A year after an emoji was chosen as the word of the year in 2015, Oxford Dictionaries picked another winner on Wednesday, and it is post-truth. In explanation of such decision, they stated that this word which questions the concept of facts themselves best characterizes 2016. It is, in fact, an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” But is this post-truth amount to a lie? Or are we trying to nuance further the conceptual space between the truth and a lie? Where truth stops and post-truth begins, and where post-truth ends, and a lie begins? Perhaps the answer to this will be crystallized in the months or years to come, but what we know today is that the world is changing in a direction which puts to question and blurs not just the conceptual meanings, but more profoundly the values and codes our societies are built upon. And what about art in this post-truth world?
It is perhaps better to talk today about truthiness rather than truth. This coinage made by Stephen Colbert in 2005, and which was the word of the year of American Dialect Society 11 years ago, is described as "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be genuine, rather than concepts or facts known to be true." In everyday politics the ideas of truthiness and post-truth may have significance, especially considering the present moment, but how these ideas translate in art? Can we discuss art through the prism of post-truth, and haven’t art been always a search for personal truths that are not necessarily truthful when put in a broader perspective? Over the centuries artists strived to present either truth that was prescribed by some higher authorities, such as Catholic Church for example, or by their own sensibilities which saw the world in a different light from those of the majority. Think of the Noli me Tangere painting by Tizian from 1514, or a more contemporary example of one of the Francis Bacon’s self-portraits. How truthful they are, or what type of truthiness they represent? In the first, a woman is trying to touch a supposedly deceased man who walks by her, and on the second we see everything but the face of a ‘real’ person. The person’s anatomy disappears behind the expressive play of color and lines.
"Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
-George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946
Going back to the Oxford Dictionaries’ choice of the word of the year, they explicated it through the surge of the use of post-truth in the last year - an amazing 2,000% up - and the general political atmosphere following the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in America, which saw also the rise in use of the phrase post-truth politics. The prefix post- has been used frequently in recent years in phrases post-war, or post-match, but in the case of post-truth, its meaning is removed from the temporal designations. Instead of relating to a time after a certain event, post- in post-truth instead denotes “a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant.”  The truth is of secondary importance in post-truth politics, which plays on emotions and feelings and disregards facts. The idea is not to convince anyone that a lie is, in fact, true, but to reinforce prejudices. Although art plays on emotions and actively uses and manipulates them for expressive purposes, its politics, if it is about to bring any change, should correspond with an aesthetic regime of Jacques Rancière. Distinguished from ethical and poetic regimes which either relegate artworks to fickle and untrue representations, or make imitation into art’s main purpose, aesthetic regime breaks the barriers between artistic practices and social and political spheres, and engages arts with politics, society, and thought. This engagement, however, should be based on critical renderings of reality, which empowers and makes visible what is already there, but made marginal by different power regimes.
The dispute between Van Gogh’s Arles Sketchbook promoters and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is one of the examples where truth and lie in art clash. The highly-regarded expertise of the museum was not enough to completely convince the public that the Sketchbook is a fake. It was published and disseminated under the banner of being original by its promoters. In the post-truth era, the hype of finding the lost Van Gogh’s works seems enough to entice public interest and gather its support, while the truth seems less important.
The facts no longer respond with the reality we agree on, or wish to believe in. Richard Prince, a controversial American artist, got into the arena of post-truth art through his tweet in which he denounces originality of a work he sold to Ivanka Trump. His piece is actually an inkjet picture that reproduces to every detail and emojis a selfie from Ivanka’s Instagram. Known as appropriation artist, Prince with this gesture hits at the current culture of denouncing everything as fake if it clashes with our beliefs and ‘truths’. His self-deprecatory tweet is a performative gesture that shows us how truth can be fickle and dependent on a power of personal proclamations.
“If you master the language of truth, you can really build a story that looks totally real. That’s so easy to do nowadays that it’s very dangerous. At one point, I just didn’t want to be part of that construction any more” , states photographer Cristina de Middel as she plays with fiction and facts in her works. Dissatisfied with the language of truth that can be so easily distorted, this award-winning photojournalist turned to construct her own ‘truths’ in which she multiplies and exaggerates stereotypes and clichés to the maximum, in order to provoke thinking about them in the observers. In her Afronauts series, she explored stereotypes about Africa through the reimagining of Zambia’s extinct Cold War space program.
The fragmentation of news sources has been pinned down among the culprits for the creation of the post-truth era we are living in. Multiplication of media sources has created a space for a dissemination of lies and rumors in an atomized society where people in a group or a network are more prone to believe their members than mainstream media. Art in such an equation is another outlet that can engage in dismantling of the post-truth world by disclosing the untruthful nature of politics and its manipulative practices. However, such acts require determination, and often even significant sources and expertise cannot cut through the web of lies. However, as Cristina de Middel explains and shows through her practice, even through lies and imaginary worlds of art we can come to the truth. We only need to preserve a critical eye, and question everything.
Featured image: Gottfried Helnwein - The Disasters of War 3, 2007. Image via helnwein.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.