On realism as a fiction and as a useful tool

A mirror lets me become an anthropologist of my own body. It is an almost transparent barrier between my faculties of perception and the thing I’m looking at. It is also a lie, a flattened out and distorted image of a live, fleshy, thinking and perceiving body. But it is a useful lie in that it allows me to look from a distance at something intimately familiar. I think that realism, both in art and in literature, works in a similar way. It pictures an alternate reality so life-like that we can’t help but see in it a reflection of our own condition. In this way, realism has something of a shelf life – it is very much a product of its time, and it is at its most potent when it is most relatable. An 18 th century trompe l’oeil still life becomes a less comprehensible testament to reality as time passes, not because its flowers and fruits begin to rot, but because the cultural context in which it was painted shifts, ages, and permutates. The still life’s relationship to reality is like Dorian Gray’s relationship to his portrait. It is a reflection of a single moment, frozen in time and spared from decay, but loaded with history underneath the thin veneer of its surface.

Rachel Ruysch, “Still-Life with Bouquet of Flowers and Plums,” 1704
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Belgium (linked)

The subject of still life is the mundane object. Objects that make possible the daily routines of people in their homes, and that retain their familiarity despite centuries of permutation. Cups, plates, vessels, vases, food, flora, fabrics, various kinds of instruments, these are at the core of still life painting. Norman Bryson describes still life, or what the ancient Greeks called rhopography (the act of documenting filth, waste, and trivialities), as a genre historically relegated to the lowest rungs of painting and positioned squarely in opposition to megalography and its “values of greatness, heroism, [and] achievement”. He suspects that the forms seen over and over again in still life painting were evaluated with deep ambivalence not only because they were “humble” and banal, but also because they were “virtually indestructible”. This invulnerability comes from the fact that “all such objects are tied to actions repeated by every user in the same way, across generational time; they present the life of everyman as far more a matter of repetition than of personal originality or invention”. The threat of this kind of realism is that it implies that our humanity lies not in our ability to transcend our circumstances, to progress, to invent, and to distinguish ourselves, but rather in our compulsion to repeat and to repurpose.

Mike Kelley, in his essay Playing with dead things, talks about the readymade and the “lifelike” object as something that engages directly with ideas of permanence, mortality, and repetition. Readymades, he says, perform the art-historical “sin of literalism” – objects are taken unaltered from the real world and placed into a new context. They are the ultimate trompe l’oeil. What is manipulated is the object’s function and its name, not its material properties. To use Duchamp, whom Kelley credits with inventing the sculptural still life, as an example: a urinal is placed in a gallery, where it takes on a second identity as an art object titled “Fountain”. The readymade, then, exists both as itself and as something else; it is its own doppelganger. Kelley brings this up in relation to the surrealist artist Hans Bellmer’s claim that “an object that is identical with itself is without reality”, pointing out that the readymade’s seemingly simple appropriation of an everyday object profoundly illustrates “the impossibility of concretizing reality”. The essay traces the legacy of the readymade back to the earliest forms of figurative sculpture. Kelley posits that the fear of (and fascination with) mortality prompted humans not only to preserve, mummify, and ritually tend to their dead, but also to make statues of the human body in “materials more permanent than flesh”. This need to make a double of the real, a less vulnerable stand-in, or an image that can function analogously to the thing it’s replacing, led to the creation of objects and images that had the uncanny quality of rendering the familiar unfamiliar, even unrecognizable. These objects and images, and according to Kelley, art as a whole, are created “in response to lack”, and function as “a kind of fetish, a replacement for some real thing that is missing”. The duplication and appropriation of the real has the remarkable potential both to immortalize what in real life would degrade over time, and to breathe new life into “dead” images, to render the conventional suspect.

Angelica Kauffmann, “Literature embraces painting”, 1782 Kenwood House collection (linked)

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf describes novels as “creations owning a certain looking-glass likeness to life, though of course with simplifications and distortions innumerable”. She continues that the novel sets up a sticky situation in which “life conflicts with something that is not life…on the one hand we feel You – John the hero – must live, or I shall be in the depths of despair. On the other, we feel, Alas, John, you must die, because the shape of the book requires it”(71). She attributes the remarkable fact that a book so incongruously structured can remain compelling over time to what she calls integrity, or the “conviction that [the novelist] gives one that this is the truth”. Whether or not the novel portrays an actual truth becomes a more difficult subject, as Woolf dissects the history of women and fiction in an essay that skillfully walks the line between non-fiction and fiction itself. Where Kelley refers to images and sculptures as a “labor-saving device”, a “tool” that does the work of its real counterpart, Woolf discusses literature as a kind of tool set inaccessible and often unsuitable to womens’ uses. She begins to elaborate on the conditions necessary for women to create works of art. The book’s narrator is asked to write about women and fiction in 1928 – a task that proves grueling when she finds very little evidence of women writers before the turn of the century and even less of women writing fiction. She does find a heap of literature written by men speculating on womens’ capacity to write. She notices a certain anger in these writings that she cannot reconcile with the fact that the literary man, the professor, seems to have nearly absolute power in England at the time. She sets up an analogy between the mirror and the historical role of women in Western culture, arguing that women have “served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”. She understands that “if [woman] begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks…[which] serves to explain how restless [men] are under her criticism”.

I was recently watching a Masters of Modern Sculpture video from the 1970s, and it was hard not to notice that the history of Western sculpture (as it was layed out by the narrator) uses the female body over and over again as either a muse or as a stand-in for an idea. The female body is a sculptural object, not a live subject, and very rarely a legitimate “master”. Mike Kelley, twenty years later, describes Piero Manzoni’s practice of signing live nudes for a piece titled “Living Sculpture”, and debates whether these bodies qualify as readymades or whether they reassume their personhood when they get dressed. I remembered my college art history courses, and that they told roughly the same narrative of masters and muses even though they were taught by a woman claiming to be a Marxist, and more than three decades had passed since that video was made. I remembered the WACK! show at MoCA and how it had to cram hundreds of overlooked and under-recognized women artists under one roof to be reckoned with for one month, and then cordoned off again into a subcategory of art history reserved for female artists. Part of Norman Bryson’s argument about the historical undervaluation of still life painting is also tied to the genre’s dedication to the domestic realm, a “universe of […] creaturely limitation and low-plane reality […whose] delegates are far likelier to be women than men”.

Piero Manzoni, “Living Sculpture”, 1961
Image source: Jaleh Mansoor, October No. 95 (Winter 2001)
(Jaleh Mansoor website linked)

I wanted to get to the root of this kind of value system, and I turned to anthropology, which is a field of study that holds up a mirror to human behavior. There was a popular theory until the late 1960s that hunting was the primary activity that shaped the complexity of human social structures, the invention of sophisticated tools, and the need for highly structured systems of communication. This “Man the Hunter” theory presumed that hunting was a gendered activity performed primarily by males (as opposed to the female gatherer), and it foregrounded the importance of dominance, hierarchy, aggression, and individualism, precisely those values that rhopography threatens. In the 1980s, anthropologist Frances Dahlberg responded with a sourcebook of examples that pointed out the problematic nature of the theory and put forward a new hypothesis based on studies of extant hunter-gatherer societies and various primate societies with complex tool cultures. The research in her book de-bunks the idea of an evolutionary basis for a division of labor between the sexes, citing multiple examples of men and women taking on critical roles in both hunting and gathering practices, of the equal value placed on both hunting and gathering in extant foraging societies, and of the incompatibility of rigid dominance hierarchies with the survival and cohesion of a nomadic group. Food sharing, more so than any singular instance of hunting or gathering, “was essential for the emergence of the hominid line” and continues to play a crucial role in “the survival of all the members of a living-group by equalizing differences in daily food production resulting from the uneven distribution of resources and differences in luck or capacity”. She points out that “the late appearance of stone tools and their association with hunting does not mean that hominids were not using perishable tools and containers and sharing food much earlier,” and argues that “humans today, particularly women, carry both food and infants and must have carried them in the past…But their containers are perishable, being made generally of flexibles such as bark, grass, folded leaves, and animal skins, which leave no trace in the archeological record.”

Woolf noticed similar problems when she tried to dig up a barely visible record of women’s contributions to literary history. She wrote the following about pioneering female writers:


“They had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help… It is useless to go to the men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure. Lamb, Browne, Thackeray […etc.] – whoever it may be – never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks from them and adapted them to her use. The weight, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything substantial from him successfully. The ape is too distant to be sedulous. Indeed, since freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women. Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built […] into arcades or domes. And this shape too has been made by men out of their own needs for their own uses. There is no reason to think that the form of the epic or of the poetic play suits a woman any more than the sentence suits her. But all the older forms of literature were hardened and set by the time she became a writer. The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her hands – another reason, perhaps, why she wrote novels.”


Here, language literally becomes a sculptural material, one that is pliable in some ways and hardened in others. The idea that certain forms of representation are completely impenetrable is a frustrating one, but my hope is that even the stealthiest genres become brittle and porous with enough time. Perhaps they can be resuscitated, ingested, digested, and made malleable again. The task of revision has to be part resurrection and part reconstruction. So maybe realism, even if it is always already a fiction, is a useful tool for getting to the real.


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