Does realism matter?

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“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K. Dick

In last week’s blog post, Realism in the Visual Arts, I reviewed the history of the Realism Movement and also noted the responses of Facebook friends to the question, “How would you define realism, as it relates to art?” As expected, there were some very insightful answers.

Cynthia Hillis McBride, responding to the question “What is realism”,  believes the average person with little or no formal art education has no ruler with which to judge ART. “He certainly doesn’t know an abstract impressionist work from a realistic work. He doesn’t care what ‘school’ the artist belonged to. He likes or dislikes a piece by comparing it to what he knows. If the subject looks very much like something he is familiar with and also is pleasing to the eye he will admire it. If it is technically well executed with lovely lighting, a dynamic composition and closely resembles a subject he admires, he will love it! Realism in art will always appeal to the common man because he can relate to it. The important thing to remember is that art is not only such in the eye of the beholder as something he can recognize, but also almost always is something he realizes he could have never created himself. If he believes he could have thrown enough paint to create a Jackson Pollock type work, he no longer perceives such a thing as ART.”

So now the question now is, “Does realism or realist art even matter?” Kara Lysandra Ross, Director of Operations for the Art Renewal Center, believes it does.

Claude Monet - "Impression Sunrise"

Claude Monet – “Impression Sunrise”


Impressionism applied contemporary developments in color theory. In an effort to effectively capture atmosphere, painting en plein air characterized the movement. The movement was also noted for its short dashes and dots of enriched color and a reduction of line and detail. It also represented the negativity with which many artists of the day involved in this new movement had toward the art of the day, feeling it had become stale and predictable.


A few years ago when Ross was invited to judge the annual International Guild of Realism show, she stated very clearly and expertly the importance of art in society…and the importance of realist art in particular. She believes many people view art as a luxury, something nice to decorate one’s home, but they don’t really recognize its true worth. In truth, she says, art lies at the core of human existence, and it has the power to not only communicate but also to shape one’s beliefs and as a result, societies. That’s why many governments view the arts as something that should be controlled.

“Nothing says more about a culture than the art it idolizes. It represents what it values, what it thinks about, and essentially what it deems worth remembering. Art is the representation of a people, encapsulating its essence on every level. By attacking the art of a culture, you attack the culture itself.”

We have seen this throughout civilization, and even see it today. When an oppressive regime wants to gain control of a culture and its people they will typically attack one’s heritage by changing laws, burning books and libraries, destroying monuments, sculptures, and paintings in an attempt to erase and replace ones beliefs with something else.

Many of the modern art movements, in a way, are a reflection of that same attitude…one of rebellion…doing away with the old and imposing something totally different, and more often than not, something much worse than what was there previously. In so doing, established foundational principles of representational art and the training required to attain such a high level of expression were considered repulsive.


Paul Cezanne - "View of Auvers Sur Oise"

Paul Cezanne – “View of Auvers Sur Oise”


Post-Impressionism was a rebellion against what were believed to be the limitations of Impressionism. This movement focused on the emotional, structural, symbolic and spiritual elements they felt were missing from the former movement.


Ernest Ludwig Kirchner - "Snowy Landscape"

Ernest Ludwig Kirchner – “Snowy Landscape”


Expressionism was defined by vivid, jarring, dynamic, symbolic color, and exaggerated lines. Subjective feelings were emphasized over objective observation. Artists sought a highly emotional effect through exaggerated imagery, resulting in a distorted reality.


To the question, “What is realism”, Facebook respondents agree that realism is a truthful, objective representation of the real world. It captures the true effects of light and volume of those things we see, know, experience, relate to, and understand in real life. Therefore, true realism cannot merely be a painting technique that renders superficial detail. Nor can it be a distortion of the actual being or existence of something.

Henry Matisse - "Harmony in Red"

Henry Matisse – “Harmony in Red”


Fauvism emphasized intensely exaggerated color as the artist sought to express his feelings about a subject. Because of this the Fauvists were nicknamed, “Les Fauves” (the wild beasts). The movement was also characterized by extremely simplified drawing.


Frederic Taubes in his book Modern Art – Sweet or Sour, explains the importance of realism this way. “Art is the expression of visual ideas. Art evokes thought that in turn generates emotions. For the artist, abstract thinking that does not find its matrix in the emotional is worthless; to the artist the world of abstract ideas offers no nourishment. Whatever lies outside the pale of his experience is for him of no consequence. Everything that materializes itself in the painter’s mind concerns representation, and abstract art is truly a representation of Nothing. As always, disengagement from the optical must end up inexorably in the blind alley of Nothingness.”

Marcel Duchamp - "Fountain"

Marcel Duchamp – “Fountain”


Dadaism was a irrational, nonsensical movement that rejected reason and logic, prized intuition and sought to mock classical and conventional artists and ideas.


Surprisingly, Picasso agrees with Taubes, which is strange considering the work Mr. Picasso produced.  “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.”…and in my opinion, if you take all meaning out of art it’s like taking all sound out of music.”

Pablo Picasso - "Doro Maar au Chat"

Pablo Picasso – “Doro Maar au Chat”


Cubism challenged conventional forms of representation. It ignored the traditions of perspective drawing in an attempt to develop new ways of seeing. It believed the traditions of Western Art were exhausted and looked to other cultures for new ways of expression.


In an article published in the New English Review, titled The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism, Mark Anthony Signorelli writes, ‘Nothing is so important to the spiritual and mental flourishing of a people as its art. The stories they tell, the buildings they inhabit, the public spaces in which they gather, the songs they sing, the fashioned images they gaze upon, these things shape their souls more permanently and effectively than anything else. We live in a time when the art all around us accustoms men to, and insinuates into their souls, the most erroneous and degrading ideas imaginable about themselves and their world. A humane society can hardly be expected to grow out of such an adverse cultural environment.”

Frank Bramley - "The Hopeless Dawn"

Frank Bramley – “The Hopeless Dawn”


Continuing with the Kara Ross speech to the International Guild of Realism, she states, “The idea of destruction was built into the ideology of modernism. Old culture and its arts have to be destroyed to make room for the new. Modernism wants to begin from ‘point zero’. The idea of destroying the old was already present in Cubism; their paintings and collages destroyed the Renaissance tradition and the modern movement of Futurism was ‘a passionate attack on bourgeois society and its values’. Modernism has claimed that their intent was to attack he wealthy, but in actuality they attacked humanity as a whole. You need a lot of education to understand and appreciate an abstract expressionist work, but anyone can recognize and sympathize with an image of a grieving mother or a painting of a beautiful garden. Those things are universal to the human condition. Splotches of paint are just splotches of paint and are nothing but a cynical statement of mankind and its accomplishments, which as far as the modernists are concerned amount to nothing more than Duchamp’s  ‘Fountain’.”

“Modernist leader F.T. Marinetti, who in 1909 wrote the First Futurist Manifesto stated, ‘We will destroy all museums and libraries, and academies of all sorts; we will battle against moralism, feminism, and all vile opportunism and utilitarianism’. Although the modernists never burned the museums, they did remove most of the fine art from their walls, hiding many of the best works in the basement and in their stead hung canvases painted with solid color, or in some cases nothing at all. Today most modernist works take a fraction of the time that a realist one does and therefore the galleries have a larger inventory to work from. In addition, modernist works bring much higher prices at auction than those by the artists they claimed at the time to be opportunistic.” Now I ask you, who are the opportunistic ones?

In her closing remarks to the International Guild of Realism, Ross reminded artists that they play a most important role in our society. “For those who do believe in a higher power, is not the earth and the universe God’s artistic creation? I hope you walk away from this with an extra level of appreciation for the work you do, inspired not to be discouraged when you encounter difficulties. You are shaping our nation and the world into a better place, where once again freedom of thought and real communication can be disseminated through a canvas. With your diligence and effort, a picture is once again worth a thousand words versus needing a thousand word to understand it.”



Kara Lysandra Ross is a regular contributor to the Epoch Times, an international newspaper that publishes in 35 countries and 19 languages.

Modern Art – Sweet or Sour – Frederic Taubes – Watson-Guptill Publication

Thank you to Google for the images



John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master  
To view his art and bio, please click HERE



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