Realism has been the rule in painting, fiction,and poetry since the late 19th century.
Idealism has disappeared into Realism’s shadow in the general sweep of secular modernity for over 100 years.
What do we mean by Idealism?
Idealism is when the poet reasons like this:
It is impossible to capture life. To capture life in a picture or photograph, for instance, is to capture but a fleeting look, and while this has its value, is it art? Reproducing exactly what exists is not possible: so is Realism possible?
Realism is not possible.
Idealism concedes what Realism does not: reality cannot be captured. Idealism, by this common sense understanding alone, surpasses at once, the realism of Realism.
Further, Idealism now says: since Realism is impossible, it makes even more sense to make poetry and art, which is the imperfect reproduction of reality, ideal.
The Idealist understands that the “Realist” is an “Idealist,” anyway, on every level: reality is too vast and the poet too insignificant for reality to impart its realism in art—the manner and the process and the subject of all expression is determined by the poet making personal and ideal choices.
The issue is not whether a photograph is accurate, or not, in its depiction of what it depicts; the “realistic” photograph is not placed beside nothing, for then, the photograph has a small contribution of “realism” to make.
The issue is whether the photograph is accurate when placed next to reality. The answer then, is a resounding no. The “realistic” photograph is, in that case, pitifully wanting, and any use of that photograph is either utilitarian in the most mundane sense—a passport photo, a police photo, etc—or it exists precisely because of some higher, ideal purpose.
So the only artistic choice is idealism.
Idealism is the measure, then, of art, not realism.
Realism is nothing more than a diminished and superfluous version of Ideal Art and Poetry.
Art or writing we admire is always based on ideal depictions of reality, and the more “real” we think a work is, the more that work is, in fact, “ideal” in its motives and representations. All pleasurable depictions of reality, in poetry or art, are nothing more than ideal insights—disguised as “real” depictions. Anything else is utilitarian and practical, and not artistic.
One might think of the artist da Vinci’s studies of anatomy as realism—and they are, as much as they are practical and not artistic.
Nature can be beautiful and practical at the same time: think of the flower, with its beauty uniting realism and idealism. Precisely. Because reality is that which cannot be made “realistic” in an ideal, or any sort of way by the artist—reproducing the beauty of the (practical) flower is just another failure under the “realism” umbrella. No artist who is an artist would merely replicate the beauty of the flower so that the beauty of the flower is all the viewer sees.
Art is idealism, or it is not art.
And idealism. What is it, then?
Is it a happy substitute for a reality which cannot be grasped or understood?
No. Because as much as reality can be grasped or understood, we have the beginning of idealism.
And what is the end of idealism?
The same as the beginning: happiness.
All poetry and art should make us happy.
But now we must be careful, because happiness belongs to reality, not art, and we have taken pains in this essay to make the reader see that Realism in art does not exist—but if happiness is what we are after, and happiness is real, are we not in danger of sliding back into art which falsely pretends to be realistic? No, and in fact, this is the very thing which makes Idealism “realistic” and triumphant in a realistic manner. Reality can only be grasped in the smallest way and that “way” is—happiness. Think of Aristotle, who said tragedy makes us happy. Think of the art and the writing which makes you happy: it partakes of reality, of the world, of course it does—just not in a “realistic” manner, as much as we assume this to be the case. This is our point.
We are not saying Idealism is better than Realism—we are saying it is all Idealism—and this truth will make our poetry and art better going forward.
This is easier said, than done. Audiences and readers hunger for what they think is “realism.”
As a child, I hated museums and loved zoos.
In my childish fancy, I wanted “realism.”
But zoos are “ideal,” in presenting animals from all over the world in cages for the child to see.
Museums, with their heaps of treasure, were not “ideal” enough to my young mind.
Even in infancy, “idealism” is preferred, no matter how much we think “realism” is preferred—it is not. Realism is impossible.
The child delights in drawing at a very young age—and why? For its “realism?” Of course not.
The idealist does not avoid the pretense of realism—but that pretense must always lead to happiness, and happiness alone is the justification for all art and all poetry.
What is importantly real, or really important, will be manifest in the art as long as “the real” is not the spike which we fall on, or the light we use to “see,” but the elevating skill of the ideal process itself.
Paris (street = Paris & not Paris) does not need to be evoked with every street in Paris.
The sufferings of mankind do not need to be invoked with suffering.
Art does not need a conscience, since that exists already in reality.
Art does not need anything that already exists in reality.
This is the severe code of complete happiness which should be the measure of all poetry and art.