The Question of Realism/What is Art?

You can tell I’m not really “in” the art community — uh, “the art community” here being defined, I guess, by the YouTube art scene, because that’s where I spend most of my time consuming artistic content — because I keep uncovering debates and arguments that I honestly didn’t even know were things.

For instance, I had no idea that “is realism real art?” was a debated topic, but, um, apparently it is?

I was blown away. I… don’t know why, because my time in fannish online spaces has proven to me that literally everything generates discourse these days. I guess because I felt like, growing up, any talk of art, or visits to museum, etc., focused so very much on lauding those works that most accurately represented reality — the paintings depicting flowing hair you wanted to run your fingers through, piles of fabric where you could practically feel the texture, fruits and breads and wine that made your stomach rumble and your mouth water. And we would gape in awe because of how closely it mirrored the subject, because of how precisely and skilled the artist was at directly capturing the scene in front of them.

Don’t get me wrong, we marveled at impressionists and abstract artists and surrealists too, because of their bold use of color, or their composition, or how visceral and unnerving certain paintings were. But there was always a definite sense of awe when confronted with the work of particularly skilled realistic painter. It never even crossed my mind that what I was looking at wasn’t art, you know?

I guess the argument, as far as I can tell, is that while realism is a skill, it’s not so much “art,” as there is no “creativity” involved. The artists aren’t bringing anything of themselves to the piece.

I… again, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I don’t know that I ever consciously assigned a hierarchy to what makes art, art. I don’t think I ever looked at a piece and weighed its worth on a scale using a set of variable metrics. Art was good if it was skillfully done, whether that be what I guess we’d call “traditional technical skill” (i.e., the drawing/painting is realistic and an accurate representation of the depicted subjects), or if was skilled in the sense that it was deliberately and intentionally styled, and showed technical mastery in other ways, such as composition and color. But I never thought of the “skill” and the “art” as being different things.

And going even further, I’ve seen a very popular definition of art being a work that elicits a response. I know, for me, my favorite artists have always elicited a “wow” response in me; something that impressed me on an intellectual (“The technique here is stunning”), emotional (“Looking at this piece makes me viscerally uncomfortable”) or purely aesthetic (“I find this beautful, and it brings me joy”) level. Does that response become meaningless if it’s tied directly to my perception of the artist’s technical skills? Weren’t many of the painters we now consider canonical masters elevated to that level by virtue of their technical talent?

I mean, I supposed I do understand the idea that art should be transformative in someway, but you can very much create photorealistic surrealism, especially if you use a composite of reference images (which is what I do — use a composite of reference images, not create hyper-realistic art, ha. Not even close, my dude). Does that make it more valid as art? Or, put aside surrealism — if someone created a composite image of any kind, drawing on multiple sources to create a scene of their own making, is that a creative endeavor and does it elevate the piece to “real art?”

What makes art, art, to you?


I first became aware of this as a point of contention while watching Temi Danso, who is a hyper-realistic artist as well as an entertaining YouTuber. This is her take on the subject (and her take brings up another good point which is — what if an artist has aphantasia (as my wife does)? Does that disallow them from doing “art,” or does that make them less valid or valuable as an artist? Is there maybe just a hint of ableism hiding away in there?)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s