Aldous Huxley on Sincerity, Our Fear of the Obvious, and the Two Types of Truth Artists Must Reconcile
“All great truths are obvious truths. But not all obvious truths are great truths.”
By Maria Popova
“The hardest thing is to be sincere,” young André Gide wrote in his journal in 1890, decades before receiving the Nobel Prize, as he contemplated the central role of sincerity in creative work. But to make sincerity — that amorphous and intangible manifestation of truth and beauty — the measure of artistic success is an aspiration at once enormously courageous and increasingly difficult in a culture fixated on such vacant external metrics as sales and shares.
This paradoxical nature of artistic success is what Aldous Huxley (July 26, 1894–November 22, 1963) addresses in an essay titled “Sincerity in Art,” found in the altogether magnificent and, lamentably, out-of-print 1960 volume On Art & Artists (public library).
Reflecting on an article by a literary agent who contended to have the key to what makes a bestseller, Huxley winces at how the very question shrinks the creative endeavor:
What are the qualities that cause a book to sell like soap or breakfast food or Ford cars? It is a question the answer to which we should all like to know. Armed with that precious recipe, we should go to the nearest stationer’s shop, buy a hundred sheets of paper for sixpence, blacken them with magical scribbles, and sell them again for six thousand pounds. There is no raw material so richly amenable to treatment as paper. A pound of iron turned into watch springs is worth several hundreds or even thousands of times its original value; but a pound of paper turned into popular literature may be sold at a profit of literally millions per cent. If only we knew the secret of the process by which paper is turned into popular literature!
Amid all this mysterious transmutation by which the human imagination transforms the cheap raw material into priceless works of art, Huxley takes particular issue with the literary agent’s assertion that the sole determinant of the bestseller is that it must be sincere. He digs beneath this unhelpful truism:
All literature, all art, best seller or worst, must be sincere, if it is to be successful… A man cannot successfully be anything but himself… Only a person with a Best Seller mind can write Best Sellers; and only someone with a mind like Shelley’s can write Prometheus Unbound. The deliberate forger has little chance with his contemporaries and none at all with posterity.
But while sincerity in life is a conscious choice — we choose to be sincere or insincere at will — Huxley argues that sincerity in art is a matter of skill that can’t simply be willed:
The truth is that sincerity in art is not an affair of will, of a moral choice between honesty and dishonesty. It is mainly an affair of talent. A man may desire with all his soul to write a sincere, a genuine book and yet lack the talent to do it. In spite of his sincere intentions, the book turns out to be unreal, false, and conventional; the emotions are stagily expressed, the tragedies are pretentious and lying shams and what was meant to be dramatic is badly melodramatic.
Echoing Agnes Martin’s astute observation that we all have the same inner life but the artist is the one who recognizes what that is, Huxley adds:
In matters of art “being sincere” is synonymous with “possessing the gifts of psychological understanding and expression.”
All human beings feel very much the same emotions; but few know exactly what they feel or can divine the feelings of others. Psychological insight is a special faculty, like the faculty for understanding mathematics or music. And of the few who possess that faculty only two or three in every hundred are born with the talent of expressing their knowledge in artistic form.
Huxley illustrates this point with the most universal experience, love:
Many people — most people, perhaps — have been at one time or another violently in love. But few have known how to analyze their feelings, and fewer still have been able to express them… They feel, they suffer, they are inspired by a sincere emotion; but they cannot write. Stilted, conventional, full of stock phrases and timeworn rhetorical tropes, the average love letter of real life would be condemned, if read in a book, as being in the last degree “insincere.”
The love letter, Huxley argues, is the ultimate testament to the role of talent in so-called artistic sincerity — that, after all, is why the love letters of great writers and artists continue to enchant us with perennial insight into this universal experience. With an eye to Keats’s particularly bewitching love letters, Huxley notes:
We read the love letters of Keats with a passionate interest; they describe in the freshest and most powerful language the torments of a soul that is conscious of every detail of its agony. Their “sincerity” (the fruit of their author’s genius) renders them as interesting, as artistically important as Keats’s poems; more important, even, I sometimes think.
In another essay from the same volume, titled “Art and the Obvious,” Huxley revisits the subject of sincerity from a different angle — our resistance to it, all the more relevant today, amid a culture that wields cynicism like a rubber sword against the perceived weakness of sincerity. He writes:
All great truths are obvious truths. But not all obvious truths are great truths.
Huxley defines great truths as universally significant facts that “refer to fundamental characteristics of human nature” and contrasts them with obvious truths “lacking eternal significance,” like the time it takes to fly from London to Paris, which “might cease to be true without human nature being in the least changed in any of its fundamentals.” He considers the role of each in popular art:
Popular art makes use, at the present time, of both classes of obvious truths — of the little obviousnesses as well as the great. Little obviousnesses fill (at a moderate computation) quite half of the great majority of contemporary novels, stories, and films. The great public derives an extraordinary pleasure from the mere recognition of familiar objects and circumstances. It tends to be somewhat disquieted by works of pure fantasy, whose subject matter is drawn from other worlds than that in which it lives, moves, and has its daily being. Films must have plenty of real Ford cars and genuine policemen and indubitable trains. Novels must contain long descriptions of exactly those rooms, those streets, those restaurants and shops and offices with which the average man and woman are most familiar. Each reader, each member of the audience must be able to say — with what a solid satisfaction! — “Ah, there’s a real Ford, there’s a policeman, that’s a drawing room exactly like the Brown’s drawing room.” Recognizableness is an artistic quality which most people find profoundly thrilling.
But audiences, Huxley argues, are equally voracious for the other, grander class of obviousnesses:
The public at large … also demands the great obvious truths. It demands from the purveyors of art the most definite statements as to the love of mothers for children, the goodness of honesty as a policy, the uplifting effects produced by the picturesque beauties of nature on tourists from large cities, the superiority of marriages of affection to marriages of interest, the brevity of human existence, the beauty of first love, and so forth. It requires a constantly repeated assurance of the validity of these great obvious truths.
The downfall of popular art, Huxley argues, is the inept fusion of these two types of obviousnesses, stripping the former of its uncomplicated rewards of recognizableness and trivializing the latter by bleeding into the banal:
The purveyors of popular art do what is asked of them. They state the great, obvious, unchanging truths of human nature — but state them, alas, in most cases with an emphatic incompetence, which, to the sensitive reader, makes their affirmations exceedingly distasteful and even painful… The sensitive can only wince and avert their faces, blushing with a kind of vicarious shame for the whole of humanity.
In a lamentation at once prophetic and rather ironic amid our era of Hallmark cards and lululemon totes and tea bag fortunes, Huxley adds:
Never in the past have these artistic outrages been so numerous as at present… The spread of education, of leisure, of economic well-being has created an unprecedented demand for popular art. As the number of good artists is always strictly limited, it follows that this demand has been in the main supplied by bad artists. Hence the affirmations of the great obvious truths have been in general incompetent and therefore odious… The breakup of all the old traditions, the mechanization of work and leisure … have had a bad effect on popular taste and popular emotional sensibility… Popular art is composed half of the little obvious truths, stated generally with a careful and painstaking realism, half of the great obvious truths, stated for the most part (since it is very hard to give them satisfactory expression) with an incompetence which makes them seem false and repellent.
With this, Huxley turns to the crux of the tragic denunciation of skilled sincerity that seeded our present era of cynicism:
Some of the most sensitive and self-conscious artists … have become afraid of all obviousness, the great as well as the little. At every period … many artists have been afraid — or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, have been contemptuous — of the little obvious truths… The excess of popular art has filled them with a terror of the obvious — even of the obvious sublimities and beauties and marvels. Now, about nine tenths of life are made up precisely of the obvious. Which means that there are sensitive modern artists who are compelled, by their disgust and fear, to confine themselves to the exploitation of only a tiny fraction of existence.
In a sentiment of particular poignancy in the context of modern atrocities like BuzzFeed, Huxley adds:
Nor is it only in regard to the subject matter that the writer’s fear of the obvious manifests itself. He has a terror of the obvious in his artistic medium — a terror which leads him to make laborious efforts to destroy the gradually perfected instrument of language… It is extraordinary to what lengths a panic fear can drive its victims.
He concludes with a word of advice to aspiring artists, all the timelier today:
If young artists really desire to offer proof of their courage they should attack the monster of obviousness and try to conquer it, try to reduce it to a state of artistic domestication, not timorously run away from it. For the great obvious truths are there — facts… By pretending that certain things are not there, which in fact are there, much of the most accomplished modern art is condemning itself to incompleteness, to sterility, to premature decrepitude and death.
Huxley’s On Art & Artists is a tremendous read in its entirety, well worth the used-book hunt or a trip to the local library. Complement it with E.E. Cummings on what it really means to be an artist and Teresita Fernández on what it really takes to be one, then revisit Huxley on the power of music, drugs, democracy, and religion, how we become who we are, and his little-known children’s book.
Published March 28, 2016