The truth of a work of art--or a religious doctrine


Today's New York Times op-ed page contained an essay by someone who spent considerable effort to try to find the actual diner depicted in Edward Hopper's famous painting "Nighthawks". The story makes for a good read, and yet there is a an almost plainly self-evident revelation late in the column. The author turns to a book about Hopper and reads that

the diner was “based partly on an all-night coffee stand Hopper saw on Greenwich Avenue ... ‘only more so,’” and that Hopper himself said: “I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

Partly. More so. Simplified. The hidden truth became clearer. The diner began to fade. And then I saw it — on every triangular corner, in the candy shop’s cornice and the newsstand’s advertisement for 5-cent cigars, in the bakery’s curved window and the liquor store’s ghostly wedge, in the dark bricks that loom in the background of every Village street.
Here we see the expression of an essential point about art--that it is not just a literal depiction of objective reality, but rather speaks deeper truths that spring from the imagination of the artist.

This same thing could also be said about religious doctrines and scriptures, could it not?


Jon said...

I've just started reading "Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes" by Kenneth Bailey and he quote an interesting illustration of the same thing. Re the events of Nov 22 1963, it is perfectly true to say "a man with a rifle from the warehouse window shot another man in a passing car" - but not very informative. Alternatively, you could say "the President of the United States was assassinated". This is also true and conveys more of what makes the event important. Or else you could say "Men everywhere felt that they had looked into the abyss of evil and people wept in the streets". This adds a level of emotional engagement, and although it may not be as literally true as the first two statements (everywhere?) it conveys an essential dimension to the event that the first two don't.

Mystical Seeker said...

Jon, thanks for citing those examples from the book you are reading. I think they illustrate the point very well.

Is it ever really possible to see the world in any other way than filtered through our own interpretations?