Realism and Fascism: An Essay on the Tyranny of Capital in the Art Market

Essay / November 2022

Realism and Fascism: An Essay on the Tyranny of Capital in the Art Market 
By Allan Gardner

There are many things in life that it is difficult to be certain of, but fascism is not one of them. 

When I first encountered antifascism (through travelling to squats in the 2010s) the fascist was a spectre. Fascists were still active—groups like the EDL existed in the UK and the death rattle of music associated with Combat 18 could be sought out—but significantly less so than in previous decades. I remember arriving in Lubeck, where busloads of punks were being driven to nearby Hamburg to “beat the Nazis” before the show. There are few things on this earth that can restore your faith in humanity like that. But whether in the form of the increasingly visible far-right, an increasingly sniveling alt-right, or the fascist tendencies of the British government this is being written under (as of this morning, Liz Truss is our new PM, whose “tax the poor’’ policy is sure to win her a long and illustrious career post-politics), we are growing increasingly accustomed to experiencing the effects of fascism—increased conflict between the working and middle-classes, rise in populism and propagandism in the media—in real time.

The type of fascism propagated by people like Truss or Nigel Farage is more insidiously effective than what more extreme far-right groups do: most people, fundamentally, are not hateful. Afraid, maybe, carrying some confused opinions probably, but not dyed-in-the-wool bigots. We’re not at the point of normalising joining whatever the EDL have rebranded themselves as. The suit-and-tie fascist is far more dangerous because they appeal to the most selfish parts of us under the guise of “logic” and “reason,” helped along by the British national identity, the stiff upper lip. We are, indeed, in trouble.

But there are people far more qualified than I to talk about our impending slide towards dystopia. This is an essay about painting.

First off, it’s necessary that we define realism as it will be used here. I’m not just talking about paintings which attempt to look like photographs, or represent real world textures/situations accurately; I’m also referring to any kind of painting which seeks to make the pigment look like something it is not. Realism in this instance, will refer to painting which attempts to force material to take on the specific qualities of something else. Maybe that’s a photograph, maybe a 3D rendering—it just has to be trying to make paint behave or look like something that is not paint.

The key issue with this is its relationship to capital, or more accurately, skill as capital. The implication is that to make something so unruly as paint take on the attributes of something as collected and defined as a photograph must take a significant level of skill. Detail and realism appeal to the most naive viewer because they are more closely related to craft than art. To produce a realistic painting is to be able to hide the nuance of paint, to identify and learn a codified process that has a specific and defined outcome—to deviate from that process would alter the outcome, which is the opposite of what a realist wants. Picture the archetypal naive collector, impressed by bells and whistles and alienated from ideas. Realism attracts them because they don’t know how to do it. It seems complicated in the same way that a combustion engine seems complicated and—because it (theoretically) takes a long time to do—it must be rare. This is the underpinning value of realism: perceived complexity rendered as scarcity equals value.

The only problem is that almost all of the art made between 1900 and now calls that bullshit. For starters, the complexity of realism is a fallacy. It creates a lot of physical work without encouraging any deeper critical thought. There is no decision-making in a realist painting; it is an authoritarian practice, inflicted by the maker and the genre. This isn’t to say that the maker doesn’t decide on an image to work from or tools for the job, referring more to the decision-making that happens on a surface—painting, at its best, is a negotiation. To be able to manipulate paint is to be a good craftsperson; to treat it as a collaborator is to be a good artist. Paint is something which has will, a desire to behave and perform in certain ways, and if you want to make a great painting this has to be part of the decision-making. Realism allows for no leniency on the surface, no time to reflect or evolve, no room for change. It resents delimitation; it requires you to rigidly abide by the rules and in doing so it prevents the maker from exploring the properties of the material as well as from expanding on any level of critical discourse.

Realism appeals to artless makers because it puts space and time between thoughts; it actively discourages thinking. To think would be to deviate from the process, and if you begin to do that, your painting will no longer be realistic—it will have failed. Maybe you can tag some kind of faux-conceptual line onto the end about the content of the image, but the prevalent question remains why to paint at all? Why not take a photograph? Or write an essay? The obvious answer is to look at the market for photography versus paintings.

Paintings are unilaterally worth more than photographs across all conceivable markets. A historically important photograph is far more achievable an acquisition than a painting of the same standing. I’ve touched on the mass appeal of realism to naive collectors (it looks difficult to do, takes a long time, seems rare) and the rationale that some middle-brow galleries use to justify those aesthetic tastes, tacking some semi-thought out conceptual or contextual reason for the content of the image, and this is something that legitimate artists fight against. If you are pushing towards something serious, it feels debilitating to be reduced to that. It prevents the work from growing. But in the end, it comes back around to capital, a market, and perceived scarcity.

The “hypebeastification” of contemporary art is universally maligned by most industry professionals. The only thing that explains its prevalence is the cash-rich, perennially tasteless spectre of the frat boy collector. Maybe the European alternative to this is the oligarch’s trophy wife, alienated by any mention of concept, put off by something that allows any semblance of critical thought to encroach upon their charmed existence. Realism appeals to these stereotypes because it asks no questions.

To be sure, a very similar criticism was directed at abstraction—what Walter Robinson defined as Zombie Formalism. Artists like Lucien Smith suffering a market death following the en-masse dumping of their work is a fair example of why art’s dance with capital must be measured. To define a work’s value based on what has been paid for it is Russian roulette.

For everyone involved, it’s difficult to find an early-career artist who hasn’t been warned off a litany of advisor-flippers for this very reason. In fact, I recently overheard a certain LES gallery owner telling an advisor that he could not buy a painting even if he offered a million dollars for it—there’s a reason we are so guarded. With Zombie Formalism, there was no emphasis on technical ability; no conversation to be had about how close to reality a rendering was. Instead, we talked about the lineage of the material, the way in which the work was made, and why something like that might matter. In fact, it takes a great deal of courage to stand in a field blasting canvases with a fire extinguisher and calling it good painting. It at least requires an element of belief. Of course, the value in the majority of those works was simply the enormous sums being paid for them—indeed, very little else was written about it.

Maybe the title of this essay is hyperbolic; of course it is. The purpose of the comparison is to highlight a resurgence in realism as a symptom of a global slide towards individualism, the example being that nobody on the chain from artist to collector (and often to public institution) really cares about what they’re doing as long as they’re getting paid. Art can be an incisive critical tool, a way to understand the world, a way for ideas to be expressed beyond the verbal. Good art does not shy away from criticism, it embraces it; it wants to be argued with and pushed around. There is nothing in this new wave of realism that wants that—it’s all about the oohs and ahhs of the crowd, the disbelief that someone could really do that with paint. It’s a parlour trick, and one that has long since grown past being entertaining.

But isn’t that the fault of the press? I wrote an essay a number of years ago, decrying critics for becoming so dependent on salacious sales figures. The reason remains as true now: to legitimize bad art via its price point is a problem no matter what it looks like. The same goes for critiquing good work based on its low sales numbers. The reliance on pricing as a critical talking point has only served to embolden the rich and tasteless, bolstering galleries who serve them and increasingly punishing anyone attempting to find what little boundaries there are left to push in the art world. The glut of hyperreal, figurative painting is not an accident or a coincidence; it comes as a direct result of a market aiming to appeal to naive collectors and critics’ refusal to call it what it is.

Image Credits:

Image 1: John Baeder, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.
Image 2: Office of U.S. Ambassador to U.K., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Image 3: Ilona at home with her daughter, Michelle, 4, Moscow, 2022. Copyright Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE