When we recall the great artists of the 19th century, perhaps the vibrant and theatrical images of Delacroix come to mind. Or do scenes of daring and struggle from Hugo flood our memory instead? Or the ebullient audacity of a Schumann song resonate in our ears? Perhaps all three, and more, for theirs was the dramatic, exuberant age of the individual, in life and in art, which was “larger than life.”
How different are the images of our own generation. Today, in a culture that glorifies violence, vulgarity, and ugliness—where art has become bereft of any objective standards—we witness a sad scene as most artists flounder to a graceless finish of the 20th century. They are not alone. Intellectuals, public officials, and almost everyone approach this millennial birthday warily. Shall there be cause for celebration—or greater trauma?
The hot ashes of 20th-century collectivism and nihilism still spit and sputter around us, but ashes they are. The 1990’s signal not only the end of a turbulent century, but also the swift death of communism as a social system and the drawnout demise of the serious modernist art movement, both of which dominated the period. The future? Some dare to hope, for we are beginning to witness a resurgence of certain hallmarks of the 19th century: a concern for individual freedom in society and a romantic spirit in the arts.
Renewed appropriately, these values could lead us out of our present morass and beyond, to a veritable renaissance. We hear the word “renaissance” tossed about carelessly these days simply because we approach the turn of a century, but in fact the concept holds true currency. Glimmering here and there beneath the debris of 20th-century collapse, sparks of individualism and humanism wait only for a breath of air to flame and fuse them once more into a phoenix that may rise to lead us into the 21st century. If this is to be so, then beauty must be its wings. A restoration of beauty and life-affirming values in art alone cannot forge the path to a full cultural renaissance—only philosophy can do that—but art that makes manifest these values can inspire us by embodying our ideals in concrete form. Indeed, art may be the one dynamic powerful enough to envision the way to a better future.
A renaissance, however, is not a “revival.” The word means “rebirth.” We cannot and should not seek to repeat the past. No matter how groundbreaking was ancient Greece nor how brilliant the Italian Renaissance nor how progressive the Enlightenment, we must begin here and now. We must prepare the intellectual soil—in our own land, in our own context—to produce our own unique flowering of the values that made those great periods of history so significant for all time. This means that, in art, a fresh understanding of romanticism must be advanced and new implications reflecting contemporary sensibilities sought. As “modernism” contrived to put a modern face on primitivism and mysticism, so must romanticism now refresh images of reason and provide an affirmative view of human life on earth.
We do not plant our seeds in an Enchanted Garden. Like it or not, the present environment is what it is. Art has become a commodity cannibalizing itself daily in order to survive without any fresh source of ideological sustenance. Allegiance to human values, to discipline of technical skills, and to a love of beauty would appear to be the radical art ideas of our time. Contemporary artists of the Romantic Realism persuasion are the new “radicals,” for they embrace these very premises and express them—each individually—in their work. Philosophically, they view the world as a positive and beautiful place and man as capable of living in it. Psychologically, they believe reason and emotion can be harmonized with each other. Artistically, they unify form and content in the same way—and for the same reasons—that they unite reason and emotion. Through examining these premises as expressed in the work of Romantic Realist artists, we may attempt to point the way to definition and understanding.
In a broad swath, we may say that the best contemporary Romantic Realists weave into their work the greatest beauty of nature and the highest thoughts of man; beauty enhances truth, and truth strengthens beauty—weft and warp are tightly entwined, to disassemble this intricate tapestry for the purpose of understanding its construction takes patience. And to further unravel the tangled mess of the present art world in which Romantic Realists find themselves takes nothing less than fortitude.
Let us begin with the term Romantic Realism. Realism in art may be divided into a wide variety of subcategories: “Classical” Realism, “Photo” Realism, “Political” Realism, “Social” Realism, the straightforward mimesis of “Realist” Realism, plus a hundred more modifiers. Simply put, all forms of realism in the visual arts present recognizable images of objective reality, meaning the physical world, including mankind.
The “realisms” important to our present examination are “Classical” Realism and “Realist” Realism, for to some degree both are employed by the “Romantic” Realist. Artists of both schools produce representational work that relies upon established Western techniques of painting and sculpture for the physical execution of their art. “Classical” Realist artists work within the canons of form derived from Greco-Roman art in order to create the ideal through generalization (we are reminded that it was precisely the formalization of Classicism against which the 19th-century European Romantics rebelled). “Realist” Realist artists use the same technical skills in order to represent real life through particularization. We might say that although technically similar, the main difference between Classicists and Realists is that the first seek perfection and the second accuracy; the first project universality and the second specificity.
But the “Romantic” seeks, above all else, expression. Individuality as expressed through the subjective emotions of the artist was—and is—the leitmotiv of the Romantic spirit. Romanticism has undergone a variety of interpretations. Even such a quintessential romantic as Delacroix, when hailed as the “Victor Hugo of painting,” could retort, “Sir, I am a pure classicist!” Nevertheless, one attribute of Romanticism is unchanging: a romantic (whether in art or in life) is one who loves emotions. And emotions are highly individual stirrings indeed.
Today, we know much more about emotions than did our 19th-century counterparts. We understand that emotions flow directly from value stimulation. Whether values are rational or irrational is, here, beside the point; in art we are concerned with their visual manifestation. On value expression in art, the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, in her 1969 Romantic Manifesto, defines art as “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments.” On emotions, she elsewhere states: “Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury . . . so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function . . . by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering. Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious . . . “
Needless to say, emotional conflicts are the power-packed stuff of which good fiction is made. This is precisely because—as value responses—emotional conflicts are highly charged dramatizations of value conflicts. Romantic Realist painters and sculptors, however, tend to project harmony between reason and emotions. Whether in conflict or harmony, reason and emotions are human attributes, so art that explores these attributes must by definition be anthropocentric; hence, it must be representational and executed through the same technical skills employed by Classical and Realist Realists.
Treatment—and importance—of subject matter can be quite a different matter. Many 20th-century Classical Realists have buried their heads in the sands of time, merely creating over and over again subjects from antiquity through the 19th century. Some Realist Realists, bitten by the modernist bug, treat subject only as form in order to address aesthetics exclusively, in which case subject matter does not matter at all; the work can be as dehumanized as any abstract work.
Subject alone, however, does not make a work of art romantic; images of girls in white dresses, porch swings, and pets are but sentimental attempts at Romanticism. For the mature Romantic artist, subject matter “matters” because it is selected primarily for its ability to best express the content of a work. “Content” is the pulsing inner life—the deeper theme—of a work of art; it is the sum of the ideas held, consciously or unconsciously, by the artist that is revealed by his choices of form, medium, and subject right on down to every brush stroke or chisel mark. Content and content alone causes a work of art to transcend its obvious subject matter and communicate, indirectly, the most intimate values of the artist. And it is content, transformed by the artist into a silent melody of visual aesthetics, that echoes through our senses to find an answering “Amen” in the private recesses of our souls when we respond profoundly to a work of art.
But it is, above all, the artist’s feelings for the ideas he holds about life and humankind—and about himself—that turn him from a realist into a “romantic” who needs to suffuse his work with the emotional aura of his values. Like his 19th-century forebears, today’s Romantic uses form (the physical presentation) to communicate content (human values) through individual style (emotional expression), thereby making the means and the end merge, blend, and reemerge as one totality of experience that unifies mind, body, and soul. The whole, then, is much greater than the sum of its parts. Herein lies art’s ability to afford us a spiritual experience as well as an aesthetic one. The spiritual in art is not evoked by an escape from reality but by an embrace of it—existence and consciousness unified and experienced as one. Remember that one of the root meanings of the word “holy” is whole, as in “complete.”
With such potent similarities as these, we may wonder if any significant difference arises between the separated-by-a-century Romantic brethren. It does. It is this difference, in fact, that makes the 20th-century counterpart a Romantic Realist. Rather than fixing a focus on history, mythology, the remote, or the exotic, the contemporary Romantic expresses his views through images of the present, of the here and now—the real. Yet, once again like his kin, subject matter is handled with the touch of a poet. Images are imbued with beauty and created with tender ferocity or fierce tenderness; it does not matter which because it is the artist’s temperament, alone, that determines his style of communication.
Art, however, should be more than just an artist’s temperament revealed. There are those who claim that Abstract Expressionists are the offspring of the 19th-century Romantics, engaging in expression for the sake of expression. But, upon reflection, the Romantic Realists are their rightful heirs. Simply to follow the linear path of individual expression begun by the Romantics to abstraction is to arrive at the dead end of subjectivity, which is unintelligibility at worst or decorative art at best. The theater of emotional expression can become the street brawl of emotional explosion if it is not channeled through the discipline of a form versatile enough to act as a strong but plastic conduit.
Another reason form must be malleable is that ideas change as knowledge and development expand; artists, therefore, must have the continuing ability to adapt form to fresh purpose in order for it to both absorb new ideas and communicate eternal verities in contemporary terms. The strength of realism as a form derives from its integrative power and elasticity, both of which enable it to stretch into an infinite variety of shapes and contain that power surge which is content electrified by temperament. In his 1863 obituary of Delacroix, Baudelaire wrote that the painter was “passionately in love with passion and coldly determined to seek out the means to express passion in the most visible manner.” Once again, we are reminded that form must serve content, even if the content is emotion itself.
Perhaps this respect for established Western forms is what kept 19th-century Romantic masters from crossing the line over into the abstract aesthetic. Some talked about it, and others nearly went over the brink, but the great ones never toppled. Perhaps they grasped that abstract art—as beautiful as some of it may be—is a highly limited art form, one within which they could not expand their aesthetic vocabulary any more than they could fill its shallow vessel with a rich content that would tie it to human life, human concerns, and human needs. Within the discipline of architecture, abstraction has ample room to evolve into a complex and noble literature, but in painting and sculpture the abstract aesthetic must by its nature turn inward upon itself and become an examination of its own form, hi abstract art, aesthetics is all.
As for self-expression? Demonstrably, it can quickly become self-indulgence or else so personal and esoteric a lingua that it holds little interest for anyone other than the artist. Not a few “artists” in the 20th century have proclaimed a new aesthetic “language” only to obfuscate the fact that they were speaking gibberish. But to expand the breadth of the vocabulary of the 19th-century Romantics—laterally—within the form of realism is, for contemporary Romantic Realists, to meet no boundaries at all. The form is inductive rather than reductive, its potential so infinite that limitless expression and limitless ideas can be explored within the aesthetic, pleasing the senses and the mind, as well as the heart.
The work of Classical artists engaged in searching for the ideal can become impersonal and codified. That of Realist artists in searching for the “real” can become trivial and literal. That of the best Abstract artists stops at the point where all good representational art begins: with a strong abstract design. Romantic Realists synthesize all these various persuasions so as to combine their strengths while avoiding their weaknesses. Then, unable to resist—for that is what makes them Romantics—Romantic Realists ignite the flame of emotion deep within the interior of their work, and it spreads and glows throughout. If successful, the resulting art offers tantalizing visions of a heightened reality, a reality that is universal yet individual, imagined yet real, timeless yet timely. Emotion harnessed by technique, expression evolving from content, and the eternal explored in the temporal. Mood, mystery, and metaphor. Possibilities. Passion. Life.
Romantic Realists do not deny and may even dramatize human struggle, suffering, or absurdity, but if they choose to explore the underbelly of life, the best of them do so with a higher purpose. It takes little imagination to bewail the ills of existence or to stamp one’s artistic foot at reality through irony or to retreat into either angst or the endless distraction of novelty; it takes even less imagination to propagandize and promote political agenda through the “media” of art. Artists can address human struggles, to be sure. But rather than resorting to the easy outlets of whine or tantrum, they can express struggle as an act of affirmation, by respecting the power of human sight rather than degrading it and by offering visions of why the struggle is worthwhile so that life might be enhanced and encouraged toward the better.
Self-absorption and fascination with the dark are pastimes of the idle, the alienated, and the angry; artists so preoccupied are serving as the handmaidens of death and destruction. Worse even than the nihilism of much modernist art, the deliberate immersion into the horrific and demonic in which too much contemporary art wallows lacks either aesthetics or purpose—except, perhaps, the purpose of shocking an artist’s name into headlines for an illusory moment of fame.
Warnings against artistic descent into decadence have come to us repeatedly throughout the ages. Aristotle: “As for those [works of art] that by means of spectacle arouse not fear but only horror, they have nothing in common with tragedy.” Mozart: “Violent passion should never be expressed to the point of provoking disgust. Even in a horrible situation, music should never hurt the ears, nor cease to be music.” Goethe: “There is an empty spot in the brain, a place, that is, where no object makes an impression, just as the eye too contains a blind spot. If man pays attention to this place, he becomes absorbed in it; he falls into mental illness; he imagines things of another world, which in fact are pure nothings and have neither forms nor boundaries, but cause fear like that of night’s empty space and pursue more cruelly than specters anyone who does not tear himself from their grasp.” All of us who love art must heed these warnings. For if we fail to generate a 21st-century renaissance, then surely we shall suffer a Dark Age. The alternative exists, because the legacy lives.
Today’s Romantics are less vocal than their 19th-century counterparts, who banded together in camaraderie to become the vanguard; if they are “radicals,” then they are radicals for beauty. Today’s genuine rebels are men and women—painters, sculptors, composers, writers—who work quietly and individually to create meaningful art from the fountainhead of their personal vision. They care not for bombastics against other persuasions. They work confident in the knowledge that beauty illuminating pro-human ideas speaks through their art to anyone who wishes to sec the light.
It is a passion for life that leads contemporary Romantic Realists forward to express a rebirth of values that can elevate their own spirit as well as of those who experience their art. It is a reverence and a tenacious love for the beautiful—and for the possible—in the world and in humankind that clears their vision to create images of glory in their art—images that thrill us, that move us, that inspire us. For what cannot be imagined cannot happen.
Artists have always been the dreamers. Whether we follow beautiful dreams or nightmares is up to us. Ugliness and cruelty and tragedy are part of life, to be sure, but the Romantic Realist knows that in art, it is life-serving values that we need to see—to experience—in order to bring those visions of values into the real world. The avant garde artists of today may again be the romantic, yet unsung, crusaders of the future—each armed not with a sword but with a rose.