Realism is a term with several meanings. Here are three:
1- Creative work in arts and culture, known as “representations” that appear natural and accurate. The accuracy can be poetic or blunt, and may carry a political message.
Like most things, the definition of a realist artist is unclear. For instance, people still debate whether the American painter, Norman Rockwell, is a realist or not. Cristina Acosta says “To most non-artists, Norman Rockwell is perceived to be a Realist. He isn’t. And he is.”¹
2 – Realism is a philosophical view that external objects exist, even when not perceived by an observer. This is related to the question – “If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”
On this point I remember talking with a professor about the possibility of the world being a “field of stimuli” external to the observer. I was still pretty young and it was an abstract idea which, at the time, was fascinating to consider. Basically it means that the world as we perceive it isn’t always as we perceive it. But something is still there: The potential to be seen, heard, felt, smelt and tasted.
Little did I know that philosophers and physicists had been thinking along the same lines for many years. Well, actually, I did know. I was beginning to find out. But my discoveries were not only conceptual but also experiential. And it wasn’t always fun and games, to put it mildly. Looking back I can see that I was entering into a pivotal period of personal growth. And this leads, in a sense, to the third definition.
3 – In theology, realism is the belief that universal essences are more real than any individual temporal manifestation. An early version of this view is outlined in Plato‘s theory of eternal, unchanging Forms. After that, Medieval theologians adapted Plato’s theory to fit with Christian belief (Plato living well before the earthly Jesus).