Sunday, June 15, 2008

A General Manifesto for Experiential Realism

The Experiential Realist:

  • Uses their skill to recreate the actuality of what the eyes can see.
  • Renders everyday places, characters, situations, dilemmas, and objects, all in verisimilitude, as being of interest and importance.

  • Finds and depicts beauty (and ugliness) through their own experience.
  • Allows their awareness of the situation and circumstances of the subject to influence their perceptions and the way that they express them.

  • Experiential Realism is not a label to be put on just any painting based on observation. Specifically, it is used to declare that the painting is important and relevant as a documentation of a place and situation. It lays claim to a particular form of “truth” as having been recorded and declares it as having value.

Of these, it is the first two that make a direct connection with traditional Realism. However, I think that it is the stress of the next two which marks the difference between Realism and Experiential Realism. In some ways it, nudges Realism (just a little) towards Expressionism.

The earlier forms of Realism, Social Realism, etc, made a form of political (with small “p”) statement. For example, one major point behind the original Realist Art Movement was to say that great art was not necessarily about “major” people or events. It claimed that a great painting did not have to depict a king or noble lord or even people of wealth and influence (for example, Courbet’s, “Burial at Ornans”. In other words, Realism was a reaction against the prevailing art of the time. From this, I reason that, if Experiential Realism is to have any real importance, it must also be seen in the context of being a reaction to the prevailing art of our time.

There is presently a dichotomy in the important means of visual communication. The most pervasive form of visual communication is through photography in all its forms. But, because the images are almost infinitely reproducible (especially now that most photography is digital), whilst the image may be highly esteemed, the means of reproduction has almost none. Films can win Academy Awards and can make the owners of the reproduction rights rich, but the individual video or DVD copy of the film has negligible value. It is only the experience of watching the film that is considered to be important. The DVD or video artefact is merely a convenient form of enabling this experience. On the other side of the split is the fine art object, a painting or sculpture. The experience of viewing the object may be highly valued, but the experience can normally only be gained by visiting the one example of the work and, because of this, the object itself may become worth a great deal of money. Hence a Vincent Van Gogh painting of sunflowers becomes worth millions of pounds in the present day art market.

In 1812 Jacques-Louis David painted the Emperor Napoleon, one of the top celebrities of his day, in his study. If it ever came on the market, the painting would now be worth a great deal of money. Present day celebrities, are recorded in film, usually shown on TV, and in photographs, usually published in magazines. A photograph cut from a magazine is worth very little. If a celebrity hired an artist to paint their portrait, the portrait would be worth rather more but would probably only be seen by a very few people. The fine art object which becomes worth a great deal of money does not normally now rely on portraying a celebrity, rather it relies on providing a unique primary experience which can be gained only by visiting the object (and/or a vicarious second-hand experience which can be got from the popular media, usually discussing how ridiculous it is that the object is valued/cost such a great deal of money, e.g., the crack in the floor of the Tate Modern or Damian Hurst's diamond-coated skull).

I would see Experiential Realism as closing this gap. It does not mean that other forms of art are “wrong” or worthless, but it is art about normal, average places and people. And it is for normal, average people. To appreciate it, a specialized art education is not required, just some visual sensitivity and awareness. It cannot be produced cheaply, because it is time and skill intensive, but neither is it unaffordable. Hopefully, it will also be of such a quality that the viewer will return to it again and again and still discover new aspects of the work – for that is what differentiates it from a mass produced image where only the straight-forward perception of the image is important.

Experiential Realism is also a “Modern” art – and will continue to be so. The Modernism comes from the fact that the artist will always be an artist of their own time, painting the things of their own time. In its own way, each painting is an historical document, because, working within the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, it records the truth of a place and situation.