ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
The Hazards of Being Real
I was walking around San Francisco one day when I saw a panel truck go by with a message on the side in a large and colorful script
Art is a lie that tells the truth
a quote, I later learned, from Pablo Picasso, who went on to note that the artist “must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”
Which is to say, it is no easy thing to lie so convincingly that the painting or the novel feels true even though the audience knows going in that it’s a lie.
And then there is my other favorite quote about what artists do, from the poet, Jane Kenyon, who said the job of the poet is “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, in such a beautiful way that people cannot live without it; to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, and yet so difficult to name.”
We have, then, the lie—the three-dimensional scene on the flat canvas, the work of fiction whose characters should not be mistaken for people living or dead.
And we have the truth that is realized through the lie.
And then there is the beauty that makes the whole thing something we cannot live without.
I have learned the hard way that some lies are more acceptable than others, no matter how convincingly or beautifully they are told. Sometimes it is just a matter of fashion and style, of what’s in and what’s out, what’s hot, what’s not, what’s old, what’s new.
Other times the lie is told in such a way that it disturbs too deeply our grasp of what is real. The art of Paul Cézanne was rejected and even ridiculed for his way of portraying nature and human figures. His pears didn’t look like pears, they said, his portraits not like people, the perspective all askew, misshapen, out of whack. Unpleasing.
It turns out that the truth of likeness was not what Cézanne was trying to paint. He believed likeness to be over-rated compared with something deeper that he was after—what it felt like to be in the room with the person he was painting, or what it felt like to look out on the hills or the sea, or to sit with a bowl of pears.
And then there are the lies that are rejected because they tell a truth considered too disturbing in itself, that people do not want or are not ready for and may never be. And if the lie be well told, made compelling in its beauty, that’s all the more reason to turn it away.
D. H. Lawrence had so many of his early novels attacked and banned in England for their portrayal of sexuality, that by the time he wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he didn’t even try to find a publisher, but had it privately printed and sold by subscription. His work was not rejected because he told the truth badly or falsely or in a literary style that was not in favor at the time, but for telling it at all.
The practice of rejecting the disturbing real is, of course, alive and well today, and the difference between what is accepted and made known and what is not is worth exploring for what is lost.
I come to this from my own experience as a novelist. Some years ago I wrote my first novel, The First Thing and the Last. It is the story of Katherine Stuart, who barely escapes being beaten to death by her abusive husband, David, in the kitchen of their suburban Boston home. In the aftermath of utter loss—her husband and son both dead—she is sought out by Lucy Dudley, an elderly woman living on a family farm in Vermont, who reads about her in the news and is drawn to her by a closely guarded history of her own. Katherine accepts Lucy’s invitation to come to the farm, setting in motion a deepening relationship between the two women that frames a universal struggle to heal and reclaim what severe trauma takes from people’s lives.
Over a period of more than six years, the novel was turned down almost sixty times by commercial publishers. Three senior editors wanted to publish it but were overruled. Another editor wrote to my agent that the writing was “remarkable” and the story “compulsively readable.” He loved Katherine and Lucy and felt they were “brought completely and convincingly to life.” Everyone on the editorial board “admired the quality of the writing and everyone agreed that this is a novel that deserves to be published.”
But they would not, because some parts of the story were “difficult” and presented in a way that was “not sugarcoated and not softened by cutting away at the critical moments and would be difficult to sell.” He hoped we would find someone brave enough to take it on.
And then there was the editor who was interested in the paperback rights after the novel was finally published by a tiny subsidy press no one ever heard of and got a nod from Publisher’s Weekly. She thought the writing was lovely and lyrical and Katherine and Lucy were both empathetic, strong heroines, and the friendship they form was redemptive and illuminating. But she would not pursue the rights because she found the violence “a little too real.”
And I had thought ‘real’ was what Picasso and Kenyon were talking about, it not occurring to me that there could be too much of it, as in, art is a lie that almost tells the truth or sort of tells the truth or tells the truth but only part of it or in a sugarcoated way that makes it just enough less than true so as not to get anyone overly upset. Real but not too real.
It took me a long time to get over that, but I did finally arrive at the realization that I am in the good company of artists who strive to tell the truth about things that are considered too disturbing to be made real. Every society, every era, has its own version of that little sign hanging outside the door, Do Not Disturb. But it matters what we let in and what is kept out, and it’s important that we be on the lookout not only for what is offered up for us to view or read, but what is not and why.
There are reasons why artists feel compelled to realize the power of images and stories to lie their way beautifully into our hearts so that we may discover what we cannot live without. There are reasons why artists go deep into the painful heart of the human condition, even if it means coming back to be ignored or attacked or ridiculed or banned. And the reasons are important not only for the artist, but for what becomes of the art which is, after all, the point.
Art matters because truth matters, and there are truths that art can enter in ways like nothing else, and the more disturbing the truth, the more it matters to make it as real as we know how.
But if the only art that is supported and made known is art that is easier to sell, that fits what we already know, that people will want in the same way that they want to feel good, to be entertained or otherwise distracted from their lives, to be amused and excited, thrilled and enthralled, or even to feel sad or deeply moved or frightened (so long as it isn’t too sad or too deeply or for too long and does not require any courage), if there are stories about the human experience that are unacceptable unless they are made less than real, less than whole, palatable—
then the lie stays just a lie and we are left to live without what we cannot, and we will not even know.
If you liked this post, you also might want to read, “Saying Goodbye to Philip Seymour Hoffman.”
Jane Kenyon, in A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, The Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, and One Poem. (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1999), p. 183.