Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Truth and Verisimilitude in a Work of Art
GA 30.2.21

August 1898

Translated by Olin D. Wannamaker

The question “What kind of truth should be demanded of a work of art?” is discussed comprehensively by Goethe in the form of a very interesting imaginary conversation. What is there presented outweighs whole volumes more recently written on this topic. Since the interest in the question at present prevailing is as vivid as the confusion is great, it may not be amiss to recall here the principal ideas expressed by Goethe.

His point of departure is the representation of “a theatre in a theatre.” “On a German stage,” he says, “there was represented an oval structure of a somewhat amphitheatrical form with many spectators painted in the boxes as if they were witnessing what took place below them. Many members of the actual audience seated in the parquet and the boxes were dissatisfied with this, offended at the idea that anyone could impose upon them something so untrue and improbable. In this connection there occurred a conversation of which the approximate content is here recorded.”

The conversation takes place between an attorney, representing the artist, who considers that he solved his problem correctly in producing the picture of the spectators, and an actual member of the audience, who is not satisfied with the painted spectators, because he demands the truth of nature.

This spectator requires that “everything shall at least seem to be true and real.” “Otherwise,” he asks, “why would a decorator take such pains to draw every line with the utmost precision according to the laws of perspective, to paint every object strictly in accordance with the principles of light and shade? Why is study devoted to costumes? Why such heavy expenditure permitted for the sake of accuracy, in order to transport me back into those times? Why is the greatest fame gained by the actor who most perfectly expresses the feelings, who comes closest to truth in dialogue, posture, gesticulation, who cheats me into believing that what I am beholding is not an imitation but the thing itself?”

The attorney for the artist undertakes to argue that all this is far from justifying the spectator in demanding that persons and events on the stage must be so presented as to seem actual. On the contrary, what he ought to demand is that he shall never for one moment have the impression of beholding reality, but always that of semblance, though a semblance of reality.

At first the spectator thinks the attorney is indulging in a mere quibble. To this impression Goethe very admirably has the attorney reply: “And I may respond that, when the subject of discussion is the action of our minds, there are no words delicate and subtle enough for the purpose, so that such word play indicates an actual necessity of the mind, which, since we cannot express directly what takes place within us, seeks to achieve this by means of antitheses, by answering the question from two sides, getting hold of the thing, as it were, in the middle between the two.”

Persons accustomed to the crass and crude concepts produced by every-day existence often see nothing but needless quibbling in the delicate differentiations among concepts that must be made by one who desires to grasp the subtle and infinitely complicated relationships within reality. Certainly it is true that clever battling with words may enable one to establish a system based upon words alone, but the person who establishes the system is not always responsible for the fact that words are void of concepts. It may frequently happen that one who hears the word simply fails to associate a concept with it. Very often does it become a matter for amusement when people complain that they cannot connect any ideas with the words of some philosopher. They always assume that the blame belongs to the philosopher—but it is often the fault of the readers, who simply possess no capacity for thinking, whereas the philosopher has thought a very great deal.

There is a marked difference between “seeming real” arid “having the appearance of reality.” Representation on the stage is obviously an appearance. One may hold the opinion that the appearance must have such a character as to create the illusion of reality. Or one may be convinced that the appearance should truly indicate: “I am no reality; I am appearance only.” When appearance possesses this honest character, it cannot derive its laws from reality; it must possess laws of its own, not identical with those belonging to reality. The person who desires an artistic appearance which apes reality will say everything in a theatrical representation must proceed just as it would if the process had actually occurred. He who wishes a theatrical appearance which shows itself truly as an appearance will say, on the contrary, that much within a stage representation must proceed in a manner different from that of reality; that the laws of interrelationship within a dramatic occurrence are different from those in real life.

In other words, one who holds such a conviction must admit that there exist in art laws of interrelationship among facts for which no model is found in nature. Such laws are mediated by fantasy. Fantasy does not create on the model of nature; it creates, side by side with the truth of nature, a higher truth of art.

This conviction Goethe causes the attorney for the artist to affirm. “The true in art and the true in nature,” he declares, “are wholly dissimilar, and the artist is neither required nor permitted to make his work seem an actual work of nature.”

Only those artists will seek to provide the truth of nature in their works who are deficient in fantasy and for this reason are unable to create anything artistically true, but must borrow from nature if they are to bring anything into existence. And only those spectators will demand the truth of nature in works of art who do not possess a sufficient degree of aesthetic culture to rise to the level of demanding a special truth in art side by side with the truth of nature. They know only the true which they experience in daily life; and, when confronted by art, they ask: “Does this artistic thing correspond with the reality with which we are acquainted?” The person of artistic cultivation is aware of something true in a different sense from that pertaining to ordinary reality. This other aspect of truth lie seeks in art.

Goethe causes the attorney for the artist to clarify the difference between a person with artistic culture and one devoid of this by means of a homely but highly pertinent example, as follows: “A great scientist possessed among his domestic animals an ape. He once missed the ape and found him, after long search, in his library. The animal was seated on the floor, surrounded by scattered etchings from an unbound work on natural history. Astonished at this zealous study on the part of this friend of the family, the gentleman approached and perceived—to his amazement and vexation—that the epicurean ape had bitten out all pictures of beetles he had found scattered through the book.”

The ape is acquainted only with beetles true according to nature, and the manner in which he conducts himself in ordinary life toward such beetles is that of eating them. In the illustrations, he was confronted not by reality but only by appearance. He takes appearance for reality, and behaves toward it accordingly.

Those persons who take artistic appearance as a reality are in the situation of the ape. When they witness on the stage a scene of abduction or of love-making, they wish to derive from such things just what they derive from similar scenes in actuality.

In Goethe's conversation the spectator is led through the example of the ape to a more correct view of artistic enjoyment. He asks: “Does not the uncultivated devotee inevitably demand that the work of art should be naturalistic for the very reason that he may thus enjoy it in a natural way—often crude and commonplace?”

A work of art requires enjoyment on a higher level than a work of nature. One who has not implanted this higher form of enjoyment in himself through aesthetic cultivation is like the ape that eats the pictured beetles instead of observing them and thereby gaining scientific knowledge. The lawyer voices this truth in the statement: “A perfect work of art is a work of the human spirit, and in this sense also a work of nature. But the fact that the scattered objects are grasped as a unity, and even the most commonplace of these included according to its significance and worth, lifts it above the level of nature. It requires for its comprehension a spirit harmonious through innate character and through discipline, and such a spirit finds the excellent, the perfect, likewise, in accordance with his own nature. The ordinary dilettante has no conception of this; he deals with a work of art as with something for sale in the market, but the true connoisseur sees not only the correctness of the imitation but also the special excellence of the matter chosen, the brilliance of the composition, the super- earthly character of the miniature world of art. He feels that he must raise himself to the level of the artist in order to enjoy the work of art; that he must gather himself together out of his distracted life, must live with the work of art, viewing it again and again, thereby bestowing upon himself a new level of existence.”

Art that strives to attain only the truth of nature, the mere aping of the commonplace every-day actuality, is discredited the moment one senses within oneself the possibility of attaining the higher existence 'mentioned above as a prerequisite. This possibility can be sensed in its reality by each person only with respect to himself. For this reason, a universally convincing refutation of naturalism is an impossibility. One who knows only the every-day commonplace actuality will always cling to naturalism. One who discovers in himself the capacity for perceiving above the entity of nature a special entity of art will feel that naturalism constitutes the aesthetic philosophy of Philistines.

When this becomes clear, one will not battle against naturalism with the weapons of logic or any other weapons. For such a conflict would be like an attempt to prove to the ape that pictures of. beetles are to be observed and not to be eaten. If one could succeed to the extent of showing the ape that pictures of beetles are not to be eaten, the ape would never understand why pictured beetles exist at all—since they cannot be eaten. So it is with the aesthetically uncultivated. It may be possible to bring him to the point of seeing that a work of art is not to be treated like something for sale in the market. But, since he would still understand only such a relationship as he can acquire to things he finds in the market, he will fail to see the reason for the existence of a work of art.

This is the approximate content of Goethe's conversation to which we are referring. It is clear that we have here a treatment on a high level of questions which are today being probed into afresh by many persons. The investigation of these and other matters would be needless if people would take the trouble to assimilate the ideas of those who have already dealt with these things against the background of a culture of unparalleled elevation.