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Theory of modern art : theory of realism Essay (Article)

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Updated: Apr 11th, 2019

Humans are quintessentially political animals, and art is a quintessentially human activity. It should not surprise us, therefore, that art has been used in the service of politics from earliest times. The notion of realism as an art movement is as much of an approximation as any other term applied to art.

Any representation of the world in a work of art is by definition different from the real thing. It becomes different the moment that the artist puts brush to canvas, or thumb to clay. There is always going to be a difference between what the artist sees and what is depicted.

Thus, Realism is as much of a fiction as Abstraction or any other title for a movement. However, the tendencies that the term Realism describes are definitely associated with political movements, including nationalism. This is because the artist is asserting that the art mirrors reality, and therefore is shaping reality.

Since nationhood is itself a fiction, it is perfectly natural that an artistic fiction should be used describe or support a political fiction. The authors in the selected readings all recognize the potential uses to which art, whether representational or not, may be put.

Carl Gustav Jung asserted that the human race carries, within its unconscious, shared patterns that express themselves in comprehensible images in common, and he recognized that this had powerful implications.

He says, “The far-reaching implications of this statement must not be overlooked.” [1] Although they might be expressed in terms that reflected the particular culture of the artist, these shared ideas, he asserts, would be recognizable by other peoples elsewhere in the world. As an example, all humans pass through some basic experiences. All humans are fed by an adult while an infant, or are held by an adult when small.

These experiences and ideas might be expressed in images that most people would recognize as relating to mothering, or parenting/nurturing. As noted above, no one image captures all of the concept of mothers across cultures, or even one particular mother. However, Jung might assert that the notion of mother can and will be depicted in ways that are understood without words or conscious thought.

This can occur, even if the form is quite strange and not realistic by Western standards at all, or realistic, but reflecting a very different culture. [2]Thus, if any piece of art addresses themes and ideas that are archetypal, the artist does not need to use words to get across the idea. This possible way of influencing people can be very appealing to any political group that is trying to motivate people in one direction or another.

Alfred Barr, writing between the two World Wars, recognizes both that art was used to influence people, and that the control of what art is allowed is another way to influence a population. He always makes the important point that any term to describe an art style is only an approximation[3].

He distinguishes two contrasting trends in art, which alternate in dominating the art world. One is more or less the depiction of nature as the eye sees it. The other is everything else. Cubism, abstraction, and styles that make no effort to depict any object, person, or place, are in this category.

Barr acknowledges that although in his view, abstract art, “needs no defense”, it cannot be appreciated,” without some study and sacrifice of prejudice”[4] Harrison and Wood assert that he associated the more abstract styles with a less oppressive political environment, and realism with a more oppressive political regime[5].

This is borne out in the AKhRR Declaration, which asserts that abstraction represents art as a luxury, some sort of a mental game, or, “vacuous philosophizing”, rather than a wholesome tool for instruction and inspiration[6]. The proper use of art, according to this declaration, was to document “a true picture of the events” and shape the mind towards the revolutionary ideal[7].

This links back to Jung. If archetypes do exist, then the evocation of images that support the aim of the revolution (whatever kind of revolution it is) need not even use words to be effective. By using “heroic realism”, the artist can glorify the revolutionary activist and his/her aims without text at all[8].

The revolutionaries may have been responding to the same sort of distinction that Mondrian outlined. He contrasted the “direct creation of universal beauty’ with the “aesthetic expression of oneself’[9]. Nationalism, revolution, and utopian goals frequently call for self-sacrifice.

Thus, anything that focuses on the self, rather than the country, cause, or goal, is less desirable. In Mondrian’s view, therefore, he is suggesting that abstraction substitutes the artist’s purely personal perspective for a perspective on the world that can be shared. He says that

”it is a great pity that those who are concerned with the social life in general do not recognize the utility of pure abstract art…In general the use art as propaganda for collective or personal ideas, thus as literature.

They are both in favor of the progress of the mass and against the progress of the elite, thus against the logical march of human evolution…The elite rises from the mass; is it not therefore its highest expression?” This sharing should be, presumably, constructive. It should uplift the community, if that is what the community demands.”[10]

Siqueiros makes the demands of the community rather explicit. He says that art should reverse the evils of colonial oppression, which include the suppression of indigenous art forms, calling it, “the most wholesome spiritual expression in the world”[11]. The way to do this is through monumental art[12]. He also praises the indigenous art of Mexico, which is somewhat ironic.

On the one hand, the art of the ancient Meso-Americans was definitely monumental and public. On the other hand, however, repeated articles and documentaries on the mural arts of the ancient Inca and Maya suggest that decoding their artwork has been very difficult.

The images are very abstracted. They may show a king with a jaguar skin around him, for example, or a headdress made of feathers, but it has taken decades for archeologists to figure this out. However, although the images are condensed and heavily edited, they do represent some aspect of reality.

Diego Rivera is the most famous practitioner of heroic mural art in Mexico, and, arguably, anywhere. His statement on art offers some very cutting insights, even though his admiration for Communism sounds somewhat naïve from today’s perspective. He asserts that in the past, art was valued for being difficult to appreciate. [13] This required that only a small elite group could prepare themselves to understand it.

This also implied that there was solely an elite group capable of such understanding. This is a clearly implied criticism of all forms of abstraction. This is because experience suggests that most people who have any experience of visual media can readily understand a representational picture.

Rivera goes on to say that the elitist approach to art, “serves to discredit the use of art as revolutionary weapon and serves to affirm that all art which has a theme, a social content, is bad art.”[14] It is hard to avoid the impression that Rivera’s solution is somewhat self-serving.

He proposes that the proletariat adopt the best techniques of the bourgeois academics and produce mural art in a Super-Realist style.[15] This just happens to be his own style and medium. Harrison and Wood, by the way, helpfully point out that Rivera’s use of the term Super-Realism was equivalent to the French Surrealism[16].

Thus, for Rivera, realism, after a fashion, on a giant scale, with revolutionary themes and academic technique, is the proper proletarian use of art. However, if one visualizes a Rivera work, there is very little of the real world in it, and much more of fantasy and magic.

The reading from Lenin, while not mentioning ‘realism’ specifically, clearly contends that art should be used for the education of the people.

The goal of this education is the removal of all forms of exploitation by man. Lenin says, “…the field of art in particular, should be imbued with the spirit of class struggle…” [17] The reading is not explicit with regard to how this spirit can be communicated. However, it is challenging to imagine how one can unambiguously represent such class struggle with color, line, and form alone.

These are human concepts and even an abstract work would probably need to allude to, or refer to something human or at least in the real world. This would immediately make it less abstractly pure. Thus, in order to meet Lenin’s demands on art, it must be realistic, and, equally importantly, represent ideas supportive of his political ideas.

Adolf Hitler, as many readers know from the informal oral history of grandparents and other elders, used anything and everything to further his goals. The creation of an exhibit and exhibition space for ‘real’ German art is one among many strategies. He distinguishes, in his speech, between normal artists’ vision and the distorted vision of the modern artists he despises. He sarcastically notes that,

“…the eye shows things differently to certain human beings than the way they really are, that is, that there really are men who see the present population of our nation as rotten cretins; who on principle, see meadows blue, skies green, clouds sulphur yellow…” [18]

He goes on to suggest that the eye defect of such artists represents an element that should be eliminated, perhaps by force, from the population. The Third Reich used this same approach in eliminating other supposed defectives, such as Gypsies, the insane, and anyone else Hitler defined as undesirable.

Elsewhere in this brief speech, he insults Jews, and anyone who is not German or who mixes the blood of Germans[19]. Art, in this poisonous context, is meant to represent the people, but not the people as in Lenin’s view. This ‘people’ are true Germans. One can only infer that their art must be of, and by, and depicting these true Germans.

This certainly rules out abstraction, even if Hitler had not also railed against art that reflected personal experience, as noted in the quote. Posters from that era certainly show sturdy (German) folks doing their bit for the Fatherland. Thus, both by requiring that the style be representational and that the content focus on Germans and Germany, Hitler promoted his own goals and controlled events and populations.

These readings present a rather disturbing picture of the various uses to which art, and specifically, realism have been put. There are doubtless readings that would attest powerfully to the uses of abstraction as well, but they are largely not in this assortment. Realism certainly lends itself to messages that have to do with daily life as well as ideas that are more philosophical.

This is because people can identify with such images. As Jung suggested, these ideas communicate themselves straight to the oldest parts of the brain. Thus, viewers can be influenced to do whatever it is that the artist or the government wants them to do without ever saying so!

Furthermore, people will do things based on these images without ever putting the ideas into words. The message of all these readings is that all art can be used to influence people in subtle and not so subtle ways, but realism has a record of having been used very obviously to achieve nationalistic or utopian goals.


Asssociation of Artists of Revolutionary Russia. “AKhRR Declaration.” In Art In Theory: 1900-2000, by C., Wood, P. Harrison, 403-406. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Barr, Alfred. “Cubism and Abstract Art.” In Art in Theory: 1900-2002, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 381-383. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Harrison, C., and P. Wood. Art in Theory: 1900-2002. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Hitler, Adolf. “Speech Inaugurating the Great Exhibition of German Art.” In Art in THeory: 1900-2000, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 439. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Jung, Carl Gustav. “On the Concept of the ‘Archetype’.” In Art in Theory: 1900-2000, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 378-381. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. “On Proletarian Culture.” In Art in Theory: 1900-2000, by C.: Wood, P. Harrison, 402. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Mondrian, Piet. “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art.” In Art in Theory: 1900 – 2000, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 387-393. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Rivera, Diego. “The Revolutionary Spirit in Modern Art.” In Art in Theory: 1900-2000, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 421-424. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Siqueiros, David A.: et alia. “”A Declaration of Social, Political and Aesthetic Principles”.” In Art in Theory: 1900-2000, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 406. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.


  1. Jung, Carl Gustav. “The Concept of the ‘Archetype’”, in Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford. Wiley-Blackwell. 2002, Page 380.
  2. Jung. passim.
  3. Barr, Alfred. “Cubism and Abstract Art”, in Art in Theory: 1900-2000, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002, page 382.
  4. Barr, page 382.
  5. Harrison, C., Wood, P.. Art in Theory:1900-2002. Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002. Page 381.
  6. Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia. “Declaration”, in Art in Theory: 1900-2000, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002, page 405.
  7. Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia. Page 403.
  8. Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia. Page 404.
  9. Mondrian, Piet. “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art”, in Harrison, C., and Wood, P. Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell. 2002. age 388.
  10. Mondrian, page 392.
  11. Siquieros, David A. “A Declaration of Social, Political, and Aesthetic Principles”, in Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford. Wiley-Blackwell. Page 406.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Rivera, Diego. “The Revolutionary Spirit in Modern Art”, in Art in Theory: 1900-2000, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002. page 422.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Rivera, page 424.
  16. Harrison, C., and Wood, P., page 421.
  17. Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. “Proletarian Culture”, in Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford. Wiley-Blackwell. 2002. page 402.
  18. Hitler, Adolf. “Speech Inaugurating the Great Exhibition of German Art”, in Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell. 2002. page 440.
  19. Hitler. Page 439.
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