Here Lies Art

The lies in our life, and more than that in our art, satiate an elementary desire within us — to view the world differently.

A man prepares a powder which compels the eater to speak nothing but the truth. One day, as he was carrying the sack of his powder on his donkey across a canal, the animal slipped and the entire content got diluted in water. Once this ‘contaminated’ water reached all homes and people drank it, they started speaking the truth. They spoke honestly about what they felt and the city was a chaos and in constant quarrel because no one was able to face the facts.

This story by some Egyptian writer illustrates how the human society is constructed — on the basis of lies. As a child, one is taught to speak the truth but as he grows up he realises how impossible it is to lead that ideal life. One has to conceal the real in order to survive peacefully.

Perhaps, the ability to choose between the truth and the lie is a feature exclusive to humans. While other species act according to their instinct, man decides on the options of various versions of a single reality, event or possibility and then prefers the one that suits him, regardless of whether it is factually right or wrong as long as it serves his purpose. Hence we tell lies about our past, present and even our future too, knowing fully well that it is a distorted depiction of reality. The lies are not just confined to the personal lives and family matters, they extend to the realms of politics, business, sports, law, academics and information media. Interestingly, both the speaker and the listener are aware of and accept the fibs presented as facts.

Only when it comes to the question of ethics, the issue assumes a crucial significance; since a number of lies are told for some better cause and not to deceive someone. For instance, a doctor may hide from a cancer patient his actual condition. Likewise, the teachers often do not reveal the true standing of a student in order for them to keep struggling. In the media, truth is sometimes deliberately held back for reasons of state security. In sports, a spin bowler communicates to the batsmen his intended throw but changes it deliberately; ditto for hockey, tennis and other sports. Politics thrives on lies — great promises and claims — when the politicians know these won’t be fulfilled or achieved.

We happily live with this scheme of things, detaching the issue of morality from our pragmatic course of existence. This process is observed in the world of art too because, here, we perpetually enjoy false constructions. When watching a film, the spectator is moved by the story and performance of actors, knowing that the hero is impersonating someone else and the incidents are not based upon his actual life. A man marries on the screen to a woman who is not his wife or an actor is shown as the daughter of somebody who is not related to her in real life. Yet, we willingly suspend our disbelief and start believing in these fabrications so much that we cry, love or hate those characters.

Similarly, a writer of fiction creates a story which has nothing to do with reality but we connect with it so much that we weep, become agitated or enjoy reading about certain episodes. The power of fabrication is such that often people start believing in it, to the extent that a book of fiction may invoke protest and strong reactions — like issuing decrees to kill the author. Somehow, the more removed a literary work is from reality, the more it is enjoyed; is in fact described as ‘original’ by readers and critics.

In visual arts, fabrication takes place at all levels. A man admires the portrait of ‘Mona Lisa’ painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the sixteenth century. He likes the face and figure of the female, appreciates the landscape in the background and is excited (as well as perplexed) about the smile on her lips, but is oblivious to some basic truth — that what he is looking at is just a combination of different colour pigments glued on a poplar panel. The model, Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, is long dead with her mysterious smile yet nobody notices or admits this ‘fact’ because everyone is allured to the illusion created by the great Renaissance painter.

In fact, the presence of these lies in our life, and more than that in our art, satiates an elementary desire within us — to view the world differently. This practice, like dreams, leads to the world of imagination and fantasy. We create imaginary beings, situations and settings both in our sleep and during our wakeful hours. A child does it for his play and amusement; the adults pursue and perfect this in order to be recognised as great writers, actors, directors and artists.

Thus the world of art is a passage from reality to illusion or from truth to lies, since illusions and lies can be more interesting, engaging and enchanting than plain truths. However, as compulsive liars know that only a lie closer to life will have a believable quality, artists when they tell ‘lies’ try to make it as acceptable as the world in our surroundings. On the contrary, their creations are not dependent upon reality since these acquire their independent status, as valid as truth yet detached from it. And only a perfect liar among the artists can be a great creative individual, like Pablo Picasso, Paul Auster and Penelope Cruz.

By Quddus Mirza