Representation, truth, and art

Selected quotations from a conversation here:

“If you look at [the representationalist work …], in a sense it’s a lie. This is coloured paste on canvas that is trying to represent something that it is not. It’s a falsehood, it’s an illusion.”

“You’re right, what’s on the left is a lie – it’s something trying to be something it’s not. While on the right [an abstract expressionist work], it literally is the painting. The painting is what you’re trying to see […]”

“And so there is a kind of fundamental truth that was upending 2,000 years of tradition. How radical, how brave, how heroic is that?”

As far as reflecting a certain justification for abstract expressionism, this sounds plausible. Let’s stop pretending, and get down to what these objects (of art) are. On reflection, however, I think a more appropriate question is “How silly is that?”

Consider “This is coloured paste on canvas that is trying to represent something that it is not.” This is basically tautological, i.e., a representation almost always is about something it is not. Consider that when I say “The sun is shining” there is a representation achieved through the movement of air over vocal cords, leading to vibrations in the ambient air, which in turn lead to complex causal processes within a listener’s ear and brain, and so on. What determines whether I am saying something true or not is whether this phrase corresponds to a state of affairs – i.e., whether the sun is shining. It is irrelevant whether the movement of air and so onĀ is the same thing as the sun shining. The sort of statement above misses the whole point of representation, i.e., thinking or talking about or understanding things without having to have the actual things present. That’s why we represent.

Of course, thinking of art objects in terms of those objects, and not in terms of what they are representing, might have some interest. It is not, however, because they are more ‘truthful’. If anything, they are less truthful, because they tend to be less capable of expressing complex ideas or scenarios which in turn are capable of being true or false.

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