Art and Lying

Can you lie through a piece of art?

“My father used to say that artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover it up.” -Evey Hammond (V for Vendetta)

Thanks, Evey.

This will be a pretty technical post. There is a TLDR summary of some of the complex stuff if you scroll down. But come on, give it a shot!

All lies are sins. A lie is a willful statement of what one believes is a falsehood in order to deceive another person. In other words, it is a statement at variance with the mind, which says what one thinks is false is true or what one thinks is true is false, so that one’s interlocutor erroneously believes what is said.

This is the teaching of most Catholic moralists throughout the ages, and the teaching of the Catechism (the official Latin “Editio Typica” version, which came after the edits to the original French version that removed a qualification about the “right to know the truth,” much to the pleasure of then-Cdl. Ratzinger if I recall correctly… and to this day the Vatican website quite lamentably has different texts in Paragraph 2483 in Latin and English, the former without the qualification, the latter with it). Lying is a willful misuse of our faculty of communication. Here are some resources on this topic. Knock yourself out.

According to the general trends in moral theology since St. Thomas’ time, lies are indeed wrong because of both the kind of statement (thought to be untrue) and the intention of deceit (trying to get someone to believe that statement). They are not, as has been argued by some, wrong merely because of the object… sort of. Get your moral theology hats on – or, should I say, get your Duns-caps on?

Bl. John Duns Scotus… Yes, that is the etymology of the word “dunce.”

Most lies are done through normal, verbal speaking. If I really did shoot both the sheriff and the deputy, I cannot truthfully say, “I did not shoot the deputy,” if I am asked about this particular deputy who has been shot and who is the only really possible referent to my utterance of the word “deputy.” However, if  there are  multiple deputies that have been shot (most of whom I did not shoot), or there are some deputies which have not been shot, all of whom I could realistically be talking about, that statement is not necessarily a lie – I could really speak those words in meaningful reference to one of those deputies I did not shoot. It is probably an unjust use of deception, but it is not a lie… It is what is called a “broad mental reservation.”

If I’m talking about some deputy nobody in the conversation could realistically possibly understand to be the referent of my use of the word “deputy,” then it is a “narrow mental reservation.” (This is distinct from the question of what will probably be understood, which is not at issue. The interlocutor must not realistically have conceptual access to the referent of my use of the word. I cannot legitimately make my referent the deputy of Hicktown in Nowheresville “out of the blue.”) That is actually a lie, because the use of language is for the communication of true things broadly available to those who are communicating – so I am misusing the faculty of communication, doing an act which is inherently frustrating its natural end of conveying the truth. Another way to show the problem is with a question. If I ask, “Which deputy,” those I am speaking with should be able to understand what other deputies I might be speaking of, if they try hard enough. It is this same deputy-pool out of which I might legitimately speak of a deputy whom I did not shoot, given that I did shoot the one that the others are actually speaking of.

This is not totally clear, but hopefully it’s clear enough. Exactly how to demarcate the precise limits of the “referent pool” is a great challenge but is not necessary to get into further.

The second issue at stake is whether every instance of falsehood-telling is really “lying,” supposing that all lying is wrong. I am going to do something rare and – are you ready for it? – challenge St. Thomas on something.


Language was probably not something St. Thomas was that interested in, I’m guessing. I argue that there are several lacunae (or “errors”), or at least large deficiencies in his treatment of language-related issues in the Summa. This includes his articles on derision and blasphemy, but here we will limit ourselves to his treatment of lying.

It means no errors, for the rest of your days. It’s a problem free philosophy… Lacuna Matata.

The definition St. Thomas gives of a lie is “a statement at variance with the mind.” For him, a lie even includes statements not intended to deceive. The famous story of the flying ox will come to mind of other St. Thomas fan-boys… As it goes, he was teaching a group of Dominican friars one day when one of them pointed out the window and said, “Look Brother Thomas, a flying ox!” He hurried over to the window to look, while the brothers all laughed playfully. We would not recall this incident were it not for his response: “It is better to believe that an ox can fly than that a religious could tell a lie.” The room was probably pretty quiet after that.

Maybe the story isn’t true… Or maybe the common interpretation isn’t true, insofar as it might be unreasonable to think St. Thomas would actually think it better to believe something ridiculous than something obvious – maybe he was just joking back!? But given his treatment of “jocose lies,” or “lies for fun tricks,” maybe not. They are, as he says, “not meant to deceive anyone,” and yet he treats them as venial sins… because they are lies, or statements of falsehood (which are against the mind, which cannot really be said to contain “falsity,” or else it would be rejected by the mind as false).

Why is this so? It comes down to his view that the statement against what one has in one’s mind necessarily contradicts the faculty of communication regardless of what one intends by that deed, be it deceit or some trivial pleasure. However, one must ask at least two questions…

First, can there be such a statement without the intent to deceive, given the nature of language as a tool for communication? That is, can a statement really be “at variance with the mind” without trying to put a falsehood into another’s mind, or must a statement necessarily carry with it a communicative import in accord with the falsehood one’s actual words indicate?

Second, is the act of communication limited only to the “dictionary meaning” of one’s spoken words, or is there a broader milieu of signals by which ideas are transferred?

Ironically, we may take the doctrine of St. Thomas to answer these questions. “Sins of speech are measured primarily by their intention,” he says. This is because words only have meaning inasmuch as they communicate ideas, and they only have moral relevance inasmuch as they have meaning. Given that, one must intend certain words to communicate some idea for them to have moral significance (negligence notwithstanding – you should know that yelling “fire!” in a movie theater is bad unless there’s a fire, even if you don’t actually intend to communicate anything by it). If the words are known to convey a falsehood within the linguistic context in which the communicators are part of, that is, their lexicon, cultural idioms, exclusive code-words, etc., it seems St. Thomas would call this a lie. Yet it is clear to him that this might not be meant to deceive but only to jest. Here is why this is inadequate: we also use non-verbal language as our communicative act, such as inflection, physical gestures, and the particular context in which we are in.

“My homework took sooooooo looooong last night.” This same statement could really communicate two opposite things, given a variety of factors. Is the class really easy, or really difficult? Is this person rolling his eyes playfully, or with real anguish? Etc. He could really be communicating a truth, even if his homework took no time at all.

So, words are not the exclusive matter of “statements.” St. Thomas admits this, but he fails to incorporate non-verbal communication into his treatment of jocose lies. (Here is some more information on jokes vs. jocose lies.)

It can still be said that lying is “intrinsically evil,” even though it involves a certain kind of intention in addition to a certain object. In the case of sins of speech, intention actually informs the object in a special way, because there is nothing inherently good or bad about producing collections of sounds with one’s vocal chords, unlike fatally stabbing an innocent person walking down the street, for example. Instead, one must adopt the means, “tell a falsehood,” within a particular linguistic context, to serve whatever end.

Clear as mud? Well here’s where things get trippy. Hold on to your Duns caps.

If you think you are speaking to a knowing and thinking person, all willful telling of falsehood necessarily involves an intention to deceive. But if you think you are speaking to a plant, or to a computer, or to Fido, the contradictory proposition holds: NO willful telling of falsehood involves an intention to deceive.

“Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.”

Yes, HAL (and Fido) can be “deceived,” but it is not the kind of deceit which matters for morality. HAL may be misled but does not actually rationally believe anything, so there is no such thing as “true” or “untrue” for him, only the “useful” and not “useful.” (I’m looking at  you, William James.) What we are actually doing when speaking to these creatures is producing sounds to bring about some exterior change in them or to satisfy our own little emotional whims through a personification of a non-rational being. Psychologically, we might think of ourselves as “communicating” with them, but in the strict sense (which depends on the “rationality” criterion) we are not trying to do this. We are not trying to get Fido to believe some idea, merely to act on some collection of sounds in a certain way.

TLDR: We only communicate with persons, so we can only lie to persons. There is more to communication than mere words, so not all false communicative verbal utterances which indicate an untruth by their linguistic context constitute lying.

All this brings us to the question of art and lying. Can a painter lie through a painting? And no, I don’t mean writing some untrue words in his painting to deceive admirers. I mean to ask: is it possible to lie with an image?

The first distinction to make is that of an assumption of non-communication and an assumption of communication. In WWII, the Allies used dummy tanks to confuse the Germans prior to the invasion of Normandy. They also used fake radio traffic. In both examples, there is an assumption of non-communication on the part of the Axis. This means that the Axis was not thinking that the Allies were trying to convey a real message to them – instead, it was just the opposite. Reconnaissance and espionage were employed to gather information secretly. So, it could not have been an act of communication on the part of the Allies, provided they believed the Germans were spying in this way. Instead, the Allies put inflatable tanks and aircraft in strategic locations and let the Germans think whatever they wanted if they should happen to see them. The same is true of the radio interception, which consisted of words being spoken by persons who were not actually trying to communicate between themselves but simply to create a believable conversation which could be interpreted however any interceptor might like. Of course, the Allies knew what would be erroneously thought by the Germans, and this was the intended effect. Yet, because they were not actually telling the Germans falsehoods, this deception is not communicative and is therefore not lying. (This would be distinct from what occurs in games of deception like “Mafia,” where there is not real communication because players knowingly enter into an artificial paradigm of suspicion, where one only looks for truth based on players’ non-verbal behavior. The entire communicative dynamic is shattered.)

On the other hand, if there is an assumption of communication, there can be lies even in non-verbal signals.

“Children, what do you know of the Fuhrer?”
“Follow the true path, comrades!” (Lenin is depicted)
From North Korea. American soldiers depicted.

The images above (including the main image of this post) do not contain words that say something untrue, but they certainly contain messages that are untrue: “All bishops and priests are out to corrupt the morals of our children,” “Hitler is a loving and fatherly national hero,” “Socialism is the best thing for the country,” “All Americans are bloodthirsty war criminals.” These images were made and received with a communicative assumption, so they could be lies. But unless their artists or distributors thought those messages to be untrue, they are merely falsehoods told without the intent to deceive. That means they would not actually be lies, just the blameworthy spreading of error.

A normal image, of a basket of fruit for example, is not intended to convey some political or ideological message, but it still might be intended to get the viewer to ascribe to some more fundamental worldview. Suppose a painter puts a white dot in a black field, and his intention is to get the viewer to believe there is no purpose in living. This could be a lie if the painter believes there is a purpose in living, and if we grant that there is some characteristic of a little white dot on a black field that is inherently enough ordered toward conveying purposelessness about human life (like the word “deputy” referring inherently enough to an assistant of a sheriff). Indeed, it is difficult enough to demarcate words, let alone artistic conventions and their relation to cultural assumptions and deeper, more universal (or Jungian) archetypes in the human mind. We don’t need to figure this out here in order to point out that the issue exists. On the other hand, if the painter simply wants the viewer to feel insignificant but not believe anything in particular, this is certainly not a lie. Other non-verbal mediums, like instrumental music, have this same property.

How about mildly false advertising? If a company produces bags of chips which are 50% empty inside, and the company wants customers to see those bags and think they contain more food than they really do, is this a lie? Possibly, but only if there is no reasonable way to tell that the bag is half empty before actually physically verifying it even without opening the bag. (If one physically verifies the contents of the bag, communication from the company about the quantity in the bag by advertisement and presentation is no longer occurring.) One example of a reasonable way to obtain this knowledge without verification would be seeing on the package how many grams of chips are in such bags on average, and it would even include accessing the general knowledge that most chip bags are half empty. (It would probably not include a chart on the company’s website that almost nobody knows about.) When there is a widely available “pool” of such information, it seems that companies may take advantage of this without lying – but that does not mean that a broad mental reservation or withholding significant information would necessarily be justified in any and every case. One example might be the sale of pseudo-scientific or similarly worthless products to vulnerable elderly persons… Yes, it might be true that a study which Healing Crystals Inc. did on its own product showed a significant increase in health in persons who have purchased their healing crystals, and it is certainly widely available knowledge that correlation does not imply causation. So to manipulate Granny out of 6 easy payments of $29.95 for what the vendor knows is an ineffective product is not a lie on his part, but it is still wrong, unless there is some extraordinary circumstance which justifies such deceptive manipulation.

Okay, got that covered. Now onto plays, films, novels, etc. Surely, actors are not really trying to communicate their lines to each other, they are trying to act. But the interplay with the audience is different. The answer should still be clear enough – audience members know they are at a play or film, so it is rightly assumed that what they expect is a group of characters speaking about the world of the play or film, even in the average instance of breaking the third wall. The “referent pool” lies within the story and setting itself. When a character speaks a line that is misleading about the imaginary world, or there is an image that deceives in a similar way, it merely takes advantage of the audience’s bad assumptions about the world of the characters, so these are not lies either… The audience should expect the possibility that a character is speaking in a way that misleadingly refers to something that has not been fully revealed yet, or that not everything is at is appears on the screen. If a character – even an omniscient narrator – does tell the audience a falsehood, he cannot really intend to deceive, because he, the character, does not really exist. The playwright or author or screenwriter exists and is ultimately the one doing any and all communicating within the story, which means the words of characters are really about exploring and explaining those characters and the world in which they live – even if the author is trying to show that the omniscient narrator is a liar. However, the above point about conveying a belief about the real world still holds. If your play is a propaganda piece that you wrote for the sheer amusement of tricking people into supporting what you think is a bad political ideology, then you are telling a lie through your play.

Documentary films do not enjoy this privilege of an artificial “referent pool,” because it is presumed that their object is the real world, not a fictional one.

Illusions are a tricky topic. (Get it?)

The blue lines are parallel.

Simply “tricking the eyes” is not a lie, because there is no attempt at communication. The point of drawing such images is to show that our senses can be misled about the reality of what is right in front of them – if anything, these are anti-lies! These kinds of illusions could be used deceptively, however, but it remains immediately available information that the blue lines, for example, are parallel, so a trick which is predicated merely upon a person assuming his immediate perception about the blue lines is accurate would not constitute a lie.

Magicians are on a different ground altogether. If you have a gaffed deck of cards, but you tell your audience that it is “normal,” it is difficult to see how this would not be a lie. (But could you say it is “ordinary” and mean that it is “numbered”? It seems you could!) Yes, an audience should know that a magician is likely not to tell the truth, but so too should citizens expect falsehoods to be told by politicians and kingpins. Simply presuming a high likelihood of some person knowingly telling a falsehood does not automatically excuse that person from the possibility of lying. On the other hand, if you asked an audience member to inspect a regular deck of cards, ask their opinion about the cards, and then subtly switch to a deck with a gimmick while all the attention is on your eyes, all that occurs is a deception.

Moral theology can be “messy, messy, messy!” But there is still always a right answer. There are no voluntary acts with an inherently inscrutable moral significance.

Finally, we arrive at the question of comedy. Is it a lie for a comedian to tell a story that he passes off as true? This seems to be just as problematic as the magician speaking about his gaffed deck… Certainly, some people are expecting falsehoods to be told at the comedy club, but many story-based jokes are only so funny because the audience believes them to be true. Can you imagine a comedian starting a joke, “What if my kid walked up to me the other day and said…”? No, instead it is, “My kid walked up to me the other day and said…” The strength is predicated on the audience being deceived about reality. It is not merely the use of a convention, or the use of a broad mental reservation, and it is not a non-commutative act altogether. Once again, just because some people are expected to tell falsehoods knowingly does not entail the inability of them to lie. It does not seem that telling tall-tales, even as a professional comedian, can escape the label of “lie.” As for only briefly deceptive  jests, see this article, already linked to. Those might not be lies, so long as the punchline or reversal comes quickly enough to precede the real formation of a belief in the person being joked with, because the reversal changes the message that is actually being delivered in a single communicative act that simply has a strategic pause in between its verbal parts. “Look, Brother Thomas, a flying ox! . . . JK, LOL!”

To summarize… Art can be a means of lying, but when it is used rightly it might represent something unreal but in order to convey a truth, or even just a feeling.

“The cake is a lie.”

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Thomas Nast, American River Ganges, 1871