The Large Bathers—Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Renoir was in his mid-forties when he devoted four years on his famous “The Large Bathers” (1887), perhaps his most ambitious painting.
Will RSAP—the “Renoir Sucks At Painting” protest group—go to Philly next? The small group of protesters, led by Max Geller, made the news this month with two anti-Renoir protests in Boston (Museum of Fine Arts) and New York (The Metropolitan). Renoir’s ‘Bathers’ hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
According to Hyperallergic, RSAP demanded the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan take down its 19 Renoir paintings because Renoir’s work is “poorly rendered treacle.”
RSAP is right. Renoir is candy. Renoir practiced on Rubens when he started out, and, failing miserably at truly heroic painting, became a sugary postcard illustrator, part of the great aesthetic decline in the West since the late 19th century: Brahms replaced by Philip Glass; Tennyson replaced by William Carlos Williams; Goya replaced by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Corporate producers are killing music, “Creative Writing” is killing poetry, and Trash has replaced Art. The 1% not only conquers with banking and war, but with this kind of shit—turning people into sheep without taste. Poe and Shelley were correct: aesthetics, which inhabits a position, morally, between reason and passion, is vital.
To many, Renoir, seems old-fashioned and rigorous, not part of any “decline,” not guilty of painting that, in the words of RSAP, “sucks.” Poetry sucks today, and yet those who acknowledge this will nonetheless defend William Carlos Williams as an ideal of “High Modernism,” when, in fact, William Carlos Williams does suck, despite what a guy in a textbook says.
To get back on the right track, we should go back and protest where it all went wrong; this is actually far more effective than wrangling with contemporary rot. Once you accept the establishment of a William Carlos Williams or a Pierre-Auguste Renoir as something historically legitimate, the game is over.
Most people think RSAP is a joke; but it is actually not.
Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker has called their protest “silly,” which is how a “serious” art critic would make it known that he does not think the protest is a joke, and, even if it were a joke, it nonetheless makes him uncomfortable, and the art world uncomfortable, because of what we have just said. And isn’t it interesting how this tiny protest, which is merely “silly,” has already gained so much traction?
The protest, in our opinion, is wonderful, and not silly—only if it gets people thinking about art again: something no one has done for a hundred years in America, given the onslaught of horrible art that we must accept if we are “cool,” and reject, if we are not.
It is the vast and clever ‘guilt scam’ (be cool or else!) of the Modern Art Salesman-Pusher, who wants to make art easy to make, easy to like, and easy to sell for big money. It is probably the biggest scam in the history of the world. The “art” collectors in the early 20th century hired critics and built museums to house their “collections” and became super-rich, while destroying Taste itself to seal the deal.
It began with the Salon des Refuses in 1863, a year in which America was fighting for its life in a meat-grinding Civil War which France and Great Britain, now allies, had helped to bring about. (France and Britain’s “neutrality,” which said, General Lee, kill enough Union soldiers, and we’ll recognize the Confederacy, turned what should have been a small war into a very, very big one.) The Salon des Refuses was not some kind of underground protest against the art establishment; it was mandated by the imperialist Napoleon III. The new works were greeted with howls of laughter. Exactly 50 years later, the new art was shipped to America (the Armory Art show of 1913) by John Quinn, collector of the new art and Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot’s attorney. Again, the new art—Duchamp got most of the attention, not Picasso—was greeted with howls of laughter. (After all, Duchamp was a prankster.) But “critics” came to the rescue; A.C. Barnes (of the Barnes Foundation) collected; his friend, John Dewey, earnestly and seriously wrote. And fortunes were made.
Of course, Schjeldahl in the New Yorker does not defend Renoir as revolutionary or new—which is how junk like this was first ushered in by the con men: Art should not stagnate! Art should develop and be new! This new art is inevitable!
Schjeldahl is happy to defend Renoir as junk, for as he writes in the New Yorker of Renoir: “His art was from, for, and about an ascendant class. His exaggerated blush and sweetness makes sense as effusions of triumphal exuberance.”
Bad art—but somehow “ascendant” and “triumphal.”
He sounds more like a propaganda minister than an art critic.
Schjeldahl happily goes on: “Have the R.S.A.P. members ever truly looked at Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival” (1883) in the Boston M.F.A.? …”redolent of heat, music, smells, and light sweats of exertion and desire. Cigarette butts litter the floor at their feet. This is not candy-box fantasy. It is the real life of real people in a real place, glorified. Modernity is dawning. There’s a beat to it, and a glow.”
No. That’s the point. There is no “exertion and desire.” There’s no “beat.” Okay, maybe a little one. (Can you dance to the “Mona Lisa?”)
In “Dance at Bougival”—should we call it Boogie-ville?—the young woman has a bland, cute, pin-up countenance—the faceless man of gaudy swagger, wearing blue to her white trimmed in red, points his beard into her doll face. There is no “smell.” The painting is like a macho-flavored M& M candy.
RSAP should spread their protest to Schjeldahl’s remarks—make them a target, too.
No “revolutionary” fervor is present in Schjeldahl’s defense; Renoir is merely defended as “real people.” But doesn’t art have to push onward? Isn’t Renoir in the way? No, he’s not, because the Modern Art “revolution” was never about progress—it was about turning people into sheep and junk into money.
The idea that Renoir is revolutionary in any sort of timeless sense, of course, is laughable—even Schjeldahl knows this; so he can only mumble something about “real life” and “cigarette butts.”
But still, Schjeldahl—and this never gets old—gives us the inevitable, “Modernity is dawning.”
Modernity. Ah, word of so many meanings!
What does it mean? Well, it means everything.
It means sex and fun.
And not only that. “Modernity,” you see, is inevitable, like the sun rising. It’s a new and crazy beat, daddy-o! And it has to happen. And it is always happening.
The most revolutionary act possible today in the art world—perhaps in the whole world: is to declare simply and loudly: Renoir Sucks!
No one would dare talk about Renoir today as Jan Gordon did in his Modern French Painters back in the 20s:
The first quarrel with the great public on the matter of art arose with the Impressionists. The little differences which arose previously, such as that with Corot—who was accused of giving cloud banks and columns of smoke instead of trees—and that with Millet, which was chiefly founded on amour-propre, never rose to a sufficient acerbity to include the general mass of the spectators. The critics attacked Delacroix, and accused him of giving them to corpses instead of human flesh (what did they think of Crivelli or of Piero della Francesca?), but the public passed by with, perhaps, a smiling shrug.
With the Impressionists, however, it became angry almost to madness. At the time of the Salon des Refuses many a Frenchman would gladly have murdered Monet or Renoir.
Jan Gordon goes on to say that—and notice how far away from Schjeldahl this is:
The Old Masters had noted that a material in light appeared often different in colour from that of its shadows; but they had, generally, so blended these colors that the colour of the material was never in doubt. They had gradually impressed on the public a fallacious notion of a burnt umber tree which was accepted with such faith that the green tree had to fight hard for admittance into art. When, however, a blue tree was presented to it, the public revolted. Yet, as a matter of fact, trees are often blue, and are very seldom burnt umber.
How blithely Gordon, in his defense of Renoir nearly 100 years ago, makes the highly dubious accusation that the “Old Masters” were “fallacious” on something as fundamental as light and color. This kind of pro-Modern Art argument is far more interesting, even if it’s a lie; but now, with the “revolution” long over, and wildly successful, no longer necessary.
And then we have John Dewey, a few years later, attacking the Old Masters in his LSD drug trip manner:
The fatal defect of the representative theory is that it exclusively identifies the matter of a work of art with what is objective. It passes by the fact that objective material becomes the matter of art only as it is transformed by entering into relations of doing and being undergone by an individual person with all his characteristics of temperament, special manner of vision, and unique experience.
Dewey bans the “objective.” Schjeldahl, living in a different era—after the battle has been won—can discourse endlessly on “cigarette butts.” Modern critics are objective or subjective depending on the atrociousness of the art which they are selling—uh, sorry…critically defending. And how softened-up—uh, sorry…receptive their audience is.
So is Renoir porn?
Study the “The Large Bathers,” for yourself. Put all the ‘art critic’ voices aside, and make up your mind.
What do you think?