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Why Realism? (by Frederick Ross for the ARC)

This article was published in 2014, on the Art Renewal Center website, and although is long, I think it's quite an interesting discussion in this topic of Modern Art vs. Classical Art. Ultimately, I don't believe that the two forms can not co-exist, but often I get I find myself engaged in this argumentation, since we are still investigation, as a society, what to do with those differences, which form to applaud, and which to ridicule. Although, in recent year, the rise of entertainment art had given new power for the "classical methods", for the abilities of the artists to portray things realistically, what with all the animated films, games, virtual realities in general. Let's keep on watching and see how this is gonna go =] Here is the link to the original Enjoy!

Rafael Guerra - Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum, Duo

Frederick Ross

Thinking about this theme, I've concluded that nothing could be more appropriate than to ask and answer this question: Why Realism? There are, finally, today many organizations that believe in the value and importance of realism, both classical and contemporary. But why Realism? Why, after a century of denigration, repression and near annihilation, when the accepted beliefs taught in nearly every high school, college and university for the last hundred years, has been that realism is unoriginal? After all, all realists do is just copy from nature. Realism they say is unsophisticated. Most people can tell what is going on in realistic painting or sculpture. It's so easy to understand. It's uncreative and only creating forms and ideas not found in nature show real originality. So the question of the day, for society and for realist artists, the question for the month, year, and really for the rest of their lives, is: Why Realism?

My answer is direct, simple and should be self-evident: The visual fine arts of drawing, painting and sculpture are best understood first, last, and always, as a language - a visual language. It was developed and preserved first and foremost as a means of communication very much like spoken and written languages. And, like language, it is successful if communication takes place and it is unsuccessful if it does not. This answer simultaneously defines the term "Fine Art." So fine art is a way that human beings can communicate.

And how can one truly communicate except by a language that is understood by those who are listening? And if communication is the goal then our language must have a vocabulary and a grammar which is shared by the teller and listener alike. If you think about it, the earliest forms of written languages used simple drawings of real objects to represent those objects. That means the origins of written language overlap in a nearly identical way, the origins of fine art. Without a common language there is no communication and no understanding, and that holds true as well for fine art. It also must communicate in a similar way to spoken and written languages which have the uniquely human purpose of describing the world in which we live, and how we feel about every aspect of life and living. As a language, art is like all of the hundreds of spoken and written languages, that are capable of expressing the enormous limitless scope of human thoughts, ideas, beliefs, values and specially our feelings, passions, dreams, and fantasies; all the varied and infinite stories of humanity.

The vocabulary of fine art consists of realistic images which we see everywhere throughout our lives, and the grammar are the rules and skills needed to successfully and believably render the images. These are some of the rules of grammar which holds together the real objects or vocabulary of the visual language of fine art: finding contours; modeling; manipulating paint to create shadows and highlights with the use of glazing and scumbling that enhance the forms through layers of pigment; use of selective focus; perspective; foreshortening; compositional balance; balancing warm and cool color; lost and found shapes and lines.

Please consider this additional self-evident truth: Even things which are not real, such as our dreams and fantasies as well as all stories of fiction, which are not real, are expressed in our conscious and subconscious minds by using real images. Consider that only real images are used in our fantasies and dreams - none of which look like Modern Art. Therefore, abstract painting does not reflect the subcounscious mind. Dreams and fantasies do that and artwork can also do that, but only using real images and assembling them in ways that feel like fantasies or dreams.

So, there we have it - the core concept that explains what fine art is. It is a visual language, which is capable of expressing the endless range of thought and ideas which can also be expressed in great literature and poetry. However, unlike the hundreds of spoken and written languages, the vocabulary of traditional realism in fine art has something which makes it unique, in one important way: the language of traditional realism cuts across all those other languages and can be understood by all people everywhere on earth regardless of what language it is they speak or write in. Thus, Realism is a universal language that enables communication with all people and to people of all times, past, present, and future. Modern and abstract art is not a language. It’s the opposite of language for it represents the absence of language. And the absence of language means the loss of communication. It takes away from mankind perhaps our most important characteristic, that whichmakes us human: the ability to communicate in great depth, detail and sophistication. And in the case of the fine arts, modernism banished the only universal language that exists – Realism, with the techniques and skills required to achieve it. A knowledge which had grown and developed and was carefully documented and preserved as it was passed down for centuries from masters to students.

If the truth be known, abstract art is not really even abstract. The process of using “abstraction” that is called to Modern art is a misappropriation of the word “abstract”, which means nearly the opposite. It is, in fact, language that uses a process of abstraction to create symbols that mean something else. Only human beings can use abstract ideas and none of them look like Jackson Pollack or Williaim De Kooning. Let me explain it like this: The word “paper” means what I’m holding in my hands. The written word “p a p e r” is a further abstraction of the spoken word “paper”. If I make a painting in which a man is shown reading from a piece of paper, I’ve used the vocabulary of traditional realism and created a different kind of abstraction, which is instantly recognized by an English speaking person as a paper, a French as a “papier”, to a Hungarian as “Papir”, or a Latvian as “papira”.

Once we understand that fine art is a visual language, and that the process of creating it is a true abstraction, then rejecting it on the basis of being descriptive or telling a story is patenly absurd. But modernist educators teach students that realism is nothing more than storytelling, which they ridicule. It would be equivalent to rejecting anthing written if it told a story, or described a feeling, idea, belief or thought, or even if the words meant anything at all.

Modern art has taught us that it’s a lie to create an illusion of 3 dimensions in a work of art. The painting is really a flat surface and Cezanne is credited with discovering this truth, bringing us closer to truth by collapsing the landscape. Mattisse collapsed our homes and families and Pollack and DeKooning put them all in a blender and flung or dribbled or slapped on the paint in a cacophony of disorganized shapes and color. This, we were told, demonstrated an incredible truth: that the canvas is flat. Well, we have news for them: any 3 year old who is taken to a museum knows that the canvases are flat. And then these artists, having proved the cavas is flat, proceeded to spend the rest of their careers proving it over and over again. But, what is remarkable in saying, showing or knowing that? Demonstrating this obvious fact is accomplished better by just saying it. But that’s no more brilliant than saying the sky is blue, that fire is hot, or that water is wet. The equivalent of this absurdity in written languages would be to say that all writing is untruthfull because all that is really there on the page are different shapes of straight or curved or squiggly lines. And since that is closer to the truth than placing meaning in those lines, than using them to make words to form ideas… that/s a lie too. Therefore, to bring the analogy full circle, the best book would be one that demonstrates this “truth” with page after page of meaningless shapes and squiggles, thus showing us the modernist’s profound definition of truth. How many books and poems would be purchased and read in which all that were there were meaningless shapes on every page?

What, then, is fine art and fine literature, fine music, poetry, or theatre? In every case, human beings use materials supplied by nature (the clay and colors and the movements and sounds of life) and creatively combines or molds them into something else, which is capable of communication and meaning. Throughout history, people have found one way after another of communicating their thoughts, ideas, beliefs, values and the entire range of their shared experiences of living. When it comes to the visual arts, modernists like to say “Why waste your time doing realism? It’s all been done already”. That would be exactly like saying “Why waste your time writing anything? It’s all already been written. There is nothing left to say”.

Realism has been denigrated repeatedly for being no more than illustration, as if illustration was a dirty word. Would anyone say that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is just illustration? After all, it does illustrate the bible. In truth, illustration is just another word for storytelling. Would we reject written language because it tells a story? Of course not. But we all recognize that there are good stories and bad stories, some well written, some poorly written, verbose or eloquent. So too are there bad works of art, mediocre works of art, good and great works of art and the rare masterpieces. We may not all agree all the time, but most people can see intuitively the value in a Vermeer, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Alma-Tadema or William Bouguereau. And if people were not brain washed, they would pretty much be able to see the actual truth about a canvas with disorganized globs of paint on it: that it is something which takes virtually no skill to make and lacks any genuine means of communication. Modernism needs to reject all realism because they are rejecting nearly all meaning. How many modern works are titled with the word “Untitled”? Untitled #1, Untitled #33, Untitled ad nauseum. They wear the word Untitled like a badge of honor. In doing this, they are telling us and their professors alike: “Look, I was careful not to imbue this mess I made on the canvas with any sort of meaning at all!”.

Storytelling has become a dirty word in the world of fine art. Storytelling is demeaned as a mare “illustration” and “illustration” itself is relegated to the “commercial arts”. Go sign up to study in the fine arts department of any college or university in the U.S., Brazil, Europe, or the marjority of the world, and tell the “officials” who run the place that you want to paint great anecdotal scenes either as histories, or allegorical paintings, or even every day scenes that capture modern life; anything that might symbolize or express the most powerful of human themes. What do you think will happen? After looking down their nose at you, trying to figure out how to say what they want without insulting you too much, they will politely tell you that, “Well, dear, you should really check out the graphic art department or look into a commercial art school or go to a trade school for that matter; we do not consider your interest as fine art.” They will tell you that storytelling is not what they do. It doesn’t interest them. It’s not a fitting purpose for fine art. It’s not ‘relevant’.

So, what is fitting for modernist and post-modernist philosophy? What is relevant? They will tell you: “Form for its own sake”, “color for its own sake”, “line or mass for they own sake”. That is art. There is nothing else that art should communicate or express. They say they’re showing us how to see differently. But we all see what’s there and more so, what is not there.

To them, these abstract or minimalist gimmicks are far more worthy of accolades of merit than recreating scenes from the real world, or from our fantasies, myths or legends; more profound than imagery which show our hopes, dreams, and the most powerful moments in life. Empty canvases, or empty rooms, or piles of rocks are more important to them and far more “relevant” subject matter, than the moments in life that describe and define our shared humanity. Squares of color are superior to subjects about people of color; layers of textures paper trumps showing the layered textures of life. Dribbles of paint are more compelling than a child learning how to dribble a basketball. Bags of garbage are considered more sophisticated than showing the transition from self-conscious adolescence to self-assured adulthood. And a light blinking on and off in an empty room attracts journalistic praise while the blinking passage of life and time are but worthless sentimentality. These are the ignorant precepts, of the prefects, who hold our museums and colleges in a hundred-year long gripo f banal irrelevances; boring our inner souls and our youth alike in a system where the skilled are ridiculed and the talented are ignored and disillusioned. The old masters until very recently were dying off without a trained generation to protect, preserve and perpetuate that which had been preserved for so many centuries before.

Well, I’m not ecstatic to say that there is such a generation and it’s all of us. We all are parto f it. And the realist artists of today are culture’s heroes and heroines. We are all together playing a role in preserving and further developing one of humanities greatest accomplishments: the Fine Arts. Just three short decades ago there was practically nobody left who believed as we do now. But in the past ten years, especially, there has been an explosion in the size and ranks of the realist movement. From a trickle there is today a raging torrente of tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people devoted to the resurgence of great realist fine art, which has been the missing universal language that can help interpret and express the ideas and developments of the last 100 years, perhaps, in many ways, the most importante century in all human history. Many artists today are once again looking at the achievements and the great art of the past, and once again endeavoring to build upon what has come before as we continue into the 21st century.

Modernism achieved a virtual monopoly for the past century, with control not unlike the powerful grip of government regulators ora n oficial licensing commision. The institutions of cultural power banned nearly all artwork done by living artist that could be considered traditional realism. They controlled and still control nearly every museum and every fine art department in virtually all of the colleges and universities in the western world. Nearly all journalistic art criticism in newspapers and magazines showed the same all-consuming bias. All of the art teachers and art courses on every level of education, from kindergarten through graduate school are included. Modernism overwhelmed even focused art colleges like Cooper/s Union, Pratt, and the Rhode Island School of Design.

No matter which way you turned you could not finda ny course of education dedicated to teaching the skills of Tradiitonal Classical Realism. The artist guilds were long gone and atelier based schools had disappeared as well. We could only find a rare thread or two of teaching that still included the training techniques which had been used nearly everywhere until the beggining of the 20th century. Oh, sure, most art departments pay lip servisse to learning how to draw and will usually include one life drawing class in the requirements for a degree in fine arts or Art Education. But nearly all of those courses are run by art teachers who cannot really draw themselves. And it’s as true today as it was a hindred years ago, or a thousand years ago: “you cannot teach what you cannot do yourself”.

Those co-called life drawing classes usually specialize in five minute poses where students are taught that getting the gesture quickly is more importante than getting it right. Drawings that are done well and show experience and effort are dismissed as being over worked and having too many lines. But learning how to draw also requires long poses; long enough for students to learn how to find the right lines which defines the contours; contours which move in and out of the form; contours which enable foreshortening and successful modeling. Only classical atelier training could accomplish what is necessary for an artist to bring to life thei creative ideas.

This is why even though realism is entering its next renaissance, we cannot simply now ignore the modern art establishment and we must continue to speak out. As many of you know, I’m the Chairman and founder of A.R.C. which santd for the Art Renewal Center. The Art Renewal Center was founded in 1999 and we didn’t open our website until November of 2000. We waited until we had more then 15,000 of the greatest Works of art in history available for people to view. Today it’s over 80,000, with a large percentage available in high resolution images for study. Our first goal was to make available to the artworld and art lovers everywhere responsible opposing views to the modernista establishment. But by 2002 there were so many requests by visitors asking where they could go to learn the methods of the old másters, that we started searching the western world for places that still made available classical training by educators who themselves had been atelier trained. By 2003, we could only find 14 such schools, all very small, teaching between five and fifteen students each. Less than 200 students, in all the schools combined, were being trained in the classical methods. We then added to the ARC website a listing of ARC Approved Atelier Schools. The response was overwhelming. Within eighteen months all of those small schools were finding all of the students they could handle and plans were afoot to open many more ateliers. Today there are over 70 ARC Approved Ateliers; schools and academies with approved courses of training with thousands of students. An increase of over 200% in just ten years.

We are incredibly fortunate to be speaking together on the cuspo f one of the most important moments in all of art history. It is very rare, indeed, for people to have the opportunity of living through major cultural shifts of the underlying tectonic plates of culture. We in the realist art community are bringing about a world-wide shift in the perception and definition of what constitutes great art. The modernista establishment’s attempts to silence us have failed. Ironically, aided by the most moderno f Technologies – the internet, the truth is available in more and more places. Many of the students in the ARC school have told u show thet wasted years and fortunes of Money in college art departments. The intitutions of the art world must change or perish. After more than a century of blind alleyways, nighmarish detours, and mind numbing “Art-Speak”, to boost up what should have been rejected longa go. The validity of the established modernista view is finally being questioned.

Together, all o fus here are picking up the torch that has been dropped. The job we have today must be to reform and reinstitute proper training methods across the whole infrastructure. It’s not enough to again be making great works of art, we need to sell and Market them and we need to take back ora t least equally cohabit the major museums which play an indispensable role in educating the people as to what objects from the past and presente are to be considered the most precious by society and culture. The 20th century was so damaging to the visual arts that the pent up demand and need for more gratifying and meaningful art has grown enormously in society, resulting in the resurgende of classical based realism. We are only at the very beggining of where this movement is headed. Contemporary Realism has only just begun to reassert its value and importance and the realist artists coming forth are but scratching the surfasse of the great Works of art which are certain to emanate from this movement as the decades of the 21st centiry take form.

So now, as historians, artists, and art lovers, we must ask what happened and what do we need to know of the past to not only pick up the torch and move forward, but then to understand art history, and make sense of what has taken place. Then new generations of artists will have a Strong foundation based on that truth and the real achievements and potential of the fine arts which are firmly grounded in the human psyche and the wants and needs of human beings to communicate visually, for which the fine arts are so uniquely well equipped. We must continue to rewrite the art history of the past 150 years. We must get the truth into the books being used to teach our youth. We must teach the validity, power and beauty of the realist visual language.

So let us look deeper at what has occurred. The writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau said “Men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains.” Let’s substitute “artists” for “men” and we have a declaration which more accurately descries that state of the art world through mosto f the last century. “Artists are born free, but everywhere they are in chains.” Artists have been virtually (if not actually) imprisoned, whether we are talking about the chained constraints of “conceptual art”, or the drudgery of “deconstruction”; the “shackles of shock”, or being mired in “minimalism”, or the vapid, inane impoverishment of Works described as “abstract”. All are chains which have been “forged link by link and yard by yard”, paying lip servisse to composition and design, while longa go having abandoned all of the parameters of fine art; but specially the Paramount need to harmonize great subjects and themes with drawing, modeling, perspective, color, and tone, and expert manipulation of the paint. And what are these subjects and themes? I’ll repeat again: they are the way by which the artist can communicate ideas, values, beliefs and the endless range of human thoughts and emotions.

If we look more colsely, we can see that for most of the past century, there has been an ongoing attempt to malign and degrade the reputations and artwork produced during the victorian era and its counterparts in europeu and America. Sadly they were very successful. But in the past 30 years it has started to change. I tend to think of 1980, when the Metropolitan Museum took some of their finest academic paintings that had been in storage since World War I, and hung them in the new Andre Meyer Wing and announced their decision to the World. Hilton Krame of the NY Times lead a widespread journalistic assault accusing the museum of taking corpses from their basement and excoriated them for daring to hang William Bouguereau and Jean Leon Gerome next to Goya and Manet. I was even more outraged at Krmaer’s remarks than he was at what the museum had done, and after failing to get them to publish and Op-ed response, I had to pay for the space in the Sunday NY Times Arts and Leisure section in order for people to hear a responsibe rebuttal. It ran twice and I received dozens of supportive letters including on from Thomas Wolfe whose sympathizing beliefs were satirically expresed in his legendar book titles “The Painted Word”. Fortunately the Met stuck to their guns and today that section has expanded considerably though there are still masterpieces in their vaults which remain under appreciated. Over the past three decades, I and other art historians have done a great deal of research ad found an overwhelming preponderance of evidence that proves that the modernista descriptions of this era no more than lies and distortions fabricated in order to denigrate all of the traditional realist art produced between 1850 and 1920. Emile zola’s novel the “Masterpiece” was a fictional story about impressionista painters being mistreated by the officials of the Paris Slon run by the Academic másters of that time. This totally made-up account of what occurred amazingly started to be written into art history texts as if it all had actually occurred and to this day the heart of the Modernist accounts of the art history between 1850 and World War I are based on this book’s tale of woe.

The suppressed truth about this period, however, is that during the 19th century, there was an explosion of artistic activity unrivaled in all prio history. Thousands of properly trained artists developed a myriad of new techniques and explored countless new subjects, styles and perspectives that had never been done before. They covered nearly every aspecto f human activity. They were the product of the expansion of freedom and democracy and a profound respect for human beings. They helped disseminate the hrowing view that every individual was valuable, that all people are born with equal inalienable right; especially the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The artists and the writers of the 19th century identified, codified, protected and perpetuated the great humanista values and momentos Age-of-Reason discoveries of the 18th century Enlightenment. The writers from that era, such as Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, have been widely praised and celebrated, while the artists of the same period, communicating mosto f the same concepts and values – in start contrast, have been mercilessly ridiculed and slandered. But working together, this generation helped free the slaves, protect the environment, stop child labor, eradicate unsafe working conditions, ensured women equal rights and the right to vote, broke up monopolies, and protected and assured minority rights. And for this, their pay back, at least for the artists, has been to dismiss their work, denigrate their methods, lie about the meaning of their subjects and berate their achievements. Why? Because they didn’t lead the way to splattered paint, blank canvases or industrial size Campbell’s soup cans? Therefore they were called “irrelevante”?

And here we have a keystone concept of the modernists. There 19th century artists, who we love, are not considered “relevant”. Only Works of techniques that shed all the former definitions and parameters of fine art were to be considered “relevant”. Only those artists, that lead the way to abstract expressionism were worthy to be called “relevant”. Nothing could have been further from truth. In light of what I have just explained, the purpose of ar tis to communicate. It is successful if it explores the most profound aspects of the human experience, and accomplishes it with poetry, beauty and grace. If it is unskilled, awkward, and self-conscious, it fails and is unsuccessful. But to say that academicians were irrelevante to their times or to the over-arching path of the fine arts through the ages is utterly wrong and incorrect. They were, in fact, at the pinnacle of 500 hundred years of art development on every level. The modernists were the impediment to the main path of the fine arts througout history.

Relevance must be understood on many levels and perhaps one of the most essential elements, to understand the art of any era, is to see it in its historical contexto. Understanding the 19th Century will then show u show it relates to our world today. In order to understand the relevance of William Bouguereau and other masters of the 19th century it is essential top lace them in their own time. And what was happening in history during their time was nothing short of “momentos”. I am speaking about some of the most significant events in all of human history. The academic artists of the 19th century were not only “relevant” to the times, and relevant to the major thread of art history, but they were relevant to the evolution of art itself, as these artists were working at what will certainly be considered the most importante crossroads in human history.

Art history has generally been accurate in its description of fine art from the early Renaissance until about 1840. For the most part, art historians have given the great and near great their due ora t least reasonable notice. That was true until we get to the mid nineteenth century. From roughly 1848 onwards, all of the normal criteria for judging, describing and chronicling the history of art were tossed out the window by 20th century educators. Almost all the art text books that have been used since the middle of the 20th century have rewritten the history of the 19th century to fit the needs and prejudices of the “modernista” art world which sees all of art history through a “deconstructionist” lens that defines as importante, valuable, and relevant only those Works which broke one or another of the rules and parameters by which works of art were formerly valued and appreciated. Art history was seen as a long march from the “breakthroughs” of impressionismo, through a stream of different movements which led the way to abstraction, and was espoused with a strident religious fervor by the followers of this “new history” to be the greatest of all forms and styles of art. Then, with a double-think out of George Orwell’s “1984” they separated the analysis of all previous eras (pre-19th century), into its own separate history. It is as though there is one written art history with one set of parameters, and then a new art history that built itself on destroying 19 Century’s relevance by attacking the very parameters they use to praise all other earlier centuries. Indeed, they have created a supremely illogical schism.

So let us look at what was actually being done by academic artists of the late 19th century. In fact, it is in the realm of human dignity wherein one finds the truly prodigious accomplishments of the writers and the artists of that time. William Bouguereau, who was considered perhaps the greatest living artist in France during his life, is my favorite example, since so many other artists emulated and adored his work and contribution to his field. He was accused of just working for his bourgeois clientes, but in truth he prided himself on being able to paint anything he wanted to and the demand for his work was so great that most works were sold before the paint had finished drying. He was a workaholic painting 14 to 16 hours a day. He took a direct personal interest in his employees, his students and his colleagues and was widely known to help almost anyone who was in need who touched his life. He was beloved by them all. I have read many letters written to him by these people. We even have some of the original documents in the Bouguereau Archives. One very touching one comes to mind written to him by one of the Elder másters of the period, Paul Delaroche. Born in 1797, he was 28 years his sênior, but in our letter he thanks his good friend Bouguereau for having leant him funds, admits to having squandered him more time to repay him. Bouguereau also played a central role in opening up the Paris Salon and the French Academies to women artists. Starting in 1868 he along with Rudolph Julian, Jules Lefebvre, Gabriel Ferrier and Robert tony Fleury, all amongst France’s most successful and famous painters, started holding regular classes and critiques for women. By 1893, all major school had courses for women, even much renowned Academie Francais.