Lying for truth

The Bush Theatre invited me to give a talk tonight in their RADAR Festival of new writing. It was a brilliant hour whose uniting themes were diversity, justice, art and humanity. Amardeep Sohi asked whether theatre was doing enough to create, and not just to preserve, a cultural legacy. Gemma Cairney was funny and inspiring about the need to be open to others, to connect and collaborate. Jon Spooner made a passionate case for theatre to open science’s stories and possibilities for exploration in society. And Ty made a moving, funny and devastating critique of the glass ceiling through which black artists can only look at the white power structures—made me think of the response to Bill Ming’s exhibition, among other things. Rich company indeed.

The RADAR talks are inspired by the popular TED Talks, which means that they are only 10 minutes long. It’s nice to be asked, but 10 minutes is a tough discipline; it can take me that long to clear my throat. So, in the hope of not wasting the audience’s time, I decided to read a text rather than speak off the cuff. It’s a different kind of performance, but I’m a writer, not an actor. Here’s the what I wrote:

Download Lying for Truth PDF

Lying for truth

This stage is a dangerous space. Less for me, than for you. I might fall flat on my face, metaphorically, even literally, and leave humiliated. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last. Such experiences are part of being human.

No, the people most at risk here are you, because you have opened yourselves to the possibility of being deceived. That too, is part of what it is to be human. We can only protect ourselves from such risks as humiliation or deceit by policing our relationships to the point of ruin.

In coming here, in accepting the ritual conventions of sitting around this stage, you knowingly expose yourselves to the artifice of whoever occupies the space. For now, it’s me, and the risk is low because I’m not a skilled performer. Or is that a lie, a little self-deprecation to lull you into a false sense of security while my words and images draw you down a path you might not be willing to take were you more aware of it?

All over London, there are spaces like this, where the normal rules of human interaction are reversed. If we met in the café and I lied to you, you’d feel affronted, justifiably angry, if you found out about it later. Deliberate deceit is an assault not just on another person but on the bonds make families, communities and societies of individuals.

In some circumstances, it is a crime. If you are found out, you can go to prison for lying, like some politicians, policemen and journalists. If you are found out.

But here, on this stage, people lie all the time. They dress up and make up. They pretend to be people they are not, to have had experiences unknown to them, to have emotions they do not have. By imitating appearance, they make people believe in substance. They do it to manipulate others, to make them feel, think or know things that, of course, they do not. They lie to tell a truth.

And they fail if they don’t manipulate us well enough, if an audience leaves indifferent or bored, saying to one another ‘Well, I never really believed in him, did you?’.

The difference is that we know what happens on stage is not real, though it might be true. So we suspend disbelief; we permit ourselves to be manipulated. We play this game.

Theatre, like all art. is licensed deception and, because it is dangerous to open ourselves to deceit, we want it controlled. So we have this ritual space in which we accept—no, ask—to be manipulated, secure because we can see the boundaries, metaphorically and literally. It’s a safe space for an important game.

Why do we do this? Why invest so much time, money, effort, energy, imagination and creativity in making and sharing art?

Because it gives us pleasure, certainly: it diverts and entertains in an existence that is by no means all sunshine and roses.

But also because art helps us understand that existence differently, better, even, than we could without its particular ways of knowing. Because it helps us with the existential questions that all human beings face at some point in their lives. Because, we hope, it helps us get closer to what is true, genuine, important, valuable—to what might be meaningful in our lives, separately or together.

Art is a way of lying for truth. And since we know to be wary of paradox—how long have we been fighting for peace now?—we are wise to treat it with great caution. Art is one space where the end really can justify the means, and history shows how catastrophic that idea can be. To say it again, art is dangerous.

Today, art is as central to human life and society as it has ever been, perhaps more, but its influence is overlooked and underestimated. We prefer to think of ourselves as rational beings whose decisions are governed by intellectual thought. The language and methods of science—vital as they are in their own field—have been conscripted to flatter our unfounded belief that we are in control of our lives.

It’s nonsense, of course. Human beings struggle to be in control of their own minds, let alone anything else: the critical difference between us may only be that some of us know it and some of us don’t.

Still, we are culturally committed to rationalism, to scientific method and ultimately to fictions such as intelligence dossiers and evidence-based policy. We believe that what is said by the employee of a university is true and what is said on this stage is—well, just not the same thing. We believe that words printed in a book are true and that words composed of pixels on a screen are—well, just not the same thing.

One result of this prejudice is that we increasingly rely on rationalist methods to examine art and its effects on society. Plans, targets, key performance indicators, learning outcomes, impacts—the language and theories of other disciplines have gained an unhealthy ascendancy in how the arts are managed today.

Half-understood concepts from the natural and social sciences and from other less reputable sources, such as business management, disfigure public policy and, as we have seen in the health sector, encourage people to tell real lies.

You can’t understand much about the value of a theatre performance by counting the audience or calculating what they spent in the bar. You are likely not just to waste your time, but also to miss what is important. Ultimately you may even interfere in that delicate relationship between artist and audience and damage what was valuable in the first place.

The misapplication to art of science’s ways of knowing encourages people to underestimate art’s own potential for truth. Because art is often non-rational, we think it cannot be relied on as a source of knowledge. Because it uses banned methods like deception and manipulation, we mistrust it. Because its lessons are so hard to explain—which is why we have art in the first place—we think they must be worthless.

It’s a typically rationalist mistake, and a dangerous one. We need to pay attention to art because it is so powerful.

If we don’t, we may not realise when bad people use its power against us.


After I wrote this, I stumbled upon Ben Sidran’s concert of Bob Dylan songs, recorded in Paris in 2010. Here’s an extract from Sidran’s introduction:

‘Bob Dylan, of course, a giant in American music. But who is he really? The man does not use his own name; doesn’t sing with his own voice—yet his songs tell a bigger truth than many people who do use their own voice and their own names.’

Nicely put.

Second postscript

Simon Leys

Since writing this, I’ve discovered the work of Simon Leys, Belgian-Australian sinologist, critic and essayist. A thick collection of his writing, The Hall of Uselessness,  has now been published by the New York Review of Books and is worth $20 of anyone’s money. In it is an essay called ‘Lies that Tell the Truth’, which speaks, with far greater erudition and eloquence, of just the questions I touch on here. You can also read it in The Monthly, where it first appeared.

Making sense of music


Do you remember the first time you heard the true sound of your voice? Not the familiar sound inside your head, but what you actually sound like to other people. If you’re under 30, the answer is probably no, because technology has become so ubiquitous that some loving parent probably videoed your third birthday. But when I was young, sound recording was only just coming within reach of ordinary people. I remember my first sight of a reel-to-reel deck, soon replaced by neat little cassette tapes. And I remember the first time I heard my voice as others hear it.

It was horrible. Not because it is, objectively speaking, a specially irritating voice, but simply because it wasn’t what I believed I sounded like. And if you can’t know what you sound like to other people, what can you know about yourself in the world, in relations to others?

That problem is hugely amplified (pun intended) if you are a musician. Most musical instruments require such close physical contact that they resonate in and through the body. A violinist, drummer or flautist feels their performance in their bones, lungs and body cavities. That’s one reason why Evelyn Glennie can be, as a deaf person, one of the world’s leading percussionists. Unlike dancers, who train in front of wall mirrors, musicians simply could not know what their playing sounded like to others before the invention of sound recording. They could hear what other musicians sounded like, of course—but how does that help you know how you are performing in comparison?

Recording technology and the ability to make music with digital technology are, between them, rewriting some of those rules. It is now possible to hear oneself play (though not easily as one is playing) and to make music with no more physical contact than fingertips on a computer keyboard. But for most musicians, what they hear inside during those daily hours of practice and in performance, is different to what others hear as they play.

Gills and lungs


I love music. It is one of the great companions of my life: rock, blues, reggae, folk and, in the past 15 years or so, classical, especially chamber music. There are genres I can’t easily appreciate (lounge jazz, Wagner and some hip-hop spring to mind) but I love hearing something new, open to making a discovery.

Over the years, I’ve become aware that my relationship with music is different to that of the musicians I know. They understand it from the inside. They feel it in their bones. To them, the difference between F# and B minor is meaningful. They understand—if they’ve had the training—sonata form. To me, these are terms like transistor, diode or valve: I’ve heard them, I know what they relate to, but no more. As a writer, my technical concepts are different (and probably equally obscure to a musician or an engineer).

And that recognition has led me to wonder about something else: what if, without realizing it, musicians and non-musicians actually understand music itself quite differently?

It is obvious that having a musical intelligence gives a person a particular relationship to music, one that is not available to someone like me. I understand that: it’s always easier to recognize the abilities one doesn’t possess than those one does. So what if those who have always swum in the water of music don’t understand what it’s like to be a land creature? Can a fish imagine how a hippo relates to water? (I know, I’m stretching this metaphor to breaking point.)

From My Life – a new Regular Marvel

Ligeti Quartet (absent)

I’ve been puzzling about these things for years, and now I have an opportunity to think about them in a more structured way—and crucially, to work with people on both sides of that divide to explore our varied experiences of music.

‘From My Life’ is the next project in the Regular Marvels series. It’s named after a string quartet by the Czech composer, Bedřich Smetana. It was written after Smetana had lost his hearing: it is, therefore, one of those miraculous internal creations that was never heard by its composer in the way I have heard it. The quartet is also a meditation on Smetana’s life, a programmatic work whose music is intended to tell a story. But how do you tell a story without words? (That’s a writer’s question, of course, not a musician’s.)

The work thus symbolizes all the differences between a musician and a non-musician that intrigue me. How do we each respond to this creation, from either side of the shore between land and water?

This new Regular Marvel will be a partnership with the wonderful Ligeti Quartet, who will work with me to commission new short works from composers around the ideas sketched out here. At the same time, we’ll work with Woodend Music Society, in Banchory, to explore how people who enjoy music as listeners feel about it. The work will come together in a special concert at which the new compositions will be premièred. That will allow for further discussions and reflection, and the whole project, as usual, will be documented here as it goes along and in a book, with a  concert recording included.

It is the most ambitious Regular Marvel to date, in all sorts of ways, and there’s a long way to go. The first task is to raise funds for all the artists involved, and to begin the process of commissioning new works. It’s daunting, but hugely exciting.

Bringing one’s self into the lab

9 Spring Chickens 1

An ethnographer’s perspective on drawing

A few weeks after the publication of Winter Fires, I was contacted by the editor of an academic journal, Anthropology and Aging Quarterly, who was interested in reproducing some of Mik Godley’s images. Naturally, Mik and I were very happy to agree, and a portfolio with an explanatory note was published in the spring issue. I asked Jason Danely, the editor, to give me a sense of why he was interested in the images. This is what he says:

Images and other forms of media are not merely decorations for the journal, but generate a new kind of knowledge-making process that invites the viewer into an engagement with the subject. When I read Winter Fires, I could not imagine the text as separate from Mik Godley’s photo-paintings. This collaborative process of engagement perfectly suited the topics of creativity and art in later life. Mik’s portraits not only stir the emotions of the viewer, but they add depth to the expressions and lives of the subjects.

Ethnography also, at its best, has a particular aesthetic commitment, and does not masquerade as an objective recounting of events, but presents the ethnographer and her process as a vital part of the research. Mik’s process of reworking each photo reveals the artistic hand in ways that the camera cannot capture.

Together with the text, I was moved to wonder about the role of art and creativity not only in the lives of older people, but in my own perspective of aging and the ways I engage with aging visually. I reflected on the way these images were different from other images of aging that circulate in popular media. Most of all, I came to think about my own writing on creativity in aging, the aesthetic commitments that I use to convey the complexity and everyday life in old age.

Jason’s comments prompt several trains of thought, but the one I want to look at here is his point that ethnography does not pretend to a simple objectivity.

1978 1999

Drawing is not objective: that’s why it matters

The idealisation of objectivity in contemporary culture has long troubled me—I wrote about it 15 years ago, in the introduction to Use or Ornament?—both because it is untrue and because it is used to promote or disqualify certain forms of knowledge and, by extension, certain values, ideas and political theories. Artistic method is central to Regular Marvels, both in the collaborations with other artists and in the literary construction of my texts, partly to signal plainly that these books do not aspire to the kind of objectivity that is used to legitimise some kinds of science and, through intellectual sleight of hand, what is called ‘evidence-based policy’.

The risk, even in questioning the hegemony of this concept of how knowledge is created, is to be accused of methodological failure and therefore irrelevance. That bad faith shows why scientism in Western culture must be challenged: after all, testing is intrinsic to scientific method. Scientific objectivity can be vital in the right places. But it is not the only method of thinking deeply and with integrity about human experience. Nor is it the only way of distinguishing truth from falsehood. The vast and ancient practice of art is another, which is why 2,500 year old plays can still move us today, though we are so different from the people who created them.

And, despite the inability of some scientists, politicians, academics and, yes, artists, to understand it, these human systems of knowledge are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary, interactive and mutually rewarding.

The work of ethnography is one area, among others, where acceptance of the limits of objectivity challenges the researcher to be even more watchful of their own biases, because they do not trust a method to do it for them. Rather than pretending that their own reality can be left at the laboratory door, ethnographers, like good artists, bring it inside, the better to keep a watch on it.

A note on the photographs: Nicholas Nixon and the Brown Sisters

Nicholas Nixon and Bebe

The photographs that I’ve used to illustrate this post (alongside one of Mik Godley’s images, which are already familiar to visitors to this site) come from a remarkable project by Nicholas Nixon. Since 1975, Nicholas Nixon has made an annual group portrait of his wife with her three sisters. The resulting sequence now stretches over 30 years and is one of the most extraordinary works of portraiture I have seen.

In a press release for a 25 year retrospective of the series, the Zabriskie Gallery wrote this about the series:

For this ongoing series, the artist adheres to two unwavering constants. First, the sisters always pose in the same frontal sequence; Laurie, Heather, Bebe, and Mimi. Second, regardless of how many negatives exposed, only one is selected for printing from each individual year’s batch. This imparts a scientific approach to the work, with its unchanging variables, setting parameters for the creative process. However, operating within these limits also allows the subject matter to richly expand, allowing the viewer to partake more empathetically in the lives of the four individuals.

Despite the misuse of the word ‘scientific’, this is clearly an artistic method, using its own rules. It is also extraordinarily rigorous since it imposes a shared responsibility for the continuation of the process on the sitters. But what matters, in the end, is that the work is a beautiful and moving reflection on human life.