The Challenges of Being an Artist in a Civilization Looking for Truth

The following text was submitted as one of three critical thesis essays submitted in August 2014

originally published on Thought Catalog on August 8, 2014

If reality is linked to truth, and art reveals truth, then art presents reality. And yet, this is not literally an accurate statement since others claim that art is a representation. Art has been defined (specifically by Marcel Duchamp) as a combination of the artist, the artist’s intended creative object, and spectatorship (Duchamp). When viewers try to understand a work of art, many attempt to find what is true and what is representative of the real. Is the purpose of art to show reality? Is a work of art supposed to convey ultimate truth to its viewers? In order to best answer these questions, the ideas of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Arthur C. Danto and Hal Foster must be explored. Reality’s relationship to art is complex and has changed as the creative world has grown and evolved in time, however, in the contemporary art market, the real and true in a work of art can be expressed and rejected in a number of illusory ways.

I will discuss these ideas in three parts; the first part will focus on these authors and their ideas about determining art, reality and truth in society; the second part will be an analysis of these authors, focusing on how their ideas and writings about this topic relate and differ from each other; the third, and final, section will focus on my own understanding of reality’s relationship to art based on these authors and the greater sphere of art history. The authors discussed in this essay write about three similar but very different ideas about reality’s relationship to art. Adorno, with Horkheimer, focuses on society’s desire to grasp the true and real elements within art while mistakenly rejecting myth as its opposing force. Danto writes about a work of art as an imitation of the real, a mirror of reality, as a creative object which is inevitably separate from reality. And, Foster discusses art’s deception and trickery towards viewers.

Also note that when the word “art” is used in this essay, it is referring to a work of art, the physical object (not Duchamp’s definition) unless otherwise noted. The questions I am trying to answer are: (a) does art present reality, and (b) how does art relate to reality and to representation?


Theodor Adorno was a contemporary Germanic philosopher whose critical theories have focused heavily on society. His ideas about art, though quite extensive and complex, include an artwork’s reception within society as well as understanding the importance of a work’s presence in the social sphere. In his book, Aesthetic Theory, Adorno focuses on the beauty and the sublime in art as it is revealed within society. In his chapter, “Theories of the Origin of Art,” he ponders what is seen and what is merely known in an artwork. Is reality seen, or perhaps, known within a work of art? What is the linguistic artwork?

Adorno discusses art’s unification in the process of Enlightenment and proceeds to focus on naturalistic imitation versus reification in order to see what is natural and closest to the real. As times have changed and the audiences for art have evolved, spectators have craved art that speaks the truth and presents what is actually real. Most viewers today feel that magic and spirituality is a disillusionment of reality and therefore, such works that provide this extraordinary deception are undesirable.

While art appears one way to many viewers, its physical expression is not always consistent or obvious. Art does, however, speak a language which varies from spectator to spectator. An artwork is not universal in its projections and, therefore, a work’s meaning is different for everyone. The underlying necessity that many viewers seem to have in order to appreciate art is that it must not lie or mislead them, and that is what magic seemingly accomplishes in art: fallacy.

What art tries to reveal is the magic within its self, but that very magic correlates to Adorno’s myth more than Enlightenment (explained below), and spectators are not amused with work that is deceptive and untrue, especially when trying to grasp the authentic and real. Adorno observes that “‘the dualism of the visible and the invisible, of the seen and merely known, remains absolutely foreign to Paleolithic art’… the element of undifferentiatedness from reality in the earliest art, as well as the undifferentiatedness from reality of the sphere of semblance” (Adorno 327). While magic was a large part of art’s presence and significance in the Paleolithic times, where all art was considered real, that magic has changed in the contemporary milieu and has become more of a representation of an idea or a sign of something real, rather than an imitated depiction of the real. Are spectators able to see what the work is trying to convey? Does truth exist within a work of art?

Truth is a complex idea in Adorno’s work. His book, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which he co-wrote with Max Horkheimer, reflects many ideas about society, mass culture and truth. In their chapter, “The Concept of Enlightenment,” they focus on how society seeks to embody absolute truth and the real but become lost within myth and false illusions; the distinction here is between Enlightenment and myth.

According to Adorno and Horkheimer, Enlightenment tries to dispel myth in order to overthrow fantasy with knowledge. In society, where man has fought to overthrow nature, he has also continued to fight to obtain more knowledge in order to dominate that which is weaker as well as misleading. How does this relate to understanding reality’s relationship to a work of art? If an artwork exhibits illusions and not that which is real or true, spectators, seeking to embody truth and identify with the familiar, reject the work. As written above, in Paleolithic times, the magic in a work of art was imitative of something real; it held great power and significance over the real thing being represented; the artwork could come to life. In contemporary society, that magic is dismissed in a work of art because it appears misleading and untrue; it must be dominated as myth. Society does not want to believe in something false because that will drive them away from the intelligible path they wish to continue on; they want to dominate everything that is untrue in order to really cherish and accept the real.

Adorno and Horkheimer point out that the relationship between Enlightenment and myth is reciprocal. In order for one to exist, it must be able to rely on its opposing other. For society to be able to understand Enlightenment and truth, they need to be able to struggle with myth and the untruths of the world in order to see what truth and reality ultimately is. They must experience it for their selves and allow for the magic to help guide them into a better cognitive understanding of what is true.

Philosopher Arthur C. Danto writes about the distinction between art, imitation and reality in his book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. He discusses how an artwork, as imitation, produces visuals that reflect an idea, feeling or emotion but are not literally those things; an art object is separate and set aside from the inherent reality that exists; literal representation in art has turned into an abstraction of the real. Danto talks about how art is a mirror of reality, which makes art mimetic, especially in terms of imitation. Based on whether or not the illusory effects of the real are pleasurable, Danto writes that art has become a subjective declaration of its self in representational form in order to convey an idea, historical event, person, etcetera; with this, he focuses on the gap between art and reality, imitation and reality and art and contemporary life. Because art today does not exhibit a true representation of reality, its abstractions allow for misinterpretations of the real.

Similarly to Adorno and Horkheimer, Danto writes about determining an object as a work of art rather than as a “mere real thing,” as he puts it. For viewers, how are they to comprehend a work as art when compared to any everyday object? From discussing identical red paintings on canvas to writing about Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol who created art that reinvented a common thing, Danto notes that the art world has deemed things to be considered a work of art by its frame, stage performance, quotations, exhibition in an art space, or by an artist’s branded name within commodity culture. The distinction between that which is considered to be art to that which is a real thing can be a challenge for spectators and, in many cases, forces viewers to reject an artwork because they are unable to see the difference between the creative imaginary and the real.

Art critic Hal Foster discusses this idea in regards to Pop Art in his book, The Return of the Real. He writes, in accordance with Roland Barthes, that Pop art wanted to release deep meaning from art and that the “’pop artist [did] not stand behind his work’…he [was] merely the surface of his pictures, no signified, no intention, anywhere” (Foster 128); the artist, or author, becomes released from the work in the process of ridding their artwork of deep meaning and creating something which society can immediately relate. If an artist can detach his or her self from the work, how is society expected to engage or understand the artist’s intended object? Although society can identify with the familiar, is society able to identify the work as art?

Foster writes, “some art may attempt a trompe-l’oeil, a tricking of the eye, but all art aspires to a dompte-regard, a taming of the gaze” (Foster 140). In regards to an artwork’s audience, Foster writes that a work of art tries to deceive its audience in order to present the illusion in which it wants them to fall. Is a work of art intended to reject reality and solely present the imaginary? For Foster, the tricking of the eye is to stray viewers away from seeing an imitation and to attempt to have them experience a representative image outside of reality. Foster talks about this in relation to superrealism: “It is a subterfuge against the real, an art pledged not only to pacify the real but to seal it behind surfaces, to embalm it in appearances… super-realism seeks to deliver the reality of appearance…to delay the real” (Foster 141).

Superrealism attempted to capture the super reality of the subconscious mind; in doing so, superrealists created many experimental works which touched upon the senses of their audience who saw these works as “visual conundrums with reflections and refractions of many sorts” directly related to reality (Foster 142). The eyes of viewers were tricked because the work revealed something mysterious and unfamiliar even though it was a hyper imitation of the real and familiar. Trickery draws the viewer away from an artwork because of deception and feeling fooled and mislead. That trickery fails to allow spectators to really understand a work because of the fall into deception and, therefore, many reject the work.

How do these authors relate or differ from each other? How do these ideas pertain to the reality and representation of art? These questions will be answered in the following analysis, describing each author’s detailed writings and how society has been impacted by these ideas.


Adorno is very interested in society and how they perceive works of art. Though he writes heavily about how society is striving to embody Enlightenment and reject myth and its deceptions, how does Adorno see reality in relation to art? Does art present reality? Spectators crave art that represents truth and reality; they fight to uncover the absolute truth within a visual. The problem with only searching for truth in a work of art is that, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, art does not claim to be true or absolute; art does not intentionally make any sort of statement regarding the real or authentic or genuine, but it expresses what the artist intended. If a work of art displays something that its viewers do not find familiar, many times, those viewers reject it because they cannot relate. In a world where society determines the life or death of art based on their own interests, a work, which seemingly may not speak what spectators are interested in conversing, gets rejected because many viewers perceive the work as deceptive and false; additionally, a work of art that misleads and lures its spectators away from their desired Enlightened path gets rejected and removed from society as well.

Let’s put this into exaggerated terms on the spectrum of Enlightenment versus myth. If Enlightenment embodies all that is true, real and genuine (on one end of the spectrum), and myth correlates to nature, the imaginary and untruths (on the other end), then a work of art is seen most commonly as a form of myth. If myth is rejected by a knowledge hungry society, then art is rejected with it. However, Adorno and Horkheimer write that in order to grasp Enlightenment, society needs to fully comprehend myth in order to make that distinction; one must understand all that is false and untrue in order to fully comprehend what is real and true. With this in mind, is it possible for spectators to understand the true and false components of a work of art as it may relate to the world outside of its self?

Aside from being able to distinguish the true and false elements of a work of art, how are spectators expected to interpret whether or not something is an imitation of the real or the real thing itself? This is an ongoing problem with modern and contemporary art because reality has become abstracted; art that formerly presented the real in a familiar way is now conceptual and mysterious, and therefore, challenging to decipher. For Danto, the only way spectators are able to know that something is art is because it is framed, staged, quoted, exhibited in an art space, performed, created by a famously known artist, etcetera. This means that regardless of any notion of the real or unreal, art has already been considered to be art by society as long as it falls under the above listed circumstances. For Danto, once a work has been deemed art, it is observed to be a mirror of reality, which means that art is a representation of the real and not the authentic thing itself (as in Paleolithic times, for example). He notes that society gets lost in trying to conceive of a work both as art and as something which presents reality (imitation).

For Hal Foster, in focusing on how society perceives of a work of art, he discusses the gaze in regards to contemporary art. He writes, “it is as if this art wanted the gaze to shine, the object to stand, the real to exist, in all the glory (or the horror) of its pulsatile design, or at least to evoke this sublime condition”(140). It is as if contemporary art is trying to exist beyond itself and truly exhibit the real in order for viewers to unite the real with the imaginary, or in Adorno and Horkheimer’s terms, to unite Enlightenment with myth. How do all of these elements relate back to reality’s relation to art? According to these authors, does art present reality? I will answer this question with my own analysis and understanding of these writings and theories.


Reality is present in a work of art because art is a type of representation depicting life as it exists. An artist is aware of their self and of the culture around them; in being cognizant of the world, an artist creates what he or she feels, thinks and knows, all of which has been influenced by society. Does an artwork present reality? In the contemporary art world, reality is more abstracted than true to the thing being represented itself. For Foster and Danto, this becomes problematic in terms of trying to find the real and true in art. Danto notes the distinction between art and imitation in contrast to reality and contemporary life; there is a gap between the object’s representation and what actually exists in reality; art is not reality but a representation of the real. When these elements merge, objects get lost identifying themselves as art or as common everyday things. Common everyday things are able to be recognized as elements of the real because society is familiar with these things. However, with abstract art in contemporary society, the distinctive lines between art and the real thing become blurred.

If reality is linked to truth, to Enlightenment, and art reveals a part of this definite truth, then does art actually present reality? Does art reveal truth? How does art relate to reality and representation? Art is a representation of reality and, while it does not claim any absolute truths, it does present an artist’s own interpretation of truth via his or her desired medium.
Adorno, with Horkheimer, focuses on society’s desire to grasp the true and real elements within art, which they call Enlightenment, while mistakenly rejecting myth as its opposing force rather than its critical partner. Danto writes about a work of art as an imitation of the real, a mirror of reality without being actual reality but separate from it. And Foster discusses art’s deception and trickery towards viewers; additionally, he writes how contemporary art tries to exist outside of itself and become super-realistic. Each of these authors addresses important notions regarding society’s reception of art. Adorno and Horkheimer understand society’s struggle to grasp all that is absolute, true and real without being mislead by deceptive illusions. A work of art might project mixed signals amidst the Enlightened sphere but, understanding the true with the untrue allows for society to gain a better perspective and understanding of the real; additionally, it allows for society to better appreciate a work of art which presents an illusion of reality while remaining separate from real life (Danto). This is imperative in attempting to preserve the life of an artwork and to prevent it from being rejected by spectators who fail to actually understand the art object. While Foster addresses the tricking of the eye, which forces spectators to wonder what is being addressed, this deceit is also able to allow for non-biased viewers to conceive of reality, beyond their subconscious, while feeling the expressions emitted from the work. These elements allow for society to accept the real and the representative in a work of art.

Together, these authors are able to discuss society’s differing perspectives of art and truth as they relate, and pertain, to each other. From engaging with art in order to obtain absolute truth to seeing reality in an imitation of the real, society which determines the survival of a work of art must reckon with the various identifications and abstractions which art presents. Deciphering the real and true within these abstractions allows for contemporary art to reveal its self to an audience open to receive. Art has different expressions for each viewer but to allow for each viewer to have their own revelation and experience makes the work express its greatest aura, emotion and truth content. If reality is connected to truth, and art is capable of revealing truth, then art is able to engage with its audience and present its perspective of reality to them. 

Work Cited:

  • Adorno, Theodor W., Gretel Adorno, and Rolf Tiedemann. “Theories on the Origin of Art.”
    Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1997. 325-31.
  • Danto, Arthur C. “Works of Art and Mere Real Things.” The Transfiguration of the
    Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981.
  • Duchamp, Marcel. “The Creative Act.” Salt Seller; the Writings of Marcel Duchamp.
    New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
  • Foster, Hal. “The Return of the Real.” The Return of the Real: The Avant-garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996.
  • Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. “The Concept of Enlightenment.” The Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.
Using Format