Art Is a Lie That Makes Us Realize Truth

Pablo Picasso? Jean Cocteau? Dorothy Allison? Henry A. Murray? Peter De Vries? Albert Camus? Julie Burchill? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Art works such as novels, paintings, and sculptures embody a stylized and distorted representation of the world. Yet, deep truths can best be expressed by deviating from the straitjacket of verisimilitude. Here are four versions of a paradoxical adage:

  1. Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.
  2. Art is a lie which allows us to approach truth
  3. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth
  4. Art is the lie that reveals truth.

Different versions of this maxim have been applied to fiction, poetry, and drama. The saying has been attributed to the Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso, the French poet Jean Cocteau, and the French existentialist Albert Camus. Would you please explore this statement?

Quote Investigator: In 1923 the New York City periodical “The Arts: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Covering All Phases of Ancient and Modern Art” interviewed Pablo Picasso. His responses in Spanish were translated into English. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows in his work that he has searched, and re-searched, for the way to put over his lies, he would never accomplish any thing.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The well-known French artist Jean Cocteau crafted a distinct but related remark within the poem “Le Paquet Rouge” (“The Red Package”). An excerpt from the poem containing the line appeared in the Paris newspaper “Comœdia” in 1927: 2

. . . je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la vérité.

This may be rendered into English as:

. . . I am a lie that always tells the truth.

Picasso’s 1923 statement was reprinted in the 1946 book “Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art” published by The Museum of Modern Art in New York. 3

In 1957 popular syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons presented a close variant attributed to Picasso: 4

Harold Clurman, the director-founder of the Group Theater, has collected his drama criticisms spanning a decade, and Macmillan will publish them as a book, “The Lie That Tells the Truth.” The title is from Picasso, who said: “Art is a lie that makes us see the truth.”

In 1960 an essay by Henry A. Murray in the collection “Myth and Mythmaking” applied this paradox to fables instead of art: 5

Like a fable, it may be “a lie which tells the truth,” or, like a parable, it may convey a particle of the wisdom of the ages or new wisdom.

In 1964 an interview with the novelist and humorist Peter De Vries appeared in the book “Counterpoint”. De Vries ascribed another close variant to Picasso: 6

Sure the artist has an obligation toward the material from which his stories are created, but the obligation isn’t a literal one. He may have to exaggerate an environment he’s delineating in order to portray it effectively—select, omit, even distort. Didn’t Picasso define art as “a lie that tells the truth?”

In 1966 two books about Picasso were reviewed in “The Evening Sun” of Baltimore, Maryland. Picasso received credit for another variant: 7

From the outset, the old saw that “Art is Truth” was repudiated by Picasso, who advanced a completely new idea: “Now we know that art is not truth; art is a lie which allows us to approach the truth—at least in so far as truth is discernible to us.

In 1969 “A Treasury of Humorous Quotations” assembled by Herbert V. Prochnow included an instance in the domain of poetry: 8

The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth. Jean Cocteau

In 1979 “The New York Times” published a ballet review by Jack Anderson that referenced the adage and then twisted it: 9

Art has often been called a lie that tells the truth. “The Leaves Are Fading” is a lie that is content to be a lie — a pretty lie, but a lie, nevertheless.

In 1983 the U.S. painter Robert Motherwell referred to a version of Picasso’s remark while discussing the writer Franz Kafka: 10

He had no conception of art in Picasso’s sense that “art is a lie that makes us see the truth.” Kafka lived his truth. He dared not share the living of it.

In 1984 “Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth” by Philip Core applied the paradox to the aesthetic sensibility camp. The ellipsis below appeared in the original text: 11

A working definition is essential before we can pinpoint camp retrospectively and contemporarily. Camouflage, bravura, moral anarchy, the hysteria of despair, a celebration of frustration, skittishness, revenge . . . the possible descriptions are countless. I would opt for one basic prerequisite however: camp is a lie that tells the truth.

In 1990 “Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations” included a compact instance of the expression: 12

Art is the lie that reveals truth.
—Pablo Picasso

In 1992 the “Star Tribune” of Minneapolis, Minnesota credited an instance using the word “drama” to a screenwriter: 13

Produced, fittingly enough, by Propaganda Films, the movie doesn’t claim to be factual. It comes with a disclaimer by screenwriter Stephen Davis: “Drama is the lie that tells us the truth.”

In 1994 the novelist Dorothy Allison applied the paradox to literature while writing in “The New York Times”: 14

Literature is the lie that tells the truth, that shows us human beings in pain and makes us love them and does so in a spirit of honest revelation.

Albert Camus died in 1960. He received credit for an instance of the saying using the word “fiction” in 1995 in the pages of the “Los Angeles Times”: 15

Detectives, reporters and historians deal assiduously with the facts, or so we hope. But as Albert Camus put it: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” It’s a crafty trick, this business of writing fiction, this conjuring up of lies that read like truth.

In 2001 UK columnist by Julie Burchill mentioned another instance using the word “fiction”: 16

It is the big lie of the creative industries that “fiction is a lie which tells us the truth about life”.

But it doesn’t; it simply tells us how a sex-obsessed old bigot felt in the 50s (Take A Girl Like You) or how a sour old spinster felt in the 18th century (Pride And Prejudice).

In conclusion, Pablo Picasso should receive credit for the statements printed in “The Arts” in 1923. His original remarks were delivered in Spanish, but the periodical only printed English renditions. Many variant statements have evolved over time. Jean Cocteau crafted a distinct but similar comment published in 1927. The paradoxical adage has been applied to the domains of fables, camp, literature, and more. Albert Camus received credit for a version about fiction in 1995, but that was too late to provide substantive evidence.

Image Notes: Illustration of an intersection sign displaying the words Lie and Truth from geralt at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Jonathan Taylor, Robert Richardson, Farhana Shaikh, Diego Basdeo, Maria Alexander, and Shaula Evans who all referred to versions of this saying within twitter threads.)

Notes:

  1. 1923 May, The Arts: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Covering All Phases of Ancient and Modern Art, Volume 3, Number 5, Picasso Speaks: A Statement by the Artist (Note accompanying text: Picasso gave his interview to “The Arts” in Spanish, and subsequently authenticated the Spanish text which we herewith translate), Start Page 315, Quote Page 315, The Arts Publishing Corporation, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. Date: Novembre 1, 1927, Newspaper: Comœdia, Article: Jeune Poésie: II. L’autre royaume: En marge de Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, André Salmon, Author: Eugene Marsan, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Location: Paris, France. (Gallica)
  3. 1946 Copyright, Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art by Alfred H. Barr Jr., Chapter: Statement by Picasso: 1923, Quote Page 270, Column 1, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1957 July 30, Daily Defender, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  5. 1960, Myth and Mythmaking, Edited by Henry A. Murray, Chapter 17: The Possible Nature of a “Mythology” to Come by Henry A. Murray, Quote Page 346, George Braziller, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1964, Counterpoint by Roy Newquist, Interview with Peter De Vries (Interviewed in Westport, Connecticut, March, 1964), Start Page 145, Quote Page 151, Rand McNally & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1966 February 10, The Evening Sun, Books In Review: This Century’s ‘Most Remarkable’ Artist (Book Review of Pierre Daix’s “Picasso”) by Bennard B. Perlman (Head of the Art Department at Baltimore Junior College), Quote Page A20, Column 6, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1969, A Treasury of Humorous Quotations for Speakers, Writers, and Home Reference by Herbert V. Prochnow and Herbert V. Prochnow Jr., Topic: Poet, Quote Page 261, Published by Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1979 May 11, New York Times, Ballet: Robbins’s ‘Noces’ by Jack Anderson, Quote Page C20, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 1999 (Copyright 1992), The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell by Robert Motherwell, Edited by Stephanie Terenzio, Section ‘Kafka’s Visual Recoil: A Note’, Date: 19 March 1983, Start Page 262, Quote Page 265, University of California Press, Berkeley, California. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1984, Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth by Philip Core, Chapter: Introduction, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Delilah Books, Distributed by The Putnam Publishing Group, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1990, Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations, Edited by Sy Safransky, Quote Page 93, Column 1, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1992 March 30, Star Tribune, Star Aiello is excellent, but `Ruby’ is no gem by Jeff Strickler (Staff Writer), Quote Page 03E, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (ProQuest)
  14. 1994 June 26, New York Times, Section: New York Times Book Review, The Exile’s Return: How a Lesbian Novelist Found Her Way Into the Mainstream by Dorothy Allison (Author of the novels “Bastard Out of Carolina”), Start Page E15, Quote Page E16, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  15. 1995 August 20, Los Angeles Times, Section: Book Review, True Lies by Zena Collier, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  16. 2001 February 10, The Guardian, Section: The Guardian Weekend, “What Popstars demonstrates is that success in showbusiness has very little to do with having ‘It’, and much to do with wanting it” by Julie Burchill, Quote Page 5, Column 1, London, Greater London, England. (Newspapers_com)