Updated: Apr 20
Way back at the turn of the 20th century, some people thought that painting would cease to exist due the creation and growing accessibility of the camera. It was a legitimate concern as well because painting up until that point had been used largely to represent important things like portraits of the elite, but with cameras a lot of the same things could be represented faster, cheapear, and generally more efficiently. However, painters took this opportunity to display their creative excellence as they forged new styles and techniques of painting that were elegant, visually enticing, and unique to the vision of each artist. Abstraction and new styles of painting were born because simple representation in painting was falling by the wayside and artists needed to explore the medium and find new ways to make it exciting. But, and there always seems to be a but with art, even as cameras became the primary means of important representation and painting drifted further from representation, the realism movement was born and rose to prominence.
Realism was a painting movement founded in France in the mid-1800’s and it was built around the rejection of Romanticism. The Romantic movement was very decorative, elaborate, and it exaggerated the drama of what was being represented, so the Realists wanted to return to simplicity. Realism was focused on depicting unidealized scenes of life, all classes of people doing everyday things. The events in realist paintings are not overly exciting, they’re not very decorative, but the composition, depiction, and overall skill that went into creating them was what really struck the viewers.
Isn’t it crazy that even though cameras were pushing representational out people were still praising realist painting? Even though cameras have become the primary use of representing life, people have always strived to recreate life through some other artistic means. Although contemporary art has leaned towards the more abstract for the last 50 or so years, there’s been a rise in art accessibility and viewership. I always praise Instagram for the way that it made art accessible, gave a bunch more people the ability to share their work on a grander scale, and made a hell of a lot more people realize that they liked art to some degree. With this rise in art viewership outside of the traditional gallery or scholarly setting I’ve noticed a rise in popularity in one particular art style that hadn’t had much popularity before. I like to call it “Pop Culture Realism,” and it’s essentially just hyper-realist drawing, painting, or sculpture of pop culture imagery.
I’ve talked before about the ethics of using popular culture in art, that’s a conversation for another day, but the fact will always remain that when using a pop culture image in your artwork the likability and recognizability of your work is now built in. Take for example The Joker, when that movie came out I couldn’t glance at Instagram without seeing a million different representations of the joker. Why? Because artists were using an image that they already knew people liked to show off their skills. I think that’s one of the most interesting things about Realism, the original movement was about making a mundane scene exciting through masterful painting technique and with this Pop Culture Realism they’re taking an already popular image but using their skill and ability to represent that image as the driving force to make people want to see their work. Again we’ll use the joker example, everyone already knew they liked the Joker, the image of it wasn’t exciting, but when people were seeing this image of the Joker that they liked with colored pencils or markers next to it and they realized that it was somehow created with those then they got excited. People are getting excited about the skill that goes into realistically representing the stuff they like. These artists are even pushing the fascination with their skills one step further and releasing time-lapse videos of them doing the drawing or painting or sculpture. They’re non-traditional views, but these artists are getting a ton of them.
It’s pretty crazy to see how people redefine the art world and make their craft successful in different ways and I think the rise of Pop Culture Realism has been an excellent example of people’s ingenuity. Do I think that these works would do well in a traditional gallery setting? Absolutely not. But who needs a gallery when your work is being viewed millions of times across multiple platforms and people are buying into you work because, again, it’s imagery they already know that they like. I think that an ethical discussion can always be had about reusing someone else’s imagery in your art, but for this work the talent required is still fascinating and how they’re showing off their work to tons and tons of people is pretty admirable.