Two basic intuitions that frame the relation of art and illusion in this essay—a conviction that illusion is essential to art, but also that art is an essential resource of truth—present an apparent conflict that invites or requires resolution. Indeed, conflict and disagreement seem endemic to discussions of art. In philosophy, the question of the relation art and reality invariably begins with Plato's well-known critique of art as mimesis, as imitation, that makes the process of art a second order activity of copying, and thus an essential distraction from the more serious first order business of life and truth. It has always been a puzzle in philosophy what to do with Plato's disparaging remarks about art, not least of all because the whole of his work, as well as its elemental detail, is embedded in artistic techniques of dramatic dialogue, allegory, metaphor, and literary allusion. Is it merely ironic that a consummate artist such as Plato seems to undermine the credibility of his own work in this criticism, or is there something more to it—a paradox on which Plato exercises a larger point about life, truth, and art?
If we wish to account for the seriousness of the cultural activity of art in life, and abandon the limiting paradigm of mimesis to adopt the broader reach of art as experience and art as expression, a number of alternative approaches to the relation of art, truth, and reality suggest themselves. Plato aside, a crucial issue concerning art in relation to truth and reality—that is, that illusion is essential to art. It will be the recommendation of this essay to think of illusion as a particular strength of art, rather than a lack or shortcoming. It is a singular virtue of art to show truth in and through illusion by constructing a different modality for understanding the complex character of reality as it is disclosed in human experience. Philosophy since Aristotle has been concerned to defend art against charges of irrationality and irresponsibility in relation to fixing a coherent truth and stable reality. One counter might be, of course, that reality is not stable, and the coherence of truth is always a work in progress and "fixable" only on pain of diminishing both life and world. But beyond this, if we aspire to the whole truth—whatever that may be—we require an open aesthetics of experience to draw on all the modalities of our creative energy in the arts no less than the sciences. This seems to suggest that at least some aspects of truth are accessible through illusion—that illusion and reality in the end may not be definitive of difference.
Document Object Identifier (DOI)
Kimmel, L. (2005). Reality and Illusion in the Work of Art. Analecta Husserliana, 87, 11-25.