The tyranny of reality
April 15, 2008
by Robert Genn
Those of us who sometimes mentor and instruct students are
familiar with trying to get people to really look at things.
Recently, after a few days walking around in a subject-rich
environment, I was agog with new possibilities. Burdened with
reference, I returned to the studio and proceeded to paint the
worst thing I've done in some time. It was one of those
paintings that has you considering a career in accountancy.
During the fiasco I began to better understand a syndrome I've
had all my life. It's what I call "the tyranny of reality."
Let me explain. When we are overloaded with subject matter, we
have an automatic tendency to neglect style and imagination.
Subject matter is no match for spirit. Too much observation can
change the creative event from one of spirit to one of
rendering. Surprise, chance, illusion, personality, audacity,
confidence and desire are the most affected. Abandonment and
even desertion may have to be contemplated.
Sad to say, but glorious nature stomps on creativity. The
artist becomes not a master, but a slave. On the other hand,
reflecting in tranquility, uncluttered by overabundance and the
need to get reality right, one is free to pass to another
level. "Reality," said Joyce Cary, "is a narrow little house
which becomes a prison for those who can't get out."
In 1970, the distinguished critic and social theorist Roland
Barthes wrote, "Painting can feign reality without having seen
it." When I first read that statement a door opened. Time and
again I've seen the idea make timid artists brave. Those who
dare to "feign reality" are in the agreeable business of
surprising themselves. Believe me, it's anticipated surprise
that keeps us at our easels. I hardly know of an evolved artist
in any field who doesn't understand this. "The job of art,"
said Francoise Sagan, "is to take reality by surprise."
Bogging down in detail will spoil the fun every time. I can't
think how many times I've failed to break down that door. Clive
Bell, another critic lashing out in the age of hyperrealism,
noted, "Detail is the fatty degeneration of art." He has a
point. Fat is tyranny. Reduce.
PS: "The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance
of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the
external manner and detail, is true reality." (Aristotle)
Esoterica: Many significant artists might say that the opposite
is true, and for many, it is. Artists with no respect for or
understanding of reality can be a slave to their own
imaginations. When these imaginations are shallow, which they
sometimes are, there's nothing like a shot or two of the real
world. One of the hazards of art instruction is where you
suggest one person might loosen up, and you tell another to
start looking more carefully at things. Within earshot, people
are getting the opposite information. It's not like accountancy