Art and reality

“Art is not a copy of the real world. One of the damn things is enough.” (attributed to Virginia Woolf)

“Would you give me an artistic kiss?” My mother asked me this when I was five, and the question keeps coming back to me when I think about art and what it means: what is an artistic kiss? Years later it occurred to me that for my mother, art began in films – namely, where real life ends. And the artistic kiss seemed to her so at odds and overwrought that it could only occur in films. Following that realization, the question of “reality” and its relation to “art” played an important role in my life as a student in Iran and Germany and then in my work as a freelance artist. The “I” living in different realities and the “realities” that have lived in me can influence my art and serve as sources of inspiration. But what exactly is “reality” and where is the line between it and “art”?

Aristotle writes in his Poetics that “a likely impossibility is … preferable to an unconvincing possibility”. For him one of the purposes of a poem is to create likely realities from impossibilities. For my mother the “artistic” kiss was only conceivable in the artificial reality of a film, but for many other people that type of kiss is a constant part of their everyday realities. Individual biographies are full of events that seem unreal or impossible: events we can hardly believe have occurred despite reminding ourselves that they have in fact done so in our lives. These events need not have occurred long before time can veil them in its shadows and keep us from ”real”-izing them. On the day Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, at least half the world’s population probably found it hard to grasp that this was actually happening. On the other hand, a political scientist can use figures and diagrams to reconstruct developments in US-American society as “probably” leading to that kind of reality. But what happens when such “impossible” events in our lives enter the realm of literature and art? How and when can art construct such events in real and convincing ways? What approach do artists take when seeking to build bridges between impossible realities and the transposition and realization thereof in art: an affirmative, a critical or a transformative approach?

During the years of Stalinist terror the poet Anna Akhmatova spent long hours in lines outside prisons to visit her son. “One day somebody ‘identified’ me,” she wrote. “Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘Yes, I can’.” And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face” (trans. D.M. Thomas, NY, Knopf, 2006). The journalist Carolin Emcke examines the unarticulated and unnamed “this” in her book Weil es sagbar ist. Über Zeugenschaft und Gerechtigkeit. “To be precise: what is this ‘this’ that makes it a linguistic problem? What is unspeakable about it? Why does the woman ‘with blue lips’ need another person, a stranger? Why can’t she describe her experience at the prison herself – like she can presumably put a neighbor’s visit, her child’s first day of school, or the last harvest into words?” In my view the ”this” refers precisely to such cases that appear impossible and unconvincing. And describing them requires a language of poetry – namely, that of Anna Akhmatova, whom the woman ‘with blue lips’ considers eminently capable of convincingly conveying the “this” into art.

What is “reality”? Where does it start and where does it end? What role does it play in the art of our time – and where is the line between reality and art? Art confronts reality to different degrees – and vice versa. But the two realms are engaged in constant exchange. They permeate and influence each other. Instead of asking “what is art?” we might take the modified formulation from the US-American philosopher Nelson Goodman, namely “when is art?” But can this question help us trace the line between “reality” and “art”? Does one stop where the other begins? How can the “impossible reality” of one person become a possible reality for others? The question of the relation between art and reality plays a key role in artistic and academic discussions of “art and society”, “art in context”, and “art and politics”. The associated questions and explorations are also of crucial importance to my professional activities as an artist – be they those of selecting topics, shaping processes or engaging with the work of other artists.

Saeed Foroghi