I really had so very little to write in this paper, because I’ve never really studied any art history or anything. So, this is a paper that I sorta made my way through with a great deal of difficulty and with a lot of fluff. It turns out to feel more like a bit bit of a metaphysics paper than a philosophy of aesthetics paper, but welll……………… I thought I’d just put it here so I could look back at it someday and laugh about how convoluted some of my writing is.
Function or form? Realism or abstraction? The art world is a dialectic between the two camps: one advocates art as realistic representation, striving to capture with accuracy that which it is modeled after; the other suggests that art is abstraction, or non-representational, striving to allude to meaning extrinsic of the original model. But is art ever exclusively abstract, or realistic? And furthermore, is the nature of art, either as one or both of these qualifications, static? This paper aims to demonstrate that art is always composed of both realistic and non-representational elements simultaneously, and that the ratio of these two qualifications is dynamic.
We can approach the dual nature of art by attempting to isolate it as distinctly realist or non-representational. First though, we must determine what about art is realist or non-representational; we must isolate the root concept of art up until the specific point where it appears to separate into two branches of qualifications. This junction, this last common denominator, is a want to preserve an idea. “At the origin of painting and sculpture, there lies a mummy complex,” (9) says Bazin. “To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to sow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life” (9). In that sense, an object of art is meant to take an idea and present it in a time and place separate from its original occurrence.
This representation outside of an original occurrence is an act of preservation. The act of preservation is thus common to both realist and non-representational art. The disagreement lies not in the act of preservation, but in the idea following it: that which is target of preservation. The concept of realist or abstract comes to refer to this target idea’s distance from the model. Is the idea we are trying to preserve intrinsic in the model, or is it extrinsic?
Says Bazin: “Painting was torn between two ambitions: one, primarily aesthetic, namely the expression of spiritual reality wherein the symbol transcended its model; the other, purely psychological, namely the duplication of the world outside” (11).
Bazin’s terminology differs slightly from modern jargon, but his definition of “aesthetic” tends to be art which is more non-representational; while his use of “psychological” tends to be synonymous with realistic.
For example, take a painted portrait of a person. What idea is being preserved? The person depicted might be a means of focusing on a particular idea, that doesn’t require that particular model; a thoughtful expression on the subject’s face might be the goal of the painting, in order to preserve the idea of thinking qua thinking; the painting of might reveal the beauty of the model, where the goal of the painting is to preserve the beauty (not the model). Essentially, this would be a non-representational perspective because the focus isn’t necessarily on the model itself. Rather, the painting uses the model (the person) as a means attributing significant to something extrinsic to the model. The closer the painting comes to conveying this extrinsic idea by any means necessary, the more successful the painting is from an aesthetic point of view.
On the other hand, the painting might simply point to that individual model, representing nothing more or less than the person qua subject to be preserved. This painting’s objective is to preserve the individual in himself. The closer the painting is to reproducing the idea of that individual in such a way that it approximates the physical sense-data that we would have from seeing the original occurrence of the individual (the person himself), the more realist the painting is said to be.
So, to address one of our original questions: can art ever be exclusively realistic or non-representational? Our findings are that even if these two interpretations place the focus of artistic appreciation on an idea with variable distance from the model, the fact is that with at even these two interpretations, they are interpretations ultimately of the same work of art. We are not irrelevantly comparing apples and oranges (we are not taking into consideration two separate works of art); we are comparing the different appreciable components of the same fruit (we are regarding abstract and realistic value within the same piece of art). The significance might be the thought portrayed by the model, or it might be the model itself for example—but it is the same model.
It seems that the key weakness in defining the purpose of art lies in the targeting of the significance of the work of art. This is further complicated, because it brings us to the secondary issue of the intrinsic value or intention of work of art. Is art created, in whole, by the artist? Does the object fail to be art until it is recognized as such by an audience? Though the artist may create a piece of art with a particular intention or purpose, the audience must still decide what they will take as the most important idea. And even the artist himself cannot claim pure intention: “No matter how skillful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image” (12). Meaning, it is not only the interpretation of the art as either realist or aesthetic that is subjective—the very production process too is subjective. The artist does not see the whole of his model in perfect objectivity—he is, at first, an audience, deciding is significant in his model before recreating it. Thus, paradoxically, the greatest attempt at realism is rooted in subjectivity.
Conversely, even the greatest attempt at abstraction seems rooted in the real world. When we regard, for example, an abstract work of art which is several lines on an otherwise blank canvas. The squares themselves, as well as the color and composition, may be conceptual—but upon regarding them, such concepts are still ultimately digested through our physical understanding of the world. A diagonal line, for example, gives off a sense of dynamic motion, of “leaning” or imminence because of our recognition of our own physical tendency to lean when we are moving forward. The divide between nonsense and abstraction lies in the anchoring into reality. If we cannot find a way to link abstraction into our understanding of reality, then it is nonsense.
Therefore, it seems likely that neither aesthetic nor realistic interpretation is absolutely exclusive of the other—they both rely on each other in order to allow for the possibility of significance.
Where did the idea of art as strictly aesthetic or realistic ever come from, if it seems that the two are two sides of the same spinning coin? If we look at the issue historically, it is more likely that something is classified when a new, contrasting method or technique is introduced. That is to say, our consideration of art effect tends to be comparison to its own limitations. Much of our appreciation of art tends to be in retrospect; it regards what we have seen in the past in relation to what we see and expect today.
The realist or abstract value of a piece of art is at least partly determined by the audience. This means that even if the piece of art does not change, the audience’s interpretation of the art might change with time, depending on how their ways of thinking evolve. Thus, not only are the production or interpretive mechanics of the art subjective—the very audience, composing of people with constantly changing beliefs and preferences, itself changes, depending on the current technical and technological distance from the work in question.
In other words, we return to our second question: is even the audience-qualified interpretation of artistic value static? No.
Thus, an attempt to classify art as being exclusively abstract or realistic is futile, since such polarity implies a stasis of status. Not only can’t we agree that a piece of art holds an objective intrinsic value (either abstract or realistic), but even if such were the case, such an intrinsic value of the piece of art is only half of the experience of art itself. The audience makes up the other half, and that second half does not have absolute perceptions. The effect of an existing piece of art tends to change with the passing of time, because even if the object of art does not change, the audience does.
Art is human experience. It must be created by someone, and it must be interpreted by someone. Somewhere between a sheet of white paper and a pencil, the act of sketching out an image and then reviewing it with expectation adds meaning to it beyond the atomic considerations. It is not merely paper and graphite, but the way in which a human hand combines it, and the way in which a human interprets the combination, that not only adds significance to it, it creates significance. Art is thus an act of focusing our attention. The process is the act of reproduction and preservation of things in the human experience. The significance is that focus which, in varying degrees, is exaggerated to our senses to gain some insight. It is something that exists in reality because of our attribution of attention and interpretation to it.
Bazin takes what is ultimately a synergistic view of the relationship between realism and abstraction:
The quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological; between true realism, the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and its essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind); a pseudorealisim content in other words with illusory appearances. (12)
Bazin here has introduced particular terminology for his explanation. First, what we consider realist art, Bazin calls the “psychological”. Psychological appreciation of art occurs when we recognize that something has been represented with accuracy in reality, outside of its original occurrence in time. For example, a photograph would have a psychologically artistic appeal, because it provides us with an image that simulates the sense data without us being at the time and place of the scene’s original occurrence. By psychological appreciation, he implies that it is appreciated because it recreates the physical reality as accurately (realistically) as possible.
The abstract effort to exaggerate our focus is that same act preservation, but of focused aspects that only are distantly conveyable by objects in physical reality. Thus we arrive at what Bazin dubs ‘pseudorealism’.
In a way, Bazin’s differentiation between realism and pseudorealism is parallel to the Russian distinction between two different translations for the word truth: istina, and pravda. Realist work aspires towards istina, while pseudorealist work, being more abstract, aspires towards pravda.
Bazin’s approach is interesting in that it attributes a particular importance to the abstract in realism, in the same way that pravda is important to istina. As a pseudorealism, the pseudorealistic is that which not only preserves an idea, but also paradoxically creates something new. That which is extrinsic of the model is, in Bazin’s view, not part of the model at all—it is something that is attached, but in its isolation, is in itself independent through our focus and thus new. In that way, art is a reproduction of an idea that must maintain realism to a minimal degree where the pseudorealism can at least still be anchored within a model. An abstract idea is not the antithesis to a realist one, but rather, in a sense, an extension of a particular idea which is anchored into our understanding using a realist one. This assumes that the new thing that is created, that which Bazin considers the “deception” or “illusory appearance”, is something extrinsic of the model. Thus, the aesthetic which Picasso or Dali create are only possible because of the realistic concepts upon which the appreciation plays with our expectations.
Bazin inducts photography to his discussion to illustrate the paradox between abstraction and realism. For if all art was purely realist, what room would there be for originality if such strong objectivity was suddenly possible? Consider this: what separates a newspaper’s account of an event, versus a fictionalized novel? Where is the line between documentary and art?
If art lies half in the production, then it seems that documentary would be somewhat lacking because it would be too realistic. If the production of art involves the intent and purpose, which is the artist’s contribution to the work of art, documentary is preserving a particular event which cannot be disputed; the event itself is in fact beyond objective, because it happened in reality. “For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man,” (10) says Bazin.
However, this is the interesting effect of new technology. Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, was regarded as the archetypal “Renaissance Man” for his attention to realism. Take into consideration his numerous drawings of human anatomy. His drawings express a great deal of attention to realism; that is to say, they attempt to portray physical reality as accurately as possible. And yet, even if his sketches of human anatomy were considered realistic, they are considered diminished in this importance today compared to modern photographs of human anatomy. Thus, what was viewed as objective and documentary back in the Renaissance era came, in retrospect from modern technology, to once again be viewed as somewhat subjective. As technology tends to make the preservation of an idea outside of its original occurrence more realistic, our expectations for realism heighten, and our conception of past methods changes. Past works of art tend to be less valued, relatively speaking, for their realism, and more valued for their subjectivity and abstraction.
So it is that modern photography, as a medium, is viewed as having more realistic potential (at least in terms of physical reality) than mediums previous to it, such as painting. And, to take it a step further even, film adds another dimension of realism, that of time.
This is, however, in no way to say that photography’s potential potential in art is because of it its objectivity. A case might be made to suggest that a newspaper isn’t a piece of art, because of its objectivity approaching documentary function.
Just as Da Vinci’s anatomical sketches were viewed as documentary back then, it seems quite likely that modern documentary, such as newspapers and photographs, still have plenty of room for subjectivity which we merely need to explore with deeper retrospect. And indeed, Bazin accounts for this possibility: “The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind,” (10). Thus, even if the image captured seems to be realistic and could theoretically be without significance, in that it simply exists, there is something to be said about the reasons for the photographer choosing his particular subject.
Although it seems that abstract works of art might be more readily tagged as art because of their obvious subjectivity, the art of realistic art has to do with a game played. “Today the making of images no longer shares an anthropocentric, utilitarian purpose,” (10) says Bazin. “It is no longer a question of survival after death, but of a larger concept, the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny” (10). That is to say, realistic art plays right beneath our senses—it satisfies our psychological need for an anchor into reality. It preserves something, and we recognize this. But the realist art is also complimented by subtle abstraction—that which makes the photograph more than just a document, which hints at something and gives us an entry by which our interpretation as an audience can still give it subjective meaning.
The push and pull between abstraction and realism in both production and induction tends to be catalyzed by the advent of new technologies and techniques. This is because the individual’s life is so deeply affected by technology. The idea, which we are preserving, is a subject of debate, since: the act of preservation is subjective; and the interpretation method is subjective. This idea can thus be qualified to varying degrees in terms of realism and abstraction, however, only with the understanding that the two qualifications are inexorably linked to one another. Art, thus, perhaps can be said to be defined by its escape from definition. It is a concept of totality in the process of constant evolution, rather than one of particularity.