A new and broadened notion of history, accompanying a radical alteration of the sense of time, was central to the Realist outlook. Furthermore, new democratic ideas stimulated a wider historical approach. Ordinary people -- merchants, workers and peasants -- in their everyday functions, began to appear on a stage formerly reserved exclusively for kings, nobles, diplomats and heroes. This is why we have to confine ourselves to relating the facts.
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By Linda Nochlin. The value of realism remains one of the basic issues facing art. Naturally, the value of art itself has a certain theoretical priority. But if we accept art at all, then the issue of realism must be dealt with in the context of its perennial antagonism to antirealism, whether this be idealism, symbolism or abstract art.
A historical phenomenon, Realism with a capital R, dominated art and literature in the West from the mid-nineteenth century until the s, and it is now part of the past.
But there were realisms before there was Realism. In its various guises and metamorphoses——naturalism, social realism, Magic Realism, Neue Sachlichkeit , even some Surrealism, and the various New Realisms of the present——realism has survived, been revived and reinvented until this very moment.
Like other artists, realists must create a language of style appropriate to their enterprise; they may or may not reject previous nonrealist or antirealist styles; often their work modifies or adapts them.
Yet on the whole, realism implies a system of values involving close investigation of particulars, a taste for ordinary experience in a specific time, place and social context; and an art language that vividly transmits a sense of concreteness. Realism is more than and different from willful virtuosity, or the passive reflexivity of the mirror image, however much these may appear as ingredients in realist works. The dominant imagistic structure of realism is metonymy——association of elements through contiguity——as opposed to the domination of metaphor in symbolist or romantic works.
Whereas the nonrealist may work through distillation and exclusion, the realist mode implies enrichment and inclusion. Realism has always been criticized by its adversaries for its lack of selectivity, its inability to distill from the random plenitude of experience the generalized harmony of plastic relations, as though this were a flaw rather than the whole point of realist strategy. Irrelevance is indeed a prime feature of the intractable thereness of things as they are and as we experience them.
He is fond of synecdochic details. They are far from being, as antirealist criticism would have it, a misreading of esthetic priorities. Some critics, notably Eric Auerbach in his study of literary realism, Mimesis , have chosen to deal with realism as an evolutionary trend. But in the case of the visual arts it may also be subsumed as one pole of a long-standing opposition, with its contrary generally conceived of as some kind of idealism.
With certain notable exceptions, realist art has been looked on as inferior to more idealized art forms. To ask why realist art continues to be considered inferior to nonrealist art is really to raise questions of a far more general nature: Is the universal more valuable than the particular?
Is the permanent better than the transient? Is the generalized superior to the detailed? Or more recently: Why is the flat better than the three-dimensional? Why is truth to the nature of the material more important than truth to nature or experience?
Why are the demands of the medium more pressing than the demands of visual accuracy? Why is purity better than impurity? We shall consider these questions later. Indeed, it might be fruitful to think of realism as a country on a map, surrounded by other countries, whose borders often merge imperceptibly with it.
Nor are the larger ramifications of realism always similar. In France in the mid-nineteenth century, realism may be associated with progressive, indeed radical social and esthetic currents. In relation to the avant-garde movements of the earlier twentieth century, it may assume a more conservative stance. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it may peacefully coexist or alternate with more idealized or conventional styles.
The antagonism between realism and antirealism only assumes important theoretical dimensions in the context of larger socioesthetic conflicts——during the Renaissance, for example, when artists wished to differentiate their creations from the mere products of craftsmen, or when, in the later nineteenth century, advanced artists wished to set themselves off from the banal naturalism of official art as martyr-prophets of a higher truth, of a purer reality beyond mere sense perception.
Though working in the opposite direction, Courbet, Zola and other supporters of the realist cause in the sixties and seventies viewed the breaking away from the artifices of empty purity as part of a larger struggle for scientific truth, progress and social justice.
For Modernism, we may take it that abstraction is the law and that realism is the criminal. Gregory Battcock New York, , p. Central to the whole antirealist thrust of Modernism is the notion that the flat surface of the canvas makes some sort of absolute demand on the painter——indeed, that it was the mission of Modernism to strive for the self-definition of painting through flatness.
This is of course a reductionist myth, which a dispassionate examination of the innovative painting of the last century or so hardly supports. Like so many passionately held myths, it has proved to be extraordinarily fruitful, a myth begetting further myths, in fact generating a whole ideology which in turn had some serious effects on the evolution of painting itself. Interpreted in these terms, film should be nothing but a succession of flat abstract light-images, nonnarrative and nonrepresentational; indeed, some filmmakers and videotape artists make a good case for such a position.
Yet many of those who hold the Modernist position in regard to painting manage to find a different rationale, or rationalization, for supporting a narrative, representational, rep or documentary——in short, a realist——film esthetic, presumably on the grounds of the implacable demands imposed by the medium.
Yet one suspects there are other reasons besides purely esthetic ones lying in the background of this double standard for film and painting. Film, the latecomer to the arts, was plebian in its genesis and appeal, universal and popular rather than exclusive and difficult.
By virtue of its social context, film is an essentially impure medium; the same high standards of purity and self-definition do not apply to it as they do to the elite realm of painting. It is as though looser standards of behavior were set for the slum children than for the little aristocrat. This Modernist view of modern painting as a teleologic progression toward more and more stringently defined purity excludes a great deal of modern art itself, not just the Neue Sachlichkeit or the New Realism, but much of Dada and Surrealism and even a great deal of the work of such a Modernist hero as Picasso, once he abandons strict Cubism.
From the late twenties onward, Picasso is linked to the camp of inimical impurity. As in the Renaissance, man, the microcosm, and the universe, the macrocosm, are seen as inseparably entangled. In a sense, an antirealist viewpoint was implicitly incorporated into the very values that gave rise to a theory of art at all. Status is generally conferred upon art insofar as it is separate from and superior to life itself. Realism, with its mundane attachment to the here and now, to the specific detail, to all that is transient, shifty and shapeless, with its tendency to transubstantiate the surface and the medium into the simulacrum of life itself, has been a villain——in the original sense of the term——for a long time.
Perhaps the realist-antirealist polarity is simply a sub-category of a still more encompassing evaluation of experience itself. Ever since antiquity, purified essences have been considered higher than material specifics, the Idea nobler than its concrete manifestations in earthly experience. The Platonic Ideal is beauty freed from its earthly dross, a dispassionate contemplation of the distilled and accident-free.
The French dictionary attempted to purify the language of all plebian, practical and technical terms; Descartes posited two distinct modes of experience: Primary versus Secondary Qualities——the first abstract, qualitative, attainable by reason, permanent and superior; the second, ephemeral, decidedly inferior, even deceptive, the concrete sights, smells and sounds available to the senses.
Still later, Kant and Hegel provided firm support for an idealistic, antirealist position in the arts. None of these ways of dividing up and evaluating experience can be reduced to a simplified system of social causes and esthetic effects. But nevertheless, it is possible to assert that the values assigned to the ideal side of the dichotomy were generally associated with the nobler or more elevated segments of society, and their opposites to the lower echelons, it stood to reason that those crude in manners and dress, who had to.
Living through their senses and utilitarian calculation, the lower orders would naturally be bound to the concrete; their spirits, such as they were, could hardly be free from the gross specificity of everyday concerns. As such, those poor in wealth or social standing could hardly be expected to respond to the more universal manifestations of beauty.
In the past this attitude was generally expressed by the roles these lower-class characters occupied in the arts and in the way they were treated or depicted. While the protagonists of classical art might be evil, cruel, or otherwise morally imperfect, they could never appear as ugly, petty minded or ludicrous. Nor could they be guilty of incorrect deportment or behavior; this was reserved for lower-class character engaged in low comedy or farce. Thus what we might loosely call realism——prosaically described characters in specific everyday situations, with the social context often indicated by dress and setting——was originally reserved for the representation of lower orders of humanity.
The exaltation of the peasant, the worker and the petty bourgeoisie, and the birth of the self-conscious Realist Movement in the context of the Revolution were far more than coincidental. The notion that ordinary experience per se might serve as the subject for serious art was still a relatively revolutionary one in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Neither Realism nor the antirealist attack upon it was, of course, completely new to the history of Western art. The realist vision had been the dominant mode at least three times previously: in Italy, in the art of Caravaggio, and, even more unequivocally in the Netherlands, during the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet while the Netherlandish art of the fifteenth and the Dutch masters of the seventeenth centuries certainly have had their admirers, they have for the most part been invidiously compared by the most authoritative spokesmen to the more elevated productions of the very font of Ideal Art: Italy.
From Michelangelo to Berenson, Roger Fry and Clive Bell, the realist impulse of the North has served as a bad example for those who would establish the highest standards for art. In a way, the Modernist position is simply a variation and exaggeration of the antirealist stance of these illustrious predecessors. Only the specific content of the issue and the cast of characters have changed.
In Flanders they paint, with a view to deceiving sensual vision… They paint stuffs and masonry, the green grass of the fields, the shadow of trees, and rivers and bridges, which they call landscapes with many figures on this side and many figures on that.
And all this, though it pleases some persons, is done without reason or art, without symmetry or proportion, without skillful selection or boldness, and, finally, without substance or vigor, …for good painting is nothing but a copy of the perfections of God and a recollection of his painting; it is a music and a melody which only intellect can understand, and that with great difficulty.
In the seventeenth century, the classicistic theorist Joachim Sandrart criticized Rembrandt for his ignorance of the elevating properties of antiquity and for breaking the rules of art.
In addition, Sandrart complained incorrectly that Rembrandt, instead of devoting himself to subjects appropriate to a painter of the first magnitude——classical, allegorical or historical——tended to resort to ordinary insignificant subjects found in nature. John the Baptist. Though such a natural occurrence could have taken place, to include it within the context of a religious painting was a vulgar and unfortunate lapse of taste and displayed ignorance of the laws of decorum.
The same association of realist art with coarse, lower-class behavior had been directed at Caravaggio and was later leveled at Courbet, who, of course, reveled in such accusations. E ven the relatively liberal French seventeenth-century art theorist, Roger de Piles, who really admired Rembrandt, included him in a blanket condemnation of the impurity and lack of selectivity of Netherlandish painters in general.
They objected to Dutch painting because it was specific and familiar. It is of course understandable that these classicist theoreticians of the seventeenth century anxious to elevate the status of art to that of the liberal arts and professions through the imposition of rational law, rule and precept should maintain a strong antirealist bias.
Less obvious is the fact that similar extraesthetic factors have entered into the artistic positions of many more recent art theorists as well. One of the most influential of all English-speaking critics and art historians, Bernard Berenson, shared the antirealist bias of his predecessors. While in no way denigrating his achievements, it is, nevertheless, important to see them in perspective. Like his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors, he attempted to establish a canon, a standard of judgment not merely for assessing the genuineness of Italian paintings, but for making universal statements about the quality of art in general as well as its relation to other aspects of experience.
His conception of art as life enhancement, caused by the effects of ideated sensations, in turn reducible to the components of tactile values, movement and space composition, is firmly directed against realism. I venture upon the following definitions: A man with a native gift for science who has taken to art.
Everything is on the same plane of interest and everything that can be carried off, they bring home in triumph. To this pleasure in the mere appearance of things, the greatest of the early Flemings, the Van Eycks, joined, it is true, high gifts of the spirit and rare powers of characterization.
They had, as all the world knows, a technique far beyond any dreamt of in Tuscany. And yet the bulk, if not the whole of Flemish painting, is important only as Imitation and Illustration.
If it was more than just adequate to the illustrative purpose, then, owing no doubt to joy in its own technique, it overflowed into such rudimentary decorative devices as gorgeous stuffs and spreading, splendidly painted draperies.
It may be questioned whether there exists north of the Apennines a single picture un-inspired by Florentine influence, in which the design is determined by specifically artistic motives: that is to say, motives dictated by the demands of Form and Movement. Klein and H. Zerner, eds. The analogy abstract or elevated qualities of painting with music, in its appeal to spiritual rather than merely sensual faculties, is a perennial theme of antirealist criticism.
Dedalus 91, No. For late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century justifications of Dutch realism see P.
The Brooklyn Rail
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Realism by Linda Nochlin
By Linda Nochlin. The value of realism remains one of the basic issues facing art. Naturally, the value of art itself has a certain theoretical priority. But if we accept art at all, then the issue of realism must be dealt with in the context of its perennial antagonism to antirealism, whether this be idealism, symbolism or abstract art. A historical phenomenon, Realism with a capital R, dominated art and literature in the West from the mid-nineteenth century until the s, and it is now part of the past. But there were realisms before there was Realism.
From the Archives: The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law
Realism by Linda Nochlin. Several years ago I became enamored with the work of Gustave Courbet. I read two books on his life and art, and after reading those books I began to get interested in his role in the 19th century art movement, Realism, and how it differed from the prevailing idealistic schools of thought that were prevalent in France at the time, namely Romanticism and Neoclassicism. This book is an excellent survey of the Realism movement. The main themes about this art movement are:.