Why art is for grown ups

Greer:       And no matter what he confesses to, the narrator is always invulnerable.

Levi:         Because he is in control. The author is omnipotent and can create the reality he wants.

The question of whether art can speak truth – even when it is obviously invented – has been debated since the time of Socrates. Today, belief in the virtue of reading great literature is, for some, an article of faith. Others place their confidence in the verifiable truths proposed through scientific method.

The debate is so old because it is not capable of resolution. The most important questions humans ask themselves cannot be definitively answered without recourse to a higher authority, something I don’t accept as a way of deciding human affairs since it always leads some people to impose their truths on others in the name of that higher authority. So what matters, it seems to me, is not whether art, or science, can speak truth (both can, as both can be wrong) but how we judge what they say.

Scientific method is a system of verifiable enquiry. Its value lies in that two people asking the same question in the same conditions will get the same answer. It therefore avoids individual, though not cultural, bias—hence its claim to objectivity. Of course, most of us have neither the capacities nor the wish to duplicate past experiments before we accept what scientists tell us. We accept that the system itself is its own guarantor. Scientists watch over one another’s work on behalf of us all. We don’t need to use our judgement because they do it for us and – usually – trusting them is better than not trusting them.

Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian
Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

None of that applies to art. As the exchange between Germaine Greer and Primo Levi shows, the work of artists cannot be controlled in this way. Like the rest of us, they create the realities they choose. Unlike the rest of us, good artists do that with exceptional skill, imagination and power, creating realities whose truth we can find completely convincing. We learn about ourselves, others and reality itself through experiencing their music, films, books, performances and images. But we have no independent test of their truthfulness. Great artists can deceive, as Leni Riefenstahl did in her portrayals of pre-war Nazi Germany. Like scientists, artists do watch over one another, but like the rest of us, they often make judgements that, in time, turn out to be wrong.

Levi is talking about narratives of extreme suffering. As a scientist and a man of the deepest integrity he accepts that no subject can itself be a guarantor of truthfulness. In art, we must use our own judgement in deciding what value to place on an artist’s truthfulness. We must use our own judgement, taking into account all the available evidence, and we must take responsibility for what we choose to believe.

That is not a bad thing. It is simply what it is to be a responsible adult. Unfortunately, it is also something that many adults find too difficult, preferring instead to be guided by one or other form of ideological certainty.