Hartley, Une cure de sommeil; Le Livre de la Sante, Vol, 10: L’homme et son Esprit 2 (Joseph Handler, Andre Sauret) Monte Carlo, 1968.
Lucjan Wedrychowski - The Temptation of St. Anthony (1886)
here’s what art is: lying. not lying in the typical sense where one communicates with an intent to deceive. rather, it’s an attempt to convey a kind of ineffable truth that eludes direct expression. a piece of art points beyond itself to something that it isn’t. it is artifice. it is artificial. even the most literal minded realism in art is a re-presentation of what actually exists. it is not the thing itself.
picasso once said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows in his work that he has searched, and re-searched, for the way to put over lies, he would never accomplish anything.”
so let’s unpack what he’s saying here. technical skill can here be thought of as “the way to put over lies.” that is to say, the work of the artist is not to mechanically replicate the real. especially now, mere reproduction can be accomplished through technology more quickly and with higher fidelity than even the most accomplished artist could hope to achieve. but the artist is not a xerox machine or a camera. the artist is not a recording device.
so what exactly is the function of the artist then? we may as well ask what is the function of the human being. how does the human mind interact with reality? we know that it communicates. it devises words and symbols. it says, by sounds or pictures or text, “this is a tree” or “that is a dog.” the world is described to facilitate our interaction with it. a language is a consensus formed by a group of minds with regard to how certain symbols arranged in whichever particular ways constitutes a valid and intelligible representation of the real. but there is an inherent tension in this consensus insofar as it is constructed as a bridge between separate and subjective conscious minds. nevertheless, it more or less serves its practical purposes. this is the purely utilitarian model of what communication is.
but then another strange thing begins to happen. the language and its symbols can take on a kind of reality of their own. they become powerful in themselves. an image becomes an idol. myths and metaphors become the reification of that which they represent. letters and ideograms take on runic significance. words become prayers or spells or laws. numbers become their values. this is language as magic.
art is then language which has an awareness of itself as such. as personal expression, it restates the subjectivity of consciousness that must be put aside to communicate practically. in doing so, it also reveals the limits of individual perspective implicit in our attempts to communicate authentically about the world and apprehend its deeper underlying truths. it explores our relationship to the symbols with which we limn reality. it says things about the way we say things about things. it gives the lie to itself. in its feints toward authenticity, it actually delineates the divide between the token and its referent. it’s the trick that betrays the illusion.
walter pater said “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” music is art in its most purely evocative state. we can imagine a kind of onomatopoeic music that reproduces bird songs, rippling waves, whistling wind or crashing thunder, but this is not usually what we mean when we talk about music. what does a particular harmony represent in the real world? what does any given scale or mode specifically communicate? nothing but its own form. yet we feel that music is meaningful in a way that surpasses our ability to explain why.
in aspiring to this state, visual and literary arts have a somewhat more difficult task. after all, a drawing or description of a mountain can be nothing more than communicative. it can say “this is a mountain” and another person can look at it and agree that it is in fact a mountain and proceed to act accordingly in whichever fashion such knowledge might facilitate. or else the depiction of the mountain may be so realistic or so imbued with the weight of its own symbolic importance so as to itself become the mountain. art says, as magritte made explicit, “this is not the mountain” and thus we grasp the mountain in relation to what it is not, i.e.- it’s representation in art or language or thought. art may accomplish this through realism, surrealism, abstraction, impressionism, expressionism; it may be baroque or minimalist or any other such form as may be appropriate, given its cultural context, to elucidate and counteract the ways in which language fails to go beyond itself and approach the real.
Alan Watts, The Book
Reginald Machell (English, 1854-1927)
The Path, 1895
my grandmother died recently. she was almost 93 years old. many of her later years were spent sitting or lying on the couch or in bed watching tv. she loved watching baseball. she became a fan late in life. she was well into her 60s when we watched the mets win the world series together in the bedroom of her downstairs apartment in october 1986.
i’d been playing little league around that time and she’d always been the one to take me to practice and watch all my games. i was terrible at baseball. messing around with my friends on the street, i could do ok, but in a real team game environment i was hopeless. i spent most of that year being hit with baseballs by 10 year old pitchers who could throw the ball a lot harder than you’d think they could. i languished in right field, only running when i’d be chased by some rogue bee or divebombed by a dragonfly.
within a few years i mostly lost interest in baseball, but my grandmother never did. she especially loved the yankees and she watched nearly every televised game of theirs in the past 20 years.
a few years ago, my sister and her husband, who owns and operates a small italian restaurant in new jersey, were attending a food show. one of those big industry conventions where vendors and corporations showcase their products. as part of the promotion for the event, several retired yankees were in attendance to sign autographs and meet with fans. my sister was able to get a baseball signed by some of the team’s legendary players from the 70s and 80s. like reggie jackson and a few others. maybe dave winfield or don mattingly. people like that, you get the idea. she gave the ball to my grandmother.
but my grandmother really hadn’t been a fan during that era. she loved the yankees of the 90s and 00s and she loved derek jeter most of all. she would get so nervous for her derek every time he stepped up to bat. she wanted him to do well and make her proud. in a way, her yankees were like surrogate grandsons she could worry about and hope for long after i’d left home for college and eventually moved away for good.
my grandmother passed away a little more than a week before derek jeter’s final career game with the new york yankees this thursday. while making arrangements for the funeral, my sister thought of the signed ball she’d given our grandmother a few years earlier. she decided she wanted to place the ball into the casket, but she felt that something important was still missing. so before she brought it to the funeral home, she took a pen and signed derek jeter’s name. this ball, with its one forged and several other authentic yankee autographs, is buried with my grandmother at new york’s historic greenwood cemetery in brooklyn.