Beyond Realism

“Realism” is hard to learn. It takes a great deal of effort, concentration, and persistence to acquire. There are art schools and curricula dedicated to “realism”, and they reliably produce skilled painters and draftsmen. However, there is also a low-key ideological cult of “realism” as the only true, objective measure of art and artists.

Why do I put “realism” in quotes? Well, what do we mean by “real”? The term itself is a classic example of begging the question. “Realism” as an artistic concept is infused with a lot of value judgement. Depending on your personal philosophy, it can be easy to conflate “realistic art” with some kind of higher intellectual truth. But if one technical approach is called “realism,” does that make other approaches “unreal”? Invoking “realism” as a category or priority is usually a chauvinistic loyalty to a certain type of artistic interpretation, not an appeal to truth in itself.

What many artists call “realism” is, to be more circumspect, an attempt to transcribe the visual field with a minimum of stylistic interpretation. The word “accuracy” gets thrown around too, but this is yet another restatement of the unanswered question—”accurate,” compared to what? Comparisons are often made to photography. It’s common to hear younger artists talk about how a skilled painter’s work “looks like a photo.” This is meant as the highest praise. The camera, a mechanical viewing device devoid of human feeling or editorial opinion, should therefore be the “best” artist, since it does the best job of reproducing the bare optical sensations of the visual field.

It’s pretty easy to quantify an artist’s ability to approach the look of a photo. As a result, it’s easy to rank and compare artists on this ability alone. From this narrow viewpoint, we are forced to sacrifice the vast majority of art throughout history. The implication of elevating “realism” is that our interpretive and emotional faculties, our personal subjective experience of life, is rendered by default “unreal” and devoid of value.

The cult of “realism” has a frequent bogeyman in the form of modern conceptual art. If you’re a person who cares about good drawing and painting, it’s easy to sneer at art that requires neither. There’s also a lot of truly bad drawing and painting out there. But the dichotomy between “realism” and “modern art” is false and myopic. From this viewpoint it becomes easy to flippantly dismiss all non-“realistic” art as bad or unskilled. Unfortunately, this leaves us unable to appreciate:

  • paleolithic painting and sculpture
  • cubism
  • fauvism
  • Egyptian art
  • African religious and ceremonial masks
  • Native American art
  • Australian aboriginal art
  • surrealism
  • German expressionism
  • Van Gogh
  • Gaugin
  • Chagall
  • cartoons and caricatures
  • weird cool Netherlandish painting like Bosch and Breugel
  • Vajrayana Buddhist iconography
  • Byzantine mosaic
  • Islamic figurative calligraphy
  • we can do this all day…
Henri Matisse, Interior with an Etruscan Vase. If your art philosophy considers this work to be inferior, I really don’t know what to say.

It’s possible to transcend the idea of “realism” and arrive at a more equitable set of artistic priorities. For example, we can appreciate the skillful handling of form, light, color and value. Sometimes these aspects are masterfully achieved in non-realistic art. If your artistic value system rejects 90% of the art history of mankind as inferior, it’s a sign that your priorities might be seriously @#$’ed.

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