From the Archives: The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law

Philip Pearlstein: Two Female Models with Cast Iron Bench & Indian Rug, 1971, 72 by 60 inches. Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York.


In our January issue, historian Richard Neer assesses the work of seventeenth-century French painters Valentin de Boulogne and the Brothers Le Nain on the occasion of two concurrent exhibitions. Drawing from their forebear Caravaggio, these artists focused their attention on everyday citizens and situations, establishing a kind of proto-realism. Neer’s argument builds on a history of defining style. In an essay from a 1973 issue, Linda Nochlin asserts, “while realism may be a perennial phenomenon, one might do better to talk about ‘realisms’ rather than a single unitary ‘realism.'” We present her article in full below. —Eds.


“What is really important is that the criminal is at the very heart of the law. It’s obvious: the law could not exist without the criminal.” ––André Breton


The value of realism remains one of the basic issues facing art. Naturally, the value of art itself has a certain theoretical priority. But if we accept art at all, then the issue of realism must be dealt with in the context of its perennial antagonism to antirealism, whether this be idealism, symbolism or abstract art.

A historical phenomenon, Realism with a capital R, dominated art and literature in the West from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1880s, and it is now part of the past. But there were realisms before there was Realism. In its various guises and metamorphoses––naturalism, social realism, Magic Realism, Neue Sachlichkeit, even some Surrealism, and the various New Realisms of the present––realism has survived, been revived and reinvented until this very moment. Realism, of course, is a mode of artistic discourse, a style in the largest sense, not, as its enemies would have it, a “discovery” of preexisting objects out there or a simple “translation” of ready-made reality into art. Like other artists, realists must create a language of style appropriate to their enterprise; they may or may not reject previous nonrealist or antirealist styles; often their work modifies or adapts them. Yet on the whole, realism implies a system of values involving close investigation of particulars, a taste for ordinary experience in a specific time, place and social context; and an art language that vividly transmits a sense of concreteness. Realism is more than and different from willful virtuosity, or the passive reflexivity of the mirror image, however much these may appear as ingredients in realist works.

The dominant imagistic structure of realism is metonymy––association of elements through contiguity––as opposed to the domination of metaphor in symbolist or romantic works. Whereas the nonrealist may work through distillation and exclusion, the realist mode implies enrichment and inclusion. Realism has always been criticized by its adversaries for its lack of selectivity, its inability to distill from the random plenitude of experience the generalized harmony of plastic relations, as though this were a flaw rather than the whole point of realist strategy. The “irrelevant” distractions characteristic of realist styles are not naive mistakes in judgement but are at the heart of metonymic imagery, the guarantors of realist veracity. Irrelevance is indeed a prime feature of the intractable thereness of things as they are and as we experience them.

In realist works, details often function synecdochically, substituting the part for the whole, not because they have any “meaningful” relation to the larger whole––on the contrary––but merely because they are a part of it in the realm of things as they are. As Roman Jakobson has pointed out in a brief but suggestive article, “The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles,” “following path of contiguous relationships, the realistic author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. He is fond of synecdochic details. In the scene of Anna Karenina’s suicide, Tolstoi’s artistic attention is focused on the heroine’s handbag.” 1 The deliberate attention lavished on Proudhon’s shoes in Courbet’s well-known portrait of the philosopher; the abandoned corset occupying center stage of Degas’s The Interior; the painstakingly delineated double-or triple-cast shadows in the Master of Flemalle’s Merode Altarpiece or Philip Pearlstein’s nudes, the minutely depicted rosewood grain of the furniture in Holman Hunt’s Awakening Conscience, the individually drawn hairs of beard stubble in Jan van Eyck’s Man with the Red Turban or in Chuck Close’s portraits, different as they may be, are all at the very heart of the realist enterprise. They are far from being, as antirealist criticism would have it, a misreading of esthetic priorities.

Some critics, notably Eric Auerbach in his study of literary realism, Mimesis, have chosen to deal with realism as an evolutionary trend. But in the case of the visual arts it may also be subsumed as one pole of a long-standing opposition, with its contrary generally conceived of as some kind of idealism. With certain notable exceptions, realist art has been looked on as inferior to more idealized art forms. To ask why realist art continues to be considered inferior to nonrealist art is really to raise questions of a far more general nature: Is the universal more valuable than the particular? Is the permanent better than the transient? Is the generalized superior to the detailed? Or more recently: Why is the flat better than the three-dimensional? Why is truth to the nature of the material more important than truth to nature or experience? Why are the demands of the medium more pressing than the demands of visual accuracy? Why is purity better than impurity? We shall consider these questions later.

Yet, while realism may be a perennial phenomenon, one might do better to talk about “realisms” rather than a single unitary “realism.” A wide range and variety of stylistic possibilities are subsumed under the general category. Indeed, it might be fruitful to think of realism as a country on a map, surrounded by other countries, whose borders often merge imperceptibly with it. One such borderline might be primitivistic, popular or naive art; another might be Surrealism; still another, Cubist collage and papier collé––where reality is introduced wholesale into the unreality of the picture world. Nor are the larger ramifications of realism always similar. In France in the mid-nineteenth century, realism may be associated with progressive, indeed radical social and esthetic currents. In relation to the avant-garde movements of the earlier twentieth century, it may assume a more conservative stance. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it may peacefully coexist or alternate with more idealized or conventional styles. Indeed, it was one of the requirements of traditional systems of literary and artistic decorum that the lower classes and coarser, more trivial events must be dealt with “realistically,” the more elevated and idealized styles being reserved for the noble characters.

The antagonism between realism and antirealism only assumes important theoretical dimensions in the context of larger socioesthetic conflicts––during the Renaissance, for example, when artists wished to differentiate their creations from the mere products of craftsmen, or when, in the later nineteenth century, advanced artists wished to set themselves off from the banal naturalism of official art as martyr-prophets of a higher truth, of a purer reality beyond mere sense perception.

Though working in the opposite direction, Courbet, Zola and other supporters of the realist cause in the sixties and seventies viewed the breaking away from the artifices of empty purity as part of a larger struggle for scientific truth, progress and social justice. This does not reduce artistic phenomena to superstructures of an “underlying” social causality, but rather, sees stylistic and social phenomena as integrated and interdependent.


For Modernism, we may take it that abstraction is the law and that realism is the criminal. Abstract art in this century, and antirealism generally, purges art of its gross impurities, its tawdry accessibility, its general inclination toward what Rosalind Krauss has called the “documentary” mode. The law of Modernism––the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself; according to Clement Greenberg, the emphasis on the “ineluctable flatness of the support” in painting––is unthinkable without the criminal, realism, and its accessories before the fact, the representational and the sculptural.

In his definitive article, “Modernist Painting,” 2 Greenberg repeatedly stresses the built-in antagonism between Modernist attempts to purify the discipline of painting and realist impurity. As against Modernism’s use of art to call attention to art, presumably a good thing, “realistic, illusionistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art,” obviously a bad one.fn]Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in The New Art, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York, 1966), p. 102[/fn]”Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before seeing it as a picture, one sees a Modernist painting as a picture first. This is, of course, the best way of seeing any kind of picture, Old Master or Modern, but Modernism imposes it as the only and necessary way, and Modernism’s success in doing so is a success of self-criticism,” 3

As opposed to realism’s enthusiasm for breaking through the limitations of art, Modernism demands, in the name of scientific consistency, restriction: “That visual art should confine itself exclusively to what is given in visual experience, and make no reference to anything given in other orders of experience, is a notion whose only justification lies, notionally, in scientific consistency.” 4 Interestingly enough, Zola, like so many of the realist theorists of the nineteenth century, had used the rationale of scientific method––which itself had different implications at the time––in quite a different way, to justify breaking through the conventional barriers separating art and life, in order to include “other orders of experience.”

Central to the whole antirealist thrust of Modernism is the notion that the flat surface of the canvas makes some sort of absolute demand on the painter––indeed, that it was the mission of Modernism to strive for the self-definition of painting through flatness. This is of course a reductionist myth, which a dispassionate examination of the innovative painting of the last century or so hardly supports. Like so many passionately held myths, it has proved to be extraordinarily fruitful, a myth begetting further myths, in fact generating a whole ideology which in turn had some serious effects on the evolution of painting itself. That it is a mythology specifically aimed at the high or “pure” art of painting rather than other visual art forms is made clear by the different treatment accorded film.

If the self-definition of the medium demands flatness in painting, precluding representation as “impure,” one would think that the same demands would hold good for film, which is, after all a series of flat images projected on a flat surface, and is even more bound to abstraction or antirealism in that it shares with music––the most abstract of all the arts––the quality of temporal progression and, in addition, consists of projected light, surely the most “dematerialized” of media. Interpreted in these terms, film should be nothing but a succession of flat abstract light-images, nonnarrative and nonrepresentational; indeed, some filmmakers and videotape artists make a good case for such a position.

Yet many of those who hold the Modernist position in regard to painting manage to find a different rationale, or rationalization, for supporting a narrative, representational, rep or documentary––in short, a realist––film esthetic, presumably on the grounds of the implacable demands imposed by the medium. Yet one suspects there are other reasons besides purely esthetic ones lying in the background of this double standard for film and painting. Film, the latecomer to the arts, was plebian in its genesis and appeal, universal and popular rather than exclusive and difficult. By virtue of its social context, film is an essentially impure medium; the same high standards of purity and self-definition do not apply to it as they do to the elite realm of painting. It is as though looser standards of behavior were set for the slum children than for the little aristocrat. Indeed, one often suspects that Modernist critics go ‘slumming’ in the less rigorous area of the film as a sort of relief from the perpetual high-minded purity they demand of the other visual arts.

This Modernist view of modern painting as a teleologic progression toward more and more stringently defined purity excludes a great deal of modern art itself, not just the Neue Sachlichkeit or the New Realism, but much of Dada and Surrealism and even a great deal of the work of such a Modernist hero as Picasso, once he abandons strict Cubism. From the late twenties onward, Picasso is linked to the camp of inimical impurity. Says Greenberg of Picasso: “In 1927, execution and resolution begin to falter…” , Art and Culture (Boston, 1961), p. 59′]5 Indeed, the art of Picasso after the late twenties is never “pure” in the Modernist sense. While certainly not realist either, it is inextricably bound up with a deeply personal way of experiencing reality and with the artist’s need and desire to grasp, possess and project this experiential reality through the art work. The most concrete details of Picasso’s intimate sex life, a new mistress, trouble with his current companion, anticipation of a new passion––create explosions in the universe at large, embodied in the formal structure of his art. 6

New languages and a new iconography must be invented by the artist, in which alchemical symbols mingle with antique deities, bathing huts assume the significance of primeval shrines, women’s buttocks merge with the heavenly spheres to celebrate a new sexual conquest. As in the Renaissance, man, the microcosm, and the universe, the macrocosm, are seen as inseparably entangled. All effects in the one have counterparts and reverberations in the other, except that in Picasso’s case, the microcosm is not the generic “man” but the singular and sexual Picasso himself, and the universe a novel constellation generated by his wit and desire. One might say that it is precisely the urge toward “other orders of experience,” the fatal flaw according to Modernist critical theory, which is in this case the sign of the great, innovating artist. He can reject or transform the very conventions he to create, seeing them not as nonnegotiable demands of the Kunstwollen, but as barriers to be broken through in an effort to attain new and more urgent realities, while talents of the second level push his discoveries to their “logical” conclusions. It is precisely the urge toward “other orders of experience,” specifically those considered ordinary and down-to-earth, that tends to make realism inimical to so many theoreticians of art, from Antiquity through the Renaissance, and down to the present day.

In a sense, an antirealist viewpoint was implicitly incorporated into the very values that gave rise to a theory of art at all. It was the attempt to create a theory of art, to distinguish the modality of the esthetic from that of everyday experience, that conferred art’s ideal, elevated status on one group of objects and experiences as opposed to another.

Status is generally conferred upon art insofar as it is separate from and superior to life itself. Realism, with its mundane attachment to the here and now, to the specific detail, to all that is transient, shifty and shapeless, with its tendency to transubstantiate the surface and the medium into the simulacrum of life itself, has been a villain––in the original sense of the term––for a long time.

Perhaps the realist-antirealist polarity is simply a sub-category of a still more encompassing evaluation of experience itself. Ever since antiquity, purified essences have been considered higher than material specifics, the Idea nobler than its concrete manifestations in earthly experience. The Platonic Ideal is beauty freed from its earthly dross, a dispassionate contemplation of the distilled and accident-free. This distinction, reinforced by and made more absolute in Neo-Platonic interpretations of Plato’s doctrines, subordinated matter to spirit, substance to form.

A similar scale of values dominated French thought of the Renaissance and seventeenth century. The French dictionary attempted to purify the language of all plebian, practical and technical terms; Descartes posited two distinct modes of experience: Primary versus Secondary Qualities––the first abstract, qualitative, attainable by reason, permanent and superior; the second, ephemeral, decidedly inferior, even deceptive, the concrete sights, smells and sounds available to the senses. Still later, Kant and Hegel provided firm support for an idealistic, antirealist position in the arts.

None of these ways of dividing up and evaluating experience can be reduced to a simplified system of social causes and esthetic effects. And it is similarly impossible to make any absolute distinction between “aristocratic” modes of experience on the one hand and “plebian” ones on the other. But nevertheless, it is possible to assert that the values assigned to the ideal side of the dichotomy were generally associated with the nobler or more elevated segments of society, and their opposites to the lower echelons, it stood to reason that those crude in manners and dress, who had to. work with their hands and stick their noses in manure, would hardly be concerned with abstract reasoning and elevated feeling. Living through their senses and utilitarian calculation, the lower orders would naturally be bound to the concrete; their spirits, such as they were, could hardly be free from the gross specificity of everyday concerns. As such, those poor in wealth or social standing could hardly be expected to respond to the more universal manifestations of beauty.

In the past this attitude was generally expressed by the roles these lower-class characters occupied in the arts and in the way they were treated or depicted. According to Eric Auerbach’s rich analysis of the evolution of literary realism, Mimesis, 7 only kings, nobles or heroes could be the subjects of tragedy or epic. The very terms “base,” “ignoble,” “low” imply social inferiority as well as moral opprobrium. Vestiges of these social determinants still linger in present-day literary terminology: the word “villain,” which now simply designates a “person guilty or capable of great wickedness, a scoundrel,” or the hero’s antagonist, regardless of social class, originally referred to the “feudal serf, tenant holding by menial services,” a clear designation of social inferiority. While the protagonists of classical art might be evil, cruel, or otherwise morally imperfect, they could never appear as ugly, petty minded or ludicrous. Nor could they be guilty of incorrect deportment or behavior; this was reserved for lower-class character engaged in low comedy or farce.

Thus what we might loosely call realism––prosaically described characters in specific everyday situations, with the social context often indicated by dress and setting––was originally reserved for the representation of lower orders of humanity. Indeed, the association of realism with the lower classes was a part of the Realist program enunciated in the mid-nineteenth century by such spokesmen as Courbet, Champfleury, Zola and Thoré, Realism with a capital R redeemed lower orders of class and experience through a style that evolved along with the demand for greater political and social democracy. The exaltation of the peasant, the worker and the petty bourgeoisie, and the birth of the self-conscious Realist Movement in the context of the 1848 Revolution were far more than coincidental.

The notion that ordinary experience per se might serve as the subject for serious art was still a relatively revolutionary one in the middle of the nineteenth century. Its more idealistic antagonists met the realist challenge head-on: “It is a great pity that in the year 1851, one is reduced to demonstrating the most elementary principles of art, to repeating that art is not the unselective reproduction of the first object you happen to come across, but the delicate choice of an intelligence refined by study, and that its mission is…to raise us continually above our weak and unfortunate natures,” declared the critic of the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1851, when confronted with the outrage of Courbet’s Stonebreakers and his Burial at Ornans in the Salon.


Neither Realism nor the antirealist attack upon it was, of course, completely new to the history of Western art. The realist vision had been the dominant mode at least three times previously: in Italy, in the art of Caravaggio, and, even more unequivocally in the Netherlands, during the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet while the Netherlandish art of the fifteenth and the Dutch masters of the seventeenth centuries certainly have had their admirers, they have for the most part been invidiously compared by the most authoritative spokesmen to the more elevated productions of the very font of Ideal Art: Italy. From Michelangelo to Berenson, Roger Fry and Clive Bell, the realist impulse of the North has served as a bad example for those who would establish the highest standards for art. In a way, the Modernist position is simply a variation and exaggeration of the antirealist stance of these illustrious predecessors. Only the specific content of the issue and the cast of characters have changed.

According to Francisco de Holanda, Michelangelo scorned Flemish art for its unselective imitation of nature and its deceptive sensuality, saying: “It will appeal to women, especially to the very old and the very young, and also to monks and nuns and to certain noblemen who have no sense of true harmony. In Flanders they paint, with a view to deceiving sensual vision… They paint stuffs and masonry, the green grass of the fields, the shadow of trees, and rivers and bridges, which they call landscapes with many figures on this side and many figures on that. And all this, though it pleases some persons, is done without reason or art, without symmetry or proportion, without skillful selection or boldness, and, finally, without substance or vigor, …for good painting is nothing but a copy of the perfections of God and a recollection of his painting; it is a music and a melody which only intellect can understand, and that with great difficulty.” 8

In the seventeenth century, the classicistic theorist Joachim Sandrart criticized Rembrandt for his ignorance of the elevating properties of antiquity and for breaking the rules of art. Rembrandt’s work, he implied, lacked the ideal clarity of classical sculpture, because the Dutch artist was unable to draw accurately. In addition, Sandrart complained (incorrectly) that Rembrandt, instead of devoting himself to subjects appropriate to a painter of the first magnitude––classical, allegorical or historical––tended to resort to ordinary insignificant subjects found in nature. 9 Another contemporary critic, Samuel van Hoogstraten, though he found a great deal to admire in Rembrandt’s work, criticized his ignorance of the immutable laws of painting, his tendency to rely merely on his eye and experience, 10 and was particularly harsh with the artist for having included two copulating dogs in his grisaille of The Sermon of St. John the Baptist. Though such a natural occurrence could have taken place, to include it within the context of a religious painting was a vulgar and unfortunate lapse of taste and displayed ignorance of the laws of decorum. 11

Still another near-contemporary faulted Rembrandt for having chosen a washerwoman rather than a Greek Venus as his model for a nude; “…Flabby breasts/Ill-shaped hands, nay the traces of the lacings/Of the corsets on the stomach, of the garters on the legs, /Must be visible, if nature was to get her due…” 12 Rembrandt’s proclivities for nature-in-the-raw were associated with his plebian manners and his unfortunate taste for the company of those beneath his station. The same association of realist art with coarse, lower-class behavior had been directed at Caravaggio and was later leveled at Courbet, who, of course, reveled in such accusations. According to Rembrandt’s Italian biographer, Baldinucci, “the artist’s ugly and plebian face was accompanied by dirty and untidy clothes because it was his habit to wipe his brushes on himself while he worked and to do other things of a similar nature.” 13

Even the relatively liberal French seventeenth-century art theorist, Roger de Piles, who really admired Rembrandt, included him in a blanket condemnation of the impurity and lack of selectivity of Netherlandish painters in general. Commenting on the statement of another French academician that “The principal and most important part of painting is to know how to recognize that which nature has made most beautiful and most suitable for this art,” he wrote, “This is where almost all Netherlandish painters fail; most of them can imitate nature at least as well as the painters of other nations; but they make a bad choice, either because they have not seen the ancients, or because natural beauty is not ordinarily found in their country.” .’]14 In general, to borrow the words of Seymour Slive, in his important article “Realism and Symbolism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting,” “De Piles and other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theorists who maintained that painting should idealize man and generalize nature objected to the works by Rembrandt and other Dutch painters because they did not show knowledge of the ancients and did not know how to select the most beautiful from nature. They objected to Dutch painting because it was specific and familiar.” 15 In other words, they objected to Dutch art’s realist elements.

It is of course understandable that these classicist theoreticians of the seventeenth century anxious to elevate the status of art to that of the liberal arts and professions through the imposition of rational law, rule and precept should maintain a strong antirealist bias. Less obvious is the fact that similar extraesthetic factors have entered into the artistic positions of many more recent art theorists as well. One of the most influential of all English-speaking critics and art historians, Bernard Berenson, shared the antirealist bias of his predecessors. While in no way denigrating his achievements, it is, nevertheless, important to see them in perspective.

Like his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors, he attempted to establish a canon, a standard of judgment not merely for assessing the genuineness of Italian paintings, but for making universal statements about the quality of art in general as well as its relation to other aspects of experience. His conception of art as life enhancement, caused by the effects of ideated sensations, in turn reducible to the components of tactile values, movement and space composition, is firmly directed against realism. In an admirable eulogy, Kenneth Clark explained Berenson’s low opinion of Uccello and Pietro Lorenzetti by pointing out that “to condemn a Renaissance painter in the 1890s for naturalism is surprising and impressive.” It was Berenson who reversed the customary fin-de-siècle evaluations of the more realistic Ghirlandaio––then thought to be the climax of the Quattrocento––dismissing him as the “painter for the superior philistine,” and the then-undervalued Botticelli, whom Berenson elevated to the position of “the greatest artist of linear design that Europe ever had. 16 Indeed, it is precisely his bold rejection of the standards of banal naturalism of his day, as well as of realism generally, that unites Berenson with the art theory and practices of the twentieth-century avant-garde, despite his professed dislike for Modernism.

Clement Greenberg may indeed be right in maintaining that “when Mr. Berenson intimates that the very highest qualities of art are defined for all time in canons derived from Greek art, and from its tradition as continued in Postmedieval European art, he is being dogmatic, not philosophical” 17 but Kenneth Clarks seems equally justified in suggesting that Berenson’s theories provided a rationale for those of abstract artists. 18 In any case, like Michelangelo and the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century classicistic critics before him, Berenson castigates realist styles, mainly those of the early Netherlandish painters––along with the fatal subcurrent of naturalism marring the purity of his beloved Italians. In Italian Painters of the Renaissance, he speaks out against the inferior race of whom… Uccello was the ancestor…, the Naturalists,” and continues: “What is a naturalist? I venture upon the following definitions: A man with a native gift for science who has taken to art. His purpose is not to extract the material and spiritual significance of objects…his purpose is research, and his communication consists of nothing but facts… What the scientist who paints––the naturalist, that is to say––attempts to do is not to give us what art alone can give us, the life-enhancing qualities of objects, but a reproduction of then as they are…” 19

Like Michelangelo before him, who had declared with great assurance that “it is practically only the work done in Italy that we can call true painting,” 20 Berenson maintained that nothing of eminent quality had been created in the North. Despite an occasional word of praise for Jan van Eyck, he maintained that the early Flemings were naive copyists of nature, seduced by “mere appearances,” hence unselective––the usual criticism of realist values.

“In their delight in nature they were like children who, in making the first spring excursion into the neighboring meadows and wood, pluck all the wild flowers, trap all the birds, hug all the trees and make friends with all the gay-coloured creeping things on the grass. Everything is on the same plane of interest and everything that can be carried off, they bring home in triumph. To this pleasure in the mere appearance of things, the greatest of the early Flemings, the Van Eycks, joined, it is true, high gifts of the spirit and rare powers of characterization. They had, as all the world knows, a technique far beyond any dreamt of in Tuscany. And yet the bulk, if not the whole of Flemish painting, is important only as Imitation and Illustration.

“The trouble with Northern painting was that, with all its qualities, it was not founded upon any specifically artistic ideas. If it was more than just adequate to the illustrative purpose, then, owing no doubt to joy in its own technique, it overflowed into such rudimentary decorative devices as gorgeous stuffs and spreading, splendidly painted draperies. It may be questioned whether there exists north of the Apennines a single picture un-inspired by Florentine influence, in which the design is determined by specifically artistic motives: that is to say, motives dictated by the demands of Form and Movement.” 21