The first aesthetics post on this blog sought to broadly define the philosophical field of aesthetics, tasked with the study of art and its role in human life. In it, I mentioned that there are many different viewpoints and theories in this field, and that I would be approaching the questions of aesthetics from the perspective of a particular school: Romantic Realism. So, with our foundational knowledge of aesthetics taken care of, we are now prepared to delve into this particular school of thought, which will be the focus of this piece.
Defining the essential characteristics of romantic realism is an important first step. As the name would suggest, Romantic Realism is a particular derivative of the school of Romanticism in classic aesthetics. According to Ayn Rand, Romanticism is, “A category of art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of reason.”1 It may seem peculiar to invite volition, or the concept of choice, into the field of art, but the reason for that inclusion becomes clear given the Romantic Realism definition of art: “a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgements.”2
This is in direct contrast to the school of Naturalism, which posits that art is a faithful representation of reality as it exists. Hence, while Naturalism seeks to showcase the world as it occurs or has occurred in the past in an effort to reveal some particular truth about our world, Romanticism seeks to showcase the world as it should be. This is the reason for the importance of volition: it is the prerogative of each artist to determine what the world should look like, and how to portray it. This is the essence of Romanticism: not beholden to strictly re-creating reality, the artist instead is tasked with offering the audience his or her view of reality.
But how does an artist go about making this decision? This is determined, as stated in the formal definition above, by the artist’s metaphysical value judgments. This is some fairly weighty philosophical discussion, but let’s boil it down to the essentials: “metaphysics” is basically, “the nature of reality” and “value judgements” is “that which one thinks is important”. Thus, the artists re-creates reality in their piece of art, placing the focus on those elements most critical to their view of reality.
For example, if an artist believes that life is fraught with well-intentioned but flawed racists, you get Paul Haggis’ Crash; if he believes that our prejudices eventually prove poisonous and overcome us, you get Tony Kaye’s American History X; if he believes that a single principled man can make a meaningful difference despite intense racism, you get Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. That which he includes implies what he considers essential; that which he omits is irrelevant. Romanticism at its core is about this fundamental choice.
These choices encompass everything involved in making a piece of art, in both subject and style. The “realist” half of Romantic Realism greatly informs these choices, as this school of art champions man’s capacity for reason. Hence, the Romantic Realist film maker chooses a subject which is not only essential, but understandable. Importantly, the subject is made understandable through proper stylistic choices, providing a synthesis of subject and style where the Romantic Realist can provide his or her interpretation of reality through clear means.
This is not to say that any film must make a clear statement – sometimes a great film can simply raise important questions and leave them intentionally unanswered, or obfuscate the meaning behind symbolism and other thematic elements. But, we as an audience must believe that a film is 1.) Trying to say something and 2.) Leaving us reasonable means to interpret what is being said. Lacking these, we get pointless blockbusters where characters act without reason to effect illogical plot progressions – and we care about nothing.
And finally, I’d like to come to the role of art in life, and how perfectly the Romantic Realism perspective on this question lines up with what makes movies enjoyable and rewarding. The importance of art lay in its ability to turn an abstract idea into a concrete, sensory and emotional experience. Movies are particularly adept at performing this feat, as we find ourselves transported to another reality while still learning much about our own.
Romantic realism provides a school of thought which champions this view of art as not only important, but essential. Without art to create specific and clear examples of otherwise complex concepts, we would find our daily lives bogged down by constant derivations of that which is most central to us. Instead, we can recall Andy Dufresne with his arms outstretched in the pouring rain and understand the importance of freedom. Or, we can watch Red walking down the Zihuatanejo beach towards his friend and know joy and friendship.
The greatest films offer understanding, empathy, and truths in addition to entertainment, and it is through discussing our most beloved moments in film that we can share these ideas with our loved ones. This is the magic of cinema boiled down to its essence, made possible by the particular aspects of Romantic Realism.
What are some of your most beloved moments in film – and what abstract concepts do they make concrete for you? How do these moments cinematically accomplish that (through acting, cinematography, particular symbols, narrative structure, or something else)? Chime in below; I’d love to hear what people come up with! Also, let me know if you actually like these philosophy-heavy posts.
- Rand, Ayn. “What Is Romanticism?” The Romantic Manifesto, pg. 99
- Rand, Ayn. “Art and Cognition” The Romantic Manifesto, pg. 45