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Artistic Convention and the Issue of Truth in Art Author(s): Ernest C. Marshall Source: Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 69-76 Published by: University of Illinois Press

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Artistic Convention and the Issue of Truth in Art

ERNEST

C.

MARSHALL

This article addresses the issue of truth in the arts, i.e., whether, and in what sense, works of art, or certain works of art, can be said to express something either true or false. What I offer here is a partial defense of the view that at least some works of art are (or contain, convey, etc., something which is) either true or false, or what I shall simply call the "truth-in-art view." I

speak of a partial defense as being offered because due to the scope of the

topic I confine my discussion to criticism of part of a common argument

against the truth-in-art view. This argument runs something as follows:

Something can be said to be either true or false only if it can be said to have meaning and, more specifically, meaning that is referential in kind rather

than, for example, emotive. Something can be said to have such meaning only if conventions obtain that give it a fairly definite reference. No such conventions obtain for works of art. Therefore, works of art cannot be said to be either true or false.1 The portion of this argument I shall criticize in what follows is its third

premise: that works of art are not governed by conventions (of the requisite

kind).2 I shall argue that conventions do obtain in art such that at lest some works of art refer to things in the world in ways quite analogous to the

ways in which many sentences do. If this can be shown, I believe that the

main obstacle to a truth-in-art view is removed (although the space of this article does not allow me to complete such an argument, nor to address such related issues as that of the aesthetic value of truth in art). My discus- sion will be confined to a consideration of painting. Also, my consideration

of genres, styles, movements, and so forth, in painting is not intended to be completely comprehensive. I believe it to be sufficient for a truth-in-art view that is both controversial and nontrivial to maintain that some, and not nec- essarily all, works of art are either true or false.

Ernest C. Marshallis an associate

professor

in the

Philosophy Department,

in

Selected Proceedingsof

East

the

Carolina University. His most recentwork

has appeared

and

First International Conference on Argumentation Newsletter on Philosophy and Medicine.

American Philosophical

Association

Journal

of

Aesthetic

Education, Vol. 23,

No.

3, Fall 1989

?1989 Boardof Trusteesof

the University of Illinois

  • 70 Ernest C. Marshall

Let me begin with a point that several critics of the truth-in-art view

seem to think decisive,3 viz., that even the most realistic (naturalistic) of

paintings, however much they resemble what they depict (a human figure,

arrangements of objects, natural landscape, etc.), do not by that resem-

blance alone represent, refer to, or "mean" something in the world. With

this I quite agree. The point here can perhaps be brought out in the follow-

ing way. Walking on the beach I come across a piece of driftwood the shape

of which happens to resemble closely that of a bird. However uncanny the

degree of likeness, the piece of driftwood cannot properly be said to repre-

sent or refer to a bird (it is "like a bird" but not "of a bird"). Something else

is required, and this is essentially the convention of "reading" resemblance

as representation that obtains in the Western pictorial tradition of art but

not with respect to driftwood and other natural or nonartifactual objects.4

(One ready indication of the difference between resemblance and represen-

tation is that the former relation is symmetrical and the latter asymmetrical.

A realistic painting of a bird resembles a bird, and a bird in turn resembles

it; but the bird does not represent the painting, as the painting does the

bird.)

Thus the convention of "viewing painting as a representation of ..

." is

necessary to its referring function. Generally speaking, and at least for those

genres and styles of painting that are representational, as (perhaps) op-

posed to, for example, styles that are purely formalistic or abstractly expres-

sive, these three points seem to obtain. First of all, there is both some degree

of resemblance between the painting and some object (scene, event, etc.)

and some convention or conventions concerning how we are to view the

painting. Secondly, both the resemblance and the conventions are necessary

for the painting to be a representation of some object. And thirdly, there is a

mutual relationship here between the resemblance and the conventions

such that one must not only complement the other but compensate for a

relative lack of the other. Accordingly, the more realistic the painting is (i.e.,

the greater the degree of resemblance between it and what it represents),

the less is required in the way of accompanying conventions (the single

general convention of viewing-as-a-representation-of perhaps being suffi-

cient); and, on the other hand, the less realistic the painting is, the more that

is needed of accompanying conventions. (This relation is analogous to an

inverse proportion, e.g., that between the pressure and volume of a gas,

though I do not pretend that it can be stated with the precision of

an al-

gebraic formula.) As an illustration of the former, where the degree of

resemblance between the painting and what it represents is high, some-

thing like seventeenth-century Dutch still life painting comes to mind. But

an example which makes the point in an even more telling way (than does

naturalism or realism) might be the Surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali.

Because these paintings are usually so realistically rendered in several cru-

Conventionand Truth in Art 71

cial respects (visual accuracy of the draftmanship, local color, carefully

delineated linear and aerial perspective, etc.), one normally finds it almost

impossible not to view them as representations of objects and scenes in the

world,

despite the fact that they do not depict the world

at all as it is. This

of course has much to do with their rather paradoxical and unsettling effect

(and also with the theories that lie in the background of Surrealism).5 The

case of painting (or sculpture), where the degree of resemblance is low yet

the work refers to something in the world, is illustrated in a number of

ways by much art in our century; but consider, for example, Picasso's Bull's

Head (fashioned from a bicycle seat and handlebars) or Robert Mallary's In

Flight (a painted and mounted piece of driftwood). Here the resemblance

between the works and the head of

a bull and a bird, airplane,

or other

flying object is somewhat remote, the latter being more so (and its title ap-

propriately being less specifically descriptive). Here the convention of giv-

ing a descriptive

title

to the work,

for example,

so

supplements

the more

as

to make

the repre-

in painting as they

general convention

sentation successful.

of being-a-representation-of

Thus far it might seem that the role of conventions

pertain to their capacity to refer to things in the world is rather "thin." I

should like to "thicken" it up some, so to speak, by discussing some further

conventional elements of artistic representation. Many of these conventions

are easily overlooked because of the nature of a convention as something

we habitually apply without normally being conscious of the convention as

such (thus perhaps regarding certain conventional features of painting as

naturally resembling features of the world), and because of the mutual rela-

tionship between conventional and natural (e.g., resemblance) elements in

painting discussed above (and about which I shall say more presently).

Thus I propose the following criteria for identifying where conventions are

at work, and to facilitate my statement of these criteria, I shall use the term

"symbol" for anything (be it word, visual configuration, etc.) that refers to

(is of, represents) something else: (1) the indeterminacy criterion: one does

not spontaneously or "naturally" recognize what the symbol represents;

and (2) the substitutability criterion: some different symbol or symbols

might also serve to represent the thing in question. Thus, for example, for

most of the words in the English language their meaning is strongly, if not

also entirely, conventional, since one cannot identify their referent merely

from being acquainted with the word

(i.e., without

also having learned

their conventional

meaning) and since some different word would

do

as

well to refer to the same thing as long as the convention designates the

same referent (as in the case of English synonyms and words in other lan-

guages with the same referent).

Let us apply these criteria to painting, beginning with the first, the in-

determinacy criterion. Anthropologists have discovered that people of non-

  • 72 Ernest C. Marshall

Western aborigine cultures frequently cannot recognize objects, including

themselves,

in photographs.

There are several reasons

for this.

For one

thing, to see a two-dimensional image as a representation of three-dimen-

sional objects in space, one must actually focus one's eyes at a point behind

the image (photograph, painting, etc.). This we do not normally do in ex-

amining some object; it is a way

of seeing that must be learned for two-

dimensional representations. Also, the convention according to which

images function as representations of other things is of course common to

the whole pictorial tradition of Western art, but is lacking in many other

cultures. As E. H. Gombrich and others have pointed out,6 in some cultures

the image (picture, figurine, etc.) has apparently been identified with the

thing itself or functions as a substitute for it, which is different from being a

representation of it. For example, the cave paintings of Paleolithic times to

be found in northern Spain and southern France were apparently created to

give the tribe success in the hunt; possessing a "bison image," for instance,

was thought to give the possessor power over the animal's fate. Similar ex-

planations appear to apply to ancient Egyptian tomb murals, African tribal

masks, and so forth. Thus within these cultural traditions (or within their

set of conventions) the image is not understood as a representation of

something else.

With regard to the second of the above criteria for determining when

conventions

are at work, viz., the substitutability criterion, a crosscultural

consideration of painting shows that a variety of different types of repre-

sentation can serve equally well to represent their subject accurately. Or

said in different terms, a variety of different styles are regarded as being

equally "realistic." I am referring not just to movement and period styles,

but to more pervasive features of artistic representation. For example,

perspective drawing and painting looks "correct" to us (we who have in-

herited this tradition), i.e., as the correct way to picture things as they are

actually seen, and its achievement in Renaissance art is thus likely to be

considered to be a purely technical accomplishment. Yet a genuine illusion

is created only for a viewer placed at a certain point in space in front of the

canvas (and who is seeing with one eye closed). Because of this, most such

paintings are not rendered altogether accurately in terms of their perspec-

tive, to avoid the distortion that occurs for the viewer not occupying the

"correct" point in space before the painting. Other pictorial means of spatial

representation are to be found in other artistic traditions, and I believe it is

only out of cultural bias or habit that we tend to regard them as less artistic.

Rudolf Arnheim makes this point with the following imagined dialogue be-

tween someone from the Western Renaissance tradition and another from

the ancient Egyptian concerning a perspective drawing of a rectangular

pond surrounded by trees:

Convention and Truth in Art

73

The

"This

Egyptian

picture

might

is all

It is

criticize the

perspective drawing

as follows:

wrong and very confusing! The shape of the pond

an

irregular

quadrilateral rather than a square. In

the

pond

symmetrically

equal

and meet the

picture

the

they

are all of

size. In the

water, some outside. Some meet

is distorted.

reality the trees surround

ground

some

at a

right angle.

are in

Also,

the

of the trees

ground

perpendicularly,

others obliquely; and some of them are taller

Egyptian's

own

pond

lying

to

see

than others."

was

flat on

If the Western retorted that the

as

the

an airplane

Egyptian

acceptable only

the

ground,

view and that all trees were

would find this impossible

and hard to understand.

The above argument, I believe, makes the case for the importance of con-

ventions to representation in art. Yet several things should be noted about

the differences between artistic and linguistic conventions, differences

which tend to obscure the fact that there are artistic conventions for repre-

sentation and that they function so as to refer to things in the world much

as

do

words

and

propositional

sentences. There is, for example, the

following.

To know what a word refers to or denotes,

we must know the

convention governing the use of that particular word. If that particular

word happens

to be absent from

my vocabulary, I cannot recognize its

referent. To take a simple example, knowing the referent of the word "cat"

is no help at all in recognizing the referent for the word "dog." On the other

hand, if I can recognize a representation of a cat (done in a certain artistic

style), my understanding of the conventions involved are sufficient to

enable me to recognize (in the same style) a representation of a dog. There

are conventions I must understand in order to recognize the referents of

painted shapes on canvas (such as the convention of representing the con-

tour of three-dimensional volumes by a line enclosing a colored area on the

painting surface), but these conventions carry over, so to speak, from one

representation to another and do not have to be learned anew for each.

I do not have the space here to extend my claim regarding conventions

and references in art as I would like. I would like, for example, to thicken

my thesis, so to speak, by pointing out with respect to different genres in

painting how representational works cannot merely refer to things in the

world, but also describe a scene, report an event, tell an anecdote, present

social criticism or satire or political propaganda, narrate a story, and so

forth. (Commemorative painting such as Gros's Napolean at Eylau, the social

satire of Hogarth or Daumier, the revolutionary, and later reactionary,

propaganda of David.) But before concluding this section I feel it is almost

imperative that to say at least something about certain nonrepresentational

trends in recent art. I confine my points here to only two.

First of all, despite the large influence of formalist theories in contem-

porary art and aesthetics (stemming from Bell, Fry, Hanslick, and others)

  • 74 Ernest C. Marshall

and the disclaimers by artists that it has encouraged, much so-called ab-

stract or nonfigurative

art is representational to a significant degree. The

resemblances between painted image and things in the world is often only

indirect or attenuated (as where the subject is simplified or "abstracted" or

visually distorted). Accordingly, the abstract painter Piet Mondrian has said

of his work:

Impressed by

sion, rest,

visible

the vastness of nature, I was

At the same

time

trying to express

I was

fully

its expan-

and unity.

aware that the

limitation; vertical

forces; these

reciprocal action

expansion

of nature is at the same time its

expression

of two

everything;

and horizontal lines are the

exist

everywhere

constitutes "life."8

opposing

their

and dominate

The abstract sculptor Constantine Brancusi similarly says: "They are imbe-

ciles who call my work abstract; that which they call abstract is the most

realist, because what is real is not the exterior form but the idea, the essence

of things."9

It is useful to remind ourselves here of my point early in this article that

representation is distinct from resemblance. (Some degree of resemblance is

a necessary condition for representation, but representation does not rely

completely upon it.) Thus "abstract art" is by no means synonymous with

"nonrepresentational art."

My second point concerning so-called nonrepresentational contem-

porary art is this. Even where no resemblance between painted image and

object is intended or discernible to the viewer, given the force of the conven-

tion of representation in art the work functions against the background, so

to speak, of this convention. Thus the avant-garde artist may deliberately

disappoint the customary expectation that the work be a representation of

something. There are several ways in which this is done, but the more inter-

esting case is the one where

the artist does so not by creating a work that

resembles nothing in the world, but where he or she presents us with an ob-

ject or objects from the world rather than its representation, as for example

in the case of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain or Robert Rauschenberg's

Monogram. The effect of novelty, surprise, and puzzlement produced by

such works relies upon the convention of representation being the prev-

alent convention. (The effect produced and how it relies upon the conven-

tions it violates runs parallel to the use of words to produce irony, paradox,

or sarcasm.) The art critic Clement Greenberg makes this point in an inter-

esting way. He says in effect that as avant-garde art becomes the prevalent

art it loses its effectiveness: "Where everything is advanced nothing is;

when everybody is a revolutionary the revolution is over."10 In other

words, and as it pertains to what I am maintaining, the more common such

avant-garde art becomes, the more it will undermine the traditional conven-

Convention and Truth in Art 75

tions of representation and thus the less effective it will be because of its de-

pendence on those conventions.

There is a general conclusion I wish to draw from my above discussion

of conventions as these pertain to artistic representation; it is the following.

At least some works of art refer to things in the world

by means of both

natural resemblance and conventional usage. In other words, at least some

works of art are in part natural symbol and in part conventional symbol,

and in such a way that each of these elements supplements and supports

the other to produce the reference-making function of the work. This I

believe to be a fruitful approach to the analysis of questions pertaining to

the issue of truth in the arts as it carries over to the arts other than painting,

which I regret lacking the space to develop here (e.g., how the interplay be-

tween the conventional meaning of words and the resemblance between the

referent according to that meaning and the intended figurative referent

produces the figurative reference in various uses of figurative language in

literature, such as metaphor and simile). But within the scope of this article

I hope that I have done at least this much: to show that various conventions

are present in at least some art that contribute to identifying the referent or

referents of the work and in conjunction with resemblance between features

of the work and referent are often sufficient to identifying the referent, and

thus that at least one of the common arguments against the truth-in-art

view is inadequate.

NOTES

1.

2.

3.

4.

Among

Artistic

those who

argue

in this or a similar way are Kingsley Pricein "IsThere

Philosophy 46

(1949); John Hospers,

in Meaning and

1946),chap. 5;

of North CarolinaPress,

Truth?" Journal of

Truthin theArts

(Chapel Hill: University

Scienceand

and I. A. Richards, in

Co., 1926).

Poetry(London: K. Paul, Trench,Trubner, and

(except

in life

the use of

(sonata,

There are various conventionsin art that I am not concernedwith here

insofar as

they might

be utilized for

representation of things

in

painting (e.g.,

and nature), such

as various

purposes

of

compositional schemes

pyramidalcomposition

fugue, etc.),

and verse

in much Renaissance painting), musical forms

patterns in poetry (sonnet,villanelle, blank verse, etc.).

For example, Pricein "IsThere Artistic Truth?" seems to think so.

The distinctiondrawn here raises

art" into which I will

not venture,

various questions

except

to

say

ferencebetween a piece of driftwood I find and

which is also

displayed

I refer to later is not

regarding so-called "found

that there is a

only

significant

dif-

pause to admire and one

piece by Robert Mallary

the art world,

but

as a work of art. The driftwood

only placed

in the institutionalcontext of

is mounted, painted, and, perhaps most significantly, given a title that is

referentiallydescriptive.
5.

See, for example,

realist

Hill, 1971),pp.
6.

AndreBreton's "First Surrealist Manifesto" and "SecondSur-

Manifesto,"in Surrealism,ed. Patrick Waldberg (New York:McGraw-

66-80.

H. Gombrich'sMeditations on a Hobby Horse (London:

See, for example, E.

  • 76 Ernest C. Marshall

Phaidon, 1963), chap.

see Gombrich's

Art

1. In connection with

this point

and

points

and Illusion, 2d ed. (New

York: Pantheon,

to follow, also 1961); Rudolf

Arnheim's Art and Visual

Perception (Berkeley: University of California Press,

Principlesof

96.

Art

History (New York: Dover, 1950).

1954); and Heinrich W61fflin's

  • 7. Arnheim, Art and Visual

 

Perception,p.

Valentine

Gallery, New York).

 

quoted

Clement

Greenberg, "Avant-garde

delivered at the

University

of

Contemporary Art,

 
  • 8. Piet Mondrian, "Toward the True

Vision of Reality" (Pamphlet published by the

  • B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art
    365.

  • 9. Constantin Brancusi, as

10.

in Herschel

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p.

Attitudes: New Art in the Sixties" (Lecture

Sydney, Australia, 1968), reprinted in Concerning

ed. Bernard Smith (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975).