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Towards the New Realism

Recently we have seen a growing interest in realism, which for a long time seemed historically passé. But the notion of realism is not as obvious as it seems. One often understands “realism” to mean the production of mimetic images of “reality.” One can of course agree with this definition. However, the question remains: How do we initially meet reality? How do we discover reality in order to become able to make an image of it? Of course, we can speak about reality as everything that presents itself to our “natural,” uninformed, and technologically unarmed gaze. Traditional icons seem to us to be nonrealistic because they seek to present the “other,” normally nonvisible world. And artworks that seek to confront us with the “essential core” of the world or with a particular artist’s “subjective vision” are usually not recognized as realistic either. We would also not speak of realism when looking at pictures produced with the help of a microscope or telescope. Realism is often defined as the readiness to reject religious and philosophical visions and speculations, as well as technologically produced images. Instead, realism usually involves the reproduction of an average, ordinary, profane view of the world. However, this profane vision of the world is not especially exciting. The desire to depict and reproduce this profane image of the world cannot be explained by its alleged “beauty,” which it obviously does not have.

We initially discover reality not as a simple sum of “facts.” Rather, we discover reality as a sum of necessities and constraints that do not allow us to do what we would like to do or to live as we would like to live. Reality is what divides our vision of the imaginary future into two parts: a realizable project, and “pure fantasy” that never can be realized. In this sense reality shows itself initially as realpolitik, as the sum of everything that can be done—in opposition to an “unrealistic” view of the conditions and limitations of human actions. This was the actual meaning of nineteenth-century realist literature and art, which presented “sober” and elaborate descriptions of the disappointments, frustrations, and failures that confronted romantic, socially and emotionally “idealistic” heroes when they tried to implement their ideals in “reality.” From Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, European literature of the time described the failure of all attempts to merge “art and life.” As a result, one could see that nothing that the heroes desired or planned could be realized—everything that they aspired to was demonstrated to be “nonrealistic,” pure fantasy. The best consequence of this realist tradition was formulated by the movement of 1968: be realistic, demand the impossible. Thus, the object depicted by realist literature and art was not reality itself—as described by the natural sciences—but the human psyche suffering from the shock of a failed reality test. Nineteenth-century realism was, in actuality, psychologism. Reality was understood not as a place of “objective” scientific investigation but as a force of oppression that endangered or even crushed the hero.

Modern and contemporary art are, by contrast, products of the long history of depsychologization that many critics—for example, Ortega y Gasset—experienced as a history of dehumanization. Avant-garde and post-avant-garde artists wanted their art to be not realist but real—as real as all the other processes taking place in the world. The artwork was understood as being a thing among other things—like a tree or a car. This did not mean that avant-garde artists did not want to change the world—on the contrary, they radicalized this desire. But they did not appeal to the psyche of the reader, listener, or spectator to achieve this goal. Rather, they understood art as a specific kind of technology that was able to change the world by technical means. In fact, the avant-garde tried to turn art spectators into inhabitants of the artwork—so that by accommodating themselves to the new conditions of their environment, these spectators would change their sensibilities and attitudes. Speaking in Marxist terms: art can thus be seen as either part of the superstructure, or part of the material base. In other words, art can be understood as either ideology or technology. The radical artistic avant-gardes pursued the second, technological way of world transformation. This was pursued most radically by the avant-garde movements of the 1920s: Russian Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl.

However, the avant-garde never fully succeeded in its quest for the real because the reality of art—its material side, which the avant-garde tried to thematize—was permanently re-aestheticized; these thematizations were subjected to the standard conditions of art representation. The same can be said for institutional critique, which also tried to thematize the profane, factual side of art institutions. Like the avant-garde, institutional critique remained inside art institutions. However, this situation has changed in recent years—due to the internet, which has replaced traditional art institutions as the main platform for the production and distribution of art. Now the profane, factual, “real” dimension of art is thematized by the internet. Indeed, contemporary artists usually work using the internet—and also put their works on the internet. Artworks by a particular artist can be found on the internet in the context of other information about the artist one finds there: their biography, other works, political activities, critical reviews, personal details, etc. Artists use the internet not only to produce art—but also to buy tickets, make restaurant reservations, conduct business, etc. All these activities take place in the same integrated space of the internet—and all of them are potentially accessible to other internet users. Here the artwork becomes “real” and profane because it is integrated with information about its author as a real, profane person. Art is presented on the internet as a specific kind of practical activity: as documentation of a real working process taking place in the real, offline world. Indeed, on the internet art operates in the same space as military planning, tourist business capital flows, etc. Google shows, among other things, that there are no walls in internet space.

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