Realism or Abstraction: Why does it have to be one or the other?

R.H. Ives Gammell, author of Twilight of Painting, once referred to anything that didn’t resemble French academic painting as “Misplaced intellectualism imposed on ignorant execution.”

More recently, Gage Academy (a bastion of realism) invited a prominent art dealer to judge a competition. The judge, Greg Kucera, said of the works that “There seems to be a good deal of showing off what one can do but very little that caught any kind of emotional depth. It’s like hearing a violinist who can hit all the notes in a complex sonata by William Walton but not give you any satisfaction of the passion.”

(The students replied on an obnoxiously large piece of paper, “The Passion is in trusting yourself even when the rest of the art world tells you what you are doing isn’t valid. The Passion is in beginning an endeavor like this in the first place. The Passion is in spending 30 hours on a painting struggling to keep it fresh and alive.” All well and good as an artist, but you can’t fault the judge for not seeing trust in yourself or thirty hours on the canvas.)

The above snippets are taken from a long article titled Art School Confidential in The Stranger. One of the Gage Academy students, someone who already has an art degree, said of her university experience in Hong Kong: “It was like, here’s a brush, go paint, you are an artist. After I graduated, I felt like I couldn’t paint, I couldn’t do things.” She dismisses her university art education—”I feel like it’s a lot of BS.” My own art school experience was not quite so stunted, thankfully, although there is precedent for such things.

Both Gammell’s and Kucera’s commentary is valid. Much modern art can be overly-intellectual (or emotional) angst lacking in craft. Likewise, academic painting can be just that, academic — dry and unengaging. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Abstraction or realism? Why does it have to be one or the other? Must we establish such extremes, diggin into our own trench and throwing bombs at the other side? Both abstraction (and non-representational work) and realist works have their place. Both can be, if passionately planned and executed, engaging works, beautiful works, socially challenging works that spur viewers on to better lives.

And perhaps we even need both of these extremes, and everything in-between. People think differently. People respond to different visual stimuli in different ways. Maybe it is a right-brain/left-brain thing.

This isn’t a sappy “Can’t we all just get along” line. However, our inbred bickering (“bickering” to be clearly distinguished from discussion) does neither artist or viewer any good. It would do us well to acknowledge the value in different artistic expressions, even in ones that may not suit our personal taste.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

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