Artists have always airbrushed the truth, from the court of Henry VIII to the pages of glossy magazines. Columnist Nicola Robey asks: in this ugly world of ours, is artistic dishonesty always such a bad thing?
Take heed: there are times when honesty is not always the best policy.
For instance, the phrases “yes, your playsuit gives you a camel toe visible from 150 yards”, “your new boyfriend’s face resembles an 800-year-old scrotum” and “darling, I bought you a copy of Men’s Health, get it?” are all instances when you should probably reel in the truth.
I wager we’ve all found ourselves in a relatively awkward position that requires a less than honest response, if only to save the feelings of our favourite people or prevent us from receiving a fist right in the kisser. But in visual art, honesty is something that is pretty much always been left by the wayside.
Since the dawn of brush to paper, artistic interpretation has pasted over imperfections, challenged truths and crafted finely polished versions of reality. A mere glance at Greek 2500 BC penis statue will tell you that male exaggeration probably hasn’t waned much.
But what some see as a case of artistic interpretation, others suggest is a downright lie.
Dishonesty in its artistic form has seen its fair share of victims, such as the charming monarch King Henry VIII. After dumping his last conquest, Henry decided to get back onto the dating scene, calling in portraits of buxom lovelies from every corner of Europe.
Alas, like a misleading Facebook profile, Anne of Cleve’s hugely generous picture got the hound dog frothing enough to get her shipped over to become his fourth-time-lucky-in-love spouse. Sadly, on his first encounter he likened her to a “Flanders Mare”, (a 16th-century Sarah Jessica Parker, if you will) and swiftly annulled their arrangement.
Thankfully, today we’re all too aware that images of beauty are probably tampered with, producing sirens of perfection that lure us into the false sense that all thighs, faces and arses should be as smooth as Karl Pilkington’s shiny bald head.
As gormless and impressionable as we, the general public, may seem, we’re onto these deluding fiends.
Even the eternally young Twiggy got stung by complaints of over zealous airbrushing, when real-life ageing people started to realise that, short of possessing powers that should have her burnt at a stake, she had actually become a female Benjamin Button while advertising some sort of waddle cream. The ad was revoked and only Olay holds the truth.
In the realm of paint, since the 19th-century “father of realism” Courbet smashed the romantic facade by showing his subjects in all their scarily wild pubic-haired glory (think Rory McGrath), artists have followed suit, depicting life in all its ugly, grey depression.
Paul Graham’s current photography retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery shows images of Britain in all it’s packed-dole-office, ugly-people-at-bus-stop wonder; tickets should probably come with a Prozac, to help you regain the will to live.
Is dishonesty in art always such a bad thing? Perhaps when it comes to images that push tender minds to flush their Percy Pigs down the toilet to gorge of toilet paper instead, then we have an issue. But in some ways, artistic elaboration on the truth can be a lot like escapism. Maybe we don’t always want to be reminded of the realities of everyday life: thread veins, sweat sheens, athlete’s foot and so on.
As long as our impressionable minds grasp onto the fact that art inhabits both ends of the honesty spectrum, then we’re all in a far less vulnerable place.
But, if honesty really isn’t your bag, then just fork out enough to get a superinjunction, like P-Middy’s trying to do with her pants. Genius.
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