Thursday, August 17, 2017

Why Is Art Lying?

When we were little artworks taught us lessons about the world that turned out to be lies as we grew older. Every one of us has faced such disappointments in life. Every one of us knows how they hurt. So why do we keep passing these lies on to younger generations?

We keep passing on stories about great heroes from generation to generation. - Why?

Last week I had a discussion with a colleague who said she was disappointed in men. She is not the first woman I heard saying this. And definitely not the last. Moreover, I was disappointed in men too, and I've come across quite a few men who said they were disappointed in women. It seems that from a certain age on most of us are disappointed, be it in love or another area of life.

The culprit here is not other people or this oh-so-cruel world but rather our own expectations. Expectations shaped by the first years of our life. Expectations to some extent shaped by the stories, myths and motifs we were exposed to as children.

Sooner or later, however, we get a taste of the real world. We learn that all those stories about great heroes slaying dragons, true love and the good always defeating evil are lies. This realization is often traumatizing. So why do we keep telling those lies from generation to generation?

Educating Social Norms

The explanation that seems most plausible to me is that societies need to establish certain ideals. As I wrote in a post about art and propaganda, every society is built upon a certain ideology:
"Every society has its core values, and those values are strongly linked to the history of that society. If people don't believe in the system they are part of it simply won't work."
These core values are taught to the youngest members of every society, so they absorb its mentality and can function properly within that society. People who don't act according to the core values of the society they interact with are usually perceived as antisocial. And art and stories are a core element of moral education, i.e. of making people "social".

Dealing With the Trauma of Growing Up

Over the course of human history this method has proved extremely successful. Yet it also has the aforementioned downside: It teaches the youngest members of a society about what the world should be like, not what it actually is like. The personal tragedies resulting from this are none of the society's concern: It's all about the totality of its members, not the suffering individuals.

When we grow older and get disappointed by reality our artistic preferences may shift. Personally I can think of three directions:
  1. Enjoying art focussing on what is perceived as "realistic". Art that abandons idealism and tries to depict the world as it is. We try to finally understand the world we live in and seek to find solutions for how to deal with our real life problems. 
  2. Escapism, holding on to ideals, fleeing into another world where great heroes are still slaying dragons, where there is true love and where good always defeats evil. Taking a well-deserved break from the real world we don't know how to deal with.
  3.  All possible mixtures of the two. A story starting as a fairytale where everyone is happy and then turning into a horror scenario where everyone gets slapped by reality. Or a story that starts out realistic with all its shades of grey but then turns into a fairytale in the end. Or it may start out as a fairytale, turn realistic in the middle and then turn into a fairytale again. Or it may start out realistic, tease the audience with fairytale elements in the middle and then return to reality ... The possibilities are endless.

Truth or Lie?

Some would say focussing on reality is more mature than escapism. What many people call reality, however, is rather bitter: Only because there are no heroes slaying dragons in the real world, it doesn't mean there are no heroes at all. And real heroes do inspire us, even if we're grown up.

Real life heroes are not perfect, one might argue. Who knows what a person who does great things for humanity really is like? We do create myths around real life heroes as well. We assume they're as great as we want them to be and by doing so we keep lying to ourselves.

In my experience, people obsessed over how cruel reality is are extremely unhappy. For reality just is, and perceiving it as cruel is just as subjective as seeing it through the rose-coloured glasses of fairytales. It's the exact same kind of lie, one created out of fear of further disappointments.

Every story is a lie. Every artwork is an illusion. Even if it is targeted at a grown-up audience. And we enjoy all kinds of such illusions: We need realistic artworks, we need escapism and we need mixtures of the two.

Preserving Humanity

I believe that we are lied to, we lie to ourselves and we lie to our children simply because we want to be inspired to live on. No person in the world has asked to be born into this world where there isn't always a happy ending waiting for you. However, in order to survive as a species we need to believe that living in this world is worth it, even when it isn't.

So when you think about it, artists, people who create imaginary worlds, are essential for keeping real life intact. So maybe we deserve a greater and more stable income? ;)

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