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10 November 2013

Intermezzo: Real Problems

Classical realism, and other confusing epithets in the way of emulation...

With my book The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture due to be available from booksellers by the end of the month, I thought it might be useful to distinguish its argument from the current confusion about the aims of art and representation that has arrived with burgeoning figurative art movements....

Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s pendentives in the Gesù, spectacular examples of the 
painterly, idealizing mode of the grand manner of classical painting. 
They are not realistic, but they are compellingly verisimilar. 
They are also, paradigmatically, Painting.
Realism is a modern problem for the classical tradition. Opposed to the classical in so many ways—human form, subject matter, composition—realism is still for many an appealing alternative to inaccessible Modern art. Yet it is not itself a real alternative to Modernism, but its corollary, and in some sense its precursor. That contemporary realists call themselves “classical realists” betrays the confusion that creeps in when one sees all pre-Modern figuration as broadly “classical.” Confusion is there wherever the old distinctions—between classicism and realism, idealization and documentation—are treated as inconsequential. 

Confusion about means and ends is rife in this artist’s TED talk:

That body-painting is self-evidently different than painting the body is lost on a TED audience ready to burst boundaries. To them, no doubt, crying “foul” here would be pedantry. A parallel to this confusion is the current (small) wave of interest in art so real it can’t be distinguished from a photograph. As if human craft has been reduced to a pale simulacrum of what machines can do, and so we are amazed when the human artist can achieve a level of precision otherwise only possible by our machine-masters:

One should be suspicious that our culture so readily embraces both the excesses of Realism and the confusion of what “painting” actually means: it suggests some affinity, rather than opposition, between these artists' work and the current worldview. Given our worldview, that can't be a good thing.

The realists themselves are not much interested in what stood for centuries as the pinnacle of the figurative arts: history painting and its attendant idealization of the human figure, schematization of the individual figure within a larger compositional framework, and understanding of naturalism as a means, not an end. Before the nineteenth century, documentation of mere reality was primarily a form of training, never more than a technique or a tool, and never an end in itself.

Emulation in the classical tradition was about artists relating to artists. A modern artist friend recently asked me whether artists emulate Nature? But if we accept the definition of emulation as primarily rivalry, albeit by imitation, how in fact could an artist “rival” Nature? Frankenstein attempted to emulate Nature, and we know how that turned out. In terms of representation, and the invention of formal landscapes, artists and architects only emulated Nature in striving to perfect it, not replicate it or its processes. Artists primarily saw themselves vis-à-vis other artists, whether living or dead. Nature, and representation, was one of the means of emulating other artists, but never an end in itself.

Watch for The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture from Ashgate later this month.

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