Truth and Fact-ion

I joined a discussion over at Christ and Pop Culture; where the author of the blog, David Dunham, was made to wonder about historical accuracy in art by a recent gift of the HBO series JOHN ADAMS.

He mentioned two points that I addressed (you may wish to read the original blog), the first referring to a scene where John Adams upbraids an artist for taking artistic license in his painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. David wonders why the filmmakers would include such a scene, when they themselves took artistic license.

The second point is a question David raises, which I include in the body of my response.

So here is what I had to say:


David,

I would suppose that the makers of the film included that scene precisely to point out the liberties they themselves have taken; a wink to the audience that while portraying history, we should keep in mind that it is a portrayal.

As to your question of “Is it appropriate for us to alter the truth, to change history, to manipulate facts in order to communicate things in a more attractive and memorable way?” I would take issue with the limitations you place on art, the assumption that if facts are manipulated, the only reason would be for attractiveness.

Certainly, many writers or filmmakers take an easy route for such reasons; but the more serious artist might have another reason: to deepen the truth. (Just to be clear about how dangerous I am, let me say: facts and truth are not the same thing.)

In the example of the painting in JOHN ADAMS – the artist could have shown the facts of the setting with 56 separate paintings, and that certainly would have been true. But the artist wanted to show another reality: the unity required by the Continental Congress to pull off this feat.

It was an extraordinary thing – to get all of congress to agree unanimously on such an enormous issue. Unthinkable! Yet somehow it was achieved.

Thus the artist was able to capture a deeper truth with a factual inaccuracy.

At the same time, and this is critical to your discussion, the artist wasn’t attempting to replace the facts. The painting is a DVD extra, a supplement to add to our understanding.

So the Three Kings in art aren’t meant to say there were only three magi, and that they had these specific names, and they were exactly yeah tall – but rather to speak, in artistic terms, to the three aspects of the named gifts. The moment the artist seeks to change a fact in order to replace it, the artist is in error.

But allow me to dig in one step further with this thesis: any and all representations of historical events are by nature not factual.

I will grant you Luke as Gospel Truth; but every painting, staging, song, dance or retelling that followed are interpretations that include “inaccuracies.” Even reading the gospel account out loud creates inaccuracy – the mere emphasis on certain words and lilt of voice create interpretation.

Let’s face it: it is historically inaccurate to cast a man that looks like Paul Giamatti to portray a man that looked like (because he was) John Adams. And when we cling too closely to attempting to be factual, we often become less and less truthful.

I am not in any way saying that facts don’t matter; or that lying is allowed. The artist, like the Christian, is obligated to hold onto truth.

So instead, let us ask: Did Giamatti capture the essence of Adams? Was the true heart of the man given us on screen? Can we add this supplement, this television mini-series, to our history and come up with a more complete view of the man and his times?

More relevant, perhaps, then asking if John Adams really looked like Giamatti.

As Christians, we should safeguard the facts, absolutely. But we shouldn’t limit truth to just the facts.

Just my thoughts,

Sean

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One response to “Truth and Fact-ion”

  1. Linds says :

    My freshman history students had this debate last week – we’re looking at Roman history, and the Romans treated their history like we treat historical fiction. If an account worked to communicate a truth, it didn’t matter if it was accurate or not. We debated its merits and what dangers are inherent in creating a mythos for the origin of a nation that’s not based on fact.It’s interesting to think of it from an artistic angle, though, especially since the great, never-ending argument of history is whether history is an art or a science. Good food for thought.

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