”