An altered landscape

The world is a different place when people you know are gone out of it: it is as if the roads and railways to familiar places had been closed, the towns themselves removed from the map, the landscape changed; the course you took for granted, always assumed would be available to you, is shut off, inaccessible. The old familiar path, the well-trodden way, is barred. You can no longer go there any time.

A strange and deep-rooted suspicion: why does art make us uncomfortable?

Here is a list of words that all relate to laudable, creative activity – as practised by artists, writers and the like – but what else do they have in common?


Yes – they can all be used in a pejorative sense, as synonyms for deceit or falsehood, and even insanity (‘making things up’ ‘imagining things’). How curious!

The idea that art is a lie occurs in a quotation attributed to Picasso, that in my university days featured on the cover of the notepads you bought for lectures (along with one from Stravinsky about his music being best understood by children and animals) – ‘Art is a lie that tells the truth’ – but it is much older than that: Plato, the hero of my early teens, was guilty of suggesting that art and poetry were essentially dishonest and not to be trusted.

Plato only lets art back into his ideal state on the condition that it is used for some useful purpose – in effect, as state propaganda. That, too, is a strikingly consistent attitude down the ages – people who control purse-strings (or would like to) are often heard demanding that the arts justify themselves in terms of utility, economic or otherwise, though there is a deep ambivalence here – on the one hand, the artist, writer or musician, starving in bohemian squalor in a garret (usually in Paris) is the archetypal unworldly person, marvellously gifted yet completely incapable of making his way in ‘real life’ – and to set the seal on his artistic integrity, he dies young and deeply indebted, at which point the value of his work soars and makes a great deal of money for other people; but on the other hand the artist who is successful in his lifetime is looked at askance, disparaged, regarded as having somehow ‘sold out’ become ‘commercial’ or (grave sin!) ‘popular’.

What, I wonder, are the deep roots of this suspicion of art, that sees it on the one hand as some kind of dishonesty, and on the other as only ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’ when its practitioners prove their credentials by their inability to make a living from it? There is some common ground between these views – a shared sense that art is, as it were, at right angles to everything else we do, that it is not compatible with ‘everyday life’ or ‘the real world’; in other words, its very existence is a kind of criticism that poses the question ‘ how should human time be spent?’

It’s a stark choice: if art is what we should doing, if that is how human time should be spent, then what is generally termed ‘real life’ is a sinful and misguided waste of time; but if ‘real life’ – that vast machinery of economic activity in which most of us are engaged to some extent – is what we ought to be doing, the properly human thing to do, then it follows that art must be a waste of time, a kind of madness that thankfully afflicts only a small minority of the population.

And that, I think, is what makes us uncomfortable – the world we live in is founded on the premise that the latter is the case, but in our hearts – in our souls – we suspect it may be the former.

Three Misleading Oppositions, Three Useful Axioms

There is an interesting comparison to be made between people and language: we can – especially when we are young and earnest – come to see both as standing in need of improvement, though essentially perfectible (with ourselves as the agents of perfection, naturally); only when we are older do we come to think that it might be better to accept both as they are and accommodate ourselves to their quirks and foibles, rather than seek to correct them.

Language allows words to have a range of meanings, some of which are contradictory – but where once I would have deplored that and sought to correct it – in pursuit of some Holy Grail of clarity – I now think it better to accept it but be aware of it, and consider what effect it has on our thinking. 

Of particular interest to me as a writer are a number of oppositions that we make and often take for granted, which I think can mislead us. Three I would like to single out are

truth and fiction

real and imaginary

invention and discovery

‘Telling tales’ can be a matter for praise or opprobrium, depending on whether we are talking about Homer or the class sneak, but it is interesting that we use the same words for both – ‘just a story’ ‘a mere tale’ ‘pure fiction’ can all be synonyms for ‘lies’ yet we can also speak of fiction telling us profound truths. Although we can (usually) distinguish specific instances without much difficulty, this use of the same word for both creates a kind of infection, so that all fiction is tainted with the suspicion of falsehood and – more importantly, perhaps – it is assumed that the truth must lie elsewhere and have a different form.

So, I would say: always remember that fiction can be true.

In the same way, we use ‘imaginary’ and ‘made-up’ to mean ‘false’ and ‘not real’ yet if we take ‘imaginary’ to mean ‘the product of imagination’ then surely everything that we think of as characteristically human – that is, anything that is not the unassisted product of nature – is imaginary, in the sense that it is something we have ‘thought up’ or ‘made up’ – trains and boats and planes, canals and agriculture, cities – all these things are ‘real’ yet equally none of them has come about by accident – they are the results of design and forethought, of deliberation – they originate in the human imagination, in our ability to envisage what is not present to us, to manipulate things mentally (and isn’t it interesting that ‘seeing things which aren’t there’ serves as a synonym for insanity as well as an exact description of imagination? – this is a division that runs deep).

 So, likewise, do not forget that something can be both imaginary and real.

And are these products of our imagination inventions or discoveries? We tend to use the former to mean things that we have brought about by our own efforts, things that did not exist before we dreamed them up – bicycles and steam engines, say – while we reserve the latter for things that were ‘there all along’ but which we have at some point come upon or uncovered – like penicillin, maybe, or the source of the Nile, or Gravity – yet is the distinction as clear-cut as it might seem at first glance? 

To begin with, both words mean much the same, etymologically – ‘invention’ is from  the Latin ‘to come upon’ and can still occasionally be found in that sense in English (‘The Invention of the True Cross‘  (3 May) was a catholic Feast-day commemorating the discovery of the supposed cross of Jesus by St Helena, Constantine’s mother, though it has afforded wags like Rabelais the opportunity for witticisms – ‘The Invention of the Holy Cross Personated by Six Wily Priests’ is one of the many fantastically-titled books found by Pantagruel in the library of St Victor ). And any invention could equally be described as the discovery and application of existing principles.

So: inventions generally involve discovery, too – to say that something is an invention does not preclude the possibility that it existed beforehand and independently, in some form.

Is music a discovery or an invention? Is mathematics? Is God?

Are they real or imaginary?

Truth or fiction?

– all questions rewarding to dwell upon on a rainy afternoon.