Thursday, December 3, 2015

Idealism vs. Realism in Art - Why Characters in Art Usually Are Too Pretty to Be Real

Throughout all of human history we see more idealizing artworks than those showing reality.

There's a question I frequently end up asking myself: Why do people usually create young and healthy characters? Why are at least the main characters almost always good-looking? Why are scars or any other injuries more decorative rather than ... serious?

This isn't a question which is only about modern days. Throughout all of human history we see more idealizing artworks than those showing reality. There's Napoleon's nose on Bonaparte at the Pont d’Arcole that is too straight to be Napoleon's actual nose (just compare it to other portraits). There are all those Greek and Roman statues showing perfect bodies. And today we have photoshopped models and anime girls with thigh gaps that are only possible if you have an extremely dangerous combination of anorexia and a deformed pelvis.

And this isn't where it ends, because, speaking of decorative scars, we should also mention idealization through humiliation. Dr. Christopher Ely explains in the introduction of his book This Meager Nature the reason why he got so interested in Russian Realistic landscape painting: For some reason most of these paintings are extremely gloomy. The explanation of this phenomenon is the whole book: Once the Russian artists were fed up with painting Arcadian idylls and started painting landscapes of their own country they first started to idealize it in a positive way: The peasants looked very healthy and sated, there were warm colours and fields idealizing Russia's vastness. However, as Realism kicked in, the artists started to paint negative things: The poverty of the peasants, roads that looked more like swamps and the downsides of the Russian climate. - And why is it idealization even though it's called Realism? Because Russia was and is dominated by Orthodoxy, which is all about humility. Thus suffering is considered a good thing, because it means you're a good person. So by showing how bad the living conditions were the artists showed Russia's alleged "holiness", because it suffered like Jesus on the cross and thus was considered the opposite of the European countries, which were labelled as wealthy, yet morally decadent.

It isn't only Russia, actually. In Europe, for example, there's the fairytale about Cinderella, an ideal girl whose suffering and humility is part of her being ideal for which she is rewarded later: She's a downright martyr. Yet maybe it's just a Christian whim. After all, even though I'm an atheist, I was born in Russia and live in Germany, and both have strong Christian traditions, which is why I'd like you to tell me about your culture in the comments below as soon as you've finished reading. Is your culture so much about praising martyrs (be it martyrs of religion, revolution, someone's rights, whatever) as well?

Now back to be topic: The question whether art should show ideals or reality is a very old one. It isn't only about moral values like touching difficult social problems by drawing attention to the living conditions of the poor people, for example, but also about aesthetics. While realism may be a very effective tool for social change, from an aesthetical point of view it's usually understood as copying, a slavish imitation ... something lacking the process of creation. Moreover, reality is what most people try to escape when they consume art.

It's exactly the opposite for idealism: Recently I've stumbled over an article by the American sculptor and art critic Frederick Wellington Ruckstuhl, and this is what he thinks about it:
"[...] idealism is the most powerful force in all art, because it arouses us in a sense of haunting Mystery and so forces us to ask questions and to wonder and infinitely wonder! It lifts us toward the empyrean, toward the infinite, away from daily nature, from the earth and our commonplace experience. Hence it stirs our highest emotions: Delight and Awe, and gives us the loftiest and most spiritual pleasure we can experience. And the more deeply a work of art stirs these highest emotions in more and more people, and the longer it does so, the greater the work of art."
Idealism is more appealing to the masses, and yet I believe that if all art would gravitate towards idealism it would be extremely boring. The quoted article is from 1917, and it shouldn't be hard to guess that Ruckstuhl was critical of certain contemporary Modernist tendencies. Yet people are different and not everyone shares the aesthetical taste of the masses. And often one and the same person happens to like very different art, depending on their mood. Art needs to be individual, and individualism in art is actually a very Modernist ideal.

However, taking a step further we can question whether Realism in art is even possible. This is a philosophical question, since we're asking whether a human can see reality. Let's be honest: Every one of us lives in his very own reality, his own matrix, his own interpretation of what he perceives. So what we're running from into escapism are demons created by ourselves, not the objective reality. By running from our own reality we escape into someone else's reality, and if this reality is realistic, even Realism can serve escapism, as the example of the Russian Realist landscape painting shows: "Yes, we have heavy social problems, but we're morally pure!" - And surely no viewer of these paintings is really as morally pure as we imagine martyrs to be.

This is where I agree with Ruckstuhl:
"In a large sense, there is no such thing as Realism in truly great art, there is only Idealism, which is but the realization of some kind of an Idea, or Ideal created by the artist. Therefore, no complete, great work of art can be categorized as a piece of realism in all its parts. Every human work, from a wedding cake to a cathedral, is a work of Idealism - because it expresses some idea, or conception."
Just copying what the respective artist believes to be reality without any idea behind it is just plain boring. Art shouldn't show anything just because it's there in the real world - it should show it because of its meaning. And maybe this is a deeper reason why age, injuries and ugliness are so rarely featured in art: Because these artworks just aren't about age, injuries and ugliness.

This principle doesn't only apply to mere looks, though, but also to character traits. Fictional characters often are braver, purer and stronger than actual humans or, if it's a villain, more evil and malicious. Even though many say that they are bored by perfect characters and prefer stories about someone more relatable, those "relatable" characters are still perfect in their own way: If you think that a perfect character should have flaws you still have an ideal in your mind. And even if a character has flaws, usually there's still something superhuman about him or her. Be it a superhuman clumsiness, a superhuman talent to get into trouble or superhuman luck. Of course there are also characters without anything superhuman about them, but according to my experiences so far they rarely enjoy popularity among the audience.

Having said this, I wonder what you think: Are there any fictional characters you like and that aren't superhuman at all? Are you sometimes annoyed by all this idealization? Do you think that just copying reality can be considered art? And not to forget the question from above: Is your culture so much about praising martyrs as well?

I look forward to your comments! And if you liked this article, please don't forget to share it!

Feael Silmarien

Christopher Ely: This Meager Nature. Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia, DeKalb 2002.
F. Wellington Ruckstuhl: Idealism and Realism in Art, in: The Art World, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Jan., 1917), pp. 252-256.


  1. I totally agree that art should be about showing the meaning. That being said, the heroine of my upcoming book is a 96-year-old grandmother. And I think she's got more personality than all of the younger characters put together.

    1. I'm glad you do. :)
      Your heroine seems very interesting. An elderly lady sure is at an advantage: She had much more time to develop her personality.
      Thanks for the comment!


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