Realism, Hyperrealism and Transrealism in Engaged Practices
Engaged practices have an object of interest: reality. The doctrine of working with something regarded as ‘reality’ has a longstanding tradition in the arts, and has found a revival since many engaged artists started claiming to be realists. In this article, I will build on arguments by Jacques Rancière and Albert Camus and delve into some works by Tania Bruguera and different schools of realism in general. I will conclude with an argument against plain realism, instead proposing something more ‘unreal’: transrealism.
‘The truth of art lies in this: that the world really is as it appears in the work of art’ – Herbert Marcuse 1
The ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ are problematic concepts in themselves, and if something is problematic, art likes to be inclined, building on already-unstable foundation ‘isms,’ such as realism, making a doctrine of the real. In this article, I will delve into one of the main focal points of engaged practices: realism. I will wonder what it means if an engaged artist—Tania Bruguera, for example—argues to be a ‘realist’—an actor of realism. To investigate possible answers, I will also elaborate on a few ideas on realism as an artistic doctrine.2 I will do this mostly through Jacques Rancière and Albert Camus, both of whom have conflictingly spoken of realism in the arts. Rancière delves into its problematic affirmative side, while Camus notes the importance of realism because it (the ‘real’) is the only thing we all share. And if the artist is to be ‘engaged’ with something, let it at least be with ‘reality.’ The conflict we can find between Rancière and Camus is very much present in the role of realism in engaged practices. Following on this conflict, I will argue that the ‘realism’ of the engaged practice is to be working from a space that is fundamentally regarded as ‘unreal’ because a call to realism also implies that something is not-yet real, whereby the artist can become the agent that allows for transfiguration between unreal and real. However, this ‘unreal’ space asks for careful consideration, because it can be both the torment and radical potential of engaged practice. The demarcation must lie in whether it affirms the given reality or attempts to realise a not-yet real. In other words, whether the focus of this ‘realism’ is on the real or the unreal; the first will lead to an affirmation of reality (as it ‘really’ is), and the second might allow us to transgress that reality. The conclusion will therefore argue the following: if an engaged artist is to follow the goals of a realist, the position of an ‘unrealist’ suits those premises better. The position of this ‘unrealist’ that occupies the goals of the realist is what I call ‘transrealism.’
Contradiction(s) of Realism
What is real is what is represented as being so, and this representation always has to do with power. The representative empowers that which is represented. Democracy, the political infrastructure of power as we know it today in our Western societies that has an idea of representation at its core, is not an isolated event in Western culture generally. This culture is stocked with ‘representatives’ of all orders and degrees, spread through the landscape of the experienceable, of how we live through our ‘realities.’ Often, we are confronted with ‘representatives,’ be they elected, in media coverage, or anywhere else. Western culture carries the burden of a long tradition wherein one thing can stand in for another, where one thing takes the present form of what is not present right now, or at least not present in presentable form; and so, power acquires the ability to act by grace of its improper body. This relation between power and representation could be understood as the ‘front-desk’ structure of Western culture, where everything will always ‘be right back with you,’ but will never be present (as in ‘addressable’). Simultaneously, this front-desk in a way creates the importance of the ‘back-office,’ which also acquires its users and executers through this structure—its managers and employees; the fully/more responsible and the not/less responsible.
Representation is the aesthetic interface of Western power, and this is not exceptional, as Jonas Staal correctly explains: ‘Power is not a field of forces that can be immediately recognised as such’; 3 we cannot ‘address’ it directly, which is why we need the ‘front-desk.’ He continues, “It has to be facilitated, it has to manifest itself somewhere else or through something else,’ 4 and so power is always improper in form. Although power is something, it does not have a unique form on its own and thus always borrows (or steals) one. Hence, we can only address power through its representative: through that which ‘hosts’ it; through the figures at the front-desk (asking to see the manager, who becomes the new front-desk on arrival). Staal concludes that ‘without this persuasive platform, it [power] is homeless. In that sense, there is something parasitic about power, it needs a host to live in and the gain credibility.’5 This idea of the ‘host’—wherein what is hosted is facilitated in the shell of an unfortunate party (which has the powerful quality over power of having qualities; it has the muscles which power uses; the face with witch it talks) who, in that act, becomes a mere vehicle—must be one of the pillars of Western culture. Meanwhile, power itself cannot be addressed, nor can its representative be kept fully responsible for the power it stands in for because it is always partially improper, while it is not transcendental. Above all, it needs this immanent form to exist at all. This is a regressive structure that passes responsibility along like a ticking bomb. So, although realism is complicit in constructing reality as we know it, it cannot be held fully responsible for that same reality because it is also an effect of it. This is the paradox any realism necessarily partakes in. Thinking through the artistic doctrine of realism without power in mind would be as odd as thinking through an action without intent, an image without meaning, or an election without campaign promises, although in each of these examples, neither parts can be fully reduced to the other.
If we take Staal’s argument further, we could easily argue there is no power at all without a representative because power can only be power if it can be executed, which it does so through its representative—through something that is a body and thus can act. Power, first and foremost, is about force, as opposed to authority, which is about legitimisation of force. Think of the reference, which hosts the legitimisation of the ‘force’ of knowledge in academia; the flag, which is the symbolic host of the force of a nation (how else would you recognise its ‘forces’?). Think, too, of imitation, which is proof for the arts of their explicit relation to reality; or even the colony, which is the proof of force of the imperialist; or the executioner, which hosts the force of justice. The role of ‘host’ for power has gracefully been offered by the arts through the ages, which have been, and still very much are, a hostess of power—not only in hosting portraits of its nobility and riches but as a ‘document’ of the reality it portrays, regardless of abstraction. In this manner, abstract work can be symbolic, too. This ‘offering’ as host, where art becomes complicit in the production of reality, is what can be called ‘realism.’ Realism is the act of moving towards what the work of art itself represents, representing reality and affirming it through that act. We must, therefore, also accept the premise that realism is always representative; it has a sparring partner that always regards power, which, in a way, is therefore also itself. This means that realism is a powerful tool, as well as that it is a tool of power. The hardest part might be that it is both simultaneously. This contradictory reality is important to constantly take into account, as Rancière explains.
Within this ‘aesthetic regime of images,’ as Rancière calls it, an artwork always occurs as a derivative of justification for the ‘men or god it represents.’6 In other words, if a work ‘represents,’ it also justifies what it represents, and by that act becomes a piece of ‘evidence’ in the crusade of fortification in reality of that which it depicts, which, again, is why realism always regards power. It was not only ‘functional’ to depict the Roman emperor on all coins, so that everyone was ‘up-to-date’ on which person was the emperor. It also affirmed that emperor by stamping them on to that which stands for ‘value’—often even in precious metals. Let alone the repetition and rhythm with which one would see, touch and interact such an image with: on a daily basis, you support your livelihood with it; with the emperor. Hence, one of the worst punishments a Roman could receive was Damnatio memoriae, which would mean that any trace the person’s existence would be wiped clean. And because this person was not represented, they would be forgotten and thus would never have existed.
Aesthetics in general ‘defines what is visible or not.’7 It is these aesthetic experiences ‘that simultaneously determine the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience.’8 Representation here should be understood as the explicit relation to a reality, not necessarily the attempt to naturalistically reproduce that reality and so ‘present it again’ as if it were a mirror. To give an example, the executioner justifies justice by acting as its representative in as much as a portrait of a figure accentuates the importance of the existence of both the figure it depicts as well as the existence of proof of the existence of this figure. The extent to which both ‘look’ real does not matter at all. An ugly, disappointing, or overly staged execution—or, for that matter, a less animated execution, such as the lethal injection—is still an execution. Now, if this reality that is affirmed through realism is not what needs to be problematised, this is not an issue—everything is fine—because then it only needs to be affirmed, which this structure does wonderfully. It empowers what it depicts by depicting it, the act of which also becomes ‘evidence’ of what it depicts, in a way doubling the ‘reality-value’ of the subject of the artwork. No matter whether this subject is a person, an issue, ‘power,’ or an event. According to this view, it is indeed art’s work to make viewers ‘conscious’ of reality by the plain act of representing it, albeit in different form. Hence Marcuse’s quotation at the beginning of this piece, stating that the world is really as it appears in the work of art. It is necessary to say that this representational structure of power is ofimportance to critical art. Representation is always a form of affirmation, and ‘negative’ reality also needs to be recognised as such. However, if reality is at stake, and is the subject of artistic practice, this very well might be an issue of a different order because reality is the problem, not the goal, and although problems need to be affirmed before they can be addressed, the object of practice here is to do something about that issue—to alter reality, not just affirm it.
Obsessions with the Real
This obsession with the real called realism occurs through the structures of representation and imitation. An odd misunderstanding that often happens at this point is that representation and imitation are seen as a negation of reality. Camus wonderfully describes that ‘reality is only ostensibly placed in a sovereign position so it can be more easily eliminated. Art then finds itself reduced to nothing. It serves, and by serving becomes subjugated.’9 As addressed earlier, representation and imitation are in a co-authorship of reality with power, not just and only for power, meaning that reality does not necessarily come ‘first,’ after which it can be imitated and represented: it becomes ‘real’ through imitation and representation. Hence, representation and imitation are the actors of the doctrine of the real (realism). Many marketing companies know this quite well and also execute it to perfection. By combining ‘mere exposure’ and ‘attractiveness,’ they create a self-perpetuating movement whereby that which is ‘exposed’ and made ‘attractive’ is adopted by ‘reality’ and somewhat willingly introduced to it. Thus, the existence of this product was first represented as in reality, by which it solely became part of reality. It is said that nobody liked Coca-Cola when it was first introduced (which is a common response to new tastes). So, reality ‘rejected’ it so to speak, and only through ‘overexposure’ was it slowly adopted before reaching the dominant position it has today. Reality was pursued and produced by Coca-Cola, not the other way around.
What is imitated concerns an epistemological argument, and thus regards what we ‘know as’ reality. What is imitated is not necessarily the ‘real,’ but because it is imitated it becomes the ‘real.’ Polemically we could say, above all, that only what is real (or ‘original’) can be imitated at all. Representation occurs when that scheme of imitation naturally decays and needs to be re-located into a new shell that no longer physically supports it, and, as a result, does so symbolically. Representation is, therefore, more of a normative argument that ‘says’ something about what is imitated. Here the real is underpinned by the abstract, by a ‘meaning,’ and it is within this abstract that it is precisely vulnerable and can be charged as such: because here, it shows that it is indeed a choice. So, it follows that reality can be changed by how it is represented.
As such, breaking this normative representational structure is the first act many engaged practitioners delve into, showing that although reality ‘is not really the way it is…’necessarily, thus relativising it;it ought to be the way ‘it has to be.’10 Rancière notes that in following this doctrine, the politics of art suffers from another odd contradiction. On the one hand, it ‘is assumed that art revolts when it shows us disgusting things, that it mobilises us when it moves outside the studio or museum and that it turns us into opponents of the ruling system if it denies being part of it,’11 but on the other hand, much of the arts ‘continue[s] to subscribe massively to models of artistic effectiveness that may have been shaking one or two centuries before all these novelties.’12 This contradiction, if you ask me, has to do with a long-standing obsession of the arts with something called ‘reality,’ and an assumed preposition of the arts not necessarily being part of that so-called reality—thus manifesting in ‘unreality’; a space before the real. They have long been granted the position of representing something else, taking a heritage with reality-value in their structures. Meanwhile, it has to be noted, as Camus also argues, that it is exactly this reality which is also the ‘muse’ of the arts, and even becomes the sparring partner of engaged arts. Camus further states that ‘it is necessar[y] to speak of what everyone knows and the reality that is common to us all’;13 he even daringly invites us to try to ‘be realists.’14 We must be realists, for reality’s sake, but we also cannot ‘just’ be realists because then we only affirm that reality and thus produce that reality we ought to change.
What must we do? Tania Bruguera offers an interesting case that shows both this impasse as well as a pathway to a solution.Bruguera, a well-known Cuban artist who often pursues activist goals in her practice, notes in some of her lectures to be a ‘realist.’ She argues that ‘in my work I try to create situations that look real. As real as possible.’15 I will now go through multiple approaches to what Bruguera could be speaking of when speaking of ‘realism.’ We will find that the approach most familiar to the arts, that of realism in the naturalist sense, is the worst strategy one could choose if the object of artistic practice is that same reality realism argues to work with. How can that ‘power’ of realism be appropriated by that which in the first instance represents that same power?
Tania Bruguera’s (Hyper-)Realism
The first thing to wonder is why an engaged artist like Tania Bruguera, who attempts to alter reality as it is, would so explicitly note to work as a realist? It seems that with ‘realism,’ she has in mind ‘that which regards the real’ almost as a subject matter, just as a landscape painter would pick, say, a field of corn, the choppy sea, or rather ‘reality’ as their subject. As if reality would be a subject to ‘choose’ from. This introduces the preconception that if one does not identify as (or actively work as) a realist, it needs to be presumed that one does not engage with ‘reality’ at all. This argument would seem to propose that we are all absurdists until we become realists. To an extent, following her statement on ‘appearing real,’ this is exactly what representation of reality is all about, as I have discussed above. Although nothing is ‘fully’ real or unreal in and of itself, it can only ascribe to the power of what is regarded real—thus ‘gaining’ the power of reality—through its improper representation. That means that what looks real, and is affirmed as real, is real. Thus, to argue to make something ‘appear’ real invites us to think that something fairly unreal must take place under that veil of appearance. So, it appears that Bruguera means that she attempts to ‘smuggle’ something into reality through appearing as reality itself, while that which is smuggled cannot be regarded as real (yet). This thought is underlined by a very well-known doctrine to the arts, that of ‘unreal’ versus ‘real,’ where it is assumed that the arts occupy the space of the unreal. The argument Bruguera continuously makes is that ‘I want to work with reality. Not the representation of reality. I don’t want my work to represent something.’16 Although an excessive attempt to affirm something usually only works to refute what it attempts to prove, Bruguera argues that she wants her work to ‘be’ something, rather than represent something. She is simultaneously arguing that ‘representing’ does not equal ‘being’, or is a ‘lesser’ kind of being; it is ‘less’ real. As if the painting of a landscape ontologically is less ‘real’ than the landscape it depicts. If this argument is a negation of or a movement against much of the doctrine of the arts, it seems she says that other arts ‘do not regard reality’ and ‘only represent it.’
Bruguera’s issues with real and unreal can be found in many elements of her practice. After speaking about her performance of riot police rounding up visitors in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London, she remarked with surprise that only one person asked whether it was ‘real police.’ The irony is Bruguera’s surprise: although it was in fact ‘real police,’ they had stopped functioning as police the moment Bruguera invited them. In the series Tatlin’s Whispers, of which this performance is #5 (2008, Tate Modern), Bruguera argues that ‘images familiar from the news “become real life experiences […] by [their] placement inside a museum or a centre intended for art exhibitions”.’17 The interesting doctrine here is that those news images do not correlate to reality, and that they would suddenly do so by introducing them ‘again’ in the museum. The thing is that in Tate’s Turbine Hall, the former police officers-now-performers started to ‘represent’ real police, and thus became actors of themselves. The quality of the performance here lies not in the idea that the museum or visitor becomes ‘real,’ but exactly that it becomes ‘unreal’: what is presumed functional and only encountered in that function now postpones that function so that we can look at it on a vorhanden level, where having postponed their function, the riot police becomes an object for scientific or investigative gaze, purely because we are not really confronted with a police action but with police ‘acting’ like police. People, it appears, expect such an activity to be unreal and thus also respond in an appropriate manner—absolutely not as they would were this to take place unannounced at a random street protest. As Bruguera says: ‘I want people to not look at it but to be in it, sometimes even without knowing it is art. This is a real situation.’18 With this sentence, her goal falls apart because it is exactly this alienation of function that makes the riot police ‘unreal’ (which, of course, is valuable in its own right).
In extension of her realist strategy, but in silent denial of the logistics of spaces of art, she notes that ‘my art is done realistically and becomes part of reality,’19 so, in 2016, she placed a replica of Duchamp’s Fountain in the restroom of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, and titled it Arte Útil—useful art. Unable to work structurally with this ‘subversive’ act of ‘[re-]enter[ing] the territory’20 of reality, the museum still notes, as at 9 September 2019, on its website that the artwork is ‘not on view’21 because it is beyond viewing—it is in plain usage, unquestioned. Bruguera’s interaction with Duchamp’s Fountain, which is now unleashed back into usefulness, attempted to implode the two worlds of real and unreal into a singular word, which therefore cannot be defined according to the dichotomy of real and unreal (you need at least two worlds to call one real and the other unreal). As a result, this is now the only world, and no alternative is possible, which only affirms the real as it is, and repurposes art to serve its dogma, allowing no space for any other practice to imagine how the real is and thus how it could be. Just like Alain Badiou, I oppose ‘the idea that art can only relate to context that has always preceded it.’22 Art should be able to relate to the context that succeeds itself. It should not only relate to the reality in which it is to be and that thus precedes it. As such, it very much needs the ‘unreal’ as a strategy to be able to remake the real, and, possibly more importantly, to make the current real unreal. In short, Bruguera’s realist approach is necessarily founded on the idea that there is an unreality to arts that has to re-engage with reality. And it is not the ‘realist’ side of Bruguera’s practice that is radical here but the negation of it—the ‘unrealist’ aspects.
The Unreal/Real Dichotomy
The arts know many realisms and acquaintances, the first and most obvious of which is ‘naturalist realism,’ which is the attempt to produce ‘the exact reproduction of reality.’23 The attempt to work realistically—as in to create a work of art that appears as close as possible to the naked eye—does not just have a longstanding tradition within the visual arts. It is sometimes even regarded as an epistemological precondition for any other visual art because art is regarded a negation of the reality it ‘depicts’ or works from. (That is at least if we are to follow the narrative of ‘pictorial realism’: ‘making images that bore greater and greater likenesses to whatever they were images of.’)24 In order to move away from the bare, to reject the plain, and to negate the affirmed, ‘it’ first has to be acknowledged as bare, plain; one could say it has to be affirmed. The affirmation is often done through the attempted reproduction of what is to be affirmed, which (naturalist) realism is an example. This does not imply that realism is the evolutionary pinnacle of any abstract practice—for example, if we were to believe that the ancient Egyptians were fully unable to work realistically. I believe they were not unable; their arts just had a different relation with ‘reality.’ The idea that realism is the equinox of artistic capability is false and places art in selfdom to the given reality.
Just as realism has always existed, ‘abstract art has always existed, but until this [twentieth] century, it never knew it existed.’25 Realism is the precondition to abstract from in the first place. In order to ‘abstract’ from something, one needs to know what it is one abstracts from. Hence, realism strongly has to do with an epistemological urge; an urge to understand; an urge to reproduce an understanding while believing that reproduction cannot be what is understood. Abstraction transcends current understanding that realism can only paraphrase. Realism merely proves that it is indeed understood, and so realism is not an attempt to be real but an affirmation of what is to be considered to be real. This type of realism always prevails in the arts, even in its most abstract from because that also conveys understanding of what it is an abstract of. Realism, therefore, implies perfect understanding, and perfect acceptance, of the dichotomy of real and unreal, and the mode of demarcation, which I will speak more about later.
The presumption is that only what follows this affirmation dares to indict that which precedes itself in affirmation. Hence, this type of ‘naturalist’ realism strongly has to do with ‘cunning,’ and with the technology of reproducing what is regarded as ‘real,’ consequently affirming what is real and negating what is unreal. Here, the well-known and often comfortable doctrine of ‘worlds’ still so dear to the arts is pushed into a simulated existence. For only here can one start advancing requirements to what is regarded as real, thus also pushing the unreal into a dissimulated and lesser existence—dragging much of the arts with it. From this point, it is easy to argue why the ‘real’ is prevalent politically over the unreal, and why the political houses itself in the shell of the real, even though it is fundamentally partnered with the unreal, at least if it appreciates ambition.
Camus writes that “true artists can only value the dreams proposed to them in relation to their effects on the living. A prophet, priest or politician can judge absolutely, and moreover, as we well know, they do not refrain from doing so.’26 Although Camus asks us all to be a ‘realist’—because that is the only reality that binds us in common—he does believe a true realist ‘naturalist’ work is unimaginable and thus not realistic.27 This is the base fallacy of naturalist realism; however, it is not a fallacy theoreticians intend but one they created, because it would be idiotic to think that the realist artist really attempts to exactly reproduce reality as it appeared to them. (If we already think through the reductive materials they have to do it with, it would be a tremendous mistake to place them in this attempted but much deprived God position.)
Demarcations of the Real
The theoretical inflexibility that comes with this any analysis dealing with the ‘real’ has to do with demarcation, and especially with a questionable ontological classification that allows us to say that things are real and other things are not. Realism is, therefore, very much a conceptual condition. To give an example of the problem of ‘classifiers,’ when the vacuum pump was first discovered, a wave of discontent went through the scientific world. There cannot be a nothingness; something with a lack of being because an assumption still prevailed that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’:28 something cannot be and not be simultaneously. And it was not only believed to be impossible; as the word ‘abhors’ implies, nature regards it with distrust and hatred. The argument seemed to be that the break of being and non-being would be a paradox, and thus an implosion of the dichotomy of real and unreal, which is even more important to the ‘honour’ of empirical sciences than it is to art. It is clear that in this example, the classifier that lets us discriminate between ‘being,’ which is now the ‘real,’ and ‘non-being,’ which is hence the ‘unreal,’ is the lack of material; a lack of empirical being.
We, however, now know that a lack of empirical being is still something that is: non-being is in the same way as being, although in a different form (i.e., a lack of formal qualities or lack of appearance). For example, we cannot draw an argument on the classifier of reality that is based solely on the empirical being if we are to compare a fairy tale to a tree. In this doctrine, we should say the fairy tale is not real because it carries no individual, unique ‘pin-pointable’ form, or any form at all. Above all, it only borrows form in the semiotic signs of letters, or in the fantastical images in our minds. Nevertheless, fairy tales are as real as trees, although the classifier cannot be decided on once and for all: the reality of the fairy tale is not grounded in an individual, unique empirical being, but precisely in the lack of being. More than anything, much of ‘reality’ is built upon fairy tales, making its ‘unreality’ a precondition of the real—the manner in which fairy tales can be real is that they instruct the real. It would be a categorical mistake to apply one classifier to all and everything, although it sometimes appears we are doing so. All we regard as ‘real’ is rooted in or built upon what we must regard as ‘unreal’ with the same demarcation (i.e., fairy tales). Above all, we know how much fairy tales can shape the world. Therefore, the ‘unreal’ is as real as the real, even though different formal qualities and classifiers always regard formal qualities, which is exactly the issue. What realism is does not necessarily and solely regard what is empirically present and therefore ‘real,’ but what we want to be real; it is the unreal in transit to the real; that which underpins and shapes the regulation and distribution of ‘the real.’ The question is, then, who owns what is transported and to what real is it transported?
Rancière argues that ‘there is no real world that exists outside the arts […] there is no reality in itself, but there are configurations of what is given as our reality, as the object of our perceptions, thoughts, and interventions.’29 This is where a dissensus takes place—a ripple in the fabric of what is experienced as ‘real’ is disturbed—and where ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ are birthed as different regimes of perception (within the empirical classifier of ‘lack of being’). When we speak of ‘realism,’ we must thus keep in mind that the artistic practice that pursues it takes not as its goal the realisation of a true ‘unreality’ but a preposition that is perceived following the common dogma as unreal. This is why Rancière argues that ‘reality is always the object of a fiction,’ 30 and that fiction ‘is the ruling fiction.’31 The dissensual fiction is that of the ‘unreal,’ which is first and foremost a tear in the ruling fiction of the real by which something else can slip in. The relation between art and politics, according to Rancière, is therefore ‘a reality in between two ways of producing fiction.’32 This is where the logistical side of the ‘real’ kicks in: the governing rule of seeing. The danger of realism, for example as Bruguera proposes it, following its ‘evidence’-like or affirmative structure, is that it merely formulates arguments for the prevailing fiction of the real, rather than tearing it from time to time, because, in order to tear it, the arts need to adhere more strongly to the infrastructures of the unrealist artist. This is also why Camus warns us against what he calls ‘social realism’—which is what we might call the type of realism Bruguera pursues. This social realism concerns ‘the reality to come, that is to say, the future. In order to properly replicate what exists now, it is also necessary to depict what is to come.’33 And as Staal notes, ‘politics needs an imagination of the world it attempts to construct […] artistic imagination precedes political reality.’34
The doctrine underpinning social realism is that what reproduces itself always reproduces itself into the future in order to remain real. As argued earlier, the position of reality in this construct is that ‘reality is only ostensibly placed in a sovereign position so it can be more easily eliminated. Art then finds itself reduced to nothing. It serves, and by serving becomes subjugated.’35 So, even with change and the future in mind, as Bruguera correctly does, this future remains a negation of the real as we know it because it builds on the current real. This is why Camus argues that ‘to artists, there are no privileged torturers’;36 art ‘speak[s] out, as best as we can, for those who cannot […] for everyone who is suffering at this very moment.’37 Camus seems to argue that it is questionable whether proposing what ought to be the future, as many engaged artists do, will not result in the same torturous society it tried to escape in the first place, as long as reality as it is now is the pivotal point of any engaged practice.
Bruguera’s ‘realist’ artworks, for example, Tatlin’s Whisper #5, can be viewed somewhat as a commercial of reality. It is realer than real because it doubles reality into a reality on steroids where what is shown in the hyperreal still contains its roots in the given reality, but blows it up into something that is not just real anymore: the real infused with fiction, propelling it into the future (which always is a fiction). The realist approach risks asking for reality to be realer than it itself is; and to do so, ‘Imagine something true that has absorbed all the energy of false, and you have simulation.’38 It does not propose a new reality—it only puts the existing reality on ecstasy and raises its heartrate. In a way, the hyperrealist artist makes commercials of the commercial of reality, creating an ultra-hyperreality. In this sense, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst could be argued to be more of a ‘realist’ artist than Bruguera ever will be. My point is that she should not want to be a ‘realist’ artist because her motive, as with most engaged artists, is to change the given reality, and thus negate that given reality as being real. Their argument, to rephrase the earlier quote of Althusser, is ‘…so be it not!’ These engaged artists promote a revival of the unrealism only in a progressive sense—the not-yet real.
Transrealism: Practice as Realising the Not-Yet Real
According to Rancière, the ‘destruction of the structures within which it [representation] functioned’39 is the true start of realism. 40The ‘sacrifice [of] the image’ made ‘the real appear at last in the artistic act.’41 And as Badiou also notes, this cannot be a derivative. Yet this is an odd order of realism because it is not the real which ‘appears’ in the artistic act: it is the real which the artistic act regards. Earlier, I briefly discussed the logic classifier of realism separating real from unreal, and forcing the unreal into the real. The first part of that classifier, the act of separation or the doubling of worlds, whereby the whole (necessarily wrong but nevertheless useful) distinction between ‘real and unreal’ is created, is what art has done. It has done so mainly on a biased or ‘cognitive’ level by creating the autonomous space I already discussed. One of the pros of this space—which is that although it is a cognitive illusion, it is a useful one—is that it unbounds whatever happens within the premises of this illusory space from the laws of ‘real’ reality. It can work on fictions, on fairy tales, that instruct the real. Whether something is to be regarded as real is thus not the qualifier that gives something value in this ‘autonomous space.’ And it is exactly this quality that affirms the unreal as much as the real that gives this space its radical potential. This is, however, a cognitive process because the real autonomous, secular space cannot—however unfortunate—exist.
From this cognitive qualitative equality between real and unreal, the German philosopher Marcuse saw ‘the political potential of art in art itself.’42 From this cognitive autonomous space, ‘art creates the realm in which the subversion of experience proper to art becomes possible: the world formed by art is recognised as a reality which is suppressed and distorted in the given reality.’43 This autonomous space of art is what makes the real and unreal, and the corresponding doctrine of realism that thus makes the realist ‘affirmative, reconciling component of art’;44 but it is ‘at the same time a vehicle for the critical, negating function of art.’45 Marcuse proposes that this art is an indictment against reality as it is given, as it is really. ‘The truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality (i.e., of those who established it) to define what is real.’46 This is why the traditional realisms discussed earlier are not the proper paths for engaged artists because what these engaged artists truly want to propose is radically unreal, absurd, absolutely ‘wrong’ and ‘unrealistic’ in the eyes of reality because it does not affirm the real, or double the real into the hyperreal. Instead, it proposes a not-yet real, which to the given reality is unreal and to remain unreal; because of that, that which is real now must persist; it can be the only real. In this manner, the current real abhors the unreal in as much as nature was though to abhor the vacuum: it regards it with distrust and hatred; it cannot necessarily exclude it. This autonomy of the given real ‘of art contains the categorical imperative: things must change.’47 Although Marcuse believes change can be rooted in art, he believes actual change cannot necessarily come from art proper. I believe he draws this restriction from formal qualities of art: he still has the genres in the back of his mind. In these trans-genre times, there is no aesthetic doctrine that confines the artwork to a set of aesthetic rules, which is exactly the next and final thing we need to transcend. You do not need your brush necessarily; let the real be thy material. The last question that thus remains is to find an approach to make the unreal become the not-yet real, regardless of aesthetic doctrines.
The doctrine of
this artistic practice is that if it fits reality directly, it is not engaged—because
the engaged practice is to precisely offer something that does not fit this reality, but the reality to come, which cannot even be
called reality for this ontological reason. Therefore, we return to the hopeful
term: the not-yet reality. This
reality is never a derivative, and this is the real power of being unrealistic because it shows the
boundaries of what is regarded real; and especially the absurdity of its
doctrine of what ‘ought’ to be real. Henceforth, this artistic strategy could
be called transrealism. It does not double the real as it is given, as
hyperrealism does, but proposes a not-yet real: a real that transcends, or,
more accurately, transgresses the given real. As such, this transrealism adheres
more in its form to unrealism, but corresponds more to realism in content
because it does not try to be symbolic, which Bruguera also pursues; it is not
about the genre-proposed ‘imaging’ of the new reality. Therefore, it should not
be mistaken with utopianism, although utopianism might be a necessary accident
of the transreal because the transreal does need a ‘vision’ of the not-yet.
Transrealism as an artistic doctrine (to follow our comfortable
genre-structures) is about the construction of that not-yet reality. That is
why we can leave our brushes behind. The trans-genre era also offers the
possibility of transgressing artistic practices, meaning that it does not just
have to ‘propose,’ as any painting, photograph, sculpture or any other kind of
traditional artworks would, but instead can see the artwork as the construction
of that not-yet reality. This simply means that you pick a piece of reality and
reshape it, just as you would with a block of clay, rather than the block of
clay simultaneously being the object and subject of artistic creation.
 Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. (London: MacMillan Press, 1979), p. Xii.
 Not to be confused with the more psychological condition of being ‘realistic,’ as opposed to being ‘unrealistic’: this article will not delve into ‘possibilities’ and whether those have a good chance of being ‘realised’ or not.
 Jonas Staal, Post-propaganda. (Amsterdam: The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, 2010), p. 72.
 Staal 2010, p. 72.
 Staal 2010, p. 72.
 Jacques Rancière, De geëmancipeerde toeschouwer,trans. Joost Beerten en Walter van der Star(Amsterdam: Octave, 2015), p. 115. The translation to English is the author’s own.
 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 12-13.
 Rancière 2010, p. 13. Emphasis added.
 Albert Camus, Create Differently: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist, trans. Sandra Smith (New York: Vintage International; Penguin Radon House LLC, 2019). EPUB version.
 Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, pp. 197-198.
 Rancière 2015, p. 55.
 Rancière 2015, p. 55.
 Camus, p. 4.
 Camus, p. 4.
 Stephanie Schwartz, ‘Tania Bruguera: Between Histories,’ in Oxford Art Journal 35, no. 2 (2012): 229.
 Tanya Barson, ‘Tania Bruguera: Tatlin’s Whisper #5.’ June 2008. Accessed on January 8, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bruguera-tatlins-whisper-5-t12989.
 Schwartz 2012, p. 229.
 Bruguera 2013, 00:08:40.
 Bruguera 2103, 00:10:20.
 ‘Niet op zaal’ in Dutch. Tania Bruguera/Marcel Duchamp. Arte Útil. Van Abbemuseum. 2006/2016. Accessed on August 20, 2019. https://vanabbemuseum.nl/en/collection/details/collection/?lookup%5B1673%5D%5Bfilter%5D%5B0%5D=id%3AC10523. While reviewing the website of the Van Abbemuseum again on December 6, 2019, they updated the webpage, now noting where the artwork can be found, including a floorplan and other appropriate data.
 Alain Badiou, Inesthetiek: Filosofie, Kunst, Politiek (Amsterdam: Octavo Publicaties, 2012), p. 31.
 Camus, p. 4
 Noël Carroll, ‘The End of Art?’ in History and Theory 37 no. 4(1998): 17-29.
 Arthur C. Danto, ‘The End of Art: A Philosophical Defense,’ in History and Theory 37, no. 4(1998): 131.
 Camus, p. 8.
 Camus, p. 4
 Derek Wilson, Superstition and Science: Mystics, Sceptics, Truth-Seekers and Charlatans (London: Robinson, 2017).
 Rancière 2015, p. 79.
 Rancière 2015, p. 79.
 Rancière 2015, p. 79.
 Rancière 2015, p. 79.
 Camus, p. 5.
 Jonas Staal, ‘Propaganda Art in the 21th Century,’ Akademie van Kunsten, March 5, 2020, lecture, Amsterdam. 13:05-13:30.
 Camus, p. 5.
 Camus, p. 8
 Camus, p. 8
 Jean Baudrillard, De fatale strategieën, trans. Maurice Nio and Kees Vollemans (Amsterdam: Duizend En Een, 2003), p. 12.
 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2010), p. 24.
 Rancière 2010, p. 24.
 Joost de Bloois and Ernst van den Hemel, ‘Alain Badiou: het communisme in de kunst,’ in Alain Badiou. Inesthetiek: Filosofie, Kunst, Politiek (Amsterdam: Octavo Publicaties, 2012), p. 40. Translated by the author.
 Marcuse 1979, p. Ix.
 Marcuse 1979, p. 6.
 Marcuse 1979, p. 7.
 Marcuse 1979, p. 7.
 Marcuse 1979, p. 9.
 Marcuse 1979, p. 13.
- Althusser, Louis, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2014.
- Badiou, Alain. Inesthetiek: Filosofie, Kunst, Politiek. Amsterdam: Octavo Publicaties, 2012.
- Barson, Tanya, ‘Tania Bruguera: Tatlin’s Whisper #5.’ June 2008. Accessed on January 8, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bruguera-tatlins-whisper-5-t12989.
- Baudrillard, Jean, De Fatale Strategieën. Translated by Maurice Nio and Kees Vollemans. Amsterdam: Duizend En Een, 2003.
- Bloois, Joost de and Ernst van den Hemel, ‘Alain Badiou: Het Communisme in de Kunst.’ In Alain Badiou. Inesthetiek: Filosofie, Kunst, Politiek. Amsterdam: Octavo Publicaties, 2012.
- Bruguera, Tania, ‘Art + Activism = Artivism.’ TED Archive. YouTube video. August 29, 2017. Accessed on August 20, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C38sPtBj4uo.
- Camus, Albert. Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist. Translated by Sandra Smith. New York: Vintage International; Penguin Radom House LLC, 2019. EPUB version.
- Marcuse, Herbert, The Aesthetic Dimension: Towards a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1979.
- Rancière, Jacques, De geëmancipeerde toeschouwer. Translated by Joost Beerten and Walter van der Star.Amsterdam: Octavo, 2015.
- Rancière, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum, 2004.
- Schwartz, Stephanie, ‘Tania Bruguera: Between Histories.’ Oxford Art Journal 35, no. 2 (2012).
- Staal, Jonas, Post-propaganda. Amsterdam: the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, 2010.
List of Figures
Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. (London: MacMillan Press, 1979), p. Xii.
Not to be confused with the more psychological condition of being ‘realistic,’ as opposed to being ‘unrealistic’: this article will not delve into ‘possibilities’ and whether those have a good chance of being ‘realised’ or not.
Jonas Staal, Post-propaganda. (Amsterdam: The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, 2010), p. 72.
Staal 2010, p. 72.
Staal 2010, p. 72.
Jacques Rancière, De geëmancipeerde toeschouwer,trans. Joost Beerten en Walter van der Star (Amsterdam: Octave, 2015), p. 115. The translation to English is the author’s own.
Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 12-13.
Rancière 2010, p. 13. Emphasis added.
Albert Camus, Create Differently: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist, trans. Sandra Smith (New York: Vintage International; Penguin Radon House LLC, 2019). EPUB version.
Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, pp. 197-198.
Rancière 2015, p. 55.
Rancière 2015, p. 55.
Camus, p. 4.
Camus, p. 4.
Tania Bruguera, ‘Art + Activism = Artivism,’ TED Archive. YouTube video. August 29, 2017. Accessed on August 20, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C38sPtBj4uo. 00:07:26.
Stephanie Schwartz, ‘Tania Bruguera: Between Histories,’ in Oxford Art Journal 35, no. 2 (2012): 229.
Tanya Barson, ‘Tania Bruguera: Tatlin’s Whisper #5.’ June 2008. Accessed on January 8, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bruguera-tatlins-whisper-5-t12989.
Schwartz 2012, p. 229.
Bruguera 2013, 00:08:40.
Bruguera 2103, 00:10:20.
‘Niet op zaal’ in Dutch. Tania Bruguera/Marcel Duchamp. Arte Útil. Van Abbemuseum. 2006/2016. Accessed on August 20, 2019.https://vanabbemuseum.nl/en/collection/details/collection/?lookup%5B1673%5D%5Bfilter%5D%5B0%5D=id%3AC10523. While reviewing the website of the Van Abbemuseum again on December 6, 2019, they updated the webpage, now noting where the artwork can be found, including a floorplan and other appropriate data.
Alain Badiou, Inesthetiek: Filosofie, Kunst, Politiek (Amsterdam: Octavo Publicaties, 2012), p. 31.
Camus, p. 4
Noël Carroll, ‘The End of Art?’ in History and Theory 37 no. 4(1998): 17-29.
Arthur C. Danto, ‘The End of Art: A Philosophical Defense,’ in History and Theory 37, no. 4(1998): 131.
Camus, p. 8.
Camus, p. 4
Derek Wilson, Superstition and Science: Mystics, Sceptics, Truth-Seekers and Charlatans (London: Robinson, 2017).
Rancière 2015, p. 79.
Rancière 2015, p. 79.
Rancière 2015, p. 79.
Rancière 2015, p. 79.
Camus, p. 5.
Jonas Staal, ‘Propaganda Art in the 21th Century,’ Akademie van Kunsten, March 5, 2020, lecture, Amsterdam. 13:05-13:30.
Camus, p. 5.
Camus, p. 8
Camus, p. 8
Jean Baudrillard, De fatale strategieën, trans. Maurice Nio and Kees Vollemans (Amsterdam: Duizend En Een, 2003), p. 12.
Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2010), p. 24.
Rancière 2010, p. 24.
Joost de Bloois and Ernst van den Hemel, ‘Alain Badiou: het communisme in de kunst,’ in Alain Badiou.Inesthetiek: Filosofie, Kunst, Politiek (Amsterdam: Octavo Publicaties, 2012), p. 40. Translated by the author.
Marcuse 1979, p. Ix.
Marcuse 1979, p. 6.
Marcuse 1979, p. 7.
Marcuse 1979, p. 7.
Marcuse 1979, p. 9.
Marcuse 1979, p. 13.