What Linda Nochlin has bequeathed to future art historians and art lovers—her trenchant, socially informed, feminist approach toward painting, particularly that of 19th-century France; her championing of women artists; her openness toward novel manifestations in the visual arts—hardly needs restating. But recently, finding myself rereading her 1971 survey text on Realism, I was struck by a less expected contribution: her acute analysis of contemporaneity.
Anyone who’s followed academic and art-critical writing over the last few years is aware of the ongoing debate over just what constitutes the nature of “the contemporary”—how, that is, the term might function beyond a mere temporal indicator and come to name a critical approach toward the particular circumstances of the present. From questionnaires in academic journals to volumes by scholars such as David Joselit, Pamela M. Lee, and Richard Meyer, we’ve seen a range of ambitious responses to the difficulties of characterizing the place and possible roles for art in the early 21st century. Linda, I realized, offers us some compelling suggestions in a book written almost forty-five years ago.
For her, Realism’s distinctiveness lies not in the embrace of a uniform style—it could not be defined by a set of formal characteristics like an art-historical period. Nor did it lay in some supposed aesthetic essence, as an older generation of scholars had claimed, like Eric Auerbach in his epochal 1946 work on Mimesis. Rather, Linda writes, the singularity of realism as it came to be defined in the mid-19th century could be encapsulated in the formula, first pronounced by caricaturist Honoré Daumier and then promulgated by Édouard Manet, “il faut être de son temps”—roughly, let’s say, the command that “you must be of your time.”
“Being of one’s time,” however, is not simply a temporal injunction, but as Linda shows us, is always a spatial one as well. For artists of the 1850s and 1860s, this meant a countryside being transformed by new social and economic pressures and, above all, cities undergoing the rigors of modernization. The theme of the cityscape would be one of the defining tropes of what it meant to be “de son temps” from the Impressionists through Fernand Léger’s reinvention of realism for the early 20th century. “The contemporary,” in other words, is just as much a place or, better yet, a site as it is a time.
But if contemporaneity is spatial, its reference points do not remain constant. The turbulent cities that fascinated the modernists would give way, by the middle of the last century, to the image-as-site, to the material forms of spectacle that were in the process of colonizing all available social space. Linda was already attuned to that shift in 1971, noting how “pop artists like Warhol, Rosenquist, and Lichtenstein have turned to commercial art, advertising, or comic strips for a ready-made imagery of their own times.” The contemporary was now located within “the artificial, commercial, bill-board reality of the 20th-century mass-communications industry.”
Since then, the spatial coordinates of contemporaneity seem to have shifted once again to what we might call, in shorthand, the screen-as-site, to all those technological interfaces through which we apprehend today’s reality and interact with our world. Harun Farocki or Hito Steyerl, to name only two well-known figures, could suggest what a critical approach to being of our time might look like. They strike me as apt candidates for a Realism of 2015, a Realism for our irreal times. But it takes a historian of her time, one as fully attuned to her present as Linda, to help us see it.
TOM MCDONOUGH is Associate Professor and Chair in the Art History Department, Binghamton University.