Sydney Morning Herald Column

The Real Thing

Published August 31, 2021
John Singer Sargent's 1913 portrait of Henry James, now in the Metropolitan Museum, N.Y.C.

In the 1970s Coca-Cola had tremendous success with the advertising slogan, ‘It’s the Real Thing’. The idea behind the campaign may have been to distinguish Coke from its chief competitor, Pepsi, but the company was also responding to research that found “young people seek the real, the original and the natural as an escape from phoniness.”

Although it may seem absurd that a soft drink could be marketed as an existential choice, Coke understood that nobody likes to settle for something they believe to be phoney, second-rate or imitation when the Real Thing is on offer. At the end of the 1960s this desire for authenticity was associated with a militant youth culture that vowed, in the words of The Who, “We won’t get fooled again!”

Drink Coke, and stop worrying about your white privilege (1969)

Strangely enough, in the visual arts and the cinema the real thing can be less convincing and less desirable than the fake. It’s a distinction that’s recognised instinctively by some artists and forever lost on others.

The conundrum is explored in Henry James’s short story The Real Thing (1893), in which the narrator is an artist who makes a living from book illustration but dreams of being a great portraitist. One day he is visited by an elegant, well-dressed couple, Major and Mrs. Monarch. He assumes the Monarchs have come for a portrait sitting but finds to his surprise that they have fallen on hard times and are seeking work as models.

Although the painter already has excellent models – notably a young, working-class woman named Miss Churm, who is up for anything – he is intrigued by the Monarchs’ offer. He imagines them doing the rounds of country houses and society engagements, keeping up appearances while their dwindling capital forces them into the workplace.

As potential models the couple strive to maintain their dignity, suggesting themselves as a particular type: “The real thing; a gentleman, you know, or a lady.”

Henry James checks out some art, in Alice Broughton’s photo of 1906

The artist knows from the start that he has very different requirements in a model – “an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one: the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation. I liked things that appeared; then one was sure. Whether they were or not was a subordinate and almost always a profitless question.”

Against his better judgement he gets the Monarchs to sit for drawings of high society subjects, but finds they grow to heroic dimensions within the picture, looking like statues rather than human beings. The certainty of their social position renders them inflexible. Mrs. Monarch is a beautiful woman but an impossible model.

“I placed her in every conceivable position, but she managed to obliterate their differences. She was always a lady certainly, and into the bargain was always the same lady. She was the real thing, but always the same thing.”

Eventually the artist accepts that the experiment with the Monarchs has been a failure. The couple are appalled that the society roles for which they feel themselves so well suited, are allotted to Miss Churm and a young Italian the artist employs as a servant.

The dilemma faced by James’s protagonist is one familiar to every portraitist who strives to paint people as they are, rather than as they imagine themselves to be. Sitters are often disappointed with ther portraits because we all envisage ourselves as more attractive, more charismatic than we are. Those rare portraits that capture some deep, hidden aspect of a sitter’s personality can be the most disliked of all.

One exception was John Singer Sargent’s 1913 portrait of Henry James himself. It had been more than three years since Sargent had given up portrait painting, which he loathed, but he agreed to paint this likeness of his old friend. James was satisfied with the result. “Sargent at his very best, he wrote, “and poor old HJ not at his worst; in short a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting.”

John Singer Sargent’s grumpy ‘Self-Portrait’ (1906). AKA. ‘Don’t ask me to paint another !!$#%$^! society portrait!’

One can discern James’s intelligence from Sargent’s portrait, and that was enough to please the writer. In James’s story the Monarchs are empty vessels, so obsessed with form they see themselves as types rather than individuals. Their idea of “the real thing” is nothing more than a social mask that has warped their entire sense of identity. They are incapable of posing because their actual life is an elaborate pose they cannot risk relinquishing.

With each modelling session it becomes more painfully clear that to be “the real thing” in high society means adopting a rigid, profoundly unnatural set of attitudes. Miss Churm, with no ideal standard of behaviour, is free from inhibitions and able to take on any role.

The artist’s first intuition was correct, both for the creator and the viewer. With a work of art we respond more readily to a representation than to the “real thing”. This is partly because we have been conditioned by countless representations consumed on TV, in movies, novels, magazines and art galleries. We have certain fixed ideas about society people, aristocrats, movie stars, and so on. The images that conform most closely to these ideas, be they no more than clichés, are most satisfactory.

There is another, more complex reason to prefer the imitation to the real, which takes us into the very heart of artistic representation. I won’t delve too far into these depths but it’s worth considering the famous formulation of those Russian critics who argued that the role of art was to “make strange” things that are familiar. If we accept the artist’s role as a transformative one it follows therefore, that when a work of art cleaves too closely to reality it is perceived as lifeless or boring.

This need not preclude us from admiring the skill or patience of an artist that can make a painted portrait look like a photo, but a successful photo-realist picture will always have some quality other than mere technique that commands our attention.

Frances McDormand & mobile home in ‘Nomadland’

Unvarnished reality can look dull and shapeless. In those programs laughingly classified as ‘Reality TV’, every scenario has been stage-managed to diminish reality and yield some specious melodrama. There’s a taste of the real thing in Chloé Zhao’s Oscar winning movie, Nomadland, which inserts a thin sliver of fiction into a documentary-style overview of poor, displaced Americans who have chosen to live in mobile homes. For every viewer that found the film to be touching and profound, there are legions who were stupefied.

In big contemporary art surveys there’s a taste for real-time videos in which very little happens. I’ve sat through any number of these and rarely felt better for the experience. In most instances the artist has gone to some exotic location and filmed people going about their daily lives. It might be in the bush, a village or a factory. One sits and waits for something to happen, but it never does. We’re expected to savour the ambience of the scene and dream up our own interpretations.

In such works the artist ducks the responsibility of transforming the raw material of experience. He or she simply re-presents a slice of life and asks us to make of it what we will. The artist invites us to feel virtuous because we’ve endured half an hour of someone walking around a forest or engaging in repetitive labour. There’s an implicit assumption that these are not the kind of things we do ourselves, as if all viewers are middle-class urban professionals who need to be reminded of alternative ways of living. It’s assumed we’ll automatically find someone else’s reality to be more fascinating than our own, but it could be argued that what people want most from a work of art is to be taken into another dimension altogether. In art we look for a stimulus for our imagination and fantasy, not for another shade of humdrum.



Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 August, 2021