In his 1921 essay “On Realism in Art” Roman Jacobson breaks down the concept of realism into increasing levels of ambiguity. Closely tied to realism are the concepts of truth, fidelity and similitude. Jacobson’s initial definition is “We call realistic those works which we feel accurately depict life by displaying verisimilitude” (20). This definition can be fractured into three cases:

Meaning A: Realism may refer to the intent of the author to display verisimilitude.

Meaning B: Realism may refer to the perception of the receiver of verisimilitude.

Meaning C: Realism “comprehends the sum total of the features characteristics of one specific artistic current of the nineteenth century [realism]” (20)

Meanings A and B are naïve readings of the concept which can only be stabilized by comparison with a “natural” object (in the Platonic sense). The third meaning is closer to representative practice, both vernacular and artistic. Representative practice, like communication in general, has strong ties to convention.

The contrast between these three nuances of realism is also an epistemological one. In the first two meanings, realism is tied to an epistemé which accepts devices such as single point perspective as a given, as true to nature. It is a stable tradition in the same way as the third, more artistic, definition implies. However, realism in the first two meanings is a concept with nearly imperceptible origins. Jacobson remarks concerning the third meaning: “As tradition accumulates, the painted [or represented] image becomes an ideogram, a formula, to which the object portrayed is linked by contiguity” (21). In this respect, these distinctions between realisms may be collapsed—the belief in images as transparent “natural signs” is a convention that carries “ideograms” as well.

The difference between an object and its representation can be characterized negatively—as the endless gulf or lack between signifier and signified. It can also be characterized positively—as a conversation, an endless multiplication of discourse. Realism is at its core an ethical concept. It represents to convey a form of truth. In meaning A, it is subjective. In meaning B, it is conventional. In meaning C, it is traditional, totemic, and ultimately mythic. Traditions emerge in an endless march, marked by ruptures and discontinuities with the previous traditions that become occluded in the mists of history. Realism(s) become history.