i think you will agree that in order to hope of any realism in visual arts we first have to have an answer to epistemological problem of what is really real and how that is known to us. I do not want here neither to open an extensive discussion of that onerous (especially since Kant's time) matter, nor to jump into any final statement; but I would like to offer a point of view. Let me start:
It is quite known the controversy about the icons—the capability of depiction of Christ mainly—during the mid-Byzantine era which resulted into the 7th Ecumenical Council and destroyed Byzantine State’s unity for ever. What is not very known is the subtleties of arguments of both sides as a result that this controversy was nothing but the pick of the iceberg which was the old (and never ending) debate about the possibility of knowledge of God and the nature of man’s salvation. (In fact the whole theology of Greek Fathers from Athanasius to Gregory Palamas is nothing but an epistemologic struggle for asserting man’s potentiality of participation into God’s uncreated energy/-ies and, hence, God’s eternal life.) What recapitalized Church’s answer was Theodore Studite’s aphorism that “what is depicted in an icon [of Christ] is not [his] nature but hypostasis.” (Of course that needs a lot of discussion, since the distinction between hypostasis, or person, and nature, or substance, is a very old and fundamental issue in Greek Patristic theology which in fact it goes back to Aristotle, and, in my opinion, farther back to Greek Archaic thought; but here and now this discussion is not possible; so, i will avoid it and i will use Studite’s aphorism just as an Archimedean point.) This aphorism has a more general value for visual arts since it keeps open the possibility of a true image without, at the same time, falling into the vicious circle of trying to find a way out of total-realism’s labyrinth. To make it a bit more straightforward: Gregory of Nyssa gives a nice account about matter and perception; he says that the matter is the concurrence (out of the divine will and power) of all of matter’s features, which each-one-in-itself is nothing but a mere name or concept (PG 44, 69C), and that nature’s idiom is her state of continuous changing out of her constitution (ibid, 108A) and of her immanent creative reason [κτίσεως λόγον=reason of being] (ibid, 88D). And how can we perceive natural reality? He says, through hypostasis, which is nature’s manifestation via her specific idioms (PG 32, 328). Gregory Palamas similarly says: a substance without a distinct-from-it energy is totally non-existent [ανυπόστατος=without hypostasis] and a mere speculation of mind (Works, vol.5, 112).
So what i try to say is that the only possible and honest realism in visual arts is the depiction of what is commonly accepted as naturally idiomatic in our art’s object—that is, to create a visual name, as a real name-sign for a real think. (As W. Benjamin says, “The name is the analogue of the knowledge of the object in the object itself.”) Can we see it somewhere? Yes, it is seen in folk art, in icons, in many works among the great poets of painting (e.g. Fra Angelico, Greco, Caravaggio, Giacometti and others).
What really appals me in illusionary realism and in Lucacs’ naïve statement is their utopian will for man’s consciousness’ final dominion over nature—and every utopia, i think you will agree, is nothing but violence.
I hope i managed to give to you an idea of what i had in mind.
You have my best wishes for your “journey”.
11 June 2007