Art is Artifice
Art, by definition, is artifice. It’s fake. It’s not “real” in the sense that a sunset is real, or a trout or a pomegranate. Art is a work crafted with calculation, forethought, and skill to create either the simulacrum of something real (a painting of a sunset, say) or to express an insight into, or attempt to bring order out of, nature or the experience of life.
Art is made by man, not God. The simple fact that art is made, not discovered or revealed, makes it artifice. But art is also real. The pomegranate in the painting may not be a real pomegranate, but the painting is a real painting. It’s fake life, but it’s real art. Lady Gaga is a fabricated personality, yet who can deny that that personality is real?
In many ways, art is more real than reality. How many of us have wept at simulated grief in a movie, but been unable to cry at the death of a real person in our real life? I’ve watched a million sunsets and many have been spectacular, but I confess that I’ve seen sunsets in movies that looked better than the real thing.
What is Authentic? If an actress delivers an emotion that moves an audience, is her emotion real? Isn’t the actress’ vocation to act–in other words to simulate, to make believe, to pretend? Has she simply created through artifice the likeness of something real but that, itself, is contrived and inauthentic?
We’re speaking, above, of the authenticity of art. But what about the experience of the artist who is trying, herself, to be authentic–to produce something so true to her own self that it resonates with the universal heart of the audience? What is her process? What goes on inside her?
I’ve lived my whole life trying to understand this and to do it. You have as well, I would bet, or you wouldn’t be reading this post. It’s our religion. Here’s how I would sketch its theology:
The belief is that we—each of us as individuals—did not appear in this dimension as tabula rasa, a blank slate. On the contrary, we entered this life already possessing a personality, a daimon, a unique soul, distinct and different from all others’. Even if we are an identical twin, composed of the same DNA as our brother or sister, we are still unique and one of a kind.
Another way to phrase this is that we all have a destiny. Each of us was born for something. Maybe this “something” was shaped by previous lives, or maybe we popped out of the oven fresh and new for the first time. Either way, each of us is as unique as a snowflake or a fingerprint and each of comes with one-of-a-kind gifts.
If this is true (and I believe it is) then our role in life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal that we imagine we ought to be or want to be (which we can’t do anyway), but instead to discover who we already are—and become that.
We are seeking our Authentic Selves. Our quest is to align ourselves with our true nature, our calling, the destiny we were born to fulfill.
The romantic seeks another person—a lover perhaps, or a child, the union with whom will release her from her imprisoning self-preoccupation and “complete” her into her greater and truer self.
The mystic seeks direct experience of the divine. His quest is for his higher nature, to fuse with and become one with the infinite, the transcendent, the Almighty.
The artist—meaning you and I—seeks her life’s work, her calling, the vocation she was put on earth to perform. In finding that calling, she finds herself.
But here’s the weird part: that authentic calling is by definition inauthentic. The calling is to produce art, and art is artifice.
Or is it? No one has ever expressed it better than Henry Miller in Tropic of Capricorn:
I found that what I had desired all my life was not to live—if what others are doing is called living—but to express myself. I realized that I had never had the least interest in living, but only in that which I am doing now, something which is parallel to life, of it at the same time, and beyond it. What is true interests me scarcely at all, nor even what is real; only that interests me which I imagine to be, that which I had stifled every day in order to live.
What have you and I been put on this Earth to do? Is it not the creation of the “inauthentic,” that is the purposefully crafted, in order to deliver to others the gift and simulacrum of authenticity?
That’s why they call it Art, and why, in some crazy way, it’s realer than real and truer than true.
This is so dope man! So dope. I was asking myself this same thing lately, do I even care about truth as much as I love to sing? Can I be a mystic only. But I don’t get that huge kick in anything else. Normal life is also beyond boring. I can’t live just to live. Doesn’t work for me.
Love you Mr. Pressfield. <3
Your post reminded me of a line by Tony Stark in The Avengers. He referred to the “terrible privilege” of having a piece of shrapnel near his heart held at bay by a circle of light.
What an elegant description of the calling to be an artist.
Merry Christmas, Steve.
Merry Christmas. Loved this post. Touched on a number of themes that have been running through my head as well.
“How many of us have wept at simulated grief in a movie, but been unable to cry at the death of a real person in our real life?”
This is about the 100th time Steven has hit me right in the nose, I don’t know why I never see this shit coming…
I have a bit of a different interpretation of this:
By the time I was 12, I had lost my father (age 5), dog (saw him run over, age 8), all grandparents,and my brother’s best friend. I had a brutal stepdad who introduced violence and the rest of the 7 deadly sins into our home.
At funerals, I would feel cold. Empty. I was done with grief, death, and sorrow…but how I would, and still do, sob at movies/books/good music…
Art may be fake–but it is a safe fake. We can feel without restraint. The emotions we exhibit are real, but like the art we’re enjoying, maybe they are simulacumish as well. When I cry for Old Yeller, am I crying for my dog or for Travis?
I thought of this while watching “Atypical” on Netflix. For some reason, I had misty eyes for most of the entire first season. Why? I think it is because even though I’m now 50–when I see Doug struggling to be a good father–the 7 year old Brian wishes he had that Dad.
Art teaches us how to live implicitly, while school, church, lectures, news, politics, corporations, etc try to teach us to live explicitly.
…and I don’t think the explicit explanation means anything to any of us–until we’ve implicitly lived it out in the real world. After we’ve experienced something, then an explicit explanation can help clarify.
It was the movie Crash that opened my eyes to my own racist/in-group bias. I was Sandra Bullock yelling at Brandon Frazier to change the damn locks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbarO9zF81Y
No authority could have made me believe what Sandra Bullock demonstrated to me.
So…that shit is real.
No doubt Art is a skill It is not meant for everyone to create art it depends upon the calculation and emotions involve in it to make it a perfect piece of art. Real art explains the perfect message delivered in the picture of an author’s imagination.
The photographic Brassai’s book on his time with Henry Miller in Paris is one of my favourites – rehashing it once more; love his photographs too – one of the few photographers who makes pictures that are haunted and transportive.
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