The Lie That Is Art
21 December, 2009
Philosophers have often argued that art is useful because it speaks to an underlying truth. Data can lead to Knowledge which can lead to Understanding – art can help us get there. In his early work Friedrich Nietzsche spoke against this view. Influenced by Schopenhauer (and through him, the Buddhist tradition) he conceived of the world as being a bleak and terrible place. True understanding of this world leads to the realisation that all is suffering, and unlike the Buddhists, Nietzsche didn’t think that the way out was by following the Eightfold path. Instead he turned to the ancient art of the Athenian Playwrights.
Tragedy was an art form much admired in Athens. Aristotle thought it brought catharsis to the people to see such horrors and pathos on the stage. Nietzsche thought that the truth was much more horrible than what was in the Tragedies however. Like a Cthulhic nightmare, reality would drive us mad, but if we glimpsed the real through the safe eyes of art then we can grow as people, cocooned from insanity. By adding plot, character, and most of all reasons for the actions in the plays, the writers give us an easy way in to the chaos that lies behind our lives. We add meaning, but that meaning is a lie, and only exists to help make the truth palatable. By trying to find any other truth than this horror, art is making a mistake and showing yet more lies, without the sobering knowledge of the futility of life behind it. Nietzsche could be a bit of a downer. He also changed his views on art several times, and repudiated the above ideas in his later works.
The concept of the real world being a truly mind altering place was taken up by H.P. Lovecraft and his successors who wrote the Cthulhu mythos. During the early 20th century discoveries were being made that shattered any illusion that Mankind was at the centre of the universe. In the Cthulhu mythos characters realise their unimportance in the grand scheme of things. They are, in effect, put in a total-perspective-vortex and their feeble simian minds find they cannot cope with the truth. If only they had looked at the truth through the lie of art! How could they be expected to cope with this: our collective existence is a meaningless accident and our time on this world is finite.
And yet, that truth seems rather banal these days. Whatever non-euclidean geometry drove Lovecraftian heroes to the brink of insanity just doesn’t seem as scary today. Has art finally led us to a place where we are comfortable with the meaningless of existence? And how do we tell which part of art is the terrifying truth, and which the comforting lie?