15/10/2012 10:24 BST | Updated 12/12/2012 05:12 GMT

'Strike a Pose, There's Nothing to It' The Art of Artlessness Explored, From Mitt Romney to Sylvia Plath to Madonna

Again and again, praise for a work of art, an artistic or political performance is based on judgement of a work or person's sincerity - the assumption being that sincerity is a supreme virtue and insincerity the worst imaginable vice.

News covering the U.S. Election is littered with headlines such as: 'Obama: that wasn't 'real' Romney' (USA Today), 'In search of the real Barack Obama' (Financial Times), 'Mitt Romney must prove that debate performance was the real him.' (Washington Post). Even after many a Watergate, it seems people still expect truth from their politicians and are shocked when politicians are doing their actual job: whispering sweet nothings to win voters. Politicians have long since discovered that making the public believe that they are being honest is as good as actually being honest - which would be disastrous for a career in politics -, that a performance of sincerity is key. In the adeptly-named song, 'Honesty', Billy Joel exposes that what people really want is not sincerity, so much as credibility:

"...I don't want some pretty face

To tell me pretty lies.

All I want is someone to believe."

In his recent book, 'Sincerity: How a Moral Idea Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic and the Curious Notion that we All have Something to Say (no matter how dull).', R. Jay Magill. Jr. argues that sincerity, especially in politics, is not necessarily a virtue.

What if you sincerely openly believe in something that is morally abominable and a crime against humanity: does your sincerity make it ok? Not quite. According to Jay Magill, George Bush's public apperances were analysed by psychologists through what's called Thematic Content Analysis. They concluded that he was being, for the most part, entirely sincere. Sincerity in politics might not be wholly advisable - no matter how much Sarah Palin lamented the lack thereof in the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign. Machiavelli, the first modern politician, wrote: "Those princes who have accomplished great deeds are those who have thought little about keeping faith and who have known how cunningly to manipulate men's minds. They have surpassed those who have laid their foundations upon sincerity."

How important, however, is sincerity in art? At school I remember being unpleasantly surprised when I found out that the 'raw emotion' of Sylvia Plath's poetry was not a spontaneous indepenent splatter of ink 'straight from the heart', but verse meticulously crafted to give the illusion of being artless. My bitter disappointment was rooted in the discovery that the art was not artless and therefore not sincere. Sincerity is often presented as the polar opposite of craft: the former allegedly exposes the 'real self' - whatever that is -, whereas the latter is an exercise in duplicity, in 'covering up' that duplicity, which in 'ethical' terms would be called lying - something children are routinely punished for. But are craft and sincerity really mutually exclusive? Can an artist not intricately craft something in sincerity? Would a literal howl of pain be more sincere than Allen Ginsberg's poem 'Howl'?

Nonetheless, the most powerful art hits us at a gut-level, never yielding to a full dissection of its relative merits. Academic criticism can only go so far: what is important to most people is not the explanation behind the greatness of the work of art, but the belief that the creator has been sincere in his/her endeavour - that he/she, to varying extents, believes in the merit and purpose of the work. This is not irreconcilabe with other motives behind the work. The worlds of art and finance are more close-knit than many would like to think and most great works have been created either with financial gain in mind or with financial backing; but work created solely for this purpose rarely achieves the status of 'greatness'. At a lecture at university we were asked to evaluate the relative 'tragicness' of two renditions of the song 'Strange Fruit', our only criteria being how 'sincere' we felt the performer's voice to be. Since gut-level instinct was rarely a permissable critical faculty, this exercise jarred a little, but also raised the possibility that perhaps it should be. Perhaps in criticism we need more heart and a little less head. For, evaluating the level of sincerity in a work of art can only really be done by way of feeling, without any rational justification. It is virtually impossible to come up with any reason why you decide something is sincere other than "Because I feel it is" or variations thereof. But the university exercise may provide a clue as to where to look for sincerity, if not how.

The human voice is a powerful conveyor of the elusive concept of 'sincerity', or rather its originating point. Countless musicians have been said to have a 'sincere voice'. We can tell someone is lying from their voice as well as their body language; we can tell how someone is feeling by their voice alone; it is difficult to choke down a sob or an inappropriate laugh. Although manipulation of voice is a huge part of acting, vocal expressions are often seen as a natural release of emotion rather than as culturally influenced (which is also the case to a certain extent). The nature vs. nurture debate will never be settled, but the idea of the human voice being the source of authenticity has translated into the commonly used metaphor of a writer's 'voice'. By this expression we do not mean that when we read a piece of writing we can hear the particular pitch and accent of the speaker, but that we can feel the tone, style and, most importantly, the sincerity of the work. Most advice to young writers is along the lines of: ' try to write something authentic to you', 'tell it in your own way.'

Various literary and artistic movements have championed and mocked sincerity - the Romantics swore by it, Oscar Wilde and Co. put it in lost property - but it is in our modern world that the concept of sincerity finds itself in a bit of a pickle. No one captures our post-modern state of affairs in the West better than our favurite Material Girl, Madonna. Her lyrics "Strike a pose/ There's nothing to it" from the song 'Vogue' inverts the notion of the art of artlessness into the artlessness of artifice, or today's inevitability of performing yourself. A 'sincere' display of self-performance in everyday life has perhaps never been so accepted as it is today. We almost perform ourselves performing.