20 01 2012

“Art itself is a lie—a lie told in service of the truth.”  — Robert Hughes

This quote from Hughes’ Rome: A Visual, Cultural, and Personal History may or may not hold water in my proposed method of thinking about art not as based on object, but as based in interaction.  Of course, the quote, as presented, is a bit out of context and, as Abraham Lincoln so famously said, “The problem with quotes on the internet is that you can’t always be sure of their authenticity.”

Bernini, Plato and Persephone, 1621-22

In the book, Hughes is discussing the importance of Bernini and the transcendent beauty he ascribes to Bernini’s sculpture Pluto and Persephone (1621-1622).  Hughes has never been shy about decrying the narrow focus of high modernism, as he illustrates with the statement, “The extraordinary character of the sculpture lies in a mastery over carving which transcends the puritanical mantra of modernism about ‘truth to material,’ as though there were only some things that could legitimately be done with wood or stone, and to go beyond them were a sin.”  Hughes revels in Bernini’s skill to make stone appear to be as soft and supple as flesh, leaving the Greenbergian “integrity of materials” in the dust.  “Is it wrong for it to look as though it were modeled rather than carved? Assuredly not, the marvelous surfaces and textures of Pluto’s and Persephone’s bodies tell us.  Is the effect a lie?  Of course, but art itself is a lie—a lie told in service of the truth.”

This kind of representational detail holds the beauty that makes this sculpture powerful.

It might be in that final statement, more than his dismissal of “truth to material,” where Hughes identifies himself as something other than a modernist.  The modern emphasis on authority, on truth with a capital “T,” is not so much that art represents truth, but that art is Truth. For Greenberg, the veracity of a painting was in its ability to be self-referential and self-reliant—art for art’s sake.  Add to that Benjamin’s concept of the aura of an artwork—the ineffable presence of the object itself—and you can see the supremacy of the artifact in modernism.  Art is produced to be an object, and the sole purpose of that object is to be art.

For Hughes, art, at least in this instance, serves another purpose than to be an object that is art.  It is in the service of revealing or communicating the truth.  In the case of Bernini, that truth would be the Biblical Gospel as interpreted by the Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation.  With this in mind, the art of the Italian Baroque was similar to much of the academic and conceptual art produced today:  it was visual communication constructed by the artist.  One difference is that Bernini had an audience already literate in the iconography he was using as his visual vocabulary whereas contemporary artists rely on artist’s statements to explain the signs that are their works.  Another difference is that Baroque artists imbued their works with an ornate and decorative beauty abhorred by contemporary artists still affected by the modernist rejection of it.

Whether it is based in beauty or based in communication, Baroque Art and contemporary academic art operate on the assumption that art is something else.  So what of art that just is—not in the modernist sense that the mission of an art object is self-contained, but in the idea that art is within the interaction between artist and viewer, not in an object?  Is an interventionist performance art?  If so, is it a lie?  Can that lie be in service of the truth?

Yoko Ono, Box Piece, 1964

As I see it, the “lie” of art is in the idea of representational art. It is representing something else outside of itself.  Bernini’s Plato and Persephone is a lie—stone that is masquerading as flesh. Jeff Koons’ Puppy is a lie—kitsch masquerading as high art with the purpose of communicating irony.  Yoko Ono’s Instruction paintings are lies—words arranged to represent a concept.  Whatever truth these works are in the service of, and whatever importance you may or may not ascribe to those truths, the works are there to represent something outside themselves.

Whether I am modernist or something other than modernist (post-post-modernist?), I think that the true power of art is in the experience of interaction between the artist and the viewer.  In this, no object is necessary, and no representation is necessary. Without representation, there is no lie to be put into service as communication—the experience simply is.  Perhaps the “is” is truth.  Maybe I’m more of a modernist than I thought.

Works Cited:

Hughes, Robert.  Rome: A Visual, Cultural, and Personal History.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.  pp. 281.




2 responses

21 01 2012

“post-post-modernist?” Mr. Grambo, this is your chance to herald in the movement! Go ahead, call it what you want, take the credit. I’ll site it in all my academic work from this point on, I’m sure it will catch.

Enjoyable reading I thought, but I have some Questions. Nothing you have to answer, just me being compulsively reflective. 🙂

Could the interaction be a representation in itself, just as words, or mediums?

Is it the experience of interaction between an artist and viewer?… or… the artist and the experiencer? It feels strange to limit your thoughts to a ‘viewer’ as viewing is a limited form of experience. I suspect you may think the experience is inclusive of many different senses.

Can an interaction ‘represent’ something outside itself? If it could, wouldn’t that be problematic to your thoughts on representation being a lie.

Can the experience really be just simply what it is?

Maybe performance art has an appealing quality of being more true and honest, because it engages us more closely with it than any other sort of other aesthetic experience. Yet it would seem that it is not completely devoid of the capacity to lie. I believe you read Hughes correctly, but I suggest another reading- maybe art is our deepest desire to communicate and experience our world, but our means do not accurately reflect the truth of our intentions. Art is a lie, because in all forms it does not adequately serve a clear and honest end. But the truth is, it’s one of the damn most efficient lies we’ve ever had.

Thank you for letting me ramble about on your blog, hope life has been well since the move!

23 01 2012
Contemporary Critique

Thanks, Tiffanie! I really like your interpretation of the lies in art–it goes to the trouble with communication. There is always a remove from the reality that is inherent in the means used to communicate it. I can only hope that the experience, whether it is interaction between an artist and viewer or, as you deftly point out, between artist and art, can be something in and of itself. Of course, once we try to communicate that experience, we fall short.
It’s good to hear (or read) from you! Things are going as well as can be expected. Many, many applications have been sent out into the world. I’m glad I have a place rent-free while I continue my search. Good luck this semester!

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