Sitcom Ellen is at an art gallery. For a reason known only to the TV show’s writers she’s brought her philistine pals with her, and they’re now capering doltishly around, making embarrassing remarks without any respect for the art on display. Ellen makes one last, exasperated attempt to bring them back into line. This is a multimillion-dollar painting! she exclaims. The flower of civilization! Behave yourselves as you would in any comparably important financial institution.
Being a nation of Ellens, there was little danger that we might misbehave at either of the two great Impressionist exhibits—Caillebotte and Monet—that swept through the Art Institute of Chicago last year. The Monet spectacular, in particular, was a marvel of bourgeois self-restraint: a file of art-lovers, at least five abreast, snaked patiently through the entire length of the museum, out the entrance hall, and onto the sidewalk. Once they had endured several hours in this line, a second queue waited inside, this one winding around the inner courtyard of the exhibit rooms. In the galleries themselves, jammed to capacity with awestruck white people, hovered an eerie, hyper-decorous silence. Without coaching of any kind, a vast throng of strangers had reverted to the rules of conduct normally associated with libraries or tombs or cathedrals—literally no one spoke.
Monet—and Impressionism generally—is a cultural miracle-worker capable of triggering pious, near-unanimous wonder on a scale Americans rarely encounter anymore. Decades pass, the economy slips, but Impressionism remains the golden genre, the magic formula capable of drawing the sturdy bourgeoisie of our homeland up in reverent mannered lines stretching placidly around the block. In those soft-focus Victorian scenes we catch a glimpse of that prelapsarian time when the rebel yawp of modernism—later to become so menacing and theoretical and satanic—resulted in nothing more threatening than pastel colors and nice renderings of lawn parties.
The appeal of Impressionism is a simple thing, really. More successfully than almost any other cultural offering available in America today, Impressionism brings the two most potent elements of consumerism—safeness and rebellion—together into a commodifiable whole duly certified by almost ridiculously sanguine market approval. This is why it’s the lawn parties and flower gardens of Monet and Renoir that win the public’s plaudits—never the dark Communard tones of Courbet—and why any exposition of their works must always make loud and public declarations of their subversive, radical, even revolutionary, daring.
Naturally a TV commercial gets to the crux of the matter most efficiently. A recent ad for the Oldsmobile Aurora insists that the car “could be described as a radical new art movement,” as “audacious as Monet was in creating the Impressionist movement.” A typical Monet picture is shown hanging in a gallery to help us understand his radical audacity: nice white people relaxing in the soft French countryside. “But he was such a non-conformist,” reads a subsequent title, to which the announcer adds the crucial final element, “Yeah, but have you seen what his paintings are going for lately?”
The magic of impressionism, the secret formula that keeps its prices so eternally high, is that it gets it both ways, enjoying the eternal approbation of both Oldsmobile and art professor alike.
The audacious nonconformist Monet and his valuable, valuable pictures: this is the golden combination our economy celebrates, whether in art or in automobile design. Despite their hundred-year dash to startle, defy, and violate decency in every imaginable way, the avant-garde has never been able to evade the almost mathematical relationship between transgression and market-value, to shock the bourgeoisie enough to make them stop buying. No matter how they twist and turn, spit and spite, artists cannot seem to escape that throng, waiting patiently five abreast in the lobby, whose lavish spending and child-like enthusiasm increase with every new outrage. Just as the advertising industry finds it effective to promise that a given product will deliver us from the everyday, will “break the rules” or “resist the usual,” so it is that an artwork’s cultural value, and ultimately its investment value, is directly related to its subversiveness. So just as the appeal of Red Dog beer is enhanced by the militaristic commands of those who would prevent the Dog from being his doggy self, and as Pepsi moves units with visions of the conformist losers who drink that other product, so the Reader’s Digest, a vigorous denouncer of offensive art, also doles out huge sums to artists every year and displays prominently in its offices a group of large photographs by none other than Robert Mapplethorpe. Gossip around Pleasantville has it that the photos appreciate every time Mapplethorpe is blasted in the Digest’s pages.
Of course there have been certain instances in which artists fulfilled their imperative of annoying the bourgeoisie so adeptly that the bourgeois in question was actually inspired to bite back. In 1932 the Rockefeller family commissioned then-famous muralist Diego Rivera to decorate the entrance to the RCA Building, part of their great family edifice in midtown Manhattan. Rivera, though, didn’t just aim to shock the Rockefellers by making a bold statement on two-dimensionality or the nature of spectatorship; considering his target carefully, he decorated this monument to capitalism with some doctrinaire bits of Popular Front propaganda. The Rockefellers didn’t give the painting’s resale value a second thought: they promptly had it destroyed, and the vagaries of the art world quickly put an end to Rivera’s celebrity status. Sixty years later the deed is almost fully forgotten.
But Monet will never suffer such a cruel fate. The magic of impressionism, the secret formula that keeps its prices so eternally high, is that it gets it both ways, enjoying the eternal approbation of both Oldsmobile and art professor alike. On the one hand it is nice art, profoundly appealing to the very people artists strive endlessly to offend. (Relax with the smiling soft-focus ladies of Renoir, always enjoying a vacation at some modest pleasure spot. Luxuriate in the pleasant pastels of Monet, those soft pinks, purples, blues, and turquoises that can be found to match any suburban bathroom.) On the other hand, just as the Red Dog never appears without prudish tamers of some kind for him to defy, one never reads a discussion or sees an exhibit of Impressionism that neglects to mention over and over again the Impressionists’ exalted status as the very first bourgeoisie-shockers, orthodoxy-resisters, and rule-breakers. Their famous rejection by the French Salon is viewed by many as the starting point of modernism, the original cosmic exchange between intolerant patriarchs and rebel bohemians. With Impressionism you can have nice pictures of flowers and fantasies of persecution by an intolerant establishment, all in the same package.
The two make for a potent combination, and you can be sure that the Ellens of the world will never tire of the Impressionist double whammy. She can both enjoy the pictures on the most uncomplicated level of all—they’re so pretty—and feel like a nonconformist standing up to the Man for doing so. The working of this strange logic was particularly noticeable at the exhibit of Caillebotte’s pictures, which rank among the all-time libidinal favorites of the American middle class. You know the ones I’m referring to: nice-looking people in top hats and umbrellas wandering along the streets of Paris in the soft European rain. For many viewers the appeal is placid reassurance, no more.
But the text that accompanies the paintings is stuffed not with references to Caillebotte’s affirmation of the bourgeois vision, but with homages to his subversive daring, his positive defiance: we read of “Caillebotte’s readiness to challenge the norms of picture-making,” of his “unorthodox viewpoints and radical compositions,” of his desire “to subvert traditional themes and challenge even the norms established by the Impressionists,” of how “Critics denounced this painting … because it was seen as subverting the natural order of male-female social relationships.”
But the long lines of suburbanites waiting to purchase Caillebotte products at the gift shop gave me an idea. Perhaps, through their enthusiasm for the soft niceness of the Impressionists, the investors have put a formidable weapon in the hands of the artists. Perhaps, at long last, artists can shock the bourgeoisie and make it stick.
If revisionism is the lingua franca of the art world, let’s do a little coordinated revising and agree on one critical premise: “Impressionism sucks.”
The underlying weakness of the position of the bourgeoisie is that ultimately they must rely on artists and critics, their putative arch-enemies, to tell them what to buy. Investors are terribly ashamed of their underlying boorishness, and they require the services of less materialistic experts to reassure them of their acquisitions’ value. They only buy stuff when they know its critical track record is spotless. As the British financial publication Investors Chronicle noted in 1993, “The longer an artist has enjoyed critical approval and the higher the reputation, the more secure his market value. Rembrandt, for instance, is critically unassailable, though since 1968 the academically weighty Rembrandt Research Project has been busy reattributing dozens of ‘Rembrandts’ to his pupils with disastrous consequences for their prices.” Since it is subversiveness and audacity that determine the prices of so many modernist works, and since artists are our acknowledged authorities on subversiveness and audacity, well then….
Armed with the power of their sanction and aided by a little organization and disingenuousness, the avant-garde could easily wrest control of the art world from those they so profess to loathe. They could administer a fearsome fiscal spanking to the Rockefellers and anyone else who has bought art over the last twenty years, could cause a mighty crash on world financial markets, and could punish the international haute bourgeoisie so severely that they would stop investing in and otherwise annoying us for a long time to come. If revisionism is the lingua franca of the art world, let’s do a little coordinated revising and agree on one critical premise: “Impressionism sucks.” Repeat it to yourself a few times. Now add the words “banal,” “shallow,” “suburban,” “confectionary.” And then try this one: “Even the mature works of Monet are visually less sophisticated, less aware of the two-dimensional, and at the same time less willing to confront the social orthodoxies of the Second Empire than the casually carnivalesque drawings of, say, a playfully subversive figure like Alexandre Cabanel.” Ouch! Such a line, repeated in enough museums and art journals, would cause the world’s leading banks to collapse overnight.
As a gesture of good faith, I’ll take the first step myself: I can’t stand the Impressionists. I hope I never have to stand in front of one of their pretty purple pictures ever again. The Monet exhibit? Revoltingly whitebread. Caillebotte? Sick-makingly safe. I’d rather go to a shopping mall and spend the day reading Hallmark cards. And as long as were at it, let’s go all the way: Diego Rivera? A true subversive. Warhol? A desperate conformist, probably on the payroll of the CIA like all those others. The unknowns who illustrated all those WPA buildings? Dynamic revolutionaries in the raw, questioning every inherited piety of the twentieth century (too bad you can’t get those murals off the walls and sell them). Anyone who’s ever executed one of those teeth-grindingly stupid ads for Absolut vodka? A certified commercial charlatan. Get thee to an ad agency.
Shock the bourgeoisie? Hell, we’ll have them on their knees.