22 May 2018

Innocence and truth

by Marc Masurovsky

We are socialized from an early age to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We are told, at least in the United States, that we are innocent until proven guilty, even if we were caught with the blood-soaked knife in our right hand and the unlit stick of dynamite in the left hand, several hundred thousand dollars of crispy cash in one hundred dollar denominations heaped in a pile in the corner. Innocent until proven guilty. Tell the truth, nothing but the truth, so help you God.

If we are told to tell the truth, we learn that the lie, which is the opposite of the truth, is a bad thing. If we lie, that is, if we do not tell the truth as it is, it makes us into bad people, into liars, and we deserve whatever gets thrown at us by our parents, our friends, and/or total strangers in a position of authority. We will go to hell, no questions asked. We should not do business with people who lie. They should be marginalized, ostracized, condemned for what they are—liars.

If people lie, does that mean that they are dishonest? Can you be an honest businessman and lie at the same time? Does it depend on who you lie to and what you lie about? Are you a liar if you tell only one lie? Or can you tell one lie a month and still not be viewed as a liar? Or one a year? Or one a week? Can you be dishonest once or twice a year and still be considered to be honest?

Can you be in business and tell the truth no matter what? Can you stay in business and tell the truth? What does it really mean to tell the truth? There are so many people who say: “well, I told a small lie today. Nothing much. No one got hurt.” Or someone confesses: “That was a white lie, actually.” A white lie? And what’s a black lie? Or a red lie? One can only infer that the “white lie” is on par with the small lie, it is of no consequence. No one gets hurt. We’re cool, right?

Is an inflated story a lie if it does not reflect accurately the facts as they unfolded? If you overrate the value of an object, are you lying about the object’s true value? Since value, for the most part, is subjective, is inflation or deflation a lie because it is inaccurate? Is the inaccuracy a deliberate part of a negotiating strategy to either buy or sell or exchange an asset? If so, does that make you, the inflator or deflator, a liar, a dishonest person? Should I continue to do business with you?

If you attribute a painting, a drawing, a print, a sculpture, a piece of furniture, to an artist who is not the actual artist and you do so knowingly? In other words, you “mis-represented” the authorship of the object. Is a deliberate, thought-out, calculated “mis-representation” as bad as a lie? After all, you chose not to tell the truth about the object. Does that make you a dishonest person or a clever negotiator or salesperson? Is the art of the deal anchored in calculated misrepresentations, small lies, white lies?

What about the professional relationships between dealers, collectors, galleries, museums and their clients, the artists they represent, the brokers with whom they must deal, the curators and experts who are “in between” somewhere in the transaction, the endless parade of support staff, donors, investors, specialists, historians, and other experts? Are they all telling the truth? Or are they all engaging in a massive cornucopia of white lies, small lies, unaccountable “honest mistakes” quickly patched with a self-flagellating [well-calculated] self-mortifying tweet that same afternoon or the next morning—early!—and accompanying selfie, hinting that forgiveness is in order until the next mishap occurs? If everyone involved in the art trade commits such mishaps, is that person shunned, excluded, treated as a pariah, unreliable, lacking all credibility? If so, no one might be left standing in the art market. It might actually implode from an acute attack of truth telling.