Since Renaissance times, painters and critics have been arguing about how art in general and painting and sculpture in particular are related to reality. Should the painting in front of you express idealized reality and thus convey some kind of eternal truth? Should they try to create an illusion of reality? How close to reality? Dutch still lifes (such as van Huysom’s Still Life with Flowers combine flowers from different seasons quite realistically, but not painted all at the same time.
The Impressionists got their nickname because they were trying to create an “impression” of reality, a single moment captured and presented without comment, idealization, or interpretation. One of the earliest and still best examples of this attitude is Edouard Manet’s Olympia, a painting in the odalisque tradition. Manet also used a number of neo-classical precedents. But there’s nothing idealized or romantic about Manet’s courtesan. She’s a prostitute with attitude (and no, I don’t know whether he was painting a real courtesan, or a model pretending to be a prostitute with attitude — more layers of interpretation and abstraction between painting and artist, between painting and viewer.
But all of these schools and styles are still essentially “objective” — that is, they deal with something “out there” that the painter is trying to represent on canvas or paper. The painters who came after the Impressionists — and some Impressionists who weren’t satisfied with either the questions Impressionism asked or the answers it provided — found the whole idea of “out there” wanting. They focused on ideas on emotions, on the painting for its own sake, with no outside references at all. Symbolists, Expressionists, Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists, Abstractionists, Abstract Expressionists, and their variations and descendants and cross-influences dominated 2oth-century painting to the point where any sort of realism was considered automatically “not real art.”
Even apparently objective subjects, such as Georgia O’Keefe’s famous flowers, weren’t realistic. No flower that ever bloomed in garden or greenhouse was ever as perfect as these Petunias. Piet Mondrian tried to represent truth and beauty through geometry, in his familiar rectangles with their pronounced rectangles, black lines, and primary colors.
Yeah, we’re right back to trying to represent idealized truth and beauty on the wall, only we came at it from the other direction 😀
I’m not enough of a student of art to know where the 21st century stands relative to objectivism, non-objectivism, and the purpose of art. I have the impression every individual artist has his or her own views, and is producing his or her own kind of art. There don’t seem to be any big schools or trends. There’s also a massive disconnect from the people who might enjoy looking at art; the internet is awash in personal photos, drawings, photoshopped graphics, and all the rest seems to indicate plenty of interest.