In his new book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking tells the story of goldfish bowl ban in the Italian town Monza. The town council official Giampietro Mosca explained the reason: "A fish kept in a bowl has a distorted view of reality... and suffers because of this." Hawking asks, "The goldfish's picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?" He goes on and suggests that reality is basically the observer's mental model. Since it's impossible to remove the observer from the perception of the world, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. Hawking calls this view model-dependent realism.
Reality varies from one person's perception to another. What seems to someone as something just happened naturally may be seen as the nastiest betrayal by someone else, like in the recent much-talked-about facebook movie (a.k.a The Social Network). Many reviews say the story is quite distorted and the real Mark Zuckerberg is not that arrogant and desperate for attention. But we have to know that this movie is based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, and Mezrich's primary source was Eduardo Saverin - Zuckerberg's best friend at Harvard and later the victim of a facebook financial dispute. This is Saverin's side of the story, and of course it won't quite match Zuckerberg's narration if he makes one. I bet the Winklevoss twins would tell something different too. As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin told Time, "There were a number of different versions of the truth coming from three or four or five people... Everybody has their own version, and everybody is right, and everybody is wrong." When it comes to Hollywood storytelling, it's just like what the second-year law firm associate says in the movie, "85% of it is exaggeration, and the other 15% prejury."
What did Mark Zuckerberg say about this? "It's a movie, it's fun." The movie is labeled as a drama so it's understandable that the events were dramatized. But when we talk about documentary, it's another story. Casey Affleck has become another recent talking point after he confessed that his new movie I'm Still Here is actually fake. When released, the film was announced as a documentary that followed Affleck's brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix on a descent into celebrity disintegration. But in fact, every single bit of it was acting. They hired actors and there were multiple takes. Where is the supposed honesty of a documentary film? Genre suggests expectation. If they said in the first place that the movie was a drama and the scenes were all staged performances, at least I would say Phoenix is a good actor. But now? I will just call it a lie.
|Left: Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network; Right: Joaquin Phoenix (Joaquin Phoenix) in I'm Still Here|
Casey Affleck defended himself with a quote from Picasso: "Art is the lie that tells the truth." But what did Picasso actually mean by that? We all know a portrait is not the real person; a landscape painting doesn't contain real trees. But there's a difference between being real and being true. Art is true in the sense that it shows the artist's observation of the subject and it tells the artist's version of reality. A Cubic painting represents an attitude totally different from, say, lip-syncing. When Ai Weiwei covered the floor of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with more than 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds, he didn't pretentiously go around and tell people those were real sunflower seeds. Instead, he was rather true to the facts and open about the fabrication process in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. The seeds express Ai's view towards the phenomenon of "Made in China," and his association with China culturally, politically, and economically. The seeds are not real, but the art is true.
|Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds (at Tate Modern), 2010|
Ai's Sunflower Seeds are sculptures of seeds. They look like seeds but they are NOT seeds. Some say, "Who cares whether they are real or fake? They look like real." I found this line of thought quite post-modern. "Look like something" doesn't mean "it is something." Maybe that attitude is the reason why people can be perfectly content with gypsum half Greek columns attached to a plaster white wall.
In Seven Lamps of Architecture, John Ruskin categorized direct falsities in architecture into three basic types: 1) structural deceits (e.g. steel structure that pretends to be stone or wood); 2) surface deceits (painting or cladding that confuses the reading of materiality); 3) operative deceits (false manufacturing process). Set aside the old-fashioned despise of iron and machine work, the bottom line of the argument is that if something in architecture is trying to look like something else, it is a lie. He elaborated with examples: the delicate fan tracery on the ceiling of Milan Cathedral is a deceptive act of painting, while the Sistine ceiling is no deceit because Michelangelo was not trying to trick you into the belief that God and Adam were actually up there.
|Left: Milan Cathedral, tracery pattern painted on the ceiling; Right: Sistine Chapel|
And there is also the issue of expectation, like the drama of The Social Network vs. the "documentary" I'm Still Here. In Ruskin's opinion, gilding in architecture is no deceit because nobody would actually expect the building to be made in gold; while in jewelry it is, because it could be understood for real gold. In general, we tend to believe rather than disbelieve (especially when it comes from our dear friends and loved ones), because honesty is regarded as a moral norm in our society. When someone makes a fake that very few can tell, it may be because the trick of counterfeiting is so well performed, but largely it is just taking advantage of people's common expectation for truth. One doesn't get credit by telling convincing lies. Rather, it is a narcissistic pretense to think that making oneself believed is more important than telling others the truth.
Kant said, "without truth, social intercourse and conversation become valueless." Deceit shatters the human intuition of trust. We can't even be confident in our ability to distinguish truth from falsity any more. When discover an untruthful part, we start to cast a suspicion upon the whole thing, and then even question the credibility of the person himself. Let's go back to Casey Affleck. Will you be fully convinced if he tells you he will make a real documentary film next time? Another frustrating thing about deceit is that it interferes with our effort to apprehend the true state of affairs, and therefore impair our judgments. With misleading information, we cannot situate ourselves correctly, nor can we make the fair apple-to-apple comparison. We may say things differently if we had the knowledge of the truth. Dishonesty and pretense are not merely playful jokes. It's utterly disheartening to find out all the things you built your assessments upon were not true.
Everybody encounters different constraints and difficulties in life. From time to time you find yourself in a situation that nobody else can fully comprehend. So it's natural that people construct different models of reality and base their decisions and actions on them. But being true is absolute. To maintain integrity and credibility, you must get the facts straight. No matter what actually happened between Zuckerberg and Saverin, neither of them would go all the way to claim that he alone invented facebook.