What is Artistic Truth?

Picasso stated that art is a lie, and artistic truth is getting people to understand the truths of those lies.

More than the visual or musical arts, film illustrates this principle most dramatically. Faster than the brain can process, visual and auditory sensations thrust themselves upon us. Used properly, this dramatic impact can produce a truthful impression even if the facts are compromised.

The movie Amadeus, about the life of Mozart, always struck me as a vivid example. Despite many errors of fact, and much distortion, it does give us a view into Mozart’s personality. As an illustration, view the scene between Mozart’s wife Constanze and the composer Salieri:

What kind of distortions and errors are in the movie, especially this scene?

Mozart and Salieri operated independently of each other. They were the two most important musical personalities in Vienna. Their interests were generally separate except for Italian opera. Only in a general sense, were they rivals.

Mozart did not write his music down from memory without correction. He did compose the essentials of his works in his head. His father once wrote to pester him to finish works he had promised. He wrote back: “Alles ist schon componirt, nur noch nicht niedergeschrieiben.” Everything is already composed, only not yet written down.

Constanze did not need to use her sexuality to promote Mozart’s music. Nor was she a ditz. She was an excellent business woman, understood music very well, and we owe a great deal of Mozart’s legacy to her actions after his death.

Salieri was not a musical simpleton. Among his pupils were Schubert, Beethoven, and Liszt.

Yet from this excerpt we get a feeling for Mozart’s genius, and how different he was from one of the best composers of his era. As Salieri reads the complex music and hears the performance in his head, we envision how a composer or musician reads music and hears it. We get insight into how Mozart imagined a composition. Without that ability, deaf Beethoven would be impotent.

For us, the notes printed on the page are a foreign language. For the composer, they are equations of wonder, sublimity, resonance and pleasure. For once, we are one with the composer as the equations come alive.

Life appears incomprehensible because our senses take in only a fragment of the information around us. Tools such as the telescope, photography, and microscope extend our senses externally. Such tools, however, distort as they observe. We trust that the users of those tools overcome the distortion in their observations to give us truth. Art extends our senses internally.   We trust that the artists overcome the distortion in a work of art to embody a truth that is greater than its form or content.

For more information about Mozart read Christoph Wolff’s Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune.

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