Degas once said: “You paint what you see, and what you see is false, and this falseness is art.” With this statement, he is raising an issue about a fundamental characteristic of art: it is always a reference to the object that it is representing. In this piece, the meaning and implications of Degas quote will be explored, specifically in terms of the falseness he referred to. Degas is not declaring art as being absent of truth. Rather, his reference to ‘falseness’ is tied to the observation that all art is a representation; not the real object being referred to. An issue then, if art contains truth, is the nature of this truth. Accordingly, the relationship between realness and trueness will be examined here and the paradoxical problem of attempting to approach reality in art will be discussed. The subsequent section will engage with the observation (that has implications for an examination of Dega’s statement) that because representation necessarily involves selection, the manner in which artists use selection is a matter of significance. Two specific issues pertaining to the topic of artistic selection will be scrutinized:  how conventions effect representation and  the question of what constitutes adequate representation. Finally, the differing approaches taken by the modernist and realist movements in dealing with the complexities of representation will be examined.
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, c. 1873, oil on canvas
Within the above framework, Pirandello’s meta-theatrical work “Six Characters In Search of an Author” provides a singularly useful frame of reference for analyzing the complexities of what Degas is conveying. In this play, a set of characters endeavor to achieve existence by having their story enacted. Over the course of the plot, these characters, who are the incarnation of an artistic referent, strive for their story to be authentic but are hindered by the selection of the producer and the conventions of theatrical representation. The struggle of the characters is significant for the purposes of this piece because the authenticity of their existence is dependent on the presentation of their story; the issues of what is true, and what is meant by saying something is true, become reality through the lived experience of the play’s characters. We will return to Pirandello’s play later.
Degas recognized the complex problem presented by representation in art. Because all art is a representation, selection is necessarily involved in the artistic process, which means the artist determines the presentation of an object. This raises the question of what effect selection has on the truth, and by extension, how reality should be represented. Although art is always false in a specific sense, it is not absent of truth.
Repin's portrayal of Mussorgsky
The nature of artistic truth in art is complex. One aspect of this complexity is the issue of probability and possibility. A work that triggered a discussion of this question was Repin’s portrait of Mussorgsky (one of the prominent romantic composers in Russia). In this painting, which Mussorgsky sat for, Repin portrayed the great composer as he was at that moment: disheveled and with the red nose of a drunkard. Mussorgsky was not bothered by Repin’s portrayal, but the Russian public was. Critics asserted that what Repin had created was not the essence of Mussorgsky; not true because it was too real and no longer a representation. Such statements implicitly came from the position advocating that artists should portray things the way they ought to be, sacrificing representative accuracy for the sake of another sort of truth: one of an essence rather than a surface portrayal of an object.
Photograph of Mussorgsky
This essence is related to the Greek concept of mimesis: art being created through a selection that discards the nonessential, arranging components to create a harmonious composition out of chaos. The Greeks recognized the limitations of representation and did not attempt to convey a sense of complete reality. Masks were used symbolically, and the stage represented a single location at which all characters would meet. Characters had distinct identities, a clear sense of causality existed throughout a plot, and the tensions and questions developed over the course of the play were resolved. Such a composition is a contrast to the chaos that exists in life. Through this type of an approach, art can become ‘more true’ in the sense that the most crucial is what remains. This school of thought is a distinct contrast to the Realist principle of one-to-one correspondence.
Another framing of this discussion against theatre: Realist stagings of plays with realistic props and costumes led to, for example, the usage of actual trees rather than a single branch, as would be done in Neoclassicism, to represent a forest. Realistic directors became quite innovative in creating techniques that would obscure the staged nature of a production. Anton Chekhov even had the idea of having a dog roam throughout the theatre for his play 'The Lady with the Dog'. In addition to helping to taking away the ‘fourth wall’ that exists in theatre, such a device served to undermine the staged nature of theatre because the dog is not acting; it is real and not a representation. As a way to deal with and move away from the concept of ‘falseness’ referred to by Degas, these efforts represent an attempt to background the representative nature of the theatre through a specific set of conventions.
However, this approach doesn’t fully remove representation from theatre or other forms of art. To create this sense of reality, a large amount of environmental and situational information is introduced. Much of this information is not needed and can be done away with without changing the actual message being conveyed. Further, the inclusion of this information creates unnecessary noise that disrupts the creation of the harmony of mimesis that achieves the conveyance of an essence of truth. The claim of Realism is that there is no falseness in what is portrayed through realistic representation and that the audience is experiencing reality. This ‘experience of reality’ is facilitated by hiding that selection that is intrinsic to art and is the result of a belief that art should be closer to life. If what is being presented is genuinely life however, it would no longer be art; a distinct separation necessarily exists between the two.
The notion of 'the well-made play' involves the creation of harmony and order rather than recreating the chaos of reality. Such a play is tight, with no loose ends or subplots left unresolved. To create such a piece, order must be imposed to make all of its components fit together. In so doing, selection, and thus interpretation, is involved. Such a process occurs in the creation of all art. Even in Realist theatre where mimesis is not a goal, selection is nonetheless used to create a representation. Art is not the presentation of an object that exists in reality, but the representation of the object. This is the very function of the object that has been created, but is also why such an object is always false in the sense alluded to by Degas.
In Pirandello’s play, the six characters all have their own points of view as to who is responsible for the tragedy of their situation, but there is no discernible originator for it all. It is hard for the audience and even actors enacting the story of the characters to identify what is true in the multiple perspectives presented by the characters. However, the producer is still trying to obtain a balance between the characters in order to create a harmonious piece. In a moment of frustration he berates the stepdaughter that “. . . yours is not the only point of view.” This serves as an example of how a manner of filtering is occurring: only that which is necessary, as determined by the artist, or, in this case, the producer, remains.
“Now we are getting to the real truth of it, aren’t we? Your drama - yours! But it’s not only yours, you know. It’s drama for the other people as well! For him (Pointing to the Father) and for your mother! You can’t have one character coming on like you’re doing, trampling over the others, taking over the play. Everything needs to be balanced and in harmony so that we can show what has to be shown! I know perfectly well that we’ve all got a life inside us and that we all want to parade it in front of other people. But that’s the difficulty, how to present only the bits that are necessary in relation to the other characters, and in the small amount we show, to hint at all the rest of the inner life of the character!”
As well as acting as a moral censor, the producer is arbitrating between the father and the daughter, who each want to use the stage to portray only their original point of view, while his desire is portray the clash in a more compelling manner by balancing the demands of each.
The particularly strong desire of the stepdaughter to have a realistic enactment of her story leads to tension between her and the producer. For the producer’s objective of creating a harmonious composition, much of the information given by the stepdaughter, even if it were true, is not important. “Truth’s all very well up to a point, but...” The conviction of the producer that there are limits to the truth that can be portrayed leads to the stepdaughter’s fear that her drama will be reduced to a “sugary little romance”. At this point the confrontation is not between art and life but between concepts of theatre. The producer will impose his authority since, for all his sympathy for the stepdaughter, he believes that he cannot “… really put a scene like that on the stage.”
Let us now turn to convention’s effect on selection. Convention is a matter of selection; a syntax and set of rules used to determine what is included in representation. In Pirandello’s play, the producer makes a number of interventions while the characters are enacting their story in the name of theatrical convention. “Don't put that last line down.” These alterations range from emphasizing a need to project voices, to removing content deemed inappropriate for the theatre.
The consequences of the producer’s representation of the character’s story are discussed frequently throughout the play as an issue develops regarding truth. The characters are actually experiencing reality through their reenactment. Real suffering as opposed to a presentation of suffering becomes an issue as the actors are incapable of fully incorporating the experiences of the characters in their portrayal. In art, creating an illusion of reality is done by utilizing a series of tricks and devices. Real objects themselves have no need of such efforts because they are real by virtue of their existence in reality. Theatre is about pretending, but Pirandello’s characters, when reenacting their story, are not acting. This has consequences. Theatrical conventions are no longer relevant; the characters are the reality, not the representation. What is occurring then is no longer theatre, which is why the producer says “we have wasted a whole day.” The producer is deliberately moving away from reality in terms of an exact portrayal of the characters’ story, and the characters subsequently perceive the producer’s approach as a threat to the authenticity of their story’s portrayal. What occurs, then, is that the ones who are real want the use of illusion and convention, while the ones who are not real want the full reality, regardless of theatrical conventions used to distill their story into a ‘truer form’ that captures its essence and create an experience that is more realistic for the audience.
Artists are faced with a paradox when they attempt to achieve a ‘realistic’ representation. A conundrum arises in that conventions that are meant to make art more real can have the opposite result. A point in “Six Characters in Search of an Author” when the producer is preparing to reenact a scene taking place in a garden serves as an excellent example of this paradox. Conflict occurs between trying to do justice to the actual lives of the characters, as conceived by the author who brought them into imagination, and the conventions of the theatre. The issue is where to play this crucial scene; something occurring inside the home while something is happening outside at the same time. In theatre, convention does not allow for two events occurring in separate location to occur on the same stage. The stage represents a single location at a given time. The scene that is about to be enacted is being prepared to take place in a garden, but the trueness of the reality being created by the producer is an issue for the characters. Their truth is the illusion that the Producer creates and for him to disparage the existence and importance of this illusion is an affront to the significance and veracity of the character’s lives.
The original event occurred as follows: instead of watching her younger children as she was supposed to, the mother was inside seeking understanding and affection from her eldest son. While she is inside, her daughter drowns and her youngest son, upon discovering his sister, shoots himself. The mother’s extreme guilt arises from her not being outside watching her younger children as she should have been. The realness of the representation of the scene becomes particularly important. The stepdaughter raises the issue that, if the director has everyone here on the stage, and does not have the mother in the house, how can he have the little girl drown if the mother is there? What occurs then, is a paradox. It would be unrealistic to have two scenes that occur in different locations to happen simultaneously on the same stage, but it would be unrealistic to the story of the characters to have the actors together on the same stage for this scene. Pursuing one sense of realness results in falseness in the another sense.
Repin’s counterargument to the criticism he received regarding his portrayal of Mussorgsky was that truth is contained in the message, not the technique. He believed that the goal of art was to find and portray humanity, using what is found to address social issues. He was fine with this being done in an artistic fashion, but questioned the worth of a shirt collar, created correctly in a technical sense, if its creator was missing the major social issues of the day. Although the issue of social relevancy of art will not be discussed here, Repin makes a relevant point about the importance of convention and its use in realistic representation in relation to other conceptualizations of truth, such as an artist’s belief in the message he is conveying through is work.
The stability of identity is another matter that is directly affected by the representative nature of art. Although Realism recognized uncertainty and the unknown, this flux was not allowed to upset the stability of the world. A specific example of such an approach to instability occurs in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The day before a great battle between the combined forces of the Russians and Prussians against the French, the commanding Russian general asserts at a war council that all possibilities for the coming conflict have been considered and that there can be no uncertainty as to the outcome: “All contingencies have been accounted for.” As the battle unfolds the next day, the unforeseen does occur and the battlefield is filled with chaos. However, this flux is used to make the point that the will of the one, in this setting, the general, is not what actually controls what happens; instead, it is the will of the many. The chaos and uncertainty is not allowed to destabilize the world. Within such an approach, causality can still be explained and identity is not threatened.
The Avant-garde was not just a reaction to Realism; it also arose out of an attempt to present the new situation of uncertainty that humanity faced. Proponents of the Avant-garde saw the new generation as facing uncertainty, in the specific sense of identity no longer being conceived as stable. The implication for the specific sense of falseness being examined here is that when representing a multiplicitous object, the artist is faced with the task of selecting a specific set of the object’s multiple identities to represent. Whichever choice is made, the result will be false in the sense that it is less than the full potential of possibilities held by the original object.
The father of Pirandello's play made the claim that he, as a character of an author’s imagination, was more real than the director, a person who exists in reality. For the producer, his existence in reality means that for him, reality is always in flux and thus his identity is not fixed; he is continually progressing through experiences and changing as a person. This led the father character to claim that he could not tell who the producer really is.
The identity of the father character, on the other hand, is stable. It cannot change because it cannot be anything else. In one sense he is doomed to never escape the tragedy of his situation, but he is also more real as a result of his fixed identity. What is occurring then is that the illusion, which does not exist in reality, is being presented as more real than the living. This is yet another complexity intrinsic to the issue of falseness arising from representation. Can ‘illusion’ be more true than reality? Can reality can then be false?
Pirandello was making the point that, in the end, there is no stable individual. People have one physical body but many selves. Identity is always going to be an issue. In theatre, an actor gives materiality to his or her character but in so doing, is also destroying the character. What appears to be the giving of life to the character is a denial of the entirety of the character. When faced with the full potential of the character, the actor must decide how he is going to play the character. Whatever choice is made, the result is always going to be less than the full potential of what the character is, as conceived by the author. This occurrence is a concern that is relevant in all art and is what members of the Dada movement were referring to when they said that that moment an attempt at definition was made, falseness is created. In other words, a truth once spoken is a lie.
Pirandello was a member of a skeptical generation who pulled down the pillars that had held erect a whole system of previously unquestioned values and convictions.
“... try to find out if you really see yourself now in the same way that you saw yourself, for instance, once upon a time in the past, with all the illusions you had then, with everything inside and outside yourself as it seemed then - and not only seemed, but really was! Well then, look back on those illusions, those ideas that you don’t have any more, on all those things that no longer seem the same to you. Don’t you feel that not only this stage is falling away from under your feet but so is the earth itself, and that all these realities of today are going to seem tomorrow as if they had been a illusion?”
The message here, in addition to discussing the flux of the producer’s identity arising from his existence in reality, is that no truth, no belief can be held as certain and beyond doubt. As the Father character tells the producer, “the earth is crumbling beneath his feet. Not even his sense of reality of himself and his surrounding universe can be trusted anymore.
Contingency is not necessarily synonymous with falseness, however. Truth itself is in flux and there is not a way to neatly resolve its multiplicity. It is when multiple possibilities are condensed to a single definition that falseness is created. In her poem “Monday or Tuesday,” Virginia Woolf addresses the issue of knowing truth. After a shift in perspective in the second paragraph, the flow of daily life as experienced by the individual of the poem is articulated. The daily bustle of life is initially felt as drowning an ongoing search for truth. As the piece develops, there are times when aspects of the truth can be seen, and the narrator realizes the significance of the insignificant. In this poem, Virginia Woolf is conveying the necessity of being content with a closeness to truth. She comes to the understanding that she would be telling an untruth if she were to state or profess to have found an explicit truth. Rather than attempting to define truth, we should be satisfied with a proximity to, and an essence of, truth.
Realists did not think that paintings were not paintings. They did, however, take what is represented to be a true representation of the original object: a one-to-one correspondence. In other words, what is deemed an adequate representation of an object by a Realist is one that looks just like the object itself. In the end, the representation is false, but realism doesn't highlight the falseness.
Realists were also not naive in believing that the odd, strange, and psychotic don’t occur. They were aware of the unknown, but limited their field of engagement to the presentation of objects that weren't subject to doubt. For them, identity was conceived of as stable, despite what may happen on the fringes. This artistic movement can be summarized as a ‘stable self’ engaged with a ‘stable world’. Eventually, however, Realism arrives at a crisis: its proponents can see the fracturing of previous conceptions of truth and identity, but they can’t resolve the dilemmas raised using a Realist framework. The ‘falseness’ that has been discussed thus far challenges the conventions of truth and artistic purpose that are the tenants of the Realist tradition.
The movement of Post-Realism was concerned with such questions as: “Who are we really?” and “What is the world?” The self, which was previously viewed as stable, stopped being viewed as such, and understanding and morality began to be conceived as being very much dependent on the individual. Traditionally, subjectivity was compatible with and arose from the artistic tradition. The subjective point of view being used by the modernists, however, was so subjective that it was a negation of tradition.
Art will always be false in the sense that it is a representation that can never become the thing being represented. Rather than striving for a goal that can never be fully met and leads to contrived results in an attempt to obtain this objective, art should recognize rather than dismiss the representative nature of art. Although art can be false in manners that have been discussed, it can also attain a ‘trueness’ over the reality being represented. This can occur through a process of distillation. The unnecessary is done away with and what is left is an essence, devoid of the unnecessary. All art is a question of selection, and says something about the world, out of which it originated. Art is made by people for people and thus says functions as a statement about who we are. The selection intrinsic in representation is both a source of art’s ‘falseness’, but can also explain the creation of something more true, relevant, and visceral for people than pure, unmodulated reality.
selected pieces by the surrealist artist Yves Tenguy