25 January 2007

Keeping it Real

Terra sent us a lovely box of surprises a few months ago, which included two sets of flashcards to help kids learn numbers/counting and words/spelling. We were going through them the other day, and when we got to this one, I asked Star how many wheels the wagon had.

She said three. For a moment I had no idea what to say or how to respond. She’s right, of course. There are only three wheels in that picture. But wagons have four wheels. They just do.

Realism. It’s probably art’s most problematic ‘ism’ for exactly the reason Star illustrated. Can the flashcard picture be said to be realistic with only three wheels? It looks enough the way a wagon might from that angle, but that view of it doesn’t show all that the wagon is. It is, if anything only partially representative of a wagon’s reality. When it comes right down to it, what should realism mean?

Was it realism when Monet tried to paint light the way it actually looked? Was it realism when Courbet rejected painting’s conventional composition in favor of a more jumbled ‘real’ look? Or was it realism when artists, more than a century ago, started looking at fruit bowls and bathers from three or four different places and rendered each of those views on a single canvas. You could argue (and Star would likely agree) that they were being more real, truer to the whole reality of the depicted thing.

Instead of calling something realistic, we art-farts tend to call it ‘representational’, 'photo-real', 'hyper-real', 'naturalistic', etc., because realism means so many things that it in the end means nothing.


Dad said...

Now Mary Ann, how do you know all wagons have four wheels? I have seen wagons that have fewer than four wheels. Have you checked every wagon or do you assume that what you cannot see must be there? Anyway, yes, Star is so smart, but of course how could she not be with her genetic structure. You know, the skip a generation thing. We do rediscover the world through our children's eyes and learning processes.

Matthew said...

Hey, what happened the promised answers to yesterday's post? Were the points raised in the comments the correct answers?

Mary Ann said...

I've updated the original entry.

Vatti said...

Hmmm..... Observation is an important process, but this post and the last point out the problems associated with basing observations on photographs or drawings. To have actually shown the fourth wheel would have been improper because it is correctly hidden by the body of the wagon. However, there are all sorts of optical illusions built on our minds extrapolating to things that are not really there, or even physically impossible. But here, the process is not really extrapolation, I would call it interpolation, which I have always thought I would be more comfortable with. Best of course, is to be in the room with the Jones's and sit down and talk to them, or walk around the wagon.

Jim said...

And what I find interesting about this is how man has always tried to create reality and has always fallen short of it somehow. Then one might ask, "What is reality?"

This was a truly fun read. Deep and thoughtful yet simple.

Good to see you guys are around. I'll come around and visit now and then.

- Jim

Mary Ann said...

Jim, welcome!

I think you're right vati. You can interpolate from the position of the wagon, the axel, wheel structure, etc. that if that fourth wheel wasn't there it would have become unbalanced. So if you know how the structure of the wagon (as drawn on the flashcard) works, you'd also know of the implied fourth wheel (or at the very least a cinder-block in its place). This is not the design of a three-wheeled wagon.