According to Lawrence Durrell, a work of art is “an act of disciplined insubordination.” But a disciplined insubordination against what exactly?
Does art have a special relationship with truth? This question has been debated since the caves of Lascaux and Altamira.
Art, artifice, especially the art of fiction, is based on memory, and as anyone who has had an introductory psychology class or been on a jury can tell you, memory is notoriously unreliable. “Memories of the past are not memories of facts, but memories of your imaginings of the facts,” wrote Philip Roth in The Facts. Fiction, by its very definition, is the art of making things up. Hemingway may have said that “fiction is truer than true,” but no one outside of an English major believes this is true. Does anyone really live their life according to literary “truths”?
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche even defines experience itself as made up, a lie, a fiction:
“Even in the midst of the strangest experiences we still do the same: we make up the major part of the experience and can scarcely be forced not to contemplate some event as its inventors! All this means: basically and from the immemorial we are — accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.”
Experience. Invented. Lying. Artist.
“Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.”
Memory is also invention. Milan Kundera, in The Curtain, writes that memory “is the realm of the approximate, the invented, the deformed, the simplistic, the exaggerated, the misconstrued, an infinite realm of non-truths that copulate, multiply like rats, and become immortal.” Kundera has obviously read his Nietzsche.
Experience. Memory. Invented. Lying. Made up. Artist.
In a recent essay in LitHub, Paul Auster asks, “Does an event have to be true in order to be accepted as true, or does belief in the truth of an event already make it true, even if the thing that supposedly happened did not happen?” This is a question that not just artists, but journalists should especially be asking themselves these days.
One of the stranger offshoots of the social justice/identity politics movement has been that membership in a traditionally discriminated against racial/ethnic/sexual group gives someone special access to a “truth” not accessible to non-members of that group, even in fiction writing. If someone tries writing outside their group, they get Twitter mobbed and canceled. As if all of life’s truths can be rated “true” based on a personal anecdote or experience. As if group identity exempts someone from memory, invented, lying, making up.
What is the difference between an artificial flower and a real flower? Real flowers fade, wilt, collapse, decay and die. Nothing natural lasts forever but the beauty of artifice is that it creates the illusion that something can. What truth about the world do artificial flowers contain that real flowers don’t?
What is the difference between an artificial flower and a real flower?
To discover truth in the made up, the not real, the never happened, the fabricated, or perhaps might-have-happened or actually did happen but embellished or transformed into not quite lies (or lies) but polished with the verisimilitude of real people, places, and events, although not exactly real because transformed or embellished, or lied about, but you can’t know for sure, can you, what was real and true and what was made up and false, or made up and true, or…?
So, to answer our question at the beginning, art is an act of disciplined insubordination against what exactly? Against truth. Against experience. Against memory. Against lies. Against the status-quo. Against the institutions of academia and government and media and criticism and finance. Against bureaucracy. Against what Eric Weinstein calls the DISC, the Distributed Idea Suppression Complex. Against the temporary, finite, fragile, death bound three score and ten life of ours.
Art is the illusion of infinity.
And that’s the truth.