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Salvador Dali's Profile of Time

Salvador Dali’s melting clocks and watches are the best known examples of surrealism, one of art’s less rational movements. (Image: Wikipedia)

Whether you write or work in the visual arts, or merely consume writing and objects of art, it is interesting to have some sense of the artistic tradition you follow or prefer. Often, writers and other artists simply get on with their work. While they consciously follow the inspiration of some particular artist or genre, they have no firm sense of where they fit into the artistic tradition. Consumers may also have no idea of where the works they favour fit into the grand scheme of things.

When we look over the highlights of that artistic tradition, we see that it constitutes a kind of progression as one major art movement superseded another, often reacting against the one that went before. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given our rather eclectic times, all of them persist in one form or another. For example, in writing, the Gothic, fantasy, and science fiction genres draw heavily from the ideas and conventions of one of the oldest and most colourful movements – romanticism.

You may recognize your own particular slot in what follows.

Romanticism was originally a reaction against the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment, a sort of “The Irrational Empire Strikes Back.” In place of soberly reasoning things out, the movement offers out-of-the-blue inspiration and individual subjectivity. To avoid any objective taint, it stresses strong emotion as the source of aesthetic experience. Romanticism idealizes nature, but not in the classical sense of order and symmetry. Instead, it prefers a dash of the wild, bizarre, or even grotesque. Ruins, with their suggestion of defeat, tragedy, and sorrow, have irresistible appeal.

Realism in the visual arts and in literature deals with ordinary life, with objective reality, as we know it. When portraying people, it deals with their observable character, their behaviour, and with how they interact with one another. By extension, it also addresses how living in a structured organized society affects people. Conceived as a reaction against the emotional excesses of romanticism, realism works from the principle that artists discover truth through the senses. It rejects the inclusion of abstract concepts, subjective feelings, mythology, religion, morality, or ideological beliefs. One might call this the plain and simple, “say it like it is” philosophy of art.

Realism subsumes the “sensuous particular” aspect of art in that it deals with objects, with truth and beauty as they relate to sensory experience. Creativity research has shown that the ability to discern the sensuous particular (the essence or most vital part of something) is a key quality of artists, whatever the field in which they work. Again, realism adds nothing to the essence, forsaking any attempt to embellish with emotions or other subjective impressions.

Naturalism is also realistic, but goes farther by bringing in the observable effects of genetic inheritance and cultural conditioning. In its “slice of life” approach, it opts for a deterministic interpretation of Darwinian principles and social influences that leave little room for free will and self-determination. Morality has no place here since people are hapless victims of their genes and society. (If you think about it, you can see that Western courts often take this view when sentencing criminals.)

Surrealism introduces the psychology of dreams and the unconscious and emphasizes the inner experience as the most central aspect of life. The “stream of consciousness” literary technique is a related development. While pre-dating both surrealism and stream of consciousness, Mark Twain formulated their most fundamental idea with great perception: “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes – most of which never happened. Life does not consist mainly – or even largely – of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.”

Subjectivity and emotion are in ascendancy now. These days, very little writing does not have some degree of interiority and we all accept that art is entirely a subjective experience. Literature is all about emotions. While they may draw more heavily on one movement that another, contemporary artists often blend elements from various past movements to suit their own, and their audiences’, tastes.