Truth, Perception, and the Role of the Artist

Painting by Jean Francois Millet of The Gleaners, three peasant women gleaning the remaining harvest
The Gleaners (1857), by Jean Francois Millet, showing three strong and dignified peasant women working in the field in rural France. Print Collector/Hulton Fine Art/Getty Images

The year is coming to a close and there is so much going on in the world now that will take many different talents and skills to tackle, combat, promote, thwart. It has been said that we are now living in a "post-truth" era, one in which, according to Oxford Dictionary, "objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief, and in which it is easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire." The United States will have a new President, the election of whom has already caused major division and unrest in the country.

Civil liberties are in peril. Many areas of the world are in profound turmoil. It will take people working together and supporting each other to hold onto the advances in social justice and equality that have been made in the past decades. It will take generosity of spirit and vision, leading to more conversation, changes in perception, and better understanding. Fortunately this generosity of spirit and vision has already been shown by many, including the artists and those with "the art spirit" among us. 

The Art Spirit

There is a unique role for artists, writers, and creative types in this new era, and for anyone who is compelled to become engaged and live as an artist, with open eyes and open hearts, as speakers of truth and beacons of hope.  Robert Henri (1865-1929), renown artist and teacher whose words were compiled into the classic bookThe Art Spiritring as true today as they did when he first spoke them.

 In fact, it seems our world needs artists of all kinds now more than ever:

"Art when really understood is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing. When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book he opens it, shows there are more pages possible." – Robert Henri, from The Art Spirit (Buy from Amazon

Art and artists show us that it is possible to recognize the existence of multiple truths and ways of being without disregarding commonly known and accepted facts. It is vitally important that artists exist to see the world, expose its truths and falsehoods, make sense of them, and communicate their responses.

The artist can help us to open our eyes and see the truth before us as well as a path to a better future. An artist helps us confront our own perceptions, misperceptions, and implicit biases, which control all of us.  Watch the first of six powerful videos about implicit bias by the New York Times.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "People only see what they are prepared to see," and French painter Pierre Bonnard said, "The precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing." Alphonse Bertillon said, "The eye only sees in each thing that for which it looks, and it only looks for that thing of which it already has an idea." (1) Perception is not the same thing as sight.  

Here are some ways that art affects perception and examples of art and artists from the past, along with some quotes to inspire you.

Seeing and Perception

Making art is about seeing and perception. Author Saul Bellow said, “What is art but a way of seeing?

"(2)

Art can make us question our assumptions, question what we are seeing and how we are responding. In the first of five videos called New Ways of Seeing, inspired by John Berger's groundbreaking 1972 BBC series, Ways of Seeing, and book based on the series, Ways of Seeing (Buy from Amazon), Tiffany & Co., a leading supporter of the arts, solicited various prominent people from the art world to create videos addressing questions regarding the meaning and purpose of art. In the first video, "Art Contains Multitudes," New York Magazine's Senior Art Critic Jerry Saltz asks three artists, Kehinde Wiley, Shantell Martin, and Oliver Jeffers, to talk about how art invented a new way of seeing the world, making us question our own assumptions about art. Saltz talks about the significance of cave painting as one of the greatest inventions of humankind, saying "these first artists figured out a way to get the three-dimensional world into two dimensions and attach values to their own ideas.

And all of the history of art flows forth from this invention." (3) 

Artist Kehinde Wiley says, "Art is about changing what we see in our everyday lives and re-presenting it in such a way that it gives us hope. Artists of color, gender, sexualities - we're creating a revolution now." (4) Saltz says, "Art does change the world by changing how we see and therefore how we remember." (5) He concludes by saying, "Art contains multitudes, like us." (6)

Artist as Documentarian

"Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see." - Paul Klee (7)

For some artists, chronicling people and events of the time is what drives them. Whether representational or abstract painters, they put into images what many people either take for granted, choose to ignore, or would rather deny. 

Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) was a French artist who was one of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France. (http://www.jeanmillet.org). He is well-known for his paintings of scenes of rural peasants, raising awareness of the social conditions of the working class. The Gleaners (1857, 33x43 inches) is one of his most well-known paintings, and depicts three peasant women laboring in the fields gleaning the leftovers from the harvest. Millet deliberately depicted these women in a monumental and powerful way, giving them dignity, and also raising concerns in the Parisian populace viewing the painting of the possibility of another Revolution like the one of 1848. However, Millet conveyed this political message in a way that was palatable by creating a beautiful painting of soft colors and gentle, rounded forms. Although the bourgeoisie accused Millet of inciting revolution, Millet said that he paints what he sees, and being a peasant himself, he paints what he knows. "It was in the daily routine tasks of the peasant, for whom the very issue of existence, the very question of life and death was decided by the vagaries of the soil, that Millet found the supreme drama of humanity." (8) 

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) responded to the atrocities of war and the indiscriminate bombing by Hitler's German Air Force in 1937 of the small Spanish town, Guernica, in his famous painting by the same name.

Guernica has become the most famous anti-war painting in the world. Picasso's Guernica painting, although abstract, powerfully depicts the horrors of war. 

Artist as Creator of Beauty

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), the French artist a decade or so older than Picasso, had a different purpose in mind as an artist. He said, "What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue." (9)

One of the leaders of the Fauves, Matisse used bright flat colors, arabesque design, and was unconcerned with expressing realistic three-dimensional pictorial space. He said, "I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have the light joyousness of springtime, which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost me...." His work provided "shelter from the disorientation of the modern world."(10) 

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) was one of the the greatest American artists, who invented the soak-stain technique during the second wave of the New York Abstract Expressionists and Color Field Painters following World War II. Rather than painting thickly with opaque paint, Frankenthaler used oil and then later, acrylic paint, thinly like watercolor, pouring it onto raw canvas and letting it soak and stain the canvas, flowing into shapes of flat translucent color. The paintings are based on real and imagined landscapes. Her paintings were most often criticized for being beautiful, to which she responded, "People are very threatened by the word beauty, but the darkest Rembrandts and Goyas, the most sombre music of Beethoven, the most tragic poems by Elliott are all full of light and beauty. Great moving art that speaks the truth is beautiful art."

Artist as Healer and Collaborator

Many artists promote peace through art by working with communities and creating public art. 

Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn create community art, also building community in the process. They have painted entire neighborhoods and changed them physically and psychologically in the process, from areas considered by some to be dangerous, into areas attractive to visitors. The neighborhoods are transformed into works of art and symbols of hope. Through their artwork Koolhaas and Urhahn change people's perceptions of these communities and change the residents perceptions of themselves. They have worked in Rio, Amsterdam, Philadelphia, and other places. Watch their inspiring TED talk on their projects and process. You can read more about their work and projects at their website, the Favela Painting Foundation.

Necessity of Art and Artists

Michelle Obama, the widely respected soon-to-be former First Lady of the United States, said in her remarks at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Metropolitan Museum of Art American Wing, May 18, 2009: 

The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it. Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation. (11) 

Teacher and artist Robert Henri said: There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual.  Such are the moments of our greatest happiness.  Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.  If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign.  It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what may be.  Sign-posts toward greater knowledge." (The Art Spirit)

Matisse said, "All artists bear the imprint of their time, but the great artists are those in whom this is most profoundly marked."(12)

Perhaps the purpose of art, like religion, is to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted."  It does so by shining light on our world and society, a light that reveals truths at the same time that it illuminates beauty and joy, thereby changing our perceptions, helping us to see the world and each other in new ways.  Artists are the ones whose job it is to see, create, and shine the light on truth, hope, and beauty. By painting and practicing your art, you are keeping the light shining.

Further Reading and Viewing

John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 1 (1972) (video)

John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 2 (1972) (video)

John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 3 (1972) (video)

John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 4 (1972) (video)

Picasso's Guernica Painting 

The Soak Stain Painting Technique of Helen Frankenthaler

Matisse Quotes from 'Notes of a Painter' 

Promoting Peace Through Art 

Inness and Bonnard: Painting From Memory

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REFERENCES

1. Art Quotes, III, http://www.notable-quotes.com/a/art_quotes_iii.html

2. Brainy Quote, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/s/saulbellow120537.html

3. New Ways of Seeing, Tiffany & Co., New York Times, http://paidpost.nytimes.com/tiffany/new-ways-of-seeing.html

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Brainy Quote, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/p/paulklee388389.html

8. Jean-Francois Millet, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-artists/millet.htm

9. Brainy Quote, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/h/henrimatis124377.html

10. Henri Matisse, The Art Story, http://www.theartstory.org/artist-matisse-henri.htm

11. Art Quotes III,  http://www.notable-quotes.com/a/art_quotes_iii.html

12. Flam, Jack D., Matisse on Art, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1978, p. 40.

RESOURCES

Encyclopedia of Visual Artists, Jean Francois Millet, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-artists/millet.htm.

Khan Academy, Millet, The Gleaners, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/avant-garde-france/realism/a/manet-music-in-the-tuileries-gardens.