Commentary: The Fine Arts:

Restructured Realism

By Ted Seth Jacobs, Painter

Les Cerqueux sous Passavant, France



For me the word art connotes an acquired skill, a knowledge of principles, a special activity, artfulness and artifice, creativity and the expression of emotions through a form. One can scream in anger, conveying clear strong emotion, but it is not artful in the way a vocalization of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater can be. Art is the expression of emotions, yes, but filtered through a discipline. Sine scientia ars nihil est.


Years ago I was strolling through the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. I passed a pile of bricks on the floor. I assumed some renovation was in progress. Surprisingly, on the wall was a plaque giving the bricks a title. The bricks were absolutely indistinguishable from bricks you might see on a construction site.


Solely by virtue of being exhibited in a museum did they putatively become  a work of art. Roles had been reversed. The museum was de facto creating the work of art. In that same museum I supposed that a metal grill on the wall was another exhibited piece, but it was an air vent. If absolutely anything can be qualified as art the term has become so inclusive as to lose all meaning.


I believe this phenomenon has societal implications. The so-called person-in-the-street visits a prestigious institution. He or she sees a pile of bricks on the floor that is considered important enough to be shown in a museum. Perhaps there is a subliminal recognition that if anything can be considered important, then nothing is really important, including human existence.

Critics, art teachers, curators are often fond of saying that realism is dead, that everything has already been done. This is false. What has died is the inspiration of the artists.


There are manifold movements in art. One can be called a Realist tradition. It follows an evolutionary development from pre-historic Cycladic art to the present. The aim of one realist lineage is to create the optimum suggestion in paint of what the eyes see. This research is similar to a scientific discipline, a sort of edifice constructed by successive additions over many generations. Historically, innovators have assimilated the knowledge and principles of the past and then added their discoveries. As Newton famously said, ’I stand on the shoulders of giants.’ The more important painters are generally considered those who have advanced the tradition, updated it to correspond with the ethos of their time. They contribute to the world a new interpretation of its experience. Sometimes such new visions are recognized immediately, but often it can take a generation or more before a novel discovery can be understood.


Perhaps every generation gets the art is deserves. Our consumerist materialist epoch is rife with forms of Non-Art, fueled by the mentality of the advertising medium. A hot new idea, a catchy brand name.


Today there is a deep-seated confusion between art and literature. An art can be considered meaningful if an interesting story can be derived from it, a theory, a social statement, the use of unexpected mediums.


Art is a visual means of expression, literature a verbal one. An artist is an image maker. If the principal value of a work of art derives from a verbal description or explanation, there is really no need to paint it.


In fact, I have seen exhibited in a museum a framed paper describing what the artist intended to paint as a picture…which was never painted.


There exists an esthetic choice in figurative art whose roots can be found in antiquity. The idea is to seize upon what is considered most important for the image and eliminate everything else as extraneous. Leave out any details that might weaken the effect. Especially since the onset of the Industrial Age the simplifying style has predominated. In Victorian portraiture, for example, the focus was on the features, and the rest of the face and all its complex structures were smoothed out. The head was considered as an oval mass, and once the features were defined, in order to create a sense of solidity some summary shadows were indicated and a flat layer of middling intensity of light covered the head, with the addition of some lighter zones blended into the mass to give roundness.


Visual reality -- what we see -- does not look like a smoothed-out painting. In my own work I try to suggest the process of vision. I would like to stress the word ‘suggest.’ A picture is paint on canvas. What we see is a living process in the consciousness. These are two different worlds. The more closely the painted shapes and tones correspond to the relationships in the visual field, the more real the image will appear. To borrow from computer terminology, that visual field contains a numberless quantity of ‘pixels.’ I find that the more visual information I can paint the more the image resembles what the eyes see.


At given moments in history there seem to be ideas that float in the atmosphere, as if their time for expression has arrived. Feynman remarked that ‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom,’ and Nanotechnology was born. Ours is the Information Age, and it is time art caught up with it.


Most of what is called Realist Art today is a reworking of the past, especially of the Nineteenth Century, which promoted extreme simplification. Art cannot advance by going backward. I named my style Restructured Realism because I would like to think that it reconnects with the visual tradition of the past and brings it into the present, evolves it into a contemporary interpretation of our  visual experience.


There has been in fact a direct evolution through the centuries. The palette, or range of colors and light intensities has steadily grown brighter. The visual field can be broken down into much smaller constituents than has been done before. In the study of structure, how organic forms are made and how they function, the elements can be greatly subdivided into very small fractal components, more than has been attempted in the past.


Nor does life look like the dark brown painting of much contemporary realism. Our world is very colorful. I would wish to bring to art the beauty and freshness of the clear brilliant tonalities of the light of day.




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