Constructions, Deconstructions, and Reconstructions

by Lynda Paul

What makes a work of art feel “real”? The answer might seem intuitive at first: near- photographic detail in a painting; unexaggerated vocal inflections, gestures, and looks from actors in a film; the words and patterns of everyday conversation in a play’s dialogue. In realistic art, as in reality, things do not feel “artificial” or “fake”—nothing is too “stylized,” nothing too “over-the-top,” to prevent us from believing in the truthfulness of the representation. No inflated melodrama or hallucinatory surrealism here: realism, like the real world, looks straightforward, clear.

But not really, of course. If you look closely at any of the aforementioned examples—the seemingly realistic painting, film, or play—the apparent resemblances to our world begin to disintegrate, revealing something much more complicated underneath. Up close, the painting is made up of strokes of color and nuances of shading whose textures and shapes look nothing like the image’s lines and objects the beholder sees at a distance. The film actors sound most “natural” when their conversation is accompanied by a subtle symphonic underscore—without it, their voices tend toward the laughable, the absurd. And the play’s dialogue, dissected for its structure, turns out to be a meticulously woven tapestry of words guiding the audience member through a finely wrought arc of tension and release; conflict and resolution; beginning, middle, and end. “Real” life is hardly so well planned. What, then, is “realistic” in these cases? And what does realism, or reality, in art really mean?

The answer, as one might expect, is “it depends.” Realism in art is tied to specific times, places, and values. Our current perceptions about “realistic” representation are relatively recent. They developed during the Enlightenment and the turbulent century that followed it, and were shaped by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ shifting cultural, political, and social ideologies. These shifts called for the cultivation of new modes of artistry and craft, as well as explicit theorizing: Denis Diderot famously advocated for what is now called the “fourth wall”; Émile Zola and André Antoine developed the concept of Naturalism; and Ibsen, Chekhov, and Stanislavski contributed crucial foundations to the contemporary notion of realism. Each movement developed out of emerging social realities, and each necessitated new paradigms for thinking about art; none of the features of these movements arose because they were inherently or objectively more “realistic” or compelling than others. Put another way, the conventions that, to us, lend a sense of “reality” or “realism” in any genre are as artfully and artificially constructed as the more obviously stylized techniques of abstract design, experimental film, or post-modern drama. Perhaps more so, since we must look even harder to see them. 

If we look back to periods before the advent of modern notions of realism, we see many different ways of conceptualizing the “real” in art. In ancient Greek tragedy, all speaking characters—male and female—were played by three men per play, each wearing a large mask that probably covered the entire head. It is hardly what we would call a “realistic” depiction today. Yet Aristotle’s writing suggests that these dramas were understood in his time to have a kind of mimetic truth, even a kind of “verisimilitude” (as the seventeenth-century neoclassicists called it, following Aristotle’s lead). This kind of verisimilitude reached beyond the everyday to a higher plane of reality. Or we might look at theater from Medieval Europe, when new dramatic tropes developed—for example, the depiction of intense, heightened battles between personified Virtues and Vices, fighting for the prize of a human soul. These characters lie well beyond the realm of any ordinary sense of “real” today. Yet although the drama was carried by allegorical figures, and the ordinary humans depicted were typically caught in metaphorical obstacles of biblical proportions, these plays nonetheless embodied sacred truths—more “real” than earthly experience—to a population who experienced life as a relentless battle for their own salvation. 

The histories of all forms and genres of art—from literature to music, film, opera, and beyond—show analogous trends. Even in our own world, the meaning of realism, or reality, in art is not static. And in the present day, its relationship to the artificial, the unreal, the virtual, is becoming increasingly blurred. Think of the Disney theme parks, or of the Las Vegas Strip, locations that blend traditional forms of tangible, material reality (buildings, sidewalks, etc.) with virtual, immaterial markers of space and time (sounds pumped through hidden speakers, ceilings painted to look like skies, trompe l’oeil painting on walls creating multifaceted spatial illusions). They simulate other places, other times, on top of enormous concrete edifices, creating new versions of blended realities that mimic, depend on, and also depart from, the “real world.”

The relationships between reality and artificiality, between imitation and simulation, and between myth and truth, are far more complex than they seem at a glance. And looking at them from a historical vantage point reveals a continual negotiation of tensions among competing notions about both art and the meaning of reality itself. No wonder, then, that questions of reality, and the art that confronts them, are so enduring.

Lynda Paul teaches at Yale in the departments of English, Music, and Theater Studies. She holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, University of Chicago, Yale School of Drama, and Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where she received distinction on her PhD in music.