Sketches from Michele Trenti's essays

Symbolism and realism

Appunti di Michele Trenti

The art of the 20th century found itself at the opposite ends of a scale. At one extreme was symbolism, with its tendency to attribute symbolic value to a language that needs to be decoded in order to understand the cultural codes behind its meaning. At the other was realism, where the idea of a language and its vocabulary immediately convey meanings and emotions, thanks to the intrinsic meaning of a material independent of the cultural context in which it is expressed. Both positions are at polar opposites and a work of art should attempt a synthesis of the two. If the fundamental direction towards realism is to give symbols a concrete material foundation so they are neither meaningless, nor merely intentional, it is equally necessary that art’s symbolic meaning be understood as not being merely an activity to produce sensations as ends unto themselves. A symbol is effective because of its own significance, and not because of any forced attribution of meaning, as often claimed by languages aspiring to considered "new". Within certain limits, the "true" meaning of a symbol is undeniably also subject to change over time as the cultural references metamorphose.