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Easy Art
I suppose every jargonese language has its share of common terms which are commonly misunderstood, even by those who use them daily to express their ideas within the community in which they work. Recently I've discussed in some detail those terms associated with one extreme end of the art spectrum--the "hard" art of Minimalism. By the same token there is a similar lexicon on the other extreme, the "easy" (to understand) art which we inadequately call realism. In its own way, this term is just as misunderstood and misapplied as the word "abstract" is on the other extreme. Here however, the term "representational" applied in its place isn't much help because it spans too great a spectrum of the style continuum from cold hard painted photographs to some mythical or mystical point when identifiable subject matter completely disappears--in effect, something like 80% or more of all art styles. In other words, it's too broad.

Just as minimalism can be totally without feelings except for those generated by colour, and a lack of feeling, the same can be true at the other end of the spectrum, what we call "super" realism or photo-realism, for lack of better terms. The work of Richard Estes comes to mind. His museum-like storefronts and city streets are totally devoid of life, warmth, and emotional appeal. There is content, to be sure, in fact so much of it, the result is mind-numbing, rendering it as cold and hard as a bright red Newman canvas with three or four coloured lines. Like Minimalism, the art created on a good portion of the realistic end of the spectrum, while popular with the masses, (because it looks hard to do) has fallen out of favour within the art world. As with the hard edges and vibrant colours of Minimalism, artists admired the technical virtuosity displayed while, in general, disparaging the work itself. Gjertson or Norman Rockwell comes to mind. Quite reputable art terms like "genre" and "illustration" are all too often applied in a derogatory sense simply because they too are out of favour at the moment, never minding the long and expressive history of such work in times past. This type of work is just as dated as Minimalism. Both have validity and importance simply because they are extremes. They mark the outer boundaries of art styles.

Often times genre and illustration are associated with nostalgia, which in turn is associated with sentimental qualities which are also looked down upon by the art world. It would seem that realism just can't win. On the one hand it is attacked for having no feeling, and on the other for having too much feeling. I sometimes wonder if there's a happy medium anywhere in between. A better term for the extreme art at this end of the spectrum would be "narrative" art. Narrative simply means it tells a story. It supplies details, and suggests, often in a single depiction, not only what is happening, but also what has just happened, and what is likely to happen. In so doing, (despite criticism to the contrary) it does leave room for the imagination. It's unfortunate that today we have to look to comic books and the funny papers (or worse, TV) to find and appreciate good narrative art. Hung on the wall, it's regarded as trite and cutesy. In the final analysis, I propose we stop using words like illustrative or genre or photographic as derogatory terms when discussing narrative art (realism). Each are honourable terms with a full range of excellent to poor applications. Instead we should be using specific evaluative terms that are applicable over the entire range of art expression. Just because this type of work may be understood and loved by laymen, is no excuse to snobbishly (or as a result of intellectual laziness) use a broad brush in painting all of it in a negative light.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
16 October 1999

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