Truth, Reality, and Literalism
At first glance it would seem that these three words are all a reflection of the same thing. The dictionary defines truth as “Conformity to fact or reality; a verified or accepted fact; that which is true or actual.” Reality is defined as, “Having actual existence, or actually occurred; that which is real as opposed to that which is imagined or merely apparent.” For literal it says, “Not figurative or metaphorical; following the letter or the exact words; to interpret statements factually or unimaginatively.” Now just to muddy the waters further I’m going to throw two more words into the mix, actual and comprehend. Actual is defined as, “Existing truly or objectively; real; now existing.” Finally, for comprehend the dictionary states, “To take into the mind; to grasp by the understanding; to understand; to embrace.” I obsess over these words. Well, I obsess over a lot of things because of my mental illness and because that’s a big part of my nature, these words are just an extra bonus.
How do I understand and use these words and thoughts to better understand the world around me, to better understand myself? As I read and study about creativity and mental illness I am intrigued by how often a mentally ill person has a better grasp of reality than “normal” people. I guess that is probably due to the fact that those with mental illness view reality different from most people and from how the dictionary defines it. I know that this is true for me. Also, my views have been shaped by my personal studies of religion, theology, spirituality, psychology, history, and mythology over the last 40 years. Throw in some art, music, literature, and politics to add some seasoning to the mix along with knowing that embracing conventional thought has never been that important to me.
Does being literal about something help me to understand its true meaning? Does literally depicting something make it accurate or even right? Does accepting something literally make it actually true and rightly objective? Does mythology, which tries understanding truth that is beyond comprehension, uncover more real truth where literalism may hide it under layers of misunderstanding? It is almost like an oxymoron; sometimes truth and reality have to be distorted in order to begin to grasp their real meaning.
My underlying rant here is that I am not very fond of fundamentalists or literalists of any tradition or religion. Life is not “one size fits all.” I know that from personal experience because I have never really fit in anywhere and at my age I don’t really care. I don’t need to belong to the right group or to have all the right answers to feel good about myself. There is more than one right answer no matter what any politician or religious leader might say. Meaning goes beyond mere words. To get to the real meaning I may not only have to read between the lines but to also understand what they meant to the person who wrote them down and why they were important. How I understand something is not the only way to see or understand it. Doing all of this is not very efficient, it may not even be logical but then those are two qualities that I have never been known for possessing.
How does distorting what is literally true and accurate help to convey the real truth and meaning? When I taught drawing I would tell students that sometime being technically accurate would make a drawing or painting “look” wrong. I offered 2 examples that I learned in art history classes. The first was about the British Museum, which had acquired some statues from the frieze of an ancient Greek temple. The curators were surprised at how distorted these pieces look since the Greeks were well know for their accuracy and skill. Eventually one of the curators suggested that the carvings be hoisted up to the same height as the temple frieze. When this was done the statues were all back in proportion and looked correct. These Greek sculptors knew they had to alter the reality in order to make everything look right from the ground because of the distortion linear perspective would cause at that height.
The other example is the statue, The Pieta, by Michelangelo. The physical proportions are distorted on purpose because of the “reality” the artist was trying to show. The figure of Jesus is carved life sized but if Mary were to stand up she would be over 7 feet tall. This was done not only to make the final piece look right but to also depict another truth. The Pieta is not about Jesus or his being removed from the cross. It is a story about a mother. It is the story of her grief and heartache she has as she holds her dead child in her arms. A child who now looks so small and frail.
As artists we have all learned that being technically accurate or literal doesn’t always make something look correct and is not always a good thing. We have learned that there is more than one right way to tell the same truth. We have also learned that sometimes what you leave out is just as important, sometimes even more important, than what you put in. And in my case that having a mentally ill mind gives me a healthier sense of reality.
These paintings depict some of my reality. The first is titled, “At the Water’s Edge” it measures 22” x 34” and is oil pastel over oil on paper. The next is from a series I am doing based on the nudist lifestyle. It is titled, “Come On In”. It measures 30” X 40” and is oil pastel over oil on hardboard panel. The final piece is based on one of my favorite species of bushes. It is titled, “The Burning Bush”. It measures 22” X 22” and is oil on paper mounted to hardboard panel.