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.