Thinking About Realism

by Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Arts Blog

Realism tells tales like any other genre, and it is odd that we should be forced through much digression knowing that point. What I mean when I say Realism is the specific genre of fiction that wishes to imitate contemporary life in a ‘realistic’ manner. Realism has come to possess a high-standing position in fiction, perhaps because of its focus on being ‘realistic’, though the terms aren’t interchangeable. Somewhere from the birth of Realism, the idea and notion of what is ‘realistic’ began to be associated with the genre. This confusion shouldn’t cause other genres to be remonstrated for their disobedience to the Realist notion of fiction, or to art more generally.

If the term, Realism, were put to me, I would immediately conjure up the nineteenth century. Courbet and his manifesto to paint ‘real history’; Dickens and the convoluted tales of Victorian London. What this meant for them, and it was something remarkable, was seeing history as it was lived in their own time. Courbet wanted to paint life in nineteenth century France, not figures from Classical mythology; Dickens wanted to scrutinize the culture in which he lived. Realism made fiction relatable in a new and subtle way.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet’s, The Stonebreakers – 1849

But as to being realistic, Dickens’ novels are full on inconsistencies and things that either aren’t true or are at least far-fetched. I’m not going to fling a novel aside if there are some inconsistencies, or ‘unrealistic’ things occurring. What then has Realism offered to vouchsafe an association with being realistic?  Victorian novelists were able to take large swathes of society and inspect them; compose a story through them in a form that is relatable and thought-provoking to the audience. The style of writing too, for the most part, took on a third-person narrator, an omniscient voice which the reader followed. Realism makes use of imagination to create events that could happen, and people that we might meet. It is this use of imagination painting itself as ‘realistic’ that gives Realism such force.

Realism united the storyteller with a vision of the ‘now’, bolstered by the ‘realistic’ framework. Realism is composed as any other genre of fiction or art is. The Realist artist wants to express something, to create something, as any other artist does – to bring something to attention, to express something from a different perspective. As for the case of Realism, there are solid grounds for viewing its formation as one directed towards social conscientiousness: Dickens’ semi-moralizing; Thackeray’s satires. Yet a piece of fiction Realism remains, and writing, as an ambiguous fiction, has always been troubled by its relationship with reality.

The story of Realism becomes complex when we cross into the twentieth century. The movements of the fin-de-siecle were more interested in style and expression than to show what was ‘realistic’ – but then again, this made a presumption between the link of Realism and the realistic, an easy connection that one might make. Yet what the outbreak of Modernism in the first half of the twentieth century shows us is a profound and incredible search for a form to express their time. This is arguably a search for what could be termed ‘Realism’. The fascination with the nature of time and the conscious mind made their work experimental but it does not mean that it was in any way ‘unrealistic’ considering what they understood about the nature of living. It was partly in search for a new Realism that gave rise to the multi-faceted complexity of Modernist art.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Marcel Duchamp Painting

Nude Descending the Staircase No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp, 1910. One of Carl Kruse’s favorite Modernist paintings.

If we were to see genres, and stylistic forms of writing, as trying to come close to certain forms of reality, we would be closer to something like a working critical framework. Take, for example, James Joyce’s Ulysses, for all that it details, it is also a tapestry of forms which work in different ways to express specific things. A beach scene can be written in sentimental prose, the contemplative in a stream of consciousness. Ulysses is postulating that different forms work to express different sentiments of life, and what a true ‘Realism’ would entail is a complex intersection of the various forms.

Yet arguably, as opposed to the search for new forms, the classical nineteenth century Realism reigns. Why this Realism has such a prominent place in our artistic tradition is hard to answer with any certainty; it may be its inclusive nature; its desire to tell the tale of the common citizen, and its association with the realistic only adds strength and appeal. On another hand, it seriously limits our capability to contemplate other truths that experimental, speculative, and fantastical genres may be reaching towards. When we read Science Fiction, we comprehend the story precisely because we can play the detective. We understand patterns and an idea of coherency. These stories can cohere in complex and interesting ways to engage the audience, producing a whole range of emotional and intellectual attachment.

And it is all the more remarkable that genres such as Fantasy and Science Fiction can evoke emotion without the tendency towards grounding us in a resemblance of our own world – with all the sense of meaning which that has. In fact, it offers such a fertile ground for developing ideas that represent, and express, features of our lived experience in a way that could not be described so in a Realist piece of fiction. The freedom from the Realist frame gives us yet another method of discriminating what we make of the world and of ourselves.

The Realist frame sets out to cover all bases but clearly is unable to do so. Realism is readily relatable because its strict desire to imitate the experience of life, though what that means becomes ambiguous on inspection. We begin to see that Realism is only a kind of imitation, not the imitation of life. Realism works on a hidden presumption that its style, its kind of imitation should be the case, but it must be remembered, or at least contemplated, at what loss does this imitation come? The act of creation is also that of seclusion and the question of representation is a huge one.

Criticism which presumes a Realist approach to judge something can neglect the finer, and poetic, devices of a narrative. The position of criticizing any novel is no easy feat, and it needs to scrutinize the method of the work. It is always interesting when a critic formulates a vocabulary for judging something, but there is a danger of this vocabulary becoming prescriptive, leaving supposed ‘unrelated’ features by the wayside – like the use of Realism, criticism judges by one side of a work which may offer a multi-faceted interpretation.

Indeed, some things come down taste. If you don’t like something you’ve read, or seen, you’re likely to begin to think of reason as to why you don’t like it. If you land on ‘it’s not realistic’ then you can safely be done with the problem of disliking something for no reason. That the term ‘not being realistic’ can be utilized as a ready-made objection removes us from the work of actually discussing the work; it does not show whether this makes the work unsuccessful in its own objective, or if its universally a poor piece of art, it only shows a favoring of a kind of imitation.

The promotion of Realism, through its association of being ‘realistic’, cuts through the ambiguity of what it means to write ‘realistically’. To recognize genre as an extension of style, however, gives us a capability to discern how art works to express itself. It may be our tastes vary from this to that, but I doubt it is so absolute. Science Fiction and other speculative genres sponsor a reality of their own – the fact that we can understand them and sense their coherency solves any ambiguity around that matter. This is not to throw away Realism, it is a wonderful frame of expression and can serve as an excellent foil to other styles, other kinds of imitation. However, the dependability on, and the standardization of, Realism, as more than a stylistic approach, sincerely limits our thinking on the act of expression.

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The last blog post was an expose of the ceramic work of Manon de Vlieger.
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Museum of Old and New Art

by Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Arts Blog

Photos from MONA, Carl Kruse and Blooloop

In 2006 the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities closed for a huge revamping and after the input of $75 million and five years of construction the Museum of Old and New Art emerged (MONA). Located in Holbart, Tasmania, the museum has since conversed with the world of art in an idiosyncratic and spectacular way. 

David Walsh. Photo: Blooloop.

The man behind the mission, David Walsh, made his fortune as a gambler. When MONA opened he would go on to describe it as a “subversive Disneyland.” The eclectic collection gathered in the museum are tied by the twin themes of sex and death. Ancient art, such as the mummy of Ta-Sheret-Min, resides close by the famed “Cloaca”: a series of vessels conceived by the Belgian artist Wilm Devoye that holds a functioning digestive tract. The vessels are fed in the late morning; excreting occurs by early afternoon.

The museum is statement, not of high art or the understanding of such, but of a playful experience and attendance to art. The account of the construction of MONA highlights this dynamic that the museum is trying to communicate:

“This is a mistake. People will think you don’t know what you’re doing, like you’re a rich man and you’ve just got all your toys around you – your big gallery, your tennis court. You won’t be taken seriously.” And David said, “Exactly.”

Carl Kruse Arts Blog - MONA from the Sea
Approaching MONA from the sea. Tasmania. Photo: MONA.

Statements from MONA radiate this playful irreverence: “Bars, café, restaurants and cemetery on site,” and again when describing what MONA is: “a museum, or something.” Of course, there is a seriousness to this mask of indifference. It is an invitational strategy; everyone is welcome to find and experience this strange world.

The Ferry from Holbart to MONA – Sheep as Seats. Photo: Carl Kruse

Things become clearer when we think about the space made to house David’s vision. He says the best way to approach the museum is by sea: “to ascend from the water as the ancient Greeks did to go to their temples.” There the visitor is met with a single-story entry, nothing overwhelming, until inside a spiral staircase takes them down to three large labyrinthine spaces. There are no windows, there is only the stony silence of the descent.

Descending staircase into MONA. Photo Blooloop.

It is all for the experience of viewing art, of creating a space where the visitor can give themselves to the spectacle and possible meaning of art. David fashioned his museum in direct opposition to what he had found in other museums – the building shouldn’t dwarf the visitor nor impose its stateliness upon them but facilitate the interaction between the visitor and the art.

Visitors are recommended the ‘O’ app, either provided or available for download on their phones. The ‘O’ app was introduced so that visitors wouldn’t have to spend time reading the small prints on plaques by each art piece, instead they can immerse themselves freely. The visitor does not need to feel “that they haven’t appreciated the piece or understood it without the plaque.” The ‘O’ app has a menu where the viewer can learn about the art under the title ‘Art Wank’; it can also recommend what food to try and where the toilets are. 

“Besides Myself” by James Turrell at MONA.

David Walsh’s “anti-museum” theme has proved something in its wake; the attraction of, to use Richard Flanagan’s words, “the ultimate senseless chance.” It this direct wish of Walsh’s to “piss of the academics” which has found such exceeding popularity – in 2015 MONA was ranked as the world’s best modern art gallery, above London’s Tate modern. It is one of Carl Kruse’s favorite museums in the world.

It is not that we will find all the pieces on display as beautiful or even remotely interesting; we may even be repulsed. It is this rapid juxtaposition of chance that offers up this experience of being face to face with something of life, something like a drunken night filled with half-memories and unexpected turns. MONA is a playful provocateur entering into the high-minded conversation about art.

The provocateur broaches the subject from a different point of view. Most people attending, it may be presumed, have visited another art gallery with its prestigious formal ordering of art. Any ordering of art tells us something of how we should think about art. MONA has opted for the fully immersive, nonchalant, experience; it may be anti-museum, but it is not anti-art – It is asking us to speak about it, to experience it, in a different way.

Carl Kruse Arts Blog - The Snake by Sydney Nolan in Tasmania, Australia.

Sydney Nolan’s “THE SNAKE” at MONA.

Walsh’s playground doesn’t require us to have done our homework or that we understand the cultural and historical significance of a certain piece; and, if it is culturally significant, that we too find it astonishing. MONA finds much to say in the playground itself without caring if there is anything meaningful to say about the equipment. It is answering a need for collective experience in a reality unlike our own, something like a ritual.

In 2018, Walsh spent a further $32 million on a new wing in the MONA complex. It was named Pharos. This section has been spoken about as, in some ways, the antithesis to the MONA. Walsh wanted to create a “changeless thing, a totem, a legacy.” As the name suggests (Pharos being one of the ancient wonders of the world – the Alexandrian lighthouse) it is a beacon of light, but it also acts as a procession; a ritualistic walk for the un-believer.

Carl Kruse Blog - The Topmb of the Kamizakes in Pharos, MONA
Inside Pharos – the “Memorial to Sacred Wind or the Tomb of Kamikaze” by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. What initially appears to be a pile of scrap lunges to life unexpectedly and moves about the room. Photo: Broadsheet.

Walsh’s idea to suffuse this section with assemblages that will never be moved has its reasons. Basing this conception on ancient rituals where it seems the idea is to “merely walk around them,” Walsh has created this space so the visitor can commune with their inner selves. It brings to the foreground what the museum is about: sex and death. If the rest of MONA is this chance, transient, sex, then Pharos is the acknowledgment and appreciation of changeless death.

It is with Pharos that we are aware of the magnitude of the MONA enterprise. It is not merely an eclectic arrangement of contemporary and old art, but a monument towards why and how art is created. It is a space which confronts the visitor with something of the wonder in which art finds its source.


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Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
The last blog post was on Simonetta Vespucci.
Other articles by Fraser Hibbitt include the Art of Journaling and Google Glass.
Carl Kruse is also on Hacker Noon – Kruse