Realms of Realism

A General Theory

by Donald Kuspit

Vico’s battle cry, “Verum ipsum factum”—the truth is the same as the made (factum and fact both come from the Latin facere, to make)! 

—Ernst von Glaserfeld, “An Introduction to Radical Constructivism”1 

Civilized beings are those who survey the world with some large generality of understanding…. One characteristic of the primary mode of conscious experience is its fusion of a large generality with an insistent particularity. 

—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought2 

The goal of realist art is to tell the truth about reality—to know and show “true reality,” to observe and describe the “facts as such.” But the fact that there are different kinds of realist art suggests that there are different kinds of truth, that the facts do not look the same to different realists, that “true reality” has many shapes, which in turn suggests that the truth of reality is invented or, as Vico and von Glaserfeld say, made or constructed. This in turn suggests that there is no eternally true, self-evidently true reality—indeed, that the truth about reality depends on the eyes that see it, the assumptions about what is true, assumptions that influence what the eyes see, that direct it and tell it what to see, assumptions which have changed through the centuries, suggesting that reality has changed through the centuries and that there is no one and only reality, which is why there is no one and only kind of realist art. 

I suggest that such assumptions amount to ideologies, that is, belief systems—“believing is seeing” rather than “seeing is believing.” Value systems accord a certain value or importance to what is seen, and, in a sense, let us “really see” it, “realize” it, that is, realize the truth about it, see the truth in it, indeed, see it as the truth, really devote our attention to it, take it seriously, sometimes with almost worshipful awe. Juan Sanchéz Cotán’s still lifes are a good example of this “attitude,” an attitude informed by religious belief, the belief that even the most ordinary objects, natural or man-made, are peculiarly sacred or, more simply, have “character.” Similarly, though more modern—informed by a profound belief in art, the specialness and sacredness of seemingly pure art, that is, abstract art, more broadly, the ritualistic observance and practice of the religion of art, the ideology of art privileged as the largest generality of understanding of reality—Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes are also peculiarly sacred, everyday reality made sacred by art, made auratic   by being transformed into a sacramental offering by ingenious art. Salvador Dalí’s Basket of Bread (1926) is a noteworthy modern example of what I will call “sacred realism.” 

I will argue that, throughout history, there have been three basic assumptions or belief systems or value systems or, more broadly, what Whitehead calls large generalities of understanding, more commonly called ideologies, that accord importance or value or believability to observed objects—objects external to the artist, so-called external reality as distinct from internal reality, objects that the artist experiences as “not me” yet feels somehow related to. He is drawn to or repelled by them unconsciously or consciously, making them “interesting” and “engaging,” and somehow “part-me,” symbolic of some aspect of “me.” This emotional attraction or repulsion—sometimes ambivalently both—leads him to attend to them, study every detail of them, analyze them with intense and uncanny concern and curiosity, as though his life and, certainly, his art depended on “understanding” them, that is, “standing under” or supporting them with his consciousness of them. More pointedly, by investing himself completely in them by way of his art, he announces and confirms that he and they are absolutely and indisputably real, and that the feeling he has for them is profoundly “real,” which is what makes them profoundly “real.” He “realizes” the feeling—realizes that it is a true feeling, that is, that it arises from his true self—in the artistic act/process of “realizing” the truth of the object.  

Without this spontaneous incorporative experience of the object, this appreciative mirroring of and transference to the object, leading to a sort of projective identification with it, bringing it under the control of art by recreating it as a work of art, indeed, showing that it is inherently a work of art, art cannot be truthful. It fails in its goal of making transient experiences of indeterminate appearances into memorable experiences of determinate reality. The goal of so-called imitation or mimesis is to close the gap—collapse the distance—between appearance and reality, that is, to show that what merely appears is, in fact, truly real. The truthfulness of art involves the radical “re-cognition” of the object, and with that, the artist’s “re-cognition” of himself, which is what self-portraits are about. It is as though in artistically “realizing” the object—making true art—he “realizes” his true self, or shows that he is true to himself—that he is not falsifying the object (by treating it as merely an appearance) or himself (by complying to what he appears to be to others). He consolidates his sense of self, becomes authentic, by making art, comes into his own by “owning” the object through his art. Artistically made and made artistic, the object becomes fascinating rather than boring, seriously experienced rather than casually seen, really present rather than incidentally noticed. It becomes noteworthy rather than simply noted. 

I am arguing that convincing works of realist art—that is, works of realist art that are informed by a certain conviction (ideology, belief system, universal assumptions, large generality of understanding)—are in principle and in effect what the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott calls transitional objects.3 And I am arguing that authentically realist art—realism that is not so much true to reality but rather that makes it true—is inherently imaginative. Baudelaire’s distinction between “imaginative” and “positivist” artists4 falls by the wayside when it comes to genuine realist art: it is always imaginative, that is, it is an imaginative engagement that issues in an imaginative invention, the transformation of an externally given object into a subjectively experienced transitional object, an art object that is external and internal(ized) at once—a dialectical synthesis that makes reality really real. 

But Baudelaire had a point: what I call “clinical realism” is more rather than less positivist, that is, it argues that “hard facts” clearly and self-evidently exist. It argues that reality can be “scientifically” rendered and precisely described. Indeed, for it, precision establishes reality, and is the be-all and end-all of art. Gustave Courbet’s The Birth of the World (1866) is the most trenchant, exacting, insistently positivist work of clinical realism I know. That is one kind of ideological assumption. Clinical realism tends toward everyday realism—what one might call naively descriptive realism. It is not so much a probing “examination” of reality, eschewing imagination as interfering with the accurate perception of its hard facts—softening them in fantasy, as it were, so that they lose their reality, become mysterious or de-actualized—which is what clinical realism claims to be, but a sort of gliding over its surface, taking its appearance at face value, indeed, assuming that its appearance is all there is to its reality, which means that there is no truth about its reality, just its simple, habitual commonplaceness, its innocent givenness. Mary Cassatt, Isabel Bishop and Raphael Soyer are exemplary everyday realists. 

Clinical realism came into its own in modernity, with the Enlightenment, which—whatever else it was—involved disillusionment with and debunking of religious ideologies. It is the extreme example of what I will call “secular realism,” that is, “worldly realism” or “temporal realism,” a realism that does not eternalize objects, as “sacred realism,” that is, “spiritual realism” or “religious realism” attempts to. Civilization begins with the distinction between the secular and the sacred, and every attempt to blur and obliterate the boundary between them is perverse and barbaric. In Western civilization, the distinction between saecularis (meaning worldly, temporal, changeable, inconsistent) and aeternalis (meaning unworldly, atemporal, unchangeable, consistent) remains binding, however often ignored, respected in theory but not always in practice. 

Sacred realism, whether that of Greek and Roman art, which honored the ancient deities—indeed, sculpting an emperor was to deify him (thus the use of art to apotheosize, more simply, making art as an act of faith and devotion, the work of art serving as an instrument of worship in a religious ritual)—or that of medieval art, telling the story of Christ and conveying his divinity and mystery, his double nature as man and God. Announcing the enduring truth   of Christ by artistically realizing him, giving him artistic reality, is the prime example of “ideological realism.” It is fundamentally at odds with “clinical realism,” which is the ultimate secular realism (everyday realism is banally secular), just as spiritual realism is fundamentally at odds with it. Generally speaking, in ideological realism, whether spiritual or secular, the object is “realized” by being ideologized, that is, becomes the advocate and proselytizer for some belief system assumed to be absolutely true. The work makes no serious sense apart from the ideology it represents or signifies, and at its best seems to embody. To reduce it to its formal or structural or technical terms is to violate its essence, just as to treat it as the illustration of an idea is to miss its deeper meaning and imaginative power. As the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson notes, an ideology is a closed system that explains everything, that is, makes universalistic and idealistic claims. It offers a ready-made understanding of everything in nature and society. Whether spiritual or secular, ideological art mediates the belief system without questioning it. 

In modernity, a peculiar kind of spiritual realism has developed: “existential realism,” which reinstates, in secular form, traditional spiritual realisms, particularly Christian spiritual realism, which is fundamentally existential, that is, tries to find meaning in the mystery of human existence, make sense of life and death and suffering—what the secular existentialists call the anxiety innate to existence.5 I suggest that existential realism is both compensation for the loss of Christian spiritual realism and a failed attempt to revive it, for Christian spiritual realism has its bright, heavenly side as well as its dark, hellish side.6 Existential realism is more about sin than salvation. Salvation is only possible through sexuality, as Ernst Kirchner’s figurative existential realism suggests. Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon are eminent existential realists. More broadly, German Expressionism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism are existential realisms. 

The exemplary seminal work of sacred realism is Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), completed 1432. The woodcuts in which Albrecht Dürer pictured the Apocalypse, or the Revelations of St. John (c. 1498), along with his later Large and Small Passion series, are perhaps the most intense, consummate sacred realism there is in Western art. Pieter Breugel is the exemplary seminal secular realist. I regard Andreas Vesalius’ anatomical drawings as the exemplary traditional clinical realist art, and John Audubon’s paintings of birds as the exemplary modern clinical realist art. I think the exemplary, seminal modern spiritual realist is J.M.W. Turner, and the exemplary, seminal modern secular realist is Winslow Homer. 

At its best, clinical realist art makes objects seem “timely,” their appearances “just right.” More usually, it makes objects seem like flat stones skimming the surface of the river of time until they inevitably fall into it and disappear, never to return from oblivion. Appearances always fail us—they are hard to keep up—because, after all, they are just appearances, however nominally real   they may seem when analyzed. One might say that the clinical realist murders the apparent object to dissect it, or that his perceptual operation on the apparent object is successful but the object dies. Peculiarly, the clinical artistic act of “realizing” the object de-objectifies it into an appearance. The clinical realist is incapable of warming up to the object, let alone empathically responding to it. For him, it is only so much material to analyze. In sharp contrast, the spiritual realist artist, at his best, has the creative capacity to establish a kind of immersive intimacy with the object, the necessary emotional condition for it to tell the truth about itself, which makes it unquestionably real and numinously present. It becomes “outstanding,” that is, stands out of time and does not fade into oblivion, but remains eternally itself, seems self-perpetuating, self-generating. I am arguing that the spiritual realist artist establishes a “therapeutic alliance” with the object, that is, conditions himself to experience it in an open, non-judgmental state of mind, in which it feels free to be and speak itself, as it were, rather than be spoken to with clinical authority, with theory-bound technique that prescriptively presumes it knows what the object is all about. This is to “creatively apperceive” it, as Winnicott says, rather than to perceive it in an everyday or scientifically compliant way. In short, the attitude or state of mind in which the realist artist approaches an object makes all the difference in his sense of its reality, and in the work of art that realizes it as factually the case, true to its own being. 


1. Quoted in Paul Watzlawick, ed., The Invented Reality (New York and London: Norton, 1984), p. 27.  

2. Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1956), p. 5.  

3. D.W. Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” Through Pediatrics to Psychoanalysis: Collected Papers (London: Karnac Books, 1992), p. 230, calls the transitional object “an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute. It is an area that is not challenged, because no claim is made on its behalf except that it shall exist as a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet inter-related.”  

4. Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1859,” The Mirror of Art: Critical Studies, ed., Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1956), p. 242, distinguishes between the “‘positivists’ [who] say ‘I want to represent things as they are, or rather as they would be, supposing that I did not exist.’ In other words, the universe without man…[and] the ‘imaginatives’ [who] say ‘I want to illuminate things with my mind, and to project their reflection upon other minds.’” 

5. Thus the existential psychologist Rollo May argues that anxiety is “ontological,” describing it as “the experience of the threat of imminent non-being,” that is, “a threat to Dasein.” Existence, eds., Rollo May, Ernest Angel, Henri F. Ellenberger (Northvale, New Jersey and London: Jason Aronson, 1994), pp. 50, 51.  

6. The poet Wallace Stevens writes: “The paramount relation between poetry and painting today, between modern man and modern art, is simply this: that in an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent or, if not disbelief, indifference to questions of belief, poetry and painting, and the arts in general, are, in their measure, a compensation for what has been lost.” The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Knopf, 1951), pp. 170–71. 

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2015, Volume 32, Number 1