One of the powers of art is the power to move people, and that’s a good thing. Photographs mesmerize, paintings captivate, songs beguile, and stories enchant. I sincerely hope that everyone reading this post has, at one time or another, been moved, challenged, or otherwise responded to a work of art in a way that has stayed with them over time and added to their life in a meaningful way.
Sometimes, being moved by a work of art crosses the line from the ordinary to the transcendent. I hope it’s not a stretch to say that art can make you rethink your assumptions, question your beliefs, or look at the world in a different way. Sometimes, it can make you look at yourself in a different way. Experiencing art in this way can be challenging, even difficult.
At such times, it’s worth remembering that all art is illusion. A well-crafted work of art can make you think that it is the truth of what it represents. It is not. For every photograph, painting, song, or story, there was a man or woman who made choices about how to use a camera, or place paint on a canvas, or about how notes would fit together on a score or how words would follow one another across a page, all with the goal of creating a specific illusion that he or she wanted you to see. It is commonly suggested that art reveals truth about the real world, and that may be true, but if so, it is a specific, contextualized truth about the real world, not the reality of it. A work of art may be relevant to reality, but is not itself reality.
As a simple example of the foregoing, I share the image in this post, “Wellington G. Webb Building No. 1.” It is a quintessential illusion. This building and this sky did not look this way on the day I captured this photograph. They have never looked this way, and they never will. The image was made this way because the photograph was a long exposure – the shutter of the camera was open for a period of several minutes, as compared to a fraction of a second for more conventional, everyday photography. What I observed with my eye – the reality of the scene – was low, fast-moving clouds hurrying across the sky on a gray, November day. What the camera recorded – the illusion – was the streaks made by the clouds as they moved across the camera’s sensor over the duration of the exposure. Does it present a truth about this subject? Perhaps. But it does not present the reality of it.