Truth and the Arts

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According to The Oxford English Dictionary, Art [ɑːt] is "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power." From a first look at what defines Art - that is, imagination and creativity-, and what defines Truth - an accordance with reality-, the two notions seem to oppose each other. As a result, two types of truth emerge: conceptual and aesthetic truth, and scientific and rational truth which "has always been the dominant criterion"[1] in English tradition.


Questions whether or not truth and art oppose each other arose in ancient philosophy with Plato and Aristotle. Both argue that Art is a mimesis, an imitative representation of the real world. If scientists also build models, it is because "[scientific] understanding is frequently obtained via [these models]"[2]; they are there to help us understand and find truth.

Aristotle: art reflects a universal truth[edit]

Art is the representation of a possible, credible truth; it is reality's "pseudo-double"[3]. Tragedies, for instance, portray idealized, yet incarnated, real-life sentiments, situations and characters in which the spectators can project themselves and their own empiric experiences by identification[4]. Behind the particular in poetry lies a premise of "universal truth".[5] Art is thereon a form of education, it aims to achieve catharsis as "we delight to view [its] most realistic representation of [all objects]."[6][1448b]

Plato: art is a purely visual representation[edit]

However, in his Republic, Plato supported the idea that art is an imitation of "looks" [7][598b], distancing humanity from truth. Through Socrates' words, he argues that poets are "imitators of images of excellence and of the other things that they 'create', and do not lay hold on truth."[600e] Poets, as much as painters, create images of things they are ignorant of, for people who are equally as ignorant: "The creator of the phantom, the imitator, we say, knows nothing of the reality but only the appearance."[601b] This is further linked to his theory that the world “…as we experience it, is an illusion, a collection of mere appearances like reflections in a mirror or shadows on a wall.”[8] He argues that it is not possible to represent an object without having knowledge of it, but that this knowledge is only based on immediate and superficial, "admitted looks"[7] [595a] of that object. Hence, Plato asserts that only philosophers can see the true essence of objects. He uses the allegory of the cave to sustain his theory: Truth lies in the universal “visual form”, the eidos, of a given object, which cannot be accessed through mere physical appearances. Art only presents, or represents truth, it doesn't elucidate it like sciences and philosophy: "[it is] made less to explain the mysteries of existence than to invoke them."[9]

Magritte's La Trahison des Images as an example[edit]

Such a conception of Truth and Art can be seen in Magritte's La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images)[10]: the painting shows the image of a pipe, with a legend: this is not a pipe. This legend underlines the idea that images fool our senses: what we see is not a pipe but paint applied in a way that it creates the illusion of the presence of the object.

Art's representation of essence[edit]

Hegel' Lectures on Aesthetics (1835)[edit]

Hegel argues in his Aesthetics that it is "appearance itself is essential to essence"[11]. In his thesis, Hegel recuses the theory of mimesis.[12] He argues that art should not be considered as a mere imitation, as it particularizes and conceptualizes the idea of the object it depicts, which, without an artistic figuration, would stay abstract and obscure. It gives the object or phenomenon an existence, by "liberating [its] true content from the pure appearance and deception of this bad, transitory world, and giving [it] a higher actuality, born of the spirit."[13]


Gustave Courbet, A Burial in Ornans, Musée d'Orsay, 1849-1850

Such a claim that artistic creation can be inherently truthful, is found in realism. Stendhal in The Red and The Black writes, “a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet..."[14]. He intended to take the study of reality as the basis for fiction and create novels that showed truth. In the same fashion, Courbet's realism aims at being truthful to reality and real-life events. A Burial At Ornans serves as a manifesto of his style: the faces are realistic portraits and the subject taken from the everyday life of real people: a funeral in a country-side village. Artists of realism turned their back to allegories and heroism and aimed at representing life truthfully.

The normative Truth of Art: truth as a social consensus[edit]

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction explains how different social classes respond to culture[15]. The upper classes constitutes what Bourdieu calls a "cultural nobility"[16]. They dictate what is legitimate culture, including what is art and what is not. The lower classes' culture is then considered as illegitimate. This cultural nobility creates a truth for society to live in, defining the limits of general culture and good taste and establishing them as objective truths. The rest of society conforms to these normative truths created by ruling classes, even as it changes through time and trends. Therefore, the notion of what is true art, while it may first appear obvious and objective as a sort of consensual truth, is in fact constructed.

Art engagé[edit]

The French expression art engagé is used to qualify an artistic practice defending a political or social cause. Here, art is used as a medium to depict the artists' vision of truth on political matters. For example, during the First World War, artists such as painters, sculptors and printmakers, that took part in the military were affected by the horrors of war. Once it ended, artists around the world decided to denounce the atrocities of the war and the trenches. Such artists are for example Ludwig Meidner and Otto Dix[17].

Otto Dix[edit]

Otto Dix specifically conveyed his experiences through Expressionism. When the First World War started, he volunteered for the German Army and took part in various battles such as the Battle of the Somme and the German Spring Offensive. After being discharged from service in 1918, he started documenting his experiences through a portfolio of fifty etchings called "Der Krieg", "The War" in German, and in The War Triptych[18], painted from 1929-1932.


To conclude, the concept of Truth can be explored in the Arts, although this implies consequences in other disciplines. In philosophy, Art can drive us closer or further away from truth. In sociology, truth, as a social consensus, is established by a cultural minority. In politics, truthful experiences and opinions can be depicted through artistic means, and in literature, books can be mirrors of societies or real-life events.  


  1. Kenneth D. “Conceptual Truth and Aesthetic Truth.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 1990;48(1): 37-51. Available from: [Accessed 9th December 2018].
  2. Henk W. de Regt. Scientific understanding: truth or dare?. In: M. Eronen, R. van Riel (eds.) Understanding through Modeling. Synthese. 2015;192(12).
  3. Gauvrit C. L'aventure de la réalité dans la peinture. In: Roland Quilliot. (ed.) Philosophie de l'Art. Paris: Ellipses Poche; 2014. p.181.
  4. Aristotle. Butcher S. H. (trans.) Poetics. United States: Cosimo Classics; 2000. p.10.
  5. Aristotle. Introduction. In : Malcolm Heath (trans., ed.) Poetics. London: Penguin Classics; 1996. p.27.
  6. Aristotle. Ingram Bywater (trans.) Poetics. New York: Random House; 1941.
  7. a b Plato. Allan Bloom (trans.) The Republic. 2nd edition. Library of Congress: BasicBook; 1991. Available from: [Accessed 27th November 2018].
  8. Hursthouse R. Truth and Representation. In: Oswald Hanfling (ed.) Philosophical Aesthetics. Oxford: Blackwell; 1992.
  9. Pepperell R. Art connections. In: Bruce Clarke, Manuela Rossini (eds.). The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science. 1st edition. New York: Routledge; 2011. p.273.
  10. Magritte R. La Trahison des Images, oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Art Museum, 1928-1929. Image under copyright - not free of use.
  11. Hegel G. W. F. Introduction. In: T. M. Knox (trans, ed.) Aesthetics, Lectures on Fine Art. New York: Oxford University Press; 1988. p.8.
  12. Bras G. Vérité de l'art, vérité en œuvre dans l'œuvre d'art. Association Revue internationale de Philosophie. 2003;221: 369-387.
  13. [11]; p.9.
  14. Stendhal. Chapter 19. In: Moncrief C. K. Scott (trans.) Le Rouge et le Noir. Australia: Adelaide University; 1925.
  15. Bourdieu P. Introduction. In: Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge; 1984. p.2.
  16. [15], p.17
  17. Rainer B. Otto Dix, 1891-1969. Konstanz: Verlag Stadler; 1993.
  18. Dix O. Der Krieg, oil on wood. Neue Meister Gallery, Dresde. 1929-1932. Image under copyright - not free of use- Google Arts&Culture.