Art: What's Truth, Beauty and Goodness Got to Do with It?

Revised May 20, 2002

If there is anything that artists, art theorists and art critics agree on, it's probably that making art is a truth-based activity. The stopper is the question "What is truth?"

One universally tenable answer is: "the fact of the immediate experience". Purely subjective, but the only truth to which we have direct access. Starting with that, we spin stories to explain it, to give it significance and meaning. Great many stories, some more creative than others, fit the facts of experience. Of course, none of them are the Truth. Yet there is a criterion for preferring one story over another: the quality of life we experience when we accept the story as true for all practical purposes.

In "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" Pirsig defined quality as "just what you like". The bottom line: "Do I like my life?" Answering "yes" (honestly) lends my story authority though it does not make it the truth.

Nothing, not even art can show the naked truth of experience. Art, too, can only tell a story about it. Even the act of presenting raw experience as art supplies context and interpretation by both the presenter and the viewer.

The story that art tells can be judged by the same criteria as any other stories we tell ourselves. What distinguishes the art stories from others is the degree of craftsmanship and imagination with which they are wrought. Good art is characterized by the effectiveness and efficiency with which it tells its story.

The truth of our immediate experience ranges from ecstatic to horrific. Pain is as unavoidable as pleasure. Yet our stories can put a positive or negative spin on the same truth of experience to make it a source of wonder and appreciation, or of horror and despair, or anything in between. Romantic idealists identified truth with beauty and beauty with goodness. Many modernists and post-modernists favored a view shaped by agnostic indeterminacy or disillusioned pessimism. But, of course, no one's stories are truer than anyone else's.

In the end, art seems to be a byproduct of our search, whether successful or futile, for truth, beauty and goodness in our experience of life. As such, it can illustrate our heart's desire, celebrate the quality of our life or express our disappointment in it.

Paul Wyszkowski