Visual Realism, versus U.S. Modernism

Doyle Saylor djsaylor at
Sun Nov 12 09:49:49 MST 2000

Greetings Comrades,
    Realism in pictures prompted a revolt in thinking very early in the last
century.  Picasso started the tilt away from realism in painting, and a
second contemporary of his, Duchamp, added in a "conceptual" element.  By
mid century after WWII Modernism (which embodied the challenges posed by
Picasso and others associated with the first wave of European Modernism) had
won the cultural war in the U.S. and realism declined as an influence in
U.S. painting culture.  Movies and television during the same period came to
the fore as cultural influences.  The two media, movies and television, look
primarily realistic so realism did not go away, but the challenge put out in
painting never was met either.  The challenge was simple enough even if the
variations on the themes were plentiful.  Realistic painting, perspective
painting, ties one to an external seen surface.  What about all the things
we daily do in our thoughts that have little to do with realistically seeing
the blue sky and clouds above?  For example, Duchamp made fun of the
pretensions of realist visual artists by sneering at the merely perceptual.
But more seriously, Picasso invented a way of painting about multiple points
of view that profoundly challenged realist painters to match in their
method.   This essay replies to that challenge.

    Beginning with Picasso, I believe we need to widen the point Picasso was
making slightly.  We'll take Duchamp's stance as being the relevant
question, why can't realistic painting express "concepts"?   The answer to
that query is that several thousand years ago people invented writing
systems to mimic language.  Essentially those ancients asked themselves
something of the same question and like Picasso began to explore the
potentiality of what it means to go from the literal image to expressing
concepts.  Or more prosaically, having the means to speak our minds through
visual images.  Writing systems do pretty good at that job.  What is the
difference between writing systems and painting?  The difference is that a
picture is worth a thousand words, didn't you know that?  In other words
Picasso was asking of making a picture why can't we use them in a language
like way?  And what does that entail?

    What does that mean?  A visual realism that answers what Picasso asked
of pictures must address the language like use of pictures.  The ancients
would have said that one couldn't mimic in painting seen motion, or
representing the internal aspects of things, States of Being.  In Picasso's
time of course we already had motion pictures.  Picasso didn't accept that
limitations put upon painting and proceeded to paint multiple points of
views which implies that something is moving in a painting.  The consequence
was that Picasso's painting immediately were far less intelligible.  We
could see he was painting about something, but what?  Furthermore Picasso
like his contemporaries knew that motion could be realistic portrayed in
movies.  So why not explore a language like use of painting?

    This ambition to use pictures in a language like way is crucial to
understanding what visual realism must accomplish to suitably respond to the
foundational modernist challenge Picasso addressed to the world.

    In the nineteenth century sense of painting realism, we could look at
their painting and we knew what the content was, but we were restricted to a
still painting which couldn't animate itself to show motion.  We don't know
what content Picasso had in his images without understanding his private
language of self expression but we know he was not just painting about
surface stillness anymore.  In other words Picasso was trying to understand
in visual terms how to make pictures that spoke a language (Picasso would
deny any such label).  Furthermore as time went by Picasso put in his own
feelings about what he saw.  His paintings of his lovers were replete with
his personal feelings.  So aside from questioning how painting could show
motion, Picasso tried to show emotion as well.

    Is this a different ambition from seeing motion in movies?  Yes.  In two
ways, first trying to use paintings in a language like way, and secondly the
quality of exchange that conversation creates.  We tend to ignore the
exchange element in Picasso's work.  Most of us can't paint.  So we don't
talk to Picasso we listen or more aptly look at his paintings passively.
But Picasso felt himself in a dialogue with Matisse, and with Braque, his
contemporaries who had similar areas to explore in their work.  But language
implies a fundamental clarity in speech of our understanding what a noun or
verb is conveying.  Furthermore, it is not enough in language to make a
private language.  Someone listening to us must understand them or the
language is useless as a language.

    Immediately it arises for a realist the issue of the intelligibility of
abstraction.  In other words does realism forbid abstraction?  No, rather
abstraction is a stillness.  Whether the stillness is a perspective painting
or a surface we fundamentally see stillness.  The ancients would have
understood that.  They would say the problem with visual language is
painting motion realistically.  So you ask we have movies, and that looks
pretty darn realistic?  The crucial distinction is the language like
conversation that people involve themselves with is missing from movies.
Let us be even more clear about this, we can't grammarize movies in the
exchange process.  Where grammar refers to breaking up the visual into
constituent parts realistically representing stillness and motion.

    The key feature is intelligibility in all of this long debate.  In other
words a realistic painting is intelligible with little or no formal
training.  But trying to incorporate motion into a still painting forces one
into strategies like the ancients utilized (inventing writing systems) in
order to make intelligible (to the untrained eye) the content of the
painting.  That means to render the language structure people exchange in
speaking to one another.  It is not enough that movies are intelligible in
realistically showing motion, if we cannot use them to exchange with each
other in a language like way.  Furthermore the challenge is to take the
basic human capacity to learn a language by simply being in the family
environment and do that visually.

    Why bother?  We have writing systems.  The crucial element is concerned
with the reason a picture is worth a thousand words.  That is we must
understand how neural networks function.  A neuron is a cell body with on
average three thousand projections connecting it to other neurons.  A
realistic still picture a human being sees has a fundamental property which
reflects the interconnectedness of any point seen.  That number is a
quantitative measure of the realistic intelligibility of that image in
either motion or stillness aspects.  Even though a realistic painting has no
lines in it as do the neural neworks, the visual system imposes those lines
through the neural networks upon the image.  Whether that is something that
moves or does not move, the visual system interconnects those seen things.
And that is where intelligibility arises.  That is fundamentally that
neurons respond to interconnectedness by increasing the strength of nerve
cell projections that interconnect in the mind.

    Writing systems bypass this problem of interconnecting things by
asserting a single line connecting the written symbols.   Like a painting,
writing assumes that our minds are interconnected and we can make
intelligible the writing which otherwise mimics some aspects of spoken
languages.  Writing systems are very efficient conveyors of a sense of
language but have very low content with respect to exactly what a realistic
painting does.  And that is make intelligible the interconnectedness of all
the points in the seen surface that visual realism requires.  And this part
of realistic painting puts a very heavy demand upon a visual language.
Where a word is merely a few letters strung together in a line, a painting
will have 500,000 pixels or more according to the resolution demanded of the
image, and that every point in the surface must have some sense of the 3000
or so lines interconnecting that single pixel point with every other point
in the picture.  And seen realistic motion also imposes the same demand for
realism, that every seen moving point has x number of interconnecting lines
to every other moving point.  These fundamentals are why visual realism is
both more important or realistic than writing systems can be, and a measure
of the enormous increase of productivity demanded of realism to match what
Picasso originally was arguing for.

    Therefore what Picasso was seeking to answer and failed was to realize
the means to interconnect points in a seen surface in an intelligible way
that yields a visual language.   Picasso was seeking to at least show the
problem with portraying motion in paintings, and the intelligibility of
feelings as well.   What does this demand upon visual realism imply for us?
It means that there is a force upon movies to break up movies into a
grammar.  Like writings systems, exchange between human beings to be
intelligible requires clarity about seen motion and seen stillness.
Computing pictures in real time exchanges on a world wide broad band
exchange system requires that motion be intelligibly seen in order to
understand that aspect of picture exchange.  This is not a trivial
requirement.  Much of the fundamental intelligible content of human language
is bound up with the parallel expression of feelings that accompany words.
Even a slight seconds delay in a moving picture makes the connect between
emotions and words extremely ambiguous about feelings content.  The
emotional content of words cannot be thrown away since in a neural network
sense, we cannot evaluate the realism of a seen image without feeling the
value that image has for us.

    I will be more explicit still with respect to world wide distributed
computing.  Where everyone carries with them at all times a computing
communication device that can send pictures, there is a great need for those
pictures to be realistic.  No doubt people don't have to be realistic, but
the intelligibility of interconnectedness is fundamental to human mental
Doyle Saylor

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