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The Return of Realism in the Digital Age

What is the purpose of art? Should it document, define, question, explore, analyze, sell, or simply exist? Across history, artists have challenged the role of artwork, highlighting the epochs, cultures, feelings and questions of those behind the easel. In many ways, art history has filled in cultural blanks where written history falls short, giving us a uniquely human lens into the way of life —at home, at war, suffering, celebrating, propaganda and all. So what happens now to our current state of suffering, in the digital age, wherein images are plentiful, and generated rather than crafted?


Let’s begin with the technological advancements during the early 19th century. Take a moment to imagine what art would look like without the invention of the camera, news without the television, friendships without the internet. Chances are, you’ll imagine something from the prairie.

Technology and culture have always been interactive. The Industrial Revolution quickly made the work of many craftsmen obsolete, but artists were perhaps never as worried as they are now in the face of AI image generators. The photograph, now protrusive and essential, was the first media product of a sort of mechanization of vision. Its invention, as it became more accessible, moving, and artistically crafted, undoubtedly contributed to the resulting shift towards the simulacrum (the representational replication of the real) rather than realism as documentation. As painters faced the first phase of visual automation, many branches of art were formed. There were those who created based on feeling (the expressionists), emotion (the impressionists), aesthetics (minimalists) and being (conceptualists). Philosophers concurred. Existentialism became the quintessential postwar philosophy, wherein philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus concerned themselves with the ontological concept of being.


Even in the face of the first wave of visual automation, artists nonetheless branched out into the realism movement, insisting upon painting the world traditionally, "as is," in defiance of the snapshot.

Edouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Many have an idea of what realism means, but the origins of the movement served culture in more ways than just documentation. While photography took off, Edouard Manet was one of such painters to stick to tradition. He not only rendered skillful figurative paintings and scenery, he combined elements of the world to reflect and challenge the social and political norms of his time. His 1863 painting, Olympia, is a key example. Through subtle symbolism, composition, and exhibition, Manet revealed provocative truths about society. The nude prostitute, with her confrontational gaze, juxtaposed by the stark contrast to her maid who blends in with her environment, and the carefully placed, loyal dog at her feet, provoked discourse about the standards of female sexuality, racial divides and the male gaze —critical concepts we haven’t yet been able to teach a machine.

A decade later, in the face of high-tech advancements in a post-9/11 world, academics and artists alike are experiencing similar ontological pressures. As it now weaves itself across a wide tapestry of labor, Artificial Intelligence is posing several potential threats to society at unprecedented levels. With just a prompt, ChatGPT can write essays, code websites, and help you invest your money. MuseNet composes beats and symphonies, and some paid versions of OpenAI can generate digital images that are indistinguishable from the real thing. In many ways, us humans (civilians) are anxiously playing catch-up to define and navigate the implications of advanced machine learning. More than mechanizing vision, AI is making ideas the newest commodity. But not everyone has good ideas, or good intentions.


Indeed, much of this new media is designed to make us question what's real, or even hide the truth. Whether it's Donald Trump's fake news campaign, or Dove commercials bringing dead celebrities back to life, in a post-truth society, the viewer is now tasked with constant analysis of what's real in the media.

Would Audrey want to be "resurrected" for an ad 30 years after her death? Does copyright of celebrity images now also include the fair use to artificially remix a celebrity's personality post-mortem? And what happens to truth?

"In a world where fakes are easy to create, authenticity also becomes easier to deny."

It is here, in the blurring between reality and fiction, that the rebirth of realism takes shape. Its case, according to leading artivist Paulo Cirio, builds in its defiance to automated systems of visuality that work beyond our visible plane. The immense amount of information, combined through algorithm and manipulated by a select few, fuels his countervisual argument at the base of this movement.

"Truth lies beyond sight." -Paolo Cirio

So what even makes realism in the digital age?


At its core, realism means exemplifying truths, combining information and exploring beyond the norms (where technology can't). The biggest challenge in collaborating with machines is their simple lack of introspection. We like to think of our machines as more powerful than us, but the technological advances of our time have not superseded our own shortcomings, in fact, their relationship with us is quite symbiotic. In many ways, artificial intelligence creates like we do, recognizing faces, animals and items based on shapes, colors and sizes, but its reach remains superficial. AI's algorithm learns and generates from the collective norm we've given it, i.e. the (mostly Western) dataset, made up of the flat images humans create based on our 3-dimensional experiences. And it is because of this that even colloquial use of AI is likely to perpetuate gender and racial biases that persist in its dataset. Warnings about the system and its ties to white supremacy have been flooding the media:

The viral AI avatar app Lensa undressed me—without my consent, photos courtesy of Melissa Heikkilä, MIT



Just like the work of Manet, realism (in the digital age) means taking into account the social, political and economic structures that work in tandem to form (or warp) reality. In protest to the invisible processes (algorithms and authorities) that create reality, evidentiary realism is a promethean aim to portray reality. Through investigation, interdisciplinary collaboration, and curation, this new practice of realism transforms the white cube into a critical space.

Installation by Jan Baracz, Mutiny's Darling, at Peninsula Art Space, 2023.
From "Jan Baracz’s exhibition at Peninsula Art Space provides a map of the overlooked. The artist utilizes materials marked by subtlety, favoring an inconspicuous tonality that exists somewhere between the woodshed and the boathouse, to address the impinged and imperceptible experience of traversing the ordinary. Baracz reveals the submerged poetics of the unattended—asterisms of the fugitive possibilities easily lost within urban landscapes."


Multimedia art by Kirsten Stolle, exhibited at Nome in Berlin during the Evidentiary Realism exhibition in December 2017, curated by Paolo Cirio.
From her website: "From the 1940s -1960s Monsanto Chemical Company aggressively marketed its toxic chemicals through magazine advertisements. This propaganda promoted their chemicals for use in war, agriculture, and home. Using collage, cutting and drawing, I have redacted the original text, altering the intended messaging and reframing the visuals to expose the true threat posed by toxic chemicals. The final reconstructed ads critique our nation’s history of overusing harmful agricultural chemicals and the U.S. Government’s weak regulations on corporate agribusiness."



So what's creative about portrayal? It's an age-old question that can be traced back to Plato. Some may argue that data-analytics and fact-checking are far removed from aesthetic practices, but Cirio, Weizman and Fuller beg to differ. They point out that aesthetics are in many ways the driving power of bias and visuality, therefore making it a key element to effective communication. Visual artist and scholar, Noura Tafeche, highlights this in her multimedia work, Kawayoku Inception, in which she analyzes the precarious intersection between cuteness and violence, tracking the digital lineage of trends from kawaii cringe (UwU) to TikTok thirst traps from military personnel.

As described on her website, it is "a transmedial project based on a visual research and conceptual analysis of moods, extremist tendencies and cultural online phenomenon astride tenderness and violence, consumerism and performativity, entertainment and depression, militarism and leisure, resulting from the material and immaterial labor linked to the growing production of streaming contents and the consequent distortion of the notion of leisure and fame between adults, young adults and teens, soaked in an atmosphere of warlike propaganda, politics disorientation and ideological crisis (and the wealth of having a ultra fast and stable internet connection)."

In conclusion, the way things look can be manipulated to fit in an aesthetically pleasing box; rhetoric can be carefully crafted to make something threatening, welcoming, or something fake, real. Whether it is a study of meme culture, forensic identification of a lost child, or anti-propaganda activism, evidentiary realism, in a sort of digital Renaissance, is creating a new aesthetic dimension --one which requires poly-perspective critical analysis. It's in this movement I find that humans take back authority over their creativity with hopes for better technological, social and cultural futures. High-level automation demonstrates our need to enhance reality.

In light of this, I think it's a fair start to conclude, then, that if art does any one thing, it is that it continuously goes beyond the superficial to enhance our experiences.


Thanks for looking.


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