What does truth mean? Is it even relevant or helpful?

What does truth mean? Is it even relevant or helpful?

Discussing truth from Jewish, artistic and political perspectives, with Jonathan Freedland, Rebecca Harris and Rabbi Roni Tabick.
Lecture for New Stoke Newington Synagogue, May 2017.


Classical rabbinic literature was never intended as historiography and therefore cannot be considered as such. While this may be considered a serious flaw in historical writing it is a legitimate element of non-historical genres of literature. For the rabbis already possessed the history of the biblical period. Instead they were attempting to explore the meaning of history bequeathed to them, striving to interpret it in living terms for their own and future generations.1‘Truth’ becomes a bit abstract, a bit relative maybe.
Consideration of the second of the 10 Commandments can demonstrate this in practice. For some critics a literal interpretation of this comnadment would mean discounting any possibility of the visual arts in Judaism, claiming that it states the position of the Jew as a person concerned with the spirituality of God, rather than the Greek worship of form. “The Jew,” Guttman claims, “is more an ‘aural’ than a ‘visual’ being; his feelings relate more to time than to space, and his primary concern is with God’s word, not God’s picture.” Therefore, while denied a talent for the visual, the Jew instead excels in the “splendour and rapture of the word.”2
It is interesting to note the ways in which Jewish artists worked around the law, which in turn differed according to century and interpretation. While the Talmud takes a strict stance on producing faces for fear of idolatry, bans on creative pursuits differed. So for example, in the 16th century, the Shulkhan Arukh3 extended the ban to creating three-dimensional and bas-relief images that, it was thought, could be worshipped. This differed from the Talmud that allowed two-dimensional images of the human body, as long as some part of the human form remained out of sight. 4
In order to escape the issue of the prohibition, one has to show that there cannot be an exact translation of an original object or being into an image. In fact the Jewish act of turning away provides an alternative proposition: rather than distrust the image, one places it into language to recognize the potential of different meaning and understanding that can be associated with what we encounter. It may not be a true image, but it is an interpretation, just one of potentially many perspectives.
To consider the artwork and its meaning, art historical discourse has developed from thinking in terms of the artist’s biography, the social and political moment the artwork was made in and the social and intellectual circles the artist associated themselves with. The revisionist approach to writing about art takes terms from the artists, and from literary theory. So terms like “allegory” are referenced to reveal and mobilise new paradigms in thinking about the images artists create. This approach generates discussion on artists and patrons previously removed from art historical narratives, therefore, bringing in new stories that shift the way we define methods and meanings when thinking about art practice. The truth about art is therefore altered to find alternative truths.
The advent of the Internet, has affected our relationship with images as a point of reference for knowledge but also in terms of how we position ourselves within the wider social and cultural contexts. Multiple perspectives, diverging vanishing points, create an unstable, multifaceted perspective on our world that puts into question traditional linear historical narratives. We are no longer limited to the definition of time and space prescribed by the horizontal line. The world beyond that horizon line is no longer mute, and our location and relation to this location are no longer stable. This has affected our relationship with images as points of reference, for knowledge, but also in terms of how we position ourselves within the wider social and cultural context. This establishes a more realistic method for engaging with the visual world, going against the abstract flat line of the traditional horizon line that communicated a mathematical, homogenous space. We become an “imaginary floating observer”5 with an imaginary stable ground that is no more real than the imaginary stable observer and horizon found in the traditional linear perspective. These different modes of visuality affect orientation and with it, our concept of time and space. With this comes an unstable sense of what is true and untrue.

Artists have been playing with the notion of perspective for generations, thus challenging the idea of a ‘true’ visual representation. JW Turner famously requested to be tied to the mast of a ship cross from Dover to Calais to watch the changing horizon line. His painting Rain, Steam, and Speed, (1844), the result of his placing his head out of a train window for nine minutes, sees linear perspective dissolve into the background, for there is no resolution, no vanishing point to anything past or future. More interesting, writes Hito Steyerl, is the spectator’s perspective, for he “seems to be dangling in the air on the outer side of the rails of a railroad bridge. There is no clear ground under his assumed position. He might be suspended in the mist, floating over an absent ground.” The early twentieth century saw further dismantling of perspective with cinema providing a new way of considering perspective by providing different temporal positions. New techniques of creating seemingly non-sensical and satirical works through the use of collage and photomontage were used by the Dadaists such as Hanch Höch and Kurt Schwitters often in response to the the horrors of the First World War, altering not only the visual plane but also proposing comment and an alternative perspective on society during a time of great social social change. In 1919 Aleksandr Rodchenko created paintings titled Contruction No.90 and construction No.92, line paintings that resulted from hundreds of drawings using a compass and a ruler. As a constructivist, Rodchenko believed art should directly reflect the modern industrial world. These paintings presented arrangements of vertical and horizontal and diagonal planes or angles on the picture plane, identifing the artist to be a kind of aesthetic engineer, with the role to create the perfect organisation of forms on the canvas. In his art direction of the Lev Kuleshov’s film, The Female Journalist, the artist integrates the form of these paintings, while he uses light to cast through the banisters of the walkway that the woman walks across, almost exactly like these paintings. The film offers a new dimension on these paintings, as reductions of a scene to mere lines offering a picture plane to be filled in with narrative. Later, in 1923, the artist began experimenting with photomontage as a way to create socially engaged imagery that too, was concerned with the placement and movement of objects in space. Meanwhile, painting demolished linear perspective altogether through different forms of abstraction.6 Abstract painting, then, moves away from figuration to produce works that forgo obvious identification of an image in keeping with the Second Commandment. Various tone and application of paint, meanwhile, offer an insight into the broader range of motifs that might run throughout an artist’s practice, but also hint towards a view on the world that isn’t immediately concerned with representing a ‘truthful’ representation or all-encompassing narrative. What all the artists I mention are to some extent doing, is finding their method for engaging with not only the visual world around them, but also their engagement with it through the context of their own experiences.

When interpreting art, it is not just a matter of how truly representative it is of a subject, but also a matter of thinking about how the materials used relate to the visual content and what this says to us as we attempt to engage intellectually or emotionally with what we can or cannot see. The artwork is a key example of an object that one attempts to contextualise, while our specific experience of art is affected by the visual elements that make up the work, as well as other aspects that lead to the experience, and the context in which we find it. Every object, every colour, every material is contextualised, and when something appears to have avoided being contextualised, we can assume that it has not been recognised within the space or context that we have found it. Therefore, the visual does not exist independently, beyond or outside of language, for the visible and the image that art can render, comes as a consequence of being placed in language.
Thinking about this in terms of the painter’s practice, for example, we consider how the artist works conceptually with images, and so, as the viewer, we can find methods through which to engage with the artist’s conceptual and creative process of making. This is the point at which the universal relates to our specific experiences – and therefore the emotional and ethical – and when we engage with art to form a personal interpretation of the artist’s practice. The conceptual and making process can be informed by cultural and historical narratives, intellectual and emotional experiences. Our interpretation is embedded in these sources of understanding. Therefore, art has the potential to merge the past with the present, by bringing our memories together with present encounter, while also bringing the memories of our ancestors. This is where looking at art, as well as making it, becomes a social and political activity. By thinking and challenging what we see through language, be it through writing or through the act of reading, we are ensuring that conversations surrounding historical narratives and therefore, the events in our own lifetimes, continue. This to my mind is rather similar to our reading the Akdamut and thinking about the background story. We actively engage with history to relate to the narratives that are forming our contemporary history in the making.
Considering how we come to art with different and multiple perspectives by which to judge and interpret it, one can recognize how art can never truly be an exact translation of the original object or being in an image. Furthermore, by thinking in terms of how we approach different forms of writing, news comment, internet imagery, etc., to find the truth of a story, we can use the same approach as we do to engage with art to recognize that there really cannot be just one single true image, or narrative, of an event. This approach can be found in the writing of George Steiner who believes the past, present and future are comprised simultaneously and it is only the temporal structure of language keeps them “artificially distinct.”7 In his book Downcast Eyes: the Denigration of Vision in Twentieth- Century French Thought, art historian and literary thinker Martin Jay examines the ‘ocularcentric discourse’ that he believes can be traced from the Greeks to contemporary French philosophy. Early on he explains that the ancient Greeks privileged vision, but in doing so, relegated the other senses to a subordinate position that lessened the significance of language in western culture. He writes: “If postmodernism teaches anything, … it is to be suspicious of single perspectives.”8

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1 Ibid., 18.
2 Joseph Gulmann, “The ‘Second Commandment’ and the Image in Judaism,” Hebrew Union College Annual, 32 (1961): 161–74. [Accessed January 12th 2016]
3 The legal code known as the Shulkhan Arukh, compiled by the great Sephardic rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid1500s, is still the standard legal code of Judaism. See “Jewish Virtual Library,” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/shulkhan_arukh.html. [October 8th 2016]
4 “My Jewish Learning Website,” http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ask-the-expert-graven-images/. [Accessed October 8th 2016]
5 Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 24.
6 Ibid., 22.
7 George Steiner, “Retreat from the Word”, in George Steiner: A Reader. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 283.
8 Ibid., 545.