Writer in Residence

The Nature of Truth in Art

By Alison Wearing

For my final post as writer-in-residence, I’d like to devote a bit of space to one of the subjects I love to chew on: the nature of truth in art. (As a friend of mine recently noted: ‘You always go after the small topics.”)

As I mentioned in my last blog post (of which this one could be considered a continuation – so maybe best to read that one first), I have been fascinated by the concept of truth since I first began to navigate the categories of fiction and non-fiction as a fledgling writer.

The nature of that divide confused and intrigued me from the outset, and I remember wandering around numerous bookstores marvelling at how clear it all seemed: all the books on this side of the aisle were fiction and all the books on that side were non-fiction. So why did I feel that so many of them actually belonged in the middle?

Rather than a ‘grey area’ between the two categories, this borderland seemed to be the opposite: the place where the true colour of life and story was found, the terrain of paradox and mystery, ambiguity and unassailability. This was profoundly rich land, wild and complex, so why this attempt to build a wall through it? What was it we were trying to defend, when truth seemed to pulse throughout the entirety of it?

And rather than erecting a border, could there be a more nuanced approach? How do we know when we are in the presence of ineffable truth, how does it sound and feel, and how do we experience it?

In service of some of these questions, I began to study the resonant truth I encountered in music and dance, sculpture and architecture, nature and myth, and in physics, and I became increasingly intrigued by what this said about where truth resides, and how it can be found and expressed.

Over the years, I gathered quotes from artists of all kinds, none of which pretend to be answers, but all of which gave me as sense of companionship in the questions. Here is a small sample:


Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham called her first dance lesson “a gesture toward the truth” and said that “movement never lies.”

“The only truth is music.”~ Jack Kerouac

“We cannot isolate the truth contained in a piece of music, for it is a beauty-truth and inseparable from its partner.” ~ Aldous Huxley

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” ~ John Keats

“In physics, beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps.” (from Why Beauty is Truth by Ian Stewart)

“There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” ~ Werner Herzog

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth” ~ Pablo Picasso

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth” ~ Albert Camus

“One cannot be precise, and still be true.” ~ Marc Chagall

“My great longing is to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodellings, changes in reality, so that they may become, yes, lies if you like – but truer than the literal ‘truth’.” ~ Vincent Van Gogh

“Facts create norms, and truth illumination.” ~ David Hockney

“There is a world of difference between truth and facts. The facts can obscure the truth.” ~ Maya Angelou

“Artistic growth is, more than anything else, a refining sense of truthfulness.” ~ Willa Cather


Some of these quotes could easily seem contentious in this so-called ‘post-truth’ era, when facts are too often vandalised, contorted or boorishly, dangerously ignored. But what all these artists are describing is not a denial of facts at all, but rather a reverence for and sensitivity to an incontestable, unquantifiable truth, one that might act as a beacon, a unified call, a lodestar.

And being able to recognise and be guided by that may be more critical now than ever.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Alison Wearing is the bestselling author of Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter, an Indigo Top 50 pick shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Prize and longlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, and Moments of Glad Grace. Her online program, Memoir Writing, ink., guides people through the process of transforming personal stories into memoir.