Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Lying Game

by Drew Martin
About fifteen years ago I went to a pow-wow of the Ramapough Mountain native Americans of the region that is now northern New Jersey. A speaker of the tribe complained about how people use the word believe in place of think, know or understand. He explained that to believe something is to have a belief in something divine or supernatural. A couple months ago I saw a comment online about Lance Armstrong, which read, I do not believe Armstrong but I believe in him. At first I understood this as, sure he doped, but I still believe in him as a man who overcame impossible challenges. But now, considering the tribesman’s comment, the word should not be split in such away.  You can know he is lying or think he is telling the truth but to believe him is to believe in him.

I am writing this while watching the first of the two-night broadcasts of the interview of Armstrong by Oprah Winfrey on He admits to doping. Everyone doped in that period of professional cycling, and everyone repeatedly lied about it. What interests me is that people want to believe in sports as a field where hard work and dedication alone win titles. That is a nice idea but professional athletes are essentially entertainers and they do whatever it takes to keep their edge.

What I find remarkable is our level of acceptance of lies across the arts and entertainment industry. Authors dedicate their lives to lying in fiction, and might even write under a pen name to hide his or her identity.  The Winfrey-related controversy of A Million Little Pieces, was a situation when the author, James Frey, was lambasted for successfully passing off this book as a memoir after shopping it around as a novel that none of the publishing companies wanted. Random House published it when they thought it was real, after turning it down as a work of fiction.
Movies are a lot like literature. They are typically reel to reel fiction. I just rewatched Good Will Hunting the other night, which received an Academy Award for best screenplay. Matt Damon cowrote it and played the main character; an orphan from the wrong side of Boston who works manual jobs but is a mathematical genius, far from the actual truth on both accounts. So why is an open lie like this applauded? It is that a closed lie makes us feel duped, while an open lie permits us to feel like we are in on it?

In music, the rock world is ripe with stylized personalities like Bjork, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Prince, and David Bowie (and his Ziggy Stardust). These are performers and when they are not performing there is an assumption that they have a certain lifestyle but are not expected to live a life as if it is a musical. Their fiction is regulated in song and video.

The artworld is probably the most interesting case of lying because its audience wants the artist to live by the myth. There is no director calling Cut! or end of the concert, or Terry Gross Fresh Air interview about how he or she got inside the head of the character. Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol are probably the two most saturated in this way. Dalí was so consumed by his artist nature that he considered artists who used drugs for creativity as cheats.

Pablo Picasso said that art is a lie that makes us realize the truth. And Francis Bacon said that the job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery. He also said that art is the lie that returns us to life more violenty. These artists believed in the lying of art. This is quite different now. There are artists who are showman, such as Damien Hirst, who produce their work not from their heart but to simply bring a product to market, or like Maurizio Cattelan who see art as some extended Duchampian joke. There are also a handful of artists like Banksy who have completely turned themselves into a character, which he extended into the farcical artist Thierry Guetta in Exit Through The Giftshop.
A couple who are both in the arts, sent me this TED Talk link to Shea Hembrey: How I Became 100 Artists. Hembrey is a contemporary artist who grew up in rural Arkansas, and had never stepped foot into an art museum until he was in his 20s. But his imagination flourished and served him well when he decided to not only create his own biennale, but to dream up the 100 participatory artists and to create their work. For example, the artist collective, The Sober Dobermans, did a piece to comment on how we are over-cottled in today's society, so they affixed thousands of little "Warning: SHARP" notices to the barbs of an extensive barbwire fence.

Hembrey's open-lie art projects are fun and witty, but having done similar projects, I would have to say they are not soul-fulfilling because they are not real. At least, they do not feel real and there is that gnawing feeling of lying in some regard.
The lie that Picasso and Bacon spoke about is very different. It is not about a quick hoax but about the fundamentals of what we understand about art.