Tuesday 20 October 2009

A Defense of Truth in Art - Some Preliminary Ideas.

These are some of my first brief thoughts on looking at how we consider and access Truth in, and through, Art and Literature and how this is fundamentally different to how we generally model and determine truth through maths and science. This is something that I believe has interesting possibilities for helping to explicate an explanation of the ways we access and react to the truth and knowledge we experience and rely on in ordinary life (and also in religion), in a fuller and more useful manner than the simplistic model we often rely on from the hard sciences and mathematics.

These ideas are inspired as a response to an article by J.Stolnitz 'The Cognitive Triviality of Art', which can be found here and argues for precisely the title, that Art is cognitively trivial, containing no unique useful knowledge or truth. The idea of this article is that supporters of Art often make claims to there being such a thing as Artistic 'Truth' or even knowledge. It takes this possible claim in a very narrow sense of truth and knowledge and then proceeds to use this to ridicule the idea of Artistic truth or knowledge. To the extent it does not particularly engage with the wider questions it is merely a polemic, but it is a interesting starting point to bounce off of and give us somewhere to start in forming and defending the opposite view.

The article ('The Cognitive Triviality of Art') accuses Art of lacking the definitions of knowledge and truth that are useful and applicable in such fields as science, history, religion, and even 'garden-variety' knowledge, which would include such propositions as "summer is warmer than winter".

I am sympathetic to the article to the degree that I feel that talk of Artistic beauty is more immediately useful and relevant as a starting point of discussion of Arts than that of "Artistic Truth", which is to introduce a model of evaluation that is immediately likely to confuse when related to Art, especially when imported with all its retinue of ideas of contradiction, proposition, law of excluded middle etc,which is the baggage of formal logic.

Any idea of Truth in Art or truths imparted by Art, let alone 'Artistic knowledge' is going to be considerably more difficult. The evaluation of beauty is perhaps hence a more useful starting point, possibly even because of, rather than in spite of, the fact that it itself is not a precisely defined concept and hence does not bring such immediate baggage with its use.

The Article ridicules the prospect of Artistic truth and knowledge by taking a strictly propositional definition of truth or knowledge. He demands to know precisely what substantive and interesting propositions can be discussed and verified solely, or even best, through the medium of fine art. In this regard he appears to be correct. In my view though, this merely shows the weakness of his model of artistic truth, or indeed of truth in general if he believes that the propositional model is the only one that there can be.

My personal distaste for his talk of artistic knowledge or artistic truth leads me to constantly seek to phrase these ideas rather as the truth of Art or the Truth through Art. But that is merely personal preference.

I believe that the model in which we must discuss truth in Art is precisely not a propositional model but rather one of the immediate synthetic realisation of a whole manifold of truths, their inter-relation and their precise importance in terms of their aesthetic, moral, religious or existential value. Such a picture, once atomised, will inevitably lose its richness, not only in the sheer range of propositions but also in the inter-related nature they share and the emotional impact which can actually bring them home.

I believe that it is this precise feature of the encounter with truth that we reach in Art that gives a study of this truth the greatest relevance because it is this structure that it shares with so much of the truth or "truth" that we meet and deal with in our ordinary lives, from our ordinary human perspective, which can so rarely be boiled down into one of logical atomism.

These ideas are not withstanding the eminent human tradition, whose most well known advocate that comes into my mind is Plato, which all but equates beauty and truth and hence the regards the insight of beauty, which many sense in even the most unadventurous or un-humanist Art as an authentic meeting with some truth in the universe that exists in the sense of deeper value and constitutes a meaning and being that gives surface reality and propositional truth its purpose and use. A recently read a man saying that we do science and technology so we may have the means and leisure to do Art, to create. And this is by no means an unheard of view.


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