Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.
― Oscar Wilde
Wilde definitely wasn’t the last person to note the fine line between being an artist and a liar. Marlon Brando, arguably the most influential actor of all time, actually created a series of instructional videos about acting, called “Lying for a Living.” On the footage, Brando tells Hollywood stars, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Sean Penn, “If you can lie, you can act.”
Despite the risk of throwing the art world and the world at large into complete and utter chaos, let’s investigate this comparison further…
Liars vs. Artists
Both liars and artists refuse to confine themselves by reality.
Instead, they create stories that are worthy of belief. Of course, unlike thieves and conmen, artists don’t set out to deceive. In fact, they’re so transparent that they lay out the ground rules in advance: Come to the exhibit, or listen to this song, and we’ll lie to you. Maybe this is why humans are so drawn to art, as it provides a safe environment for gathering would-be lies and transforming them into something that can make an impact. As Pablo Picasso puts it, “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”
Dishonesty can lead to greater creativity.
In 2014, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and University of Southern California professor Scott S. Wiltermuth published a study titled “Evil Genius? How Dishonesty Can Lead to Greater Creativity.” From their experiments, they discovered that
- Subjects who cheat are more creative than non cheaters.
- Acting dishonestly leads to greater creativity.
- The link between dishonesty and creativity is explained by feeling unconstrained by rules.
In other words, breaking the rules fosters creativity. When Chris Ofili created the “Holy Virgin Mary,” a black Madonna, and when Édouard Manet shocked the world with his portrait of a nude prostitute, the two creative geniuses didn’t worry about adhering to the status quo. Instead, they acknowledged that without breaking some rules, they wouldn’t reach their creative potential.
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Lying and artistic storytelling stem from a shared neurological root.
Commonly experienced by psychiatric patients, confabulation is “the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.” Whereas amnesiacs forget things, confabulators make things up. Some confabulating patients tell fantastical tales about taking trips to Mars, cradling baby Jesus, and even enjoying high tea with the Queen England. But Confabulators, like artists, don’t set out to deceive. Instead, they participate in what neuropsychologist Morris Moscovitch calls “honest lying.” They are taken over by a “compulsion to narrate,” or a deep-rooted need to explain what they don’t understand.
The greater significance of confabulation is what it reveals to us about ourselves: There’s a rushing stream of creativity in the human mind, from which both lying and artistic storytelling emerge.
The takeaway? Reach your creative potential by thinking like a liar. Free yourself from the confines of reality, break some rules, and make things up as you go along—just as long as you remain true to your craft.
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