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Realism is commonly defined as a concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary. However, the term realism is used, with varying meanings, in several of the liberal arts; particularly painting, literature, and philosophy. It is also used in international relations.

In the visual arts and literature, realism is a mid-19th century movement, which started in France. The realists sought to render everyday characters, situations, dilemmas, and events; all in an "accurate" (or realistic) manner. Realism began as a reaction to romanticism, in which subjects were treated idealistically. Realists tended to discard theatrical drama and classical forms of art to depict commonplace or 'realistic' themes.


Realism in literature

Realism is associated with a rejection of fantasy, mythology, and highly complex and, therefore, implausible plots. Instead, a realist novel will tend to concentrate on 'ordinary people', and feature stories either based on, or similar to, real events. Realists also tend to avoid the linguistic experimentalism of, say, a James Joyce, in favour of prose that doesn't draw attention to itself, and presents the story as clearly as possible.

The movement is anticipated by the work of the French author Stendhal, but the "father" of realism is generally thought to be Honoré de Balzac. His Comédie Humaine is a panoramic view of 19th-century France in over 70 novels. Gustave Flaubert clearly defined the movement with his brilliant novel of the bourgeois Madame Bovary: this is in some ways the paradigmatic realist novel. Balzac and especially Flaubert influenced to a high degree the later realists and naturalists. Realism was an international affair, so in France there was Guy de Maupassant, but Realists in other nations included Irishman George Moore, George Eliot in England, the great Portugese novelist Eça de Queirós, Spaniard Benito Pérez Galdós, Italian Alessandro Manzoni and others. However some believe the Russian Leo Tolstoy was the greatest of all the Realists. There was also a similar movement in drama, associated with Ibsen and the early work of George Bernard Shaw.

Realism was followed, in France, by the Naturalism (literature) associated with Emile Zola. Naturalism was a much more programmatic and theory led movement, which argued that literature should base itself as much as possible on the natural sciences. The novel was to become a sort of fictional case study, similar to (non-fictional) case studies in sociology. However it should be noted that there is much overlap between the two movements, with some writers being termed naturalists and/or realists by different critics.

By 1890, many began to reject realism and naturalism, thinking them too external and superficial. Modified versions, however, were employed by such authors as Thomas Hardy, who realistically presented extreme pessimism, and Henry James, who sought to understand his characters psychologically.

At the turn of the 20th century, realism as a movement in France gave way to symbolism and neo-romanticism. However, the Realist tradition carried on much longer in The United States. John Steinbeck and Theodore Dreiser were classic 20th century American Realists.

See also: magical realism, hysterical realism, surrealism

Realism in visual arts

See also: Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Winslow Homer, Barbizon school, fantastic realism, art film.

Realism in philosophy

Main article: philosophical realism

Confusingly various philosophically unrelated positions, in some cases diametrically opposed, are termed "realism." In large measure this depends on which debates are active at the time, and may be encouraged by the fact that a philosophical position often looks stronger if you attach the word "real" to it.

The oldest use of the term comes from Medieval interpretations of Greek philosophy. Here "realism" is contrasted with "conceptualism" and "nominalism". This can be called "realism about universals." Universals are terms or properties that can be applied to many things, rather than denoting a single specific individual--for example, red, beauty, five, or dog, as opposed to Socrates or Athens. Realism holds that these universals really exist, independently and somehow prior to the world; it is associated with Plato. Conceptualism holds that they exist, but only insofar as they are instantiated in specific things; they do not exist separately. Nominalism holds that universals do not "exist" at all; they are no more than words we use to describe specific objects, they do not name anything. This particular dispute over realism is largely moot in contemporary philosophy, and has been for centuries.

In another sense realism is contrasted with both idealism and materialism and considered synonymous with weak dualism. In still a third, and very contemporary sense realism is contrasted with anti-realism.

Both these disputes are often carried out relative to some specific area: one might, for example, be a realist about physical matter but an anti-realist about ethics.

Increasingly these last disputes, too, are rejected as misleading, and some philosophers prefer to call the kind of realism espoused there "metaphyiscal realism," and eschew the whole debate in favour of simple "naturalism" or "natural realism", which is not so much a theory as the position that these debates are ill-conceived if not incoherent, and that there is no more to deciding what is really real than simply taking our words at face value.

See also: legal realism, scientific realism, naïve realism, socialist realism, philosophical skepticism, technorealism

Realism in social science

Closely linked to realism in philosophy, is realism in research. Realist researchers believe that since they are attempting to describe the real world they have to be cautious about how they do so. Typically realists use qualitative research methods. In this sense, realism is opposed to positivism, which tends towards quantitative method.

Realism in music

A style of composition or singing which attempts to imitate the accents of natural speech. Used by 19th century Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky.

See also: sprechstimme

Realism in international relations

See international relations.

The term realism comes from the German realpolitik. Realpolitik is a combination of two words: the Spanish "real" (meaning "royal") and the German "politik" (meaning "politics"). Thus, realpolitik means "royal politics." Realpolitik practioners tried to avoid arms races. However, during the early-20th Century, arms races (and alliances) occurred anyway, culminating in World War I. The competing doctrine to realism is fakism (faciquisme), a French movement circa 1842-1844. While disputed by modern scholars (K. Waltz and R. Keohane), fakism has gained prominence among constructivist scholars in recent years.

Realism in Computer and Video games

A degree of similitude of the simulation to the real world. Many gamers and developers attach great importance to the increasing realism of games. This notion is sometimes attacked by a minority of gamers, who argue that developers do not spend enough time and resources on improving the gameplay. Examples of realistic games include Gran Turismo and Rainbow Six, while examples of games that are unrealistic (or sometimes called "arcade" as a nod back to the previous, more abstract generation of video games) include Unreal Tournament and Mortal Kombat.

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