Friday, 23 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 such a thing as Artistic 'Truth' or even knowledge. It takes a very narrow sense of truth and knowledge and then proceeds to use this to ridicule claims 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 accuses Art of lacking the definitions of knowledge and truth that would provide us with a range of propositions whose truth is uniquely or best discoverable through that area of knowledge and a method by which such propositions could be compared and verified. He then claims that this demonstrates that the idea of Artistic truth or knowledge is essentially vacuous since there is no knowledge that is not more easily comprehendible and verifiable in some other area of understanding or by some other method. He contrasts this with examples of proper areas of knowledge such as science, history, religion, and even 'garden-variety' knowledge and examples of their respective unique propositions such as, ‘nothing can travel faster than the speed of light’, ‘the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066’, ‘the Trinity consists of Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ and ‘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, it is however one that strikes most people at some point with immediate force, whereas Artistic Truth is ironically the more amorphous idea in most people’s minds.

The Article plays on this ambiguity to ridicule 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. Any particular proposition about the world expressed in a piece of Art would seem better justified and grounded through some other means and area of knowledge particularly designed to develop and assess claims of that type of knowledge, whether history or science or philosophy.

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, or which can be useful (or indeed if he limits the range of his proposition to factually statement about the composition of the world as he seems to do).

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 importance in terms of their aesthetic, moral, religious and existential value. Within a piece of Fine Art we can see captured and revealed an instantiaton of a scene or idea or or maybe just one element of a scene, whether in terms of a snapshot of a something, or a revelation or all eternity, enhanced and shown to us for our appreciation and understanding, with all the infinite, interwoven detail, connotations and connextions such a thing can produce. Such a picture, once (partially, for that is all it could ever reall be,) atomised into its constituent propositions, 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. It is near (though I do not say entirely) impossible to achieve the same effect, of the over-arching view and connexion of something, with what must become in the end a mere list of individual propositions.

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, where decisions from the trivial to the overwhelmingly important are so often based on an image or a glimpse or a moment and the immediate intuitve apprehension of what they mean, from our ordinary human perspective and 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 and hence constitures a deeper and better truth than that expressed through any proposition. I 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.

Through Art, even apart from the conviction of beauty we can realise many truth and realise them deeper and better than we can through them merely being told to us. I do agree with the article further to the extent that not many of these ideas or propositions would necessarily be justified or grounded in their explanation through Art. Art may show me that a sunset is a supremely beautiful thing, but this would not be because of any particular painting that this was true. Aesthetic, Moral, religious, Existential propositions will often have their basis in some other area of knowledge, and merely receive expression through Art. Again though this is not necessarily true though, as with any of these categories, Fine Art, especially perhaps literature, may lay out the case for them in such an intricate detail unobtainable elsewhere that Art itself is uniquely situated to provide the evidence and backing for them, even if the particular events depicted are fictional. This could be thought of as in a way similar to an extended thought experiment.

This will not be true in all places, however, some Art will merely convict you at that point of ideas and propositions best grounded elsewhere and sometimes Art will reveal knowledge primarily or only in the form of the revelation of Beauty itself (not that this is to be disparaged) and sometimes it will reveal truth in the sense I have just described above. What this all goes to show though is that there is in fact an entire range of meaningful that Truth in and through Art can be studies and considered and through which we may then gain a great deal.

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