Gentle reader, I hope you are not expecting a comfortable middlebrow essay on Realism in the Art of Politics. There are any number of outstanding media platforms—ranging from The Financial Times to The New York Review of Books from First Things to The Baffler—where there are an astonish profusion of commentaries on that general topic. Nah. This is going to be number one in an occasional series of three posts, one of Realism, one on Art and one on Politics. My challenge will be to tie them all together somehow. Here goes. Realism.
Back in the middle of the 19th century Realism was a bona fide movement in painting and sculpture, a controversial departure from Romanticism and a challenging counterpoint to the Academy of the day. (Like ‘realism’ the ‘academy’ is one of those flexible terms that means different things at different times—today it seems to be a way for the professoriat to comfortably gloss over the unpleasant fact of an institutional pecking order, in other words that a professor with tenure at Standford is one thing, and an adjunct instructor at Southern Oregon State University something else entirely. But back in the 19th century the 'academy' was, well, the Academy, as in the Academie Francaise, the Royal Society, etc.). Back to Realism.
Let’s be real, he’s realistic, etc. In a pragmatic culture that believes that a shared social reality (that word, again) is the foundation of communication, that comfortably relegates the philosophical inquiries into the nature of that shared reality either to history or to contemporary academics no one pays much attention to, the 'real-' terms generally carry a rather boring, positive connotation. She’s realistic and reliable. He’s a dreamer and undisciplined. Which one do you choose for the job of making sure the shipping department is well organized, efficient, and meetings its performance metrics? The meaning of realistic is so positive, so diffused and so encompassing that is almost empty. Nowadays, to say a portrait or a landscape is realistic basically means, colloquially, that’s it’s a fair replication of what a photograph of the subject would look like, and little more.
That wasn’t always the case. The basic idea of the mid 19th century art movement known at Realism was that the subject and techniques of art should be the faithful representation of contemporary reality. No more painting scenes of classical antiquity. If you haven’t personally witnessed it, you shouldn’t paint it. And the representation of the contemporary scene should be accurate. The peasant should look like a peasant, the whore should look like a whore and if the dreary inhabitants of a dreary village have turned on a dreary occasion like a funeral, you got it, the picture should be dreary, not uplifting and spiritual. If you believe that the mission of Art is to elevate the human spirit and acquaint modern youth with the pious or noble virtues of the illustrious past, that’s pretty revolting (in both senses of the word). I mean, peasants should be happy arcadians, whores, well, they should be saints following their conversion, and so on. Let's ride to the sound of the guns, a la Stendahl. But for the Realists, their work was a matter of ‘Just the facts, ma’am’ (some echoes of realism down through centuries have been more entertaining than others).
The outstanding proponent of Realism was a Frenchman named Courbet. Early Manet (more commonly thought of as an Impressionist) and Millet (he of the gleaners) were also good exemplars. In due course, the Realist movement gave way, and Symbolism surfaced, the Impressionists were more interested in subjective than objective reality, and all the ferment of late 19th century painting and sculpture proceeded to unfold. But Realism continues to surface in various forms—Surrealism, the Ash Can School, Photorealism and so on (most would argue that the Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union was actually a form of officially sanctioned Romanticism, that’s really getting down in the weeds).
An interesting thing about Realism. The choice of topic and method of presentation had profound political implications. If you really, really, rub people’s noses in the state of contemporary affairs, very few people are satisfied. Over and out. Some of them become terrible agitated and want to fix the problems they see, in terms of correcting injustices, righting wrongs, establishing new rights and using the collective resources of society to improve the state of humanity (whether we are talking about Blake’s New Jerusalem or a single payer healthcare system) Some of them become terribly agitated and to fix the problems they see, in terms of restoring traditional values, ending the corrosion of national prestige, protecting our gun rights, putting women in their place, keeping our little girls safe from queers who want to assault them in the bathroom, and so on.
The Realists themselves tend to fall into the first camp. Most decent people do. It takes a punitive, cowardly or at the very least, rigidly doctrinaire mindset not to.
Courbet, for example, was an enthusiastic participant in the Paris Commune and spent six months in prison for his role in it (and didn’t get shot probably because towards the end he had a falling out with his fellow Communards when they executed an ally of his, so at the very last he was an alienated former participant in the Commune rather than a fighter going down on the Barricades). He died in alcoholic Swiss exile, the French government pursuing him with a bill for damages to a monument he ordered pulled down during the Commune. Much different outcome than a visiting distinguished fellowship at a major university, a perch in a think tank of your particular flavor, a book contract and an arrangement with a speaker’s bureau. But no matter.
When apologists for our oligarchy and other conservative hacks bitch that ‘the facts have a liberal bias,’ this is what’s triggering it. Most decent people, looking at most difficult situations, have a tendency to want to help the people caught in the difficulties. As was once said of Gerald Ford (the first Republican president to take office without a popular mandate), Ford may be a conservative, but if he met somebody with a problem, he’d give them the shirt off his back. Literally. But, if you have, within yourself, repressed and denied that human tendency to give a sufferer the shirt off your back, you are naturally going to object to people dwelling on the difficulties those sufferers face and try to focus on the failings of the victims, their personal responsibility, or the decline in public mores that allowed the situation to develop in the first place (it’s awfully hard to blame small children for having drug addicted parents). If, instead, the media focus on, continue to dwell on, the situation as it exists, the suffering, the victims, you will find yourself complaining about media bias. And when you don't win that argument (the main stream media having a penchance for 'just the facts, ma'am' a/k/a objectivity in its coverage) then you complain that facts themselves have a liberal bias. So, yeah, the facts have a liberal bias.
But only because most people are nice people.