Although I frequently enough critique the practice of "realism" in fiction (behind which is usually some unsustainable theory about the adequacy of fiction in representing "real life"), I actually have no issue with realism itself, the centrality of which is finally unavoidable. As John Dewey explains it:
Taking my stand, then, upon the connection of esthetic effect with qualities of all experience as far as any experience is unified, I would ask how art can be expressive and yet not be imitative or slavishly representative, save by selecting and ordering the energies in virtue of which things act upon us and and interest us? If art is in any sense reproductive, and yet reproduces neither details nor generic features, it necessarily follows that art operates by selecting those potencies in things by which an experience--nay experience--has significance and value. Elimination gets rid of forces that confuse, distract, and deaden. Order, rhythm and balance, simply means that energies significant for experience are acting at their best.
Art must select "those potencies in things by which an experience. . .has signifance and value." That is, all art begins in "reality," but it is reality as mediated by "experience" and then further refined into "potencies" that have "significance and value." Art encompasses the "real"--where else could the artist look?--but does not settle for the merely "reproductive." This strands the artist in the "imitative or slavishly representive" when what is needed is the "order, rhythm and balance" to which aesthetic creation aspires. Yet, the aesthetic implicity retains its "connection" with the "qualities of all experience" even as it "gets rid of forces that confuse, distract, and deaden."
How could it be otherwise? How might an artist really evade "life," even if he/she wanted to? Where do any of us proceed except through experience?
The term "ideal" has been cheapened by sentimental popular use, and by use in philosophic discourse for apologetic purposes to disguise discords and cruelties in existence. But there is a definite sense in which art is ideal--namely, the sense just indicated. Through selection and organization those features that make any experience worth having as an experience are prepared by art for commensurate perception. There must be, in spite of all indifference and hostility of nature to human interests, some congruity of nature with man or life could not exist. In art the forces that are congenial, that sustain not this or that special aim but the processes of enjoyed experience itself, are set free. That release gives them ideal quality. For what ideal can man honsestly entertain save the idea of an environment in which all things conspire to the perfecting and sustaining of the values occasionally and partially experienced?
I am somewhat uncomfortable with Dewey's use of terms like "congenial" and "enjoyed experience." They come too close to suggesting that art is an escape, a reduction of experience as transformed by art to the peaceful and the happy when in fact (as Dewey frequently acknowledged) experience as rendered in and through art can be violent and disturbing. Still, it's the "ideal" quality of art that can shape such experiences into the kind of "order" that makes them not just tolerable, not just congenial or enjoyable, but at times exhilirating, ecstatic. To just "reproduce" the real is not sufficient to provoke such a response. It takes an aesthetic act that, while anchored to "real" experience, purifies that experience so that we might have access to "values" only "occasionally and partially experienced" in our real lives.