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David and Art - Realism Was Complicated

There’s complexity in all kinds of art, even the sort that looks simple.

Without digging too deeply into the old archive, I think it’s pretty likely that you’ve heard me say something here along the lines of it being the role of a public intellectual to be willing to stand up and say “It’s more complicated than that” when the complexities of history are ignored, usually when someone wants to score a political point.

It applies to the arts as well. And can take various forms there. I guess the most obvious way is when someone denigrates abstraction and non-representational painting as something my kid could do. But even when a painting is purely representational and flawlessly portrays what we might call a “real life scene,” there is usually much more going on than meets the eye. And sometimes there’s controversy when you would least expect it. It may look simple or even trite to us today, but it wasn’t always like that. Sometimes it’s more complicated than we think.

This is on my mind right now because I’m currently reading a novel called The Masterpiece by the French writer Emile Zola. It focuses on a group of young artists in Paris in the 1860s determined to resist the dominant styles of art, and forge something new and more truthful. The protagonist is a painter named Claude Lantier who doesn’t want to paint in the formal styles demanded by the Academy of Fine Arts and the guardians of high culture. He wants to paint life as he sees it and feels it and knows it to be. He was what we call a “Modernist.”

In his wonderful book about Modernism, historian Peter Gay describes Modernists as believing that “the creative artist must not remain fixated” on the familiar and sanctioned tropes like classical antiquity, or the mythic chivalry of the Middle Ages. “Steeped in moralizing” is how he refers to the mainstream conservative art patrons of the day, those who demanded that art teach lessons and shape upright character—to be a buttress of the status quo. In their eyes, merely painting life as they saw it with all the accuracy and insight they could muster, free of moralizing strictures, was a symptom of moral depravity. The artists who pursued such a course were no better than bomb throwing anarchists who ought to be kept outside the gates.

In 1863, there was a show in Paris that came to be known as the “Salon of the Rejected,” highlighting paintings that were refused by Academy of Fine Arts. Those rejected were younger, more radical artists, but hardly controversial today. In the exhibit were works by painters like Pissarro, Courbet, and Zola’s friend Edouard Manet. When you see these paintings today, it helps your perspective to know that they were once bitterly refused and laughed at. Context after all is what history is all about. And sometimes it’s more complex than the myths we tell ourselves.

David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.