Heske ten Cate

I owe you the truth in painting, and I will give it to you.

30 april 2018

Fact 1: In the night of 24–25 January 2017, a bookseller at Amazon.com wrapped up the very last copy of George Orwell’s 1984. The paperbacks, hardcover copies, even the dusty second-hand copies, were completely sold out. An apologetic message was posted to the website.

Art, fashion, literature, make-up, music, and theatre appear to have dissolved into a thick, oppressive grey fog that has enveloped the world. ‘Drones’ hover in the air like futuristic items of jewellery, while large TV screens, framed as paintings, show images of Big Brother day and night, alternating with a constant stream of ‘news’. A totalitarian political party controls the human soul – and with it, the entire mechanism of love and hate. Life revolves around ‘news facts’. Or rather ‘alternative facts’ that turn out to pose such a threat to society that they are capable of dislocating an entire nation.

‘The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.’ Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, is tortured until he really believes that two plus two equals five: an example of a human being who trusts more to the story than the evidence of his own senses.

Orwell earned his living as a war correspondent and he was concerned about the way the truth was distorted in newspapers and magazines. That was why he wrote 1984 – though without ever thinking that it would end up serving as a manual for politicians.

Kellyanne Conway, acting in her capacity as Trump’s spokesperson, herself used the phrase ‘alternative facts’ when referring to the photo displayed by the press secretary the previous day as ‘evidence’ for the size of the crowd that had come to the National Mall to attend Trump’s inauguration. As the philosopher and journalist Rob Wijnberg observes:

Truth is a thing of the past. Plus – even more importantly perhaps – for political leaders, shame too is a thing of the past. Blatant lies and distortion have become the norm. Aided by the new media, which market politically motivated propaganda as news, the public is swamped with ‘alternative facts’ and ‘alternative realities.’[1]

Paintings, by definition, depict an alternative reality; no press officer would ever point to a framed painting as factual evidence to back up an assertion of truth. Everyone is fully aware that a painting has been made, and however realistically it may have been painted, it always represents the maker’s interpretation. But when the observable reality is under so much pressure, when a photo no longer provides any evidence for what actually took place – the sharper the pixels, the more suspect it is – art is the only thing in which we can trust unconditionally. Precisely because art does not claim to show the truth, and does not exclude other interpretations in advance.

That is what makes art the most truthful medium in our time.

Fact 2: Men tell lies, on average, three times as often as women. For this reason, this essay will refer to the art of painting, for the sake of convenience, as ‘she’.

On 23 October 1905, Paul Cézanne wrote, in a letter to his friend Emile Bernard:

… Now that I am an old man, about seventy, the sensations of colour which produce light give rise to abstractions that prevent me from covering my canvas, and from trying to define the outlines of objects when their points of contact are tenuous and delicate; with the result that my image or picture is incomplete. …

Such is life; at my age I should have more experience and make use of it for the good of all. I owe you the truth in painting, and I will give it to you.

Please give my regards to Madame Bernard; the children I am bound to be fond of, St Vincent de Paul being the one to whom I should most commend myself.

Your old

Paul Cézanne

A warm hand-clasp, and push ahead. The visual sense, as it develops in us by dint of study, teaches us to see.

Fact 3: ‘To owe’ can convey a liability, an obligation, or a debt of gratitude.

Precisely what Cézanne meant when he spoke of the truth of painting is unclear; he died shortly after writing this letter. My quest for the answer took me to the spartan studio of the painter Robert Zandvliet. The book that encompasses a large part of his oeuvre is entitled I owe you the truth in painting.

The intention of a master painter must be scrupulously honest as soon as his brush touches the canvas. As an artist you owe it most of all to yourself to be truthful. If you do not believe passionately in what you are making, it will not carry any conviction and therefore it will not produce a climate in which a truth can emerge. In painting, the truth can best be construed as truthfulness. A painter is a seeker after truthfulness. This implies a complex quest.

When this truthful process is carried through with the utmost seriousness, the result is a believable work of art. That is what makes it possible for a viewer to experience humility at the sight of Turner’s skies, or rage at the sight of Newman’s large colour blocks. … A good painting is timeless and retains its truthfulness regardless of the circumstances.

Robert Zandvliet chooses his words with care, then considers to determine whether they carry the right weight, refining them a little here and there. He is aware that his utterances are only interpretations rather than incontestable facts.

The more words we waste on fools and the deranged, the more legitimacy we accord them. It is said that language should be reserved for the best things in life. But the artist Melanie Bonajo objected, shortly after President Trump celebrated his victory, and immediately before ritualistically shaving her head as part of the massive women’s protest, that simply to ignore Trump’s blatant lies amounts to an acceptance of timid uniformity. It is the duty of the human being, the artist, the woman, to extravagate. That night she dyed my hair pink as a symbol of soft power – and I bought a new copy of 1984 on Amazon.

Fact 4: The Van Dale Dictionary of the Dutch language periodically omits words that have fallen into disuse and adds new coinages. In 2016 it deleted the word Avondkout (‘evening chat’: a relaxed, informal conversation in the evening) and added Heppiedepeppie (‘happy peppy’).

Fact 5: If we keep saying and writing the word extravageren (‘extravagate’) – a word that does not yet exist in Dutch – it will eventually make its way into the dictionary.

‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words’. Men and women dressed in identical overalls sit with Winston Smith at a large table in the canteen, tucking into plates of fake meat (which tastes ‘doubleplusgood’). A sweaty, corpulent young man announces jubilantly that the dictionary has been slimmed down yet again. In 1984 citizens exchange superficial inanities in Newspeak, a highly condensed form of language in which any words that might reflect adversely on the regime have been erased or given new meanings. This makes it impossible to express ‘incorrect opinions’. The most common adjective is ‘doubleplusgood’. Once again, Orwell was uncannily prescient: today’s social media are all hearts and thumbs-up.

Fact 6: When words lose their meaning and people do not have sufficient words at their disposal to express their thoughts, they are no longer able to think these thoughts.

Fact 7: A sommelier tastes twice as much, on average, as someone who is not a sommelier. He possesses an extraordinarily rich vocabulary in which to express a specific taste in language. Research has shown that taste buds develop greater refinement when a person is linguistically well endowed.

Fact 8: Khmer, a language that is primarily spoken in Cambodia, has words for the colours black, white, red, green, yellow, and blue, but not for orange or pink.

What does the Cambodian see when a monk puts on his habit? And will the spectrum of colours in our rainbow actually expand if we think of more words to express nuances of colour?

I have weighed my words very carefully in these reflections on the art of painting: I exercise great caution in pronouncing her dead or alive. Actually, I shall not venture to make any such pronouncement, since so many before me have already written words that place her six feet under, and she has been compelled to fight time and again to demonstrate her relevance.

I shall not wonder at the phoenix that she is, constantly rising from her ashes.

I take the view – and this is not based on fact – that she does not rise from her ashes because she has died, but that she is subject to permanent metamorphosis, since all progress is painful and characterised by a continuous process of disintegration. To go forward we have to shed feathers and blunt beaks, brood eggs and swallow ash. Extravagate and keep looking for words – even if they do not yet exist – to express her.

Amid the silver tubes of paint and the smell of oil and turpentine, Robert Zandvliet says: ‘Painting – no, any form of art – is of immeasurable importance as long as it is generally assumed that there is a single absolute truth and as long as religions, or other philosophies, are defended as irrefutable fact. Within Western societies, speculative reality is tolerated only within the domain of art: and that is why art, for the time being, is still radically alive.’

Note: No sources are quoted for the facts enumerated here – please believe that they are true.


[1] Rob Wijnberg in de Correspondent: https://decorrespondent.nl/6622/waarom-feiten-niet-het-antwoord-zijn-op-… [transl. BJ]



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