Nineteenth-Century Music Review


Truth in Art, and Erik Satie's Judgement

Peter Dayana1

a1 University of Edinburgh


It is certainly true that Satie, in his later years, did not tire of repeating that there is ‘no Truth in Art’; and in saying so, he was doubtless very much in tune with the spirit of his artistic milieu, which included, after all, such aesthetic anarchists as Picabia and Tzara, as well as the great artistic revolutionaries of the time, Picasso and Stravinsky, for whom he had unbounded admiration. And every time he did so, he was careful to attribute the erroneous belief that there is a Truth in Art to that class of writers whom he variously called ‘critiques’, ‘pédagogues’, ‘Pontifes’, ‘pions’: people of the serious persuasion, who think it is possible to teach or describe what makes a piece of art good or bad. Attacks against this tribe are, in fact, the staple of Satie's writings. It might appear sensible to infer from this that it would be foolish for a critic to look for Truth in Erik Satie's writings about art. Nonetheless, that is what I shall be doing in this article. I shall argue that, while there may, for Satie, be no truth in art, there are truths about art, susceptible of at least indirect expression, which Satie himself maintained with remarkable adroitness. Whether those truths are peculiar to the aesthetics of Satie's writings; whether they are relevant to the way we might appreciate his music; and whether they have echoes in the thought of his artistic companions (especially those mentioned above) – these are questions that will remain open; but I would like at least to suggest that they are worth asking.

Peter Dayan is Professor of Word and Music Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of three books on French literature in the nineteenth century and Music Writing Literature, from Sand via Debussy to Derrida (Ashgate, 2006). Until recently, his research revolved around the way that the concept of music as an ideal was kept alive in the nineteenth century, both in literary discourse and in the writings of composers, through the reciprocal definition of literature as musical and of music as poetic. His current work on the poetry of Erik Satie will, he hopes, provide a bridge to a similar analysis of the idea of music in the first half of the twentieth century.