In his famous painting “Self Portrait 1907,” Pablo Picasso stares intensely out of the canvas at the viewer. Or one of his eyes does, anyway. The other is shades lighter and less filled in, imbuing the Spanish artist with an unfocused air, like a man who’s just removed his glasses or perhaps smoked a nice batch of opium. Picasso’s forehead juts forward at an impossible angle from his scalp, which is covered by a hairstyle that can only be described as Rihanna-esque. It then turns down severely, creating several corners on the side of his face. Picasso’s nose takes up most of the page.
Art scholars will tell you the portrait may have been influenced by Picasso’s obsession with African masks, that it has early signs of the cubist era that would follow. In all, it’s a remarkable work, one that demands an emotional response. But it doesn’t look like Picasso. It doesn’t look like any human being. So, then, is it a lie?
That’s the question posed by James Frey in a combative interview with John Richardson. Richardson’s piece, recently published in Esquire, is a survey of Frey’s publishing company that prizes trendiness and production speed above all else — Richardson calls it the “Hollywood model” of publishing. But somewhere along the way the two get sidetracked into discussing what truth means. Richardson says what you’d expect a journalist to say, which is that some things are true, and lying to people is wrong if they expect the truth.
Frey, of course, knows all about the consequences of messing with traditional definitions of fact and truth. The book for which he became famous, “A Million Little Pieces,” was published as a memoir, but was later found to be — at best — highly exaggerated or — at worst — spun from whole cloth.
After Frey frames the fabrication as purposeful, a “conscious art decision” (Richardson’s words), Richardson makes the (totally valid) point that the content of his book (which is about recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse) magnifies the harm of any lie told within. But I’m more interested in Frey’s larger point. Are facts and falsity irrelevant to endeavors like writing, painting and film like Frey claims? Or, as Richardson would have it, is truth a part of art?
Neither is correct. Or rather, both are, but neither recognizes the full picture. Take Frey’s claim to its logical extreme: Imagine a world in which all art in every medium has a completely neutral truth value. Pictures, songs, movies — none of them have any bearing in relation to the real world; no conclusions can be drawn from well-framed photographs and no moral arguments can be recognized in novels. In this imagined scenario, art is a completely separate entity from reality, and it’s intended only to entertain.
The problem is, it wouldn’t. Without the underpinning of objective reality, entertainment would be meaningless. Think about it: Would onscreen explosions seem cool if we couldn’t connect them to a real event? The reason things like that are fun to watch is that a real explosive would do massive amounts of damage to people and property. The thrill an audience feels is the joy at being able to watch something that would cause all sorts of consequences were it to happen outside of the movie.
The effect goes the other way as well — without an objective reality backing art, there would be no differentiating between the absurd and the mundane. “Pan’s Labyrinth” would seem exactly as realistic as a black and white film reel showing a fly buzzing around a vase. And because there’d be no basis for comparison, both would be equally boring.
So truth and fact assuredly have important effects on entertainment and art. Still, Frey does have a point — an obsession about whether a specific work is “true” is pedantic and, yes, irrelevant. Would Kevin Carter’s iconic photograph of an emaciated child in Sudan trailed closely by a vulture be any less powerful if Carter had created it by placing a rotting animal carcass behind his lens, thus attracting the bird? Of course not — the feeling is derived from the image itself, not the specifics of the situation. Frey is right about that, but the important thing, again, is the additional knowledge that makes the photograph true regardless of whether it’s staged.
In 1932, Carl Jung published an article that, though it stopped short of diagnosing the artist, identified Picasso’s cubist work as a “schizophrenic form of expression.” Of the man who had lost a sister at age 14 and who constantly struggled to express himself on the canvas, Jung asked: “What quintessence will he distil from this accumulation of rubbish and decay, from those half-born or aborted possibilities of form and color? What symbol will appear as the final cause and meaning of all this.” Take it as a psychological response, then, that the distorted image is packaged and sold as a self portrait or a memoir. When it’s a deeply personal scenario that leads to a lie, claims of truth’s irrelevance suddenly sound like a defense mechanism: In all reality, what could be truer than that?