Art is Deception

Ever since they were discovered, the cave paintings that were drawn by some anonymous human beings, primarily in Europe, have been extolled by many people as astonishing and exquisite masterpieces. There are several reasons for this enthusiastic reaction to these paintings. First, their age, since some of them have been dated as old as 30,000-40,000 years ago; second, their rarity; third, their well-preserved condition; fourth, because these individuals were doing something, namely, creating art, that we modern humans consider as one of humanity’s defining characteristics, which discovery made many people feel a kinship or connection with these human ancestors that they hadn’t felt previously; and fifth, because these paintings changed our perception of the peoples living during those distant times.

I, however, find it amusing to see how some writers and art critics compete with each other to bestow the most superlative adjectives in their descriptions of what are in reality nothing more than feeble imitations of the animals they represent. This display of exaggerated appreciation resembles the overly enthusiastic descriptions of doting parents about the drawings and other artworks made by their beloved children. In a similar manner, these unknown, infantile artists have been embraced by much of humanity as our collective, creative, artistic progenitors, who first ventured on the long path of humanity copying, and later, as many of us mistakenly believe, superseding Nature.

I suspect that the primitive artists who made these paintings were aware that their creations were only feeble imitations of the real thing, which they valued far more than their primitive representational efforts – since they could eat the animals and make clothes from their skins, but they could not eat or be clothed by their paintings – unlike us moderns, who have precisely the opposite opinion about their relative values. In the beginning, art first attempted to copy Nature, and this was the beginning of humanity’s fall into its present depraved and unnatural state of separation from Nature; for gradually, as our skill at copying Nature improved, we humans began to believe that the things we had created were superior to the real thing. We have been deceived by our magical ability to create into preferring the false over the true, the dead over the living, the copy over the original. It is in this sense that I mean that all art is deception, for all art, in which term I include all the multitudinous products of human technology, gives the semblance of life to something that is dead, and therefore never was – and, moreover, never will be – alive.

A very clear recent trend in Western art is the abandonment of Nature as the model that is to be copied, as it had been copied for millennia prior to this development. Prior to the development of abstract or non-representative art, artistic creations were judged primarily by how well they were able to reproduce the living reality which they sought to represent. There even arose a disdain among some artists and artistic movements towards the artist who simply and naively tried to copy Nature, as artists had done for millennia before then. This trend roughly parallels the separation of humanity from Nature, as people’s way of life became increasingly artificial and urban, and less and less intimately intertwined with Nature, as was true of all peoples in the past, and still is true of some peoples whose way of life is regarded by many urban dwellers as primitive, extremely limited, and backward.

The belief that we are godlike is due primarily to our ability to create new things, such as art, which did not exist before their conception and creation by human brains and hands. But the important fact to remember about all these human creations is that every single one of them is dead – in other words – they are all non-living. The word “organic” is often used to refer to artworks. Originally this word was used exclusively to denote living things, which grow, develop, reproduce, and can defend themselves from harm and repair themselves when they suffer injury, provided the injury is not too severe. Although an artist can continually revise and modify an artwork while bringing it to a state of completion, which process resembles the growth and development of an individual organism, and a human creation can inspire another person to create something similar but different, which resembles the evolutionary development of a living species, this is merely the modification of a dead thing by a living creature, or the creation of a succession of related dead things by a succession of living creatures. In other words, it is through the intermediation of a living creature, or a succession of living creatures, that these non-living things acquire the semblance of change and development. It is important to recognize that, unlike living organisms, these artistic creations have no separate existence, or significance, apart from their human creators and audience.

The puppeteer that animates one’s wooden, metal, paper, plastic, or rubber creations exemplifies this basic fact. So long as these lifeless things are made to move, speak, fight, flee, love, and hate, they appear to be alive. But once the puppeteer ceases animating them, they appear to the audience as they really are, namely, as inanimate objects that have been fashioned to resemble living things such as people, animals, trees, and so forth. In other words, they are merely non-living imitations of living things that must be animated by a living creature in order to be “brought to life.”

The common tendency to attribute life to our non-living creations is nowhere more apparent than in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence. There are many credulous human fools who actually believe that we will one day be able to create complex robotic creatures that will be alive, just like Dr Frankenstein’s monster. But these dead creations, which, unlike a true living creature, require the attentions and ministrations of their creators to remain functional, only have the semblance of life, which semblance their creators have sought to encourage by making their artificial creations resemble as closely as possible the living original, whether in appearance or behaviour, or both, as well as by making them as independent of the attentions of their creator as possible.

Before humans began to create, and consequently became mesmerised by, their dead creations, they were filled with wonder at the many different living and non-living creations of the Almighty Creator. But gradually, as our human creations became more complex, numerous, and interesting, we began spending more and more time observing, and later, interacting with, these non-living human creations, rather than the living creations of the Creator.[1] In the present age, there are many people who actually prefer human creations to the living Creation of God, the belief in whose existence many of them have abandoned as a superstitious remnant of our species’ primitive, ignorant past.

To paraphrase the philosophical anecdote about the tree that falls in a forest and, if no one hears it, does it make a sound? – since sounds are purely sensorial experiences of things that happen in the world, and therefore they require a perceiving organism to perceive them – we can ask, Do human creations, including our many different artworks, have any significance if there are no humans to appreciate them? The obvious answer is no, which answer many people living today will have difficulty understanding because they live so thoroughly immersed, enmeshed, and entrapped in the completely artificial world that we clever humans have created. For many of them, this artificial human world only briefly, occasionally, and peripherally intersects with Nature, which forms a dim, unimportant, and distant backdrop against which the much more interesting – to them, anyways – human world exists and develops. It is only when some natural disaster or event, such as an earthquake, hurricane, volcanic eruption, eclipse, comet, meteor shower, tornado, drought, tsunami, pestilence, or fire, occurs that Nature impinges on their exceedingly myopic and obsessive preoccupation with all things human. In addition, many people interact deliberately with Nature only in limited and well-defined ways, such as on camping, hiking, fishing, or hunting trips, or sight-seeing tours, such as safaris, polar bear excursions, or a whale-watching cruise. The vestiges of Nature that are allowed to exist in artificial urban agglomerations are carefully controlled, shaped, and selected; the primary example of this is lawns, which are densely-planted grasses that are regularly cut, so that they are not able to do what all plants naturally do, which is to grow to maturity and produce seeds.

Another way to phrase this question is, Do human creations resonate with any other living creatures in the way that they resonate with humans? Again, the answer is no. But even in the case of humans, the great majority of artistic creations do not resonate with, or have meaning for, the great majority of people. Many people have had the experience of encountering an artwork, whether a poem, play, musical composition, sculpture, or handicraft, from a foreign culture that leaves them baffled, indifferent, or bored. The value, importance, and meaning of any artwork comes from having grown up in a society where it is often mentioned and lauded, and one is periodically exposed to it. Without these exposures and cultural references, the work will not have the slightest significance or meaning for one. The way that one’s artistic tastes are formed is more or less the same way that one’s culinary tastes are acquired – by living in a society where one sees other people eating certain foods and drinking certain beverages, and by eating and drinking these things oneself, so that one comes to like and prefer these foods and beverages to all others. Of course, reading is probably more important in the case of art than it is in the case of food and drink, since one can also develop one’s artistic tastes and sensibilities by reading works about art, which may include photographic reproductions of those artworks that are considered to be important and therefore worthy of our attention.

Those artworks that are able to transcend these geographical limitations are called “universal,” although they are not as universal as the many who admire them believe they are, while those that are able to transcend the temporal limitations of the age in which they were created are called “timeless” and “enduring.” But even those artworks that are considered to be universal or timeless, such as Homer’s epics, Shakespeare’s plays, Mozart’s compositions, Picasso’s paintings, Gaudi’s buildings, and Kurosawa’s films, have their detractors, those many individuals for whom they do not resonate, and therefore have no worth or meaning.

So long as humanity continues to prefer its many artificial human creations to the living Creation of God, we are in danger, by valuing the false over the true, the dead over the living, of destroying ourselves. I am most certainly not saying that we must abandon art and artificiality, at which we humans excel. But it is absolutely imperative that we regain the wonder at – and respect for – God’s living Creation, which wonder and respect so many of us modern humans have lost, and which inspired the cave painters and many others to seek to recreate these wondrous, living forms in their paintings and artworks. For it is precisely this preference for our dead human creations to the living creations of God, along with the assumption that whatever is human is superior to, and intrinsically more valuable than, whatever is natural, that is the root of the great and unparalleled destruction that we are presently wreaking on the Earth and its many living creatures, without which we cannot survive. For when we have driven the fish and the fowl, the plants and the animals, the birds and the beasts, and numerous other living creatures to extinction, as we are in the process of doing, will we be able to eat, be nourished by, and survive on our artistic representations and technological imitations of them?


[1] This radical change was perhaps first visible on a significant scale during the lifetime of William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who is called a Nature poet, and who lived in one of the first industrialized countries, namely England. He urged his readers, who increasingly lived in large urban agglomerations like London, to turn their gaze away from human creations to Nature’s many wondrous creations, both living and non-living. In earlier times, such an exhortation would not have been necessary because the vast majority of people lived surrounded by and immersed in Nature, something that is no longer true of those who live in urban areas.