Art is a friendly deception.

“When philosophy first noticed art it was in connection with the possibility of deception.”

— Arthur Danto

Art is a friendly deception. It must deceive in order to succeed, and it must be friendly in order to keep its audience happy. In fiction, this deception is maintained via a storytelling contract.

The artist or storyteller must stick to the (implicit) storytelling contract, which says that the storyteller must “deceive in good faith” — in ways that I, the viewer, expect and want. My tacit acceptance of the deception enters me into the contract as well.

In his chapter in The Philosophy of Deception, Alan Strudler distinguishes between better and worse forms of deception…in the context of law.

Deceiving that involves breach of trust and deceiving that involves other forms of manipulation are acceptable under very different circumstances,

says Strudler.

A breach of trust, he argues, is a form of manipulation.

But only some — not all — instances of deception involve a breach of trust. A trustworthy truth-teller is not the same as a reliable truth-teller.

Reliable truth-tellers tell the truth on a consistent basis, but, unlike the trustworthy truth-teller, not necessarily for the right reasons.

I may reliably tell the truth, for example, because someone is always holding a gun to my back.

But here I am acting only as a puppet, forced to tell the truth by a bad guy with bad intentions.

When we watch movies or read books, we depend on trustworthy non-truth-tellers to entertain us.

As long as the filmmaker maintains the deception (or non truth-telling) and the deception is not hidden from its audience, then the filmmaker remains trustworthy.

There are untrustworthy filmmakers, of course, who use lies to manipulate audiences under the pretense of truth.

The deception is only friendly — only beautiful — when it’s transparent; when the storyteller says:

Hence, art must be realistic enough to be believable — but not so believable that it’s boring.

Self-reflexive like the Ourobouros from Plato’s Timaeus, art is a powerful, self-contained animal that relies on its own form for nourishment. This self-reflexivity must not be too apparent, but at the same time not so hidden that we can’t find it.

Seymour Chatman has argued that all stories have narrators, even stories that are not “presented” by any obvious human agency.

All stories, he says, must have a narrator or “agent.”

Book narratives, in his view, are told, whereas film narratives are shown.

The audience is presented with a “text”, which is the product of the activity of either showing or telling.

Why we need to describe this agency as a narrator remains unclear, says Chapman. The text is the means and the object of fiction telling.

As a reader or viewer, I agree to enter into this “zone” of fiction-telling in order to get to the story. Once I agree to enter the zone, I agree to its terms.

I expect that the text will provide me with situations and narrative events that contain no truth and yet convince me that they do.

Flannery has a PhD in Comparative Literature. She teaches French, Italian, and visual media. Her book on Taiwanese cinema can be found on Amazon.

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