Before the emergence of written language, there existed rock carvings, cave drawings, and stone arrangements in Prehistoric Art. This was followed by Ancient Art’s spiritual and symbolic imagery. Medieval art somehow resembled this, but was leaning towards a bit more gothic themed. Then, eventually, the Renaissance period entered with its prioritization of details, realism, and fascination with elements of nature. In the succeeding eras, these realist features are exaggerated and embellished, until the peak of this grandeur and dramatic style culminated in the Baroque era. The eras that followed, such as Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism, all differ variously in styles, but not in their subject. The subject was always what is real, and the style just serves as an exploration and expression of that reality. It was only in the Post-Impressionism era, when abstraction was put in the spotlight. But even then, and with the emergence of Expressionism and Cubism, art was still about reality.
“In defining them as art, it must always be kept in mind that even the most creative filmmaker is much less independent of nature in the raw than the painter or poet; that his creativity manifests itself in letting nature in and penetrating it.”(Kracauer, p,153, 1960)
However, around the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud inspired an artistic movement that explored the surreal, thereby fueling movements such as Abstract Expressionism, and Optical Illusions. But with the advent of industrialization, our focus on dreams and worlds beyond ours were diverted again to what’s in front of us. The emergence of industries paved the way for Pop Art, and has forced art to focus on beautifying commodities so that they will sell. Years later, when marketing principles have been established, art is free again to find its new identity. This rich history of stylistic exploration has eventually led to Contemporary Art, which is ultimately an exploration in itself, of Postmodernism, expressionism, digital, street art, and many more. All these, of course, are still excluding other forms of art such as music, literature, and film. But even so, the emergence of photography and film still served the main purpose of capturing reality in one way or another. However, my primary intention in writing down this brief history of the evolution of art is to emphasize the fact that, in the majority of the entirety of its existence, art’s subjects have mostly been about what is “real”. This leads us to the question of what, actually, is so artistic about reality that attracts us to dwell on it so faithfully? Answering this question will lead us to the examination of the functions of art, four of which, I will highlight.
First, we are inclined towards making reality the subject of art because we are naturally compelled to record data, more importantly, visual data. In a continuously growing society, time is of the essence, and people are constantly given the task to record as much as they can because, in truth, time will keep running. This is why we have avenues for recording such as journalism, the study of history, photography and, ultimately, film. The more we record, the more we can remember and grasp a moment that cannot be frozen in time. Beyond this, recording is also an effort of communicating, whether it be in today’s time, or from one generation to another. Art has to record because it has to keep conveying and expressing the realities of current generations as witnesses of evolution.
“It is entirely possible that a staged real-life event evokes a stronger illusion of reality on the screen than would the original event if it has been captured directly by the camera.”(Kracauer, p.149, 1960)
Second, human beings are natural storytellers. Anything about everything can be made into a story. The best storyteller is one that can convince an audience that her/his stories are real events. Real stories are the more haunting ones because they either tell a historical occurrence, or they depict a version based on what really happened. This is why, when we watch horror movies or tragedies nowadays, it is more chilling if the film claims that it is “based on true events”. Of course, this way, art tends to enhance reality for the sake of entertainment and economic value, and people are aware of this and they are fine with “altered reality” because they would easily accept any story told to them, so long as it seems convincing. The world is very much obsessed with “chismis” or gossip culture, which boosts up the economic value of talk shows and reality shows. This is because gossips are real stories, masked or modified, to portray a reality apart from ours. One tendency to this is that people may become tired or bored of their own realities that they are drawn to the realities of others. Another possibility is that we insist on intruding on other people’s stories because we would like to grasp a reality of theirs that may seem unattainable to us and, therefore, is intriguing to us. In short, we want to hear stories of other people’s realities because we would like a taste of that which we may never experience. The value of the truth is so high, that people are so invested in investigative stories and shows that feature infidelities, guess-the-father in unexpected pregnancies, and other stories that are highly intrusive of other people’s lives.
Third, art has long established its function as a social commentary, even as materials for political discourse and propaganda. Art that is based on socio-political realities attracts people who either share similar views or are opposed to it. Since this particular function of art also aims to persuade masses into certain viewpoints by highly influential leaders and institutions, viewers are inclined to question the truth out of it so that they could decide on their standpoint.
“The viewer is presented visually and ideologically with a single flat picture of the bourgeoisie world not to be unthinkingly accepted as transparent and easy to understand, but to be examined, criticized, and rejected.”(Braudy & Cohen, p.3, 1974)
Overall, people are drawn towards art that represents realities which can be viewed, questioned, reflected upon, and criticized. This is mostly because people like having opinions and having a safe space to express these opinions. They appreciate commonality, but are also attracted to opposition. With art providing this avenue for discourse, people can keep deciding on matters of the past, present, and the future.
Lastly, art is an outlet for emotions. Humans, being naturally emotional, would always look for avenues to express their emotions. Physically, these are shown very easily through uncontrollable facial emotions and body languages. This is why Balasz, in his essay, emphasizes the value of the closeup. He says that close ups “show the faces of things and those expressions on them which are significant because they are reflected expressions of our own subconscious feeling” (Balasz, p.315, 1945). He further states that, “A good film with closeups reveals the most hidden parts in our polyphonous life, and teaches us to see the intricate visual details of life” (Balasz, p.315, 1945). More than expressing our emotions, we are inclined to find similar emotions in art which we could relate to. But beyond viewing art, another important self expression related to reality is imitation and, when pushed further, interpretation.
“Imitation also permits people to cope with significant experiences. It provides release and makes for a kind of reciprocity between the self and the world…In practice, there has always been the artistic urge not simply to copy but to originate, to interpret to mold.”(Arnheim, p.185, 1933)
It may be true that the evolution of art is always in parallelism with reality, because reality is what we see, and imitating it is the only way we could possibly make sense of things. This way, we end up treating imagination as symbolism, and we consciously insert our own formative tendencies to depictions of realities. Ultimately, this leads to imagination being a method of redefining reality, where it’s role is just to push the limits of how far we can stretch reality to the point that it is still believable. At one point, there is indeed truth to these statements. But I would like to argue otherwise. I believe that there is no such thing as an absolute reality.
Reality is subjective. We often discuss reality as basically just what we see in front of us. This includes nature, people, societies, culture, etc. But, in my opinion, that is not the case. That is only a fragment of reality. Choosing to see reality as only such would limit it to visual reality, alone. This definition is clearly lacking. Instead, reality is a culmination of everything—the visual truth, historical context, personal experiences, down to emotional value. In the context of film, Kracauer, in discussing cinematic approach, mentions that,
“In strict analogy to the term “photographic approach” the film maker’s approach is called “cinematic” if it acknowledges the basic aesthetic principle…It is evident that the cinematic approach materializes in all films which follow the realistic tendency.”(Kracauer, p.152, 1960)
This, in the context of my argument, is false because visual realism alone should not dictate the standards for aesthetic principles. To be clear, I am not saying that whatever we see in the world is not real. I am simply stating that they should not be the basis for reality, alone.
Artistic movements beginning in the era of surrealism suggests the appeal of the surreal. Even nowadays, we are thrilled by the emergence of augmented reality, multiple-dimensional images and film experiences, as well as virtual reality. As Kracauer mentions, “the underlying formative impulses are so strong that they defeat the cinematic approach with its concern for camera-reality” (Kracauer, p. 153, 1960). There is a strong inclination to the formative approach because we are beginning to grasp the truth that the language of art is not caged in reproducing the physical world. Like in beauty, art is slowly rebelling against standards that have long been set by those in power. In terms of cinema, we are now seeing a dramatic advancement of the experimental genre, as well as a rising economic value for fantasy. Even an imagination of a reality can eventually be another person’s actual reality. The reason why contemporary art has barely any distinct overpowering style is because we are at an era of new discoveries and understanding of the potential of art. Art, therefore, nowadays, is not anymore caged to its ancient purpose of mimicking reality. It aims to redefine reality, talk about it, amplify it, and shape it in whatever form reality might take.
Arnheim, R. (1933). The Complete Film. In Film and Reality.
Art History Timeline: Western Art Movements and Their Impact. (2019). Retrieved 11 October 2020, from https://www.invaluable.com/blog/art-history-timeline/
Balasz, B. (1945). The Close-Up. In Theory of the Film.
Balasz, B. (1945). The Face of Man. In Theory of the Film.
Braudy, L., & Cohen, M. (1974). Film Language. In Film Theory and Criticism.
Jirousek, C. (1995). The Evolution of Art. Retrieved 11 October 2020, from http://char.txa.cornell.edu/ART/introart.htm
Kracauer, S. (1960). Basic Concepts. In Theory of Film.