Cleaning up the Categories
"Interior of a Church" by Emanuel de Witte. c. 1680. Collection: Cleveland Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Realistic art is sometimes called “illusionist” or “illusionism.”* The term “illusionist” is often used to identify art that aims to re-create reality, but the term also implies that such art presents an illusion. Take the example of a painting that shows an interior of a room receding in the distance. According to the illusionist view of art, this kind of painting is thought to create an illusion of three-dimensional space where none exists — an attempt to lead the viewer to think that there’s a space within the picture frame where there is no such space.
The term “illusion” emphasizes the intent to represent something that does not exist: The viewer sees what appears to be a three-dimensional space, where he knows (or the artist knows) there is none — only a flat, two-dimensional canvas. The same charge of illusionism is applied to paintings of physical objects that accurately show the three-dimensional solidness of an object — an apple that looks like a solid orb resting on a surface, for instance, where we know there is no such apple, only paint on canvas.
“Illusionism” is also more narrowly applied to artworks that in some way use the space that the viewer occupies, or that seem to share the viewer’s space, such as a painting of a figure that seems to reach out to the viewer. This latter use of the term needs to be reconsidered, and perhaps abandoned. According to this use of the term, all art that accurately shows a spacial, three-dimensional world is illusionistic; and certainly all of sculpture could be deemed illusionistic.
More broadly, I think that the term “illusion” is misapplied to realistic art. Artworks do not aim to present illusions and artists are not illusionists. Art aims to re-create reality based on the artist’s observation of reality, and according to the artist’s outlook (on reality). It is not an attempt to trick the viewer into thinking that what the artist re-creates exists within the picture frame (an actual corridor or an apple). It is an attempt to re-create, or represent, some aspect of reality in a way that dramatizes the artist’s assessment of reality. The artist’s reliance on what he observes is basic to his grasp of, and assessment of, existence. It is not a ploy to impress or trick the viewer.
There is a type of art that is explicitly aimed at illusionism. That type of art is called “trompe l’oeil” (French for “deceives the eye”), and it was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Arguably, trompe l’oeil art aims at impressing or tricking the viewer into believing that something exists where it does not. That is a legitimate use of the term that distinguishes art that intends to impress or trick the viewer in some way.
But to conflate realist art per se with illusionism denies the basis and purpose of art.
Open up the Metaphysics
At the OCON2016 art show I received some welcome advice on blogging. That advice was basically: Don’t write about new topics or perspectives that you’re exploring — you’ll get bogged down. Blog about things you already know, but that a lot of readers likely don’t know. That way, the writing will flow more easily and you’ll blog more. Well, okay.
A long-standing bit of knowledge (for me) is how to think about a work of art in order to get the most out of it. When we look at a work of art — a painting, sculpture, or drawing — we can ask ourselves a few key questions. If it depicts a human figure, we can ask ourselves, “What kind of being is this?” “Is this being healthy or unwell, able or infirm, alert or comatose, flourishing or suffering?” Those sorts of questions address the view of human nature that the artwork dramatizes. That view is, of course, the artist’s view — the view that inspired the work, that guided the artist during the creative process, and that the work, therefore, reflects.
There are other questions that address other ideas embodied in art, but I’ll leave those for another time. Questions like the one above “open up the metaphysics” of a work of art for us — they deal with the most profound meaning of a work of art. The metaphysics embodied in an artwork reflects the artist’s outlook about the world as such, about human beings as such, and about what sort of life is possible to human beings. Those are the grand-scale ideas that motivate the artist and that we, in turn, can contemplate when we view art.
The metaphysics is more profound in scope than the subject, and even the theme of the artwork. The subject is what the artwork depicts. An example of subject is the depiction of a girl examining how water runs through her fingers. The theme is the general idea that the work dramatizes, and it can vary in profundity. An example of theme might be: the joy of discovery, or the joy of being alive. The metaphysics is the underlying world view implied by the work. In the case of a painting of a girl examining water, the metaphysics could be: Man is able to thrive in a knowable world.
The distinction between theme and metaphysics also came up during the OCON2016 art show. A visitor to the exhibit told me that he uses narrative to help young people engage with art and derive personal meaning from it. I think this is a wonderful approach, and one that would be especially effective for young people. But adults need to access the metaphysics of art, for it is the most deeply conceptual of what art offers us. I suggested that he find a way to take his method a step further for adults, to not only elicit their awareness of the thematic ideas that art presents, which draws them toward a more conceptual experience, but to spark awareness of the metaphysics of art, which is the most conceptual experience they can have with art.
Sandra J. Shaw
Sculptor. Art instructor