Did photography replace Realism? I don't think so!

Photography and Realism
by Claudia Moscovici
The aesthetic revolution that occurred during the twentieth-century is unprecedented in the history of Western art. Even the invention of one-point perspective and the soft shading that gives the illusion of depth (chiaroscuro) during the Renaissance didn’t change aesthetic standards as radically as the creation of non-representational, or what has also been called “conceptual” art. Since Marcel Duchamp we have come to believe that a latrine, if placed in a museum, is a work of art. Since Andy Warhol we have come to accept that brillo boxes and other ordinary household objects, if placed in a museum, are objets d’art. And since Jackson Pollock and the New York School of abstract expressionism we have come to realize that what may appear to be randomly spilled paint, globs and other kinds of smudges are not only artistic, but also considered by many to be the deepest expressions of human talent, thought and feeling.
Once art took a conceptual turn, it also became philosophical. As Arthur Danto argues in representational art what constituted “art” was more or less obvious. The only question that was always difficult to determine was: is it good art? By way of contrast, Danto explains, conceptual art compels viewers to think about the very nature of art. The postmodern answer to this question is not only philosophical–namely, that art is a concept because it cannot be identified visually, just by looking at it–but also sociological. Art is, as Danto himself declares, whatever the viewing public and especially the community that has the power to consecrate it–by exhibiting it in galleries and museums, buying it, writing books about it, critiquing and reviewing it, etc– says it is.
A priori, art can be anything. A brillo box, a toilet seat. But it isn’t everything for the simple reason that not everything is consecrated as art. What may seem, by older standards, to be art—such as contemporary Impressionist-style paintings–may not be considered art (but only cheap imitation) by the public or critics, while, conversely, what doesn’t seem to be art—a brillo box—can be perceived as the highest manifestation of artistic genius.
As noted, what makes twentieth- and twenty-first century art conceptual is the fact that what makes it be “art” can no longer be seen with the eye. We can’t see the aesthetic difference between the brillo boxes we discard and Warhol’s brillo boxes. Yet one is called trash and the other pop art. Clearly, it’s not the physical qualities of the object, but rather the assumptions of a community that determine what is (good) art. I cannot dispute this argument—made in different ways by Pierre Bourdieu and Arthur Danto–because, given everything I observe is being called art, I see it as the most compelling explanation of the term “art” as it’s being used today. Having conceded the artistic nature and value of nonrepresentational art, however, postromantic aesthetics argues that just because nonrepresentational art is valued doesn’t mean that contemporary representational art should be dismissed.
To explain the conceptual revolution that occurred in art at the end of the nineteenth-century and the beginning of the twentieth century, some art historians claim that photography eliminated the need for representational art, or the kind of art that tries to imitate “nature” by depicting faithfully what the eye can see. We can add in parentheses, as E. H. Gombrich observes in The Story of Art, that the notion of the representation of what the eye can see has changed throughout the history of art. Needless to say, it too is shaped by social assumptions. Nonetheless, the difference between a kind of art that aims at faithful visual imitation of the three-dimensional qualities of physical objects and one that doesn’t remains relatively easy to discern.
For instance, even without reading the descriptive title of the painting, it’s clear to tell by just looking at Renoir’s Girl Bathing (1892) that it features a nude girl bathing. Without its explanatory (or deceptive) title, however, it would be impossible to know what Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 1 (1911) is supposed to represent The last thing that might occur to those who look at it–if it were not for the title–is that it shows a nude.
The invention of photography had a lot to do with the move away from visual representation. To say that photography eliminated the need for representational art, however, is an overstatement. Undoubtedly, the invention of the camera encouraged artists to experiment with other means of representation in the same way that the invention of machines displaced hand-made crafts. The camera probably did for painting what the industrial revolution did for artisanship. But that doesn’t mean that artisanship–or hand-made beautiful objects–are no longer valuable. For what the human imagination, sensibility, eye and hand can create will always be somewhat different from what can be made with the aid of machines. The texture, sense of color and vision that are captured by painters are not identical to those that photography can produce, even though photography can bring us closer to visual reality and even though photography can be artistic.
Verisimilitude, or the true-to-life physical representation of objects, already existed in classical Greek, Hellenistic and Roman art, all of which rendered the beauty, movement and sinuosity of the human body especially palpable in their breath-taking sculptures. In classical Greek and Hellenistic art in particular, the human body conveyed (what was perceived as) the essence of beauty: the glorification of divine powers and aesthetic ideals were embodied in the human form. Philip Scott’s Johnson’s spectacular video vividly captures the beauty of classical sculptures:
While Greek paintings and especially sculptures showed knowledge of human anatomy, movement and foreshortening, it’s Renaissance artists who discovered the two other key components of verisimilitude in painting: one point-perspective and shading, which give the illusion of three-dimensionality to two-dimensional painted forms. Gombrich and other art historians credit the architect Filipo Brunelleschi with the invention of one-point perspective as it was enthusiastically adopted by Italian Renaissance painters. Perspective entailed the application of geometrical principles to convey in painting the relative size of objects in terms of their distance from one another and from the viewer. (The Story of Art, 228-9).
The most famous Renaissance artist, Leonardo da Vinci, added another dimension to making the objects represented in art seem almost real. His most famous painting Mona Lisa is said to deceive the viewers into believing that the woman’s eyes move, returning and even following their gaze with her eyes. Likewise, many have speculated about the meaning of Mona Lisa’s ambiguous smile, whose lips have a mobility that renders her at once impenetrable and expressive. Leonardo was able to achieve these complex visual and psychological effects through the technique called sfumato, or the smoky blurring the contours of the object depicted—especially the corners of Mona Lisa’s eyes and mouth—to leave their outline and expression more open to interpretation.
The study and representation of human anatomy and of nature, foreshortening, capturing human movement and expression, one-point perspective and the creation of soft shadows which give the illusion of three-dimensionality to painted forms — all these techniques which took centuries to develop–have the magical effect of making objects represented by art come to life before our eyes. This kind of naturalistic art is not necessarily “realistic” in the sense of capturing human life as it actually is. For instance, some of the paintings of the surrealists were realistic in their anatomically accurate and three-dimensional representation of the human body, but fantastic in their rendition of reality.
In its preference for visual resemblance (as opposed to realism or plausibility), postromanticism argues that the artistic techniques that give a sense of three-dimensionality and life-like quality to art are difficult skills that require both patience and technical talent and that are worth preserving and appreciating in art today. There’s no reason to discard the masterful qualities that made art artistic for five hundred years. Nor do such techniques have only a purely historical value. In an artistic world that prides itself upon pluralism, openness and variety, artists who desire to continue the legacy of realistic representation should be able to coexist with those that have rejected it. Postromanticism presents not a rival, but an alternative to modern and postmodern conceptual art. For in a world of such diverse tastes and sensibilities, there’s certainly room for both.


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