The Artist . . . Must Drive To the Heart of Every Answer and Expose the Question the Answer Hides

James Baldwin? Salim Muwakkil? Leonard Shlain? Jeff Baysa? Edgar H. Sorrells-Adewale? Tom Barone? Alva Noë? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The commonly accepted answers to questions are sometimes flawed. Deeper and more truthful discoveries are concealed by shallow and misleading explanations. A germane assertion about the objective of art has been attributed to the prominent author and social critic James Baldwin:

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been occluded by the answers.

Often the word “hidden” appears in the statement instead of “occluded”. I have been unable to find a solid citation for either statement. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The 1962 collection “Creative America” included a piece by James Baldwin titled “The Creative Process”. Baldwin discussed the mindset and intentions of an artist within a society. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that the visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and all our achievement rests on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.

QI conjectures that the statement under analysis evolved from the final sentence highlighted above. It is possible that Baldwin penned more than one version of this thought, but QI has not yet discovered a closer match to the target statement.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1964 the “Saturday Review” reprinted Baldwin’s essay placing his words in front of an additional audience. 2

In 1988 the periodical “In These Times” published “James Baldwin: Noble Word-Warrior” by Salim Muwakkil. The article concluded with the quotation from Baldwin: 3

“The artist,” he added, “cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”

In 1991 Leonard Shlain published the book “Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light”. A statement attributed to James Baldwin appeared as an epigraph of the first chapter: 4

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers. James Baldwin

QI hypothesizes that the words above originated as a paraphrase of the 1962 quotation. The statement was then mistakenly elevated to the status of a quotation. Yet, it is also conceivable that Baldwin employed the version above in some location which has not yet been identified.

In 1996 “The Honolulu Advertiser” of Hawaii reported that Jeff Baysa acted as guest curator for an exhibition of contemporary figurative paintings called “Naked Truths”. Baysa wrote a piece for the catalog that referred to Baldwin: 5

Baysa’s essay concludes: “James Baldwin stated that the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers. Each viewer addresses the works differently, with an amalgam of context and encoded attitudes.

In 1998 “The Washington Post” reported on an art installation, and included a remark by the artist: 6

Edgar H. Sorrells-Adewale (b. 1936), who also teaches at Howard, speaks chaotically but compellingly of the inhuman condition of much of modern life in his installation “Haiku for Esu” (1997). He quotes James Baldwin’s pronunciamento that “The purpose of art is to lay bare the hidden questions, which have been hidden by the answers.” The centerpiece of the installation is a computer keyboard, which is plugged in but not really connected, just like real life.

In 2001 Tom Barone published an article in the journal “Educational Researcher” which included a quotation attributed to Baldwin: 7

This last element may be crucial, for it suggests one important purpose for engaging in the creation and consumption of both art and arts-based research. This purpose is perhaps best expressed in the writer James Baldwin’s (1962) definition of art. Good art, he says, is capable of “lay[ing] bare questions that have been hidden by the answers” (p. 16).

QI does not know the source of the quotation immediately above. The accompanying bibliographic note pointed to the 1962 work “The Creative Process” by Baldwin, but the quoted phrase differed from the statement in the 1962 essay given at the beginning of this article. Perhaps Baldwin published two different versions of the essay in 1962, but QI has not yet found evidence to support this possibility.

In 2005 a newspaper in Greenville, South Carolina announced that sixty-seven artists were planning to open their studios to the public in a large joint exhibition. The article about the event began with the following epigraph: 8

“The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.”
James Baldwin (1924-1987)

In 2015 philosopher Alva Noë at the University of California, Berkeley published “Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature”. He included an instance using the word “occluded”, but he also employed the locution “attributed to” to signal uncertainty regarding provenance: 9

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been occluded by the answers.
—attributed to James Baldwin

In conclusion, James Baldwin should receive credit for the words he wrote in his 1962 essay. A reformulated version of one of Baldwin’s thoughts has been attributed to him. QI does not know who created this variant statement which began to circulate by 1991 or earlier. In addition, a second variant with the word “occluded” instead of “hidden” has entered circulation in modern times.

Image Notes: An ambiguous image depicting a duck or a rabbit from the October 23, 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter. Image has been resized, cropped, and retouched.

(Great thanks to Matthew Buckingham of Columbia University whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1962 Copyright, Creative America by John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S, Truman et al, Chapter: The Creative Process by James Baldwin, Start Page 17, Quote Page 18 and 19, Published for the National Cultural Center by The Ridge Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1964 February 8, Saturday Review, The Creative Dilemma by James Baldwin, (“The war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war”), Start Page 14, Quote Page 17 and 58, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1988 January 13, In These Times, James Baldwin: Noble Word-Warrior by Salim Muwakkil, Start Page 24, Quote Page 24, Column 4, Institute for Public Affairs, Chicago, Illinois. (Unz)
  4. 1991, Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light by Leonard Shlain, Chapter 1: Illusion/Reality (Epigraph of James Baldwin quotation), Quote Page 15, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1996 March 17, The Honolulu Advertiser, The naked self: body, sex, relationships, community by Joan Rose (Advertiser Art Critic), (Review of art show titled “Naked Truths” at University of Hawaii Art Gallery), Quote Page D6, Column 2, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1998 January 9, The Washington Post, Section: On Exhibit, Some Who Can Do As Well as Teach by Hank Burchard, Quote Page 55, Column 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  7. 2001 October, Educational Researcher, Volume 30, Number 7, Section: Research News and Comment, Science, Art, and the Predispositions of Educational Researchers by Tom Barone, Start Page 24, Quote Page 25, Column 1, Publisher: American Educational Research Association. (JSTOR) link
  8. 2005 October 28, The Greenville News, Section: Greenville Open Studios, (Epigraph), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Greenville, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 2015, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noë, (Epigraph for Part II), Quote Page 91, Hill and Wang, A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. (Google Books Preview)