The Serious Business of Lying and the Enterprise of Fiction

Battle of Borodino

Image via Wikipedia

Ursula Le Guin objects to the idea that science fiction is predictive. In 1976, she wrote:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

— Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness

Lying, you might say, is serious business. Even when it comes to fiction, when we like to be lied to. But why do we like to be lied to, those of us who read fiction and pay good money to see movies?

There’s a clue in the title of John Dufresne’s guide to writing fiction: The Lie That Tells a Truth. Fiction and film, at their best, package important truths in a tissue of lies. Some of these truths we already know before our fictive experience of them. Others we learn, if we trust the lies, when fiction happens to us. And often it is our capacity to trust the lie that makes us vulnerable to truths.

Some will protest that the novelist and the screenwriter do not lie. After all, we know “it’s only a story.” But since when has this stopped us from believing what we know isn’t so? Isn’t Le Guin onto something when she says,

In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napolean. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

And in the thick of our believing, we don’t want to be reminded that “it’s only a story.” We’re like the lad whose grandfather reads to him in the movie The Princess Bride. He’s not as ambivalent as he pretends. And neither are we. If it’s a really good story.

Favorite Christmas Card?

Filippino Lippi, ca. 1485

By now you probably have a collection of Christmas cards from people thinking of you during this season of celebration.

Do you have a favorite card? Can you describe it? How does it speak to you? Please leave your comment.

Today we received a card featuring the beautiful detail of “Madonna and Child” painted by the Florentine artist Filippino Lippi (ca. 1485). The image to the right shows more of the detail than is included on the card.

The card (shown left) is a close-up of the Madonna, whose expression of pensive tenderness seems to convey humility, and perhaps vague uncertainty about the child’s future.

Mary’s vestments reflect the honor due her as one chosen by God for her unique role in history, rather than for any special respect she enjoyed among her peers.

Performing on a Guitar—The Milke Way

Amanda Milke imagines musical instruments in the bright colors of acrylic. Maybe I should say she re-imagines instruments in acrylic.

An artist living in Alberta, Canada, Milke specializes in painting with acrylic. Her subjects include musical instruments. That is, she paints musical instruments. Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? But when Amanda paints a musical instrument, the instrument is her canvas. The result isn’t just an object with paint on it, but a painting, albeit in an unconventional form.

For example, her painting “Guitar” is a guitar. But it’s also a painting. It’s a three-dimensional work of art whose dimensions are determined by an actual guitar. The guitar itself has been reconfigured. It is a painting. As a painting, it is perhaps no longer a guitar. At the very least, it is more than a guitar.

The “Guitar” may well have been a work of art in its pristine condition, when it was also, functionally, a musical instrument. But it was not a painting. It was a thing of beauty intended to produce more beauty. It began life as a visually beautiful artifact designed as a tool for making beauty with sound. The guitar, it can be said, was meant to be a canvas, but only in a metaphorical sense. The first artist in the history of this single artifact—a guitar maker in Paracho, Mexico, perhaps—never imagined his instrument as a painting. But a maker of guitars knows not what art will be performed by his work of art—or on his work.

Milke has performed a work of art on the guitar. But it isn’t music that she performs, at least not literally. Her performance is a transformance of the guitar. Maybe the music performed on a guitar can also be regarded as a transformance of the guitar. If the guitar was used to compose original great music, that makes the guitar special in a way it wasn’t before. If the guitar was played to soothe anxious hearts, its function is compounded and the guitar has “changed.” If the guitar came to be owned and used by Elvis Presley or Roy Rogers or Andre Segovia, it isn’t the guitar is used to be. These are all ways to regard the transformation of the original guitar.

Milke’s transformation is more radical. It is a representation of a guitar in a way that past musical performances on the guitar were not. The medium of representation is acrylic paint. (I’m not suggesting that a guitar could not be used to play a melody that sounds like a guitar.) Milke’s representation differs from other paintings of guitars. Her representation is enhanced by the infrastructure of the canvas. The object as canvas becomes a painting of a guitar, and not just painting on a guitar. This particular canvas, though, is guitar-ish. And that informs the effect of the painting.

Milke’s painting may be more than the representation of a guitar. It may be a representation of this guitar. There’s a trivial sense in which it has to be. But there’s a non-trivial sense in which the painting may or may not be a representation of this guitar. The guitar-as-canvas has an individual history as a guitar. Milke creates a painting of a guitar on a guitar, a particular guitar. And this particularity may be embedded in the representation of the guitar by the painting Milke calls “Guitar.” This painting may evoke feelings (through memories, for example) about the guitar as it was. It may say something about this particular guitar—how it was played, what sort of person played this guitar, the spirit of the music played, the audience for whom it was played.

If the guitar was her own, the painting may mean something different to Milke than if the guitar belonged to someone she knows and cares about. Her past experiences with the guitar as guitar may inform her present representation of it in the painting “Guitar.” This representation may further particularize the representation, narrowing it down from a range of possible representations, each of which might have meaning for her. The importance of this representation, whatever it is, may override whatever value the other representations would have had for Milke. Comparing this representation with alternative possibilities might enable a firmer grasp of the envisioned representation by the painting.

Consider “Guitar” as a public artifact, viewed by others with no experience of that particular guitar. It is meaningful to ask, “What is represented for them by this painting?” The answer lies in the experiences that are evoked. Who can say what they are or will be? It would no doubt difficult enough for one viewer to express in words the effect this painting has on him. Even the artist may not be able to express this meaning for herself in words. For her, the expression of meaning may be contained in the painting, so that the painting expresses the unutterable, evokes memories too grand for words, reconstructs experiences of the guitar and its music that cannot be repeated in their original fashion, or (and?) produces altogether new and pleasing experiences.

Milke’s imagining of the guitar—the original musical instrument—as a canvas has itself become a part of the guitar’s history. The potential for this imagining was there from the beginning. But it was an unnatural potential. Every guitar has this potential, but this potential is not always actualized. Why was such unnatural potential realized in the case of this particular guitar? Whatever the answer, it sets this guitar apart from all others.

So this particular guitar has a three-phased history. There was the guitar as musical instrument, the guitar behind the “Guitar.” There was (and still is?) the guitar as canvas, the locus of re-creation. And there is now the “Guitar,” a painting.


It may not seem so, but what I’ve said about Milke’s “Guitar” reflects a personal response to the painting. The abstractions I’ve expressed are the fruit of my engagement with this work of art. But they are barely “existential.” They say little about my own experiential contact with the object. They do not answer the question, “What resonance does this painting have for me?”

I could leave it at that. But that wouldn’t be very daring.

It has to be said that my experience of the painting is limited. It is mediated by a digital foto of the painting. The foto is of the painting hanging on a wall. It is part of a room. Being present in that room and beholding the painting would no doubt inform my experience of “Guitar.” So my actual experience is conditioned by imagining what that might be like.

Milke is a working artist. She depends on the patronage of others who commission paintings that bear the stamp of her imagination and creativity. So the abstraction from context by this foto may be unavoidable if not deliberate. It indicates what can be done to or for an old musical instrument “The Milke Way.” And it invites, if it pleases, viewers to consider enlisting Milke’s artistic talent to perform something on one or more of their own instruments.

Considered in this perspective, I wonder what instrument I would be willing to surrender to such aesthetic playfulness. Mind you, I have a trumpet and a guitar. Full disclosure requires that I confess to having both a banjo and a harmonica, as well. The harmonica, though a good one, I could relinquish. But I cannot imagine it as a canvas. And it doesn’t have enough meaning for me to memorialize it as a work of art. I would be more inclined to mount it in a shadow box for display on a wall in my study, like a pair of 19th-century pistols.

I still entertain dreams of playing the banjo well enough to please my ear, if not the ears of others. So painting it is out of the question.

I do feel some nostalgia for my trumpet and for my guitar (which, as it happens, was crafted in Michoacan, Mexico). These, I suppose, are conditions conducive to the Milke method of memorialization. But it is also in precisely this regard that I balk. The probability that I will “play the trumpet” is incredibly low. No one in my immediate family has the slightest inclination to learn it. It has sat in its original case, unopened for who-knows-how-long under a section of my desk at home. The chrome latches and hinges on the case have rusted and the lid sports a ghastly sticker that meant nothing to me when I applied it when I was in fifth grade. I don’t even know what “Flying-O” refers to. But I had a casual friend who had a vast collection of stickers and he was willing to part with this one. Maybe I thought it would solidify an unlikely bond if I accepted his gift and displayed it with suitable prominence. I can’t remember.

Have I wandered far from describing my personal encounter with Milke’s “Guitar”? No. These are thoughts dredged up by my contemplation of the painting. The painting caused me to wonder, “Would I do that to one of my own instruments, languishing in a dark corner, but somehow deserving permanent possession and renewed appreciation? The trumpet would seem a good candidate, if acrylic would adhere.

I think I could be talked into a painting of my trumpet. But I would have to be talked into it. I like the idea of displaying it. But I wouldn’t like doing so with it in its present condition. It’s just a trumpet, after all, and everybody’s seen a trumpet. Maybe I just can’t imagine a painting that would evoke the few precious memories I have of playing it.

You see, I’m still talking about Milke’s painting “Guitar.” This is where her painting has led me.

What about my own guitar? Nothin’ doin’. I can’t believe now that I once was able to pluck out a handful of classical numbers. The presence of my guitar is the only remaining stimulus to my memory of those days.
There it is. It’s my guitar. I must have had one for a reason. Oh, yes. I took lessons. I even did a couple of recitals. Hmm. That feels like someone else’s life. Why not paint it and hang it on the wall? No way. My younger daughter plays electric guitar. Who knows? Maybe she’ll mellow and take an interest . . . .

Under what conditions, then, would I yield an instrument of my own to the aesthetic mutations we’ve been talking about?

It would have to be one I’ve owned for some time. It would have to be one I’ve played. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be meaningful. Maybe the instrument would have to carry more meaning than any of the instruments I have. Maybe I would feel silly memorializing a thing I abandoned for lack of discipline. Maybe I don’t want to memorialize my musical lassitude.

Then again, maybe I should. Maybe it would be therapeutic to have before me a brash reminder that my values were skewed. Maybe it would goad me toward greater discipline in new undertakings. After all, the banjo still beckons.



Discussion Questions:

  1. Is Amanda Milke’s “Guitar” really a painting?
  2. Is “Guitar” still a guitar?
  3. Is it useful to think of the guitar painted in “Guitar” as a canvas? Can you think of another object that might be a suitable but unlikely canvas for painting? What makes a object of this kind suitable as a canvas?
  4. Which instruments are good candidates for this sort of aesthetic transformation? What are the artistic possibilities? Is there another medium besides acrylic that might be effective?
  5. Imagine yourself as the guitar maker. How would you feel if you knew that a guitar you made had been painted in this way?
  6. What kind of meaning would the painting “Guitar” have for you if was a gift to you by a casual friend? How does this compare with other kinds of art you admire or would be willing to display?
  7. If you were to display “Guitar” in your own digs, where would it hang? What would guests say about it?
  8. Do you think it’s possible for a guitar to play a melody that suggests “guitar-ness”? What would instrumental music played on a guitar about a guitar sound like? Compare this with the potentialities for saying something about a guitar by painting it.
  9. Do you have a musical instrument that you don’t play that you’d still like to keep? If so, how strong is your feeling about the instrument? Why do you wish to hold on to it? Would painting it “the Milke way” be an appealing possibility?
  10. If you were to paint an old guitar of your own, what would you want it to look like? What feelings would you wish to evoke? Would you be more likely to commission someone else, like Amanda Milke, or paint it yourself?
  11. If you have an old instrument with a rich history and nostalgic significance, imagine painting it in a way that would represent that richness. What instrument would it be and what would the painting look like?
  12. If you’ve seen the movie The Red Violin, imagine painting it so that the painting reflected the “personal history” of the violin. What do you visualize? Imagine owning a violin and compare the treatment of the “Red Violin” by its various owners throughout its history with the brief history and solitary ownership of your violin. Now suppose you were to paint them both and hang them side-by-side. How would you paint each one and how might you paint them in order to capture meaningful similarities and differences between the two violins?

Quotes: On Art

“. . . there is a tremendous social responsibility that comes with any public act we do, and that includes creative acts, as well.” —Charles Johnson, in his interview with Diane Osen for The Book That Changed My Life

“. . . Mozart sits down at the pianoforte/And composes music which had been ready/Before he himself was born in Salzburg.” —From Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Creating the World,” in New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001

“Form is an integral part of any art because art affirms order . . . .” —Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

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