I got to thinking about Truth in art after a conversation about The Dark Knight Rises, whether it means anything, and if so what. Is it silly to look for deep meaning in the stories we love?
I have long suspected that artists are not as deep as we like to think they are. At the same time, I think the art they produce is often deeper than we give it credit for. This seeming paradox is resolved when you accept that fact that Truth can be conveyed through art without the express intention of the artist.
Truth is bigger than words. Words are sounds and symbols that have evolved from social interaction as a way for humans to communicate ideas to each other. But ideas can be communicated without words and words can be supplemented by other media to better convey ideas. Words are perhaps less able to communicate some more abstract and foundational ideas than other methods of conveyance.
Story is one of the oldest forms of communication. Stories frequently use words, but they are more than the words. Stories are also communicated through painting, plays, dances, music, movies or any artistic medium you can imagine. The great stories all convey Truth; that is what makes them great.
They convey to us Truth about ourselves, about the human condition, about reality and morality. Some of the Truest stories are not factually true at all. The fable of the boy who cried wolf may be historically inaccurate, but who would argue that its factual truth has any bearing on the Truth it contains?
The Matrix is True. It communicates Truth about the human condition, whether or not its creators intended it to. I have heard the Matrix compared to an abusive relationship, a political party, religion, the state, public schools, and many other institutions. All of these are True. The story in The Matrix conveys a truth that is more fundamental than any of these specific institutions and, as such, it can be applied to all of them. The more True an idea, the easier it is to apply it to multiple arenas and analogize it.
The fact that the Truth in The Matrix can be applied broadly does not mean it is merely a relative Truth. It is a timeless Truth with innumerable manifestations. Let us, for sake of example, agree to the Truth that honesty is better than deceit. It is entirely valid to say this Truth condemns a lying politician. It is equally valid to say it condemns a lying businessman, or priest, or those who lie to themselves. These diverse applications of the idea do not make it relative; they merely extend the basic Truth in different directions. If it were merely relative, we could not say that honesty is better than deceit at all.
The artist may or may not intend to convey Truth, but great art conveys it nonetheless. The artist may be grasping at some sense of the epic in her story, and when the narrative comes together it is precisely because it contains some powerful Truth that it satisfies the artist and draws the audience in and leaves a lasting impression. While there are certainly works of art that seem to contain little if any Truth, the greatest stories are True stories. Some genres lend themselves to Truth more than others, but it may be found in any of them.
J.R.R. Tolkien is said to have claimed that his Lord of The Rings trilogy had no political or philosophical axe to grind. I do not doubt his sincerity. The stories may not be intended to convey any particular truths about this or that political system or worldview, but they convey Truth nonetheless; that truth may be too basic to put into words, or too abstract to be tied to an ideology.
There is a reason we are stirred to tears or goose bumps at daring escapes, last-second rescue, triumph against all odds and heroic self-sacrifice. The great stories include common elements that reveal Truths of the human condition, and when we encounter these truths it works in us on a level deeper than what we can easily verbalize.
Time seems to be the best instrument to tease out the most poignant Truths of a great story. In its own historical context, a story may be interpreted as a more direct statement on events and ideas of the day. While this may or may not be the artists intent, over time the core Truth of the story emerge. If we return to the famous fable of the boy who cried wolf, it is not hard to imagine such a story being interpreted in numerous ways by a contemporary audience. Perhaps it could be seen as a critique of young boys as shepherds, due to their immaturity. It might be viewed as a commentary on one person in the village, or perhaps a satire of an actual event. These may all be valid in their time, but they are smaller than the Truth in the story. With time, the basic Truth has emerged as the story has been a reference point in both casual conversation and academic discourse; trust is valuable and ought to be preserved.
When I put into words the Truth in this story, it instantly limits and reduces it to less than its full power. The Truth in the story is bigger than how I have described it, because the Truth in any great story is bigger than the particular characters and features within it, or the words used to describe them. Nonetheless, you see how time winnows away the more temporary truths in a story so the timeless Truth can emerge.
It is an entirely reasonable and valuable exercise to look for the Truth in art and draw analogies to life experiences. This does not mean it is always effective. The Matrix may contain broadly applicable Truth, but it doesn’t mean that everyone will see the same value you do in comparing it to, say, the American Bicycle Polo Association. The barrage of commentary on art that seeks to draw from every new movie or book a parallel to the latest election is tiring and leaves the casual art consumer yelling, “It’s just entertainment, leave it alone!” Perhaps we would do well to shut up and let the art sink in for a while before determining if it conveys any Truth at all, and if so in what ways it might be usefully employed.
Still, the Truth of great art is incredibly valuable to our individual search for fulfillment and self-discovery as well as our ability to share ideas with each other. Nearly everyone has seen The Matrix by now, and this fact provides a common foundation for an abstract Truth which is difficult to convey with words. This foundation allows us to build out new ideas without verbally constructing the basic blocks. I have used Matrix references in conversation with great success, just like so many of us use references to the boy who cried wolf. A world of Truth is conveyed with reference to a story.
When art conveys Truth it plants a seed in all of those who consume it. This seed can be watered and cultivated to grow into multiple manifestations of the basic Truth, but the seed itself provides the core idea and the DNA for applications to our lives.
For this reason, it is entirely defensible to assume that artists do not intend to convey any great Truth, but if they produce great art, Truth will be in it. It is not contradictory for the same work of art to be described as conveying two different truths, stemming from the same Truth. It is not worthless to extract meaning in and make analogy from stories, even if the creator does not find the same meaning. Art is one of the most valuable tools in the search for and sharing of Truth, and it should not take a back seat to less entertaining mechanisms.
So yeah, go ahead and make those analogies between The Dark Knight Rises and whatever worldview you feel it applies to. But be on the lookout for a more subtle Truth in the story that may remain when the ideologies of the moment fade away. Or if that’s not your cup o’ tea, just have fun watching the movie. If it’s a great story, some Truth will find its way to you either way.