… A basic cause of the confusion bedevilling the notion or Realism is its ambiguous relationship to the highly problematical concept of reality. A recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Tate Gallery in London, for example, was entitled ‘The Art of the Real’ and consisted not — as the uninitiated might have expected — of recognizable views of people, things or places, but of large striped or stained canvases and mammoth constructions of plywood, plastic or metal. The title chosen by the organizer was neither wilfully mystifying nor capricious. It was a contemporary manifestation of a long philosophical tradition, part of the mainstream of Western thought since the time of Plato, which opposed ‘true reality’ to ‘mere appearance.’ ‘All things have two faces,’ declared the sixteenth-century theologian, Sebastian Franck, ‘because God decided to oppose himself to the world, to leave appearances to the latter and take the truth and the essence of things for himself.’ This is an extreme statement of a notion which echoes down through the aesthetic theory of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
[line break added to make this easier to read online] ‘True reality lies beyond immediate sensation and the objects we see every day,’ said Hegel. ‘Only what exists in itself is real. … Art digs an abyss between the appearance and illusion of this bad and perishable world, on the one hand, and the true content of events on the other, to reclothe these events and phenomena with a higher reality, born of the mind. … Far from being simple appearances and illusions of ordinary reality, the manifestations of art possess a higher reality and a truer existence.’ Later in the century Baudelaire maintained, in his sketch for a critique of Realism, that, in contradistinction to Realist doctrine, poetry itself was more real and was ‘only completely true in another world’ since the things of this world were merely a ‘hieroglyphic dictionary.’ Many of the most vociferous opponents of Realism based their attacks on these grounds: that it sacrificed a higher and more permanent for a lower, more mundane reality.
The commonplace notion that Realism is a ‘styleless’ or transparent style, a mere simulacrum or mirror image of visual reality, is another barrier to its understanding as a historical and stylistic phenomenon. This is a gross simplification, for Realism was no more a mere mirror of reality than any other style and its relation qua style to phenomenal data — the donnée — is as complex and difficult as that of Romanticism, the Baroque or Mannerism. So far as Realism is concerned, however, the issue is greatly confused by the assertions of both its supporters and opponents, that Realists were doing no more than mirroring everyday reality. These statements derived from the belief that perception could be ‘pure’ and unconditioned by time or place.
… The very aspirations of realism, in its old naive sense, are denied by the contemporary outlook which asserts and demands the absolute independence of the world of art from the world of reality and, indeed, disputes the existence of any simple, unequivocal reality at all. We no longer accept any fixed correspondence between the syntax of language, or the notational system of art, and an ideally structured universe.
In the mid nineteenth century, however, scientists and historians seemed to be revealing, at breakneck speed, more and more about reality past and present.
… As Realism evolved [in the mid nineteenth century], the demand for — and conception of — contemporaneity became more rigorous. The ‘instantaneity’ of the Impressionists is ‘contemporaneity’ taken to its ultimate limits. ‘Now,’ today,’ ‘the present,’ had become ‘this very moment,’ ‘this instant.’ No doubt photography helped to create this identification of the contemporary with the instantaneous. But, in a deeper sense, the image of the random, the changing, the impermanent and unstable seemed closer to the experienced qualities of present-day reality than the images of the stable, the balanced, the harmonious. As Baudelaire said: ‘modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent.’
… The artist striving for truth or sincerity had to guard his spontaneous vision against distortion or alteration by aesthetic conventions or preconceptions. Naiveté of vision — what Castagnary called a mind ‘free from the prejudice of education’ — came in this way to be considered a necessary concomitant of sincerity and truthfulness. ‘He knows neither how to sing, nor how to philosophize,’ wrote Zola in praise of Manet. ‘He knows how to paint, and that is all.’ Some critics and artists went so far as to assert that sheer ignorance or lack of formal training were positive assets for the artist. Laforgue proposed that the academies should be shut; Courbet refused to set himself up as a professor, declaring that art could not be taught; Pissaro, in an unguarded moment, even suggested that they burn down the Louvre. Yet what the Realists generally meant by ‘naiveté’ — a term used with greater frequency than precision — was not merely, or not always, a childlike innocence of perception, which might also be valued, of course, but the intuitive grasp of [the] truth of Rousseau’s uncorrupted man combined with the ruthless and disciplined quest for objective reality characteristic of the new man of science. Sincerity (which for the Realist, was more like the modern existentialist concept of ‘authenticity’ than its looser, present-day meaning) and truth required of the artist a ceaseless effort to divest himself of the impedimenta of traditional training and poncif, a lifetime’s self-purgation of received ideas.
… in a certain sense, critics of Realism were quite correct to equate the objective, detached, scientific mode of photography, and its emphasis on the descriptive rather than the imaginative or evaluative, with the basic qualities of Realism itself. As Paul Valéry pointed out in an important though little know article: ‘the moment that photography appeared, the descriptive genre began to invade Letters. In verse as in prose, the décor and the exterior aspects of life took an almost excessive place. … With photography … realism pronounces itself in our Literature’ and he might have said, in our art as well.
… The problem of why the Realists chose to paint what they did and rejected other possibilities, and why they chose to paint what they did the way they did, is crucial. It was not merely because street scenes, or peasants or everyday subjects were available — the papal kitchen had, after all, been available as subject matter to Raphael. Nor was it because the older, more traditional subjects were ‘outworn’ or ‘no longer relevant’ — that is simply an easy way of saying that they were no longer being painted. Painters chose as they did because of certain attitudes of mind, stated or unstated, often unconsciously assimilated as though breathed in with the air of the times.