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Art and truth

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Some things are true within the world of a literary work. It is true, in the world evoked by Madame Bovary, that Emma Roualt married Charles Bovary. In this entry, however, we are not concerned with truth in fiction but rather with what it is for a work of art to be true of, or true to, the actual world. Representational works represent states of affairs, or objects portrayed in a certain way. The concept of truth naturally gets a grip here, because we can ask whether the represented state of affairs actually exists in the world, or whether a represented object exists and really is the way it is represented to be, or whether a representation of a kind of thing offers a genuinely representative example of that kind. If so, we could call the work true, or true in the given respect.

A work will often get us to respond to what is portrayed in a way similar to what our response would have been to the real thing – we are moved to fear and pity by objects we know are merely fictions. But a work could also portray characters responding in certain ways to the imaginary situations it conjures, often with the implication that the response is a likely human emotional or practical response to that situation, or a response to be expected of a character of the given type, and we could reasonably call the work true if we believed the portrayed reaction was a likely one.

Arguably, if we judge a work to be in some respect true to life, we must already have known that life was like that in order to make the judgment. But, interestingly, works of art appear to be able to portray situations that we have not experienced, in which the portrayal seems to warrant our saying that the work has shown (that is, taught) us a likely or plausible unfolding of the portrayed situation, or shown us what it would have been like to experience the situation. It is also said, especially of narrative fiction, that, because of its power to show us what various alternative imaginary situations would be like, it can enlighten us about how we ought to live.

So we may consider how a work of art might be a vehicle of truths about the actual world. This gives rise to a further question – sometimes called the problem of belief – of whether the value of a work of art as a piece of art is related to its truth. If a work implies or suggests that something is the case, ought I to value it more highly as art if I accept what it implies as the truth? Alternatively, should I take it as an aesthetic shortcoming if I do not?

Citing this article:
Taylor, Paul. Art and truth, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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