Recently I've been getting back to one of my favorite past-times, drawing, and I was kept up the other night by the problem of what is intended by traditional art. There is in fact now, especially with the internet, a deep desire to return to classical standards in art, and I myself am trying to rediscover what was lost at the end of the 19th century in terms of art and aesthetics. There is however, something that I have always disliked, despite producing realistic art, I dislike photo-realism. The reason I don't like photo-realism is because of what I have come to think art is and this harks back to my education as a classicist. The ancient Greeks first produced what we might call "realistic" art in sculpture, and painting, and yes they did paint on wooden boards in egg-tempera like the Renaissance masters, though obviously none survive. But the Greeks did not produce photo-realistic art, not just because they didn't have cameras. They didn't produce nudes with paunches either, even though fat people existed and for the same reasons; they were interested in something else rather than depicting how things really are. Their art was imaginative, and the sometimes overly muscled nudes they produced were of athletes and warriors, it was aspirational and highly spiritual, not merely an exaltation of youth.
Fast forward to the Renaissance and you will find again that the art produced then was part of a similar mindset. To the Renaissance artist, man was made in the image of God, and God was made man and died for our sins, therefore a "realistic" human form could be glorified. The Renaissance was not founded as a revolution, but a reactionary leap into the classical past done within the remit of a Christian cultural worldview, and even though people point to the fact that dissecting corpses to learn anatomy was forbade by the religious authorities, people forget that in Pagan Athens, the rule against dissection was just as strict, yet somehow artists in both eras made do, probably more with practice and observation than grave-robbing. This turn to the classical in the Renaissance was not at all out of keeping with the culture that had been producing homunculi -- the Latin word for an infant Jesus depicted as if he were a fully grown, yet small adult -- a century earlier, despite all appearances to the contrary.
The more abstract art of the Medieval period was everything to do with depicting events with theological accuracy rather than realism, thus the art of the Medieval age didn't require the draughtsmanship and observational skills that were later developed. Nevertheless, the Renaissance artist didn't strive for photo-realism either, and the reason why is because each part of the traditional artist's repertoire was symbolic of a higher spiritual reality which is more important to communicate than the dull material, thus the infant Jesus is depicted as a child, but still somewhat abnormally awake and sentient, Michelangelo's massive David is nude, which is not accurate to the events of the Bible, but nevertheless communicates not just physical, but also spiritual prowess no less than the discus thrower. Nudity in Michelangelo's David almost harks back to Eden and the time before mankind's fall into sin, while it's epic scale is intentionally selected to contend with and exceed the grandeur of the fragment's of Emperor Constantine's massive statue the head of which is some 8 feet tall.
The striving to get it right in art is not an attempt to make photo perfect images, and this is as true in the age of digital cameras. Art is ugly without symbolism, and without aiming for the spiritual reality behind that which is being depicted. Even the homunculus above has more artistic quality than an exacting re-production of a snapshot from a camera, even though one may argue that the exact reproduction of what a camera sees is harder to make than a quick doodle of a 1/4 scale bald man in Mary's arms.