Experiments in Modern Realism

Experiments in Modern Realism: World Making in Postwar European and American Art is major study which offers a new understanding of the aesthetics and politics of postwar European and American art. Questioning the widespread assumption that the most innovative practices were non-representational, it shows how a powerful realist impulse operated alongside a strong commitment to abstraction. Alex Potts makes the case that the ambition to create work that engaged with the everyday and political realities of the world motivated much of the period’s vital experimentation with medium and artistic process.

In this exclusive extract from the Introduction to his book, Alex Potts describes the interaction of ‘abstract’ and the ‘realistic’ as a relationship, ‘a relationship that is often conflicted and disruptive’, but an inexorable relationship nonetheless. 

Realism may not be the first thing that springs to mind when one things of twentieth-century art, particularly art of the postwar period. If figurative or naturalistic forms of art making persisted in carious forms throughout the century, the more characteristically modern and evidently innovative work is generally abstract, negating or systematically disrupting inherited realist of naturalist conventions. The modernist or avant-garde tendencies that played a leading role, at least until the last decades of the past century, thus seem to have existed in opposition to realism. Even much of what passes for postmodernism appears to be anti-realist. To take this view, however, is to ignore the strong realist impulse central to much work that was avowedly experimental or avant-garde and self-consciously modern in its commitment to seeking alternative to traditional forms of representation. In making a case for the significance of realism, this study is arguing that realism and abstraction in modern art should not be seen as opposing and mutually exclusive polarities, but, rather, as existing in a dialectical relationship with one another – a relationship that is often conflicted and disruptive, but all the more potent and productive for that. The implications of this are political as much as artistic. Modern political art intervenes not just at the level of artistic language but through the nature of the reality it evokes. Such art is not just of the world, as purist modernists would have it, but also about the world, and in that sense shares an instant underlying ambition of earlier realist work. The abstraction of experimental or avant-garde art has often been deployed in the interests of presenting a more compelling way than naturalistic representation could the material realities of a late capitalist world that itself is structured by abstracting imperatives.

A strong case has been made by a number of writers on modern art that the twentieth century turn to abstraction cannot be properly understood without bringing into play a certain idea of realism. With increasing frequency since the 1970s, a broadly conceived realist argument has been advanced that even the most evidently modernist, non-objective work, even work in which structurally abstracting devices operate systematically to displace any traces of conventional representation, needs to be understood as embedded in the wider realities of its time and as shaped in its very constitution by social and political forces – with some forms of modern and avant-garde work negotiation this more effectively and self-consciously than others. Such a broadly defined realist perspective, which is about how art is being understood and conceptualised and about taking a realistic view of what art can do and what art can do and it can and cannot be in the modern world of late capitalism, is simply taken for granted in this study. The more specific take on realism being proposed here concerns the particular significance of those forms of modern in which representational and referential elements are much in play but which are not at the same time shaped by abstracting and avant-garde imperatives. The purpose is to understand the distinctive ways in which work of this kind achieved a compelling representation of reality and to do justice to the politically charged commitments that gave these experiments in modern realism their raison d’être.

The conventional polarity between abstraction and realism is posited on a particularly narrow conception of realism, equating it with a spatially unified and naturalistic representation of things, of the king that dominated Western theoretical understandings of art from the Renaissance until the twentieth century. Such a naturalistic view of pictorial representation, however, becomes only one possibility among many if one takes a broader view of the history of art. The pursuit of consistent one-point perspective and close visual resemblance is a historically specific mode of picturing. Even in post-Renaissance Western art, and this often includes much nineteenth-century realist work, naturalistic modes of depiction are often combined with montage-like effects. this is particularly true of the intriguing modes of picturing one finds in late medieval and early Renaissance work. Density and vividness of reference to some large world or reality are not necessarily achieved by way of accurate visual resemblance but, often, rely on devices that are at odds with naturalistic convention.

Realism in modern art is best understood as representation a constellation of concerns and impulses, rather than as a clear-cut category defining a single historical movement or aesthetic tendency. Some form of representation is integral to any work one might consider realist – it is an art in which recognisable reference is made to particularities of a large world or reality by way of distinctly articulated motifs or signs. These may include writing and text, iconic images and fragments of material that retain some of their non-artistic meaning in their new context. Naturalistic depiction is only one form of such reference and in any case can often become so conventionalised as to fail to evoke any sense of a concrete reality existing apart from the art work. Alternative means, such as assembling representations of disparate phenomena that could not be encompassed within a spatially realistic or unified picture, often have proved more appropriate than naturalistic depiction for creating a richness and density and range of reference to the complex concatenation of realities in the world inhabited by the artist. The vernacular and the everyday play a central role, as well as a fascination with the material substance of things, both with regard to artistic medium and the broader world being represented. Important too is a commitment to activating interconnections between art and life, such that the art work resists a tendency to self-referential artistic purism that the institutionalising of modern art has fostered. The ambition to blur or break down the boundaries between art and life in experimental work of the late 1950s and early 1960s, to make art that did not look too much like mere art and had strong non-art resonances, was at core a realist one.

– From the Introduction to Experiments in Modern Realism: World Making in Postwar European and American Art by Alex Potts.

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