Putting a bit of passion into the arts

In an age where the arts are largely regarded as no more than signifiers of lifestyle choices, it is good to see some evidence of passion. The last time I wrote here about a protest at an art gallery, the protest was nothing whatever to do with art, but, rather, some infantile nonsense about wearing a kimono. But this protest actually is about art: people are protesting against the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (an institution that must surely be tired to death by now of protests) exhibiting paintings by Renoir on the grounds that … well, on the grounds that “Renoir sucks at painting”, and that exhibiting his works is nothing less than “aesthetic terrorism”.

I’m not really a fan of Renoir myself – I find his paintings too saccharine, too chocolate-boxy – but I’ve always put that down to personal taste. I have never doubted his technical mastery (but then again, what do I know?), and there have even been occasions when I have put all my reservations behind me, and found in some of his works elegance and charm – qualities that, I realise, mean more to me now than they used to in my younger years. I continue to have reservations about Renoir, but I must confess I have never thought of protesting on this matter.

“Les Parapluies” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, courtesy of National Gallery, London

I’d guess this is intended to be funny. Or, perhaps, as a friend suggested, this may be some sort of “performance art”. For surely to God no-one in their right minds can carry banners saying “God Hates Renoir”, and mean it seriously! I mean, they wouldn’t … would they?

So what else could we be protesting about? There’s little point protesting outside bookshops about their selling Dan Brown books – that would merely be stating the obvious, as no-one thinks of Dan Brown as a quality writer in the first place. It would be like saying Plan 9 from Outer Space is a crap film – we all know it’s crap, and indeed, its very crappiness is its attraction. Best to pick on a writer who is admired and acclaimed – Dostoyevsky, say, or Woolf. Wouldn’t it be great to launch a protest outside a bookshop demanding that, on purely aesthetic grounds, they stop selling Crime and Punishment immediately? Or to gather outside an art cinema demanding that they stop showing films by Jean-Luc Godard?

Let’s go for it! Let’s inject some seriousness and passion back into the arts!

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16 responses to this post.

  1. I am a little uncomfortable with a passion that is *against* an art or artist. Do we do it to maintain a standard or an aesthetic vision? To protest some honor the artist was not worthy to receive? It would be better to direct the passion to enhance – support – define – recognize the art and artists who are too little known and appreciated.

    Reply

    • Yes, I agree fully, but I doubt this particular protest is intended seriously.

      I generally try not to write on this blog about books and writers I dislike, since one is rarely very perceptive about what one dislikes. And it becomes all too easy to mistake subjective preference for objective judgement. Since no-one’s mind can encompass everything, sometimes it’s simply worth saying “This is not for me”. Or even “This is not for me yet. – since it is astonishing how one's tastes and perceptions may change over the years.

      As for this, I'd guess it's just a bit of a laugh. But then again, one never knows…

      Reply

  2. Posted by Mark on October 7, 2015 at 10:14 am

    I would say I’d like to protest vociferously against the sale of flipping Jane Austen novels – and that I could find a lifelong vocation in such an activity – but I’d better not for fear for being banned from Himadri’s blog… 😉

    Reply

  3. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on October 7, 2015 at 10:49 am

    Quite bizarre. Even if you don’t like a great artist, to protest is a little strange. Now, if we were carrying banners decrying the crap writing of books like 50 Shades, I could understand it… 🙂

    Reply

  4. It does seem silly to protest against art that doesn’t suit your tastes, but we seem to live in a time where everyone sees himself as a customer, and the world is nothing but a review site where we give life a thumb’s up or down. So I’m not surprised, and not a little amused.

    I confess that no matter how many of Renoir’s paintings I looked at, I never thought much of him. Until, that is, two weeks ago when I was standing in the Musee d’Orsay before Bal du moulin de la Galette. That’s one great painting, a brilliant work.

    Reply

    • That’s the problem – can’t figure out whether this is just a joke. If it is a joke, I must admit it’s quite funny. But like yourself, I do feel that there are many sufficiently narcissistic and sufficiently humourless actually to be serious about this.

      As for Renoir, my tastes usedto tend towards teh rough-textured, and the rough-edged, but with age, I find myself valuing elegance and charm – possibly because there’s so little of either in our lives, that when we find them, we recognise their value. The Bal du moulin de la Galette really is quite lovely.

      Reply

  5. Ah come on, this has to be joke.

    I mean, I wander in at three in the morning after five pints too many and this is what I get?

    I’m with Silversmith on this one. Except that I’m MORE than a little bit uncomfortable with clowns declaiming ‘aesthetic terrorism’ in a city that only in the last few years has seen real terrorism.

    If this is a joke then it’s not very funny.

    I have never passed a picket in my life; but I would have no problem passing these idiots. No more than I would have passing morons who tried to stop me seeing a Reifenstahl film –or, now that I’m really worked up — one of Ronald Reagan’s goons when he decided that Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Cross of Iron’ should be banned in case we get the idea that Germany had some decent soldiers in it.

    And this is from someone who loathes what Germany is dong to Ireland at the moment.

    I’m still thinking that even in this ridiculous PC world, though, it has to be a joke.

    Right?

    Reply

    • That’s the problem – with so many crazy people out there, I can’t be confident that this is a joke! Like yourself, I too find it hard that anyone could mean this seriously, but … who knows!

      I must confess that if this is intended to be a spoof of the kind of daft protests we so often see, then I do find it rather funny – although I do fully take your point that the placard about “aesthetic terrorism” is unacceptable in a city that has fairly recently experienced real terrorism.

      I think we’ll find out in time that this protest is itself a piece of postmodernist performance art. Or something equally life-enhancing.

      Reply

  6. Now that I’m sobered up, I can’t argue with that. And that in itself is crazy. We seem to live in this world now where ‘performance art’ justifies everything. Even dumping a pile of elephant dung outside the Tate Museum and calling it ‘Art’.

    Wasn’t Art meant to be uplifting once upon a midnight dreary? Weren’t we supposed to leave a film or a play or put down a book feeling uplifted?

    Sorry to harp on about my favourite film director Peckinpah again, but wasn’t he uplifting? Don’t you leave a showing of ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ thinking: ‘There’s a guy who really got Shakespeare’?

    This modern drivel ( he said, sounding like a grouchy old fella) where anything goes just irritates me.

    God knows that I don’t often agree with Sinead O’Connor but wasn’t she right when she said of the ghastly Kim Kardashian: “What is this c*** doing on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’?

    Performance Art: Kanye West sticks a mask on himself and announces that he’s a genius who will be the next American president. Everyone laughs.

    An RTE presenter announces that he is ‘gender fluid’ and wants to be recognised as a man or woman depending on how he feels that day. Everyone says how brave he is.

    Brave? Charging into a burning building to pull out a kid — that’s brave.

    Having the gumption to catch a fool by the shoulder and asking him to pick up the litter that he’s just thrown on the pavement — that’s brave.

    Give me a break.

    If there is such a thing as a soul then we’ve lost it. Angela Merkel is tipped for the Nobel Peace Prize? I thought THAT was a joke until it wasn’t.

    Listen, I’m as confused as the next guy. But I know what’s right and what’s wrong.

    If some creep tells me that they fantasise about harming children but that they would never act upon it even though they’re wired that way then it’s MY right to treat them with the contempt that they deserve. It is not their right to ask me to understand them because they had a terrible childhood.

    How did we ever reach this stage? Afraid to speak out about what is moral.

    You don’t have to even bother with believing in God — as that other prime jackass Harlan Ellison says (and he does get it right more often than not, annoying though he is) we’re born with a set of tools: don’t hurt people being prime among them.

    God, I’m glad I got that rant off my chest. Thanks, Himadri.

    Reply

  7. Posted by jacabiya on October 12, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Funny stuff, this protest is, and shouldn’t be taken seriously but as an invitation to discuss the art of Renoir. I have no idea about the credentials of the protesters, but I have seen many comments agreeing with them. And as someone said: “Amidst the satire are provocative questions: Who gets to decide what gets featured in museums? What sort of standards should museums follow? How does the judgment of art change over time?” Regarding the theme of your essay (passion), I know little about painting but allow me to discuss another art I am passionate about: cinema. You mention Godard and I believe it is for a reason: he is regarded as one of the great directors, but many can’t stand his films. I can relate with the protesters in that I could be tempted to protest some of Godard’s films, or most nouvelle vague films for that matter, and the films of another French, Bresson, who are widely regarded by connoisseurs as some of the best movies ever made. French criticism seems to dominate intellectual opinion on cinema, and I believe this has a lot do in placing “Vertigo” (championed by Chris Marker), a film that I love, don’t get me wrong, on top of the Sight & Sound 2012 250 list (an arbitrary yet democratic exercise) over “Citizen Kane”, and placing 5 Bresson and 4 Godard, and other titles like “Playtime”, “Jeanne Dillman”, and 2 Marker films, on the top 100, which I don’t believe belong so high in that list. I am, of course not alone in my opinion. Bergman, for example, found Godard “a fucking bore”. I, however, like the protesters, am not well-known, and therefore, if I’m to grab public, or even intellectual attention, and try to influence it I’m afraid would need to do something similar to what’s been done in Boston. But since I’m not as respected as Bergman, or Welles for that matter who didn’t care about “Vertigo”, I would need to express my opinion in fun, and it will nevertheless not carry much weight and be judged more harshly than if I were a recognized expert. All in all, criticizing negatively the work of someone else is not something one should do with pride, but it comes with the territory when it comes to art, which is inhabited by passionate people, and as you can see even the great ones are not immune to this weakness. And if done in fun, I’m OK with it.

    Reply

    • Hello jacabiya,

      The issues you raise are certainly very important, and deserve to be discussed with a bit less flippancy than my post above. I did address some of these issues in this post (I focus on films here), and in the comments section afterwards.

      Many years ago, I used to contribute to an internet discussion board on books, and many there seemed to have this idea that the canon – the “classics” – were decided upon by some mysterious cabal of literary critics and academics determined to foist their own taste upon the rest of us. I didn’t think it quite worked like that. As if to demonstrate my point, on another thread on that board, an academic gave a list of various 18th century women novelists who, he claimed, had been re-introduced to the canon thanks to the efforts of academia. I asked why, if that were the case, the writings of these writers were available only in large or specialist bookshops, and sometimes not even there, whereas in the classics section of even the larger bookshops I go to, the 18th century writers were still represented by the same old Fielding, Sterne, Richardson, etc. ? I didn’t get an answer to this, but it seems to me that academia’s attempts to define or to redefine the canon are very limited. Ultimately, the canon is determined by what I call the consensus of the cognoscenti – i.e. the collective views of readers who are to varying degrees interested in and knowledgeable about literature. Academics early in the twentieth century may have seen the merits of John Donne and of Gerard Manley Hopkins – both relatively under-estimated some hundred or so years ago – and have promoted them, but it’s because the poetry-reading public took to these poets that they now command such prominent positions in the canon. Critics and academics can do no more than suggest: it’s the readers who decide.

      I imagine it is similar in the arts world. I suppose it’s possible there are some great 17th century artists who were every bit as remarkable as Rembrandt or Velazquez, but who are unknown because their paintings are never exhibited. It’s possible, but unlikely, I think. The various art galleries exhibit not merely the Rembrandts and the Velazquezes, but a great many lesser-known artists whom only specialists really know about. If there were some underrated geniuses amongst them, I’m fairly sure we’d have found them by now. And if the art historians and curators are mistaken in valuing Renoir so highly, I think we’d know that as well. It may not be so obvious as in literature – where the “consensus of the cognoscenti” may be judged by sales figures over time – but if nothing else, falling sales of post cards and reproductions in gallery shops would tell its own story. Ultimately, it’s the public, or, rather, that subset of the public who take an interest in these things, the “cognoscenti”, who determine the canon.
      I’m afraid I too am a Godard-sceptic. Indeed, I have never really been much taken by any of the French nouvelle vague. Bresson, however, is another story. I don’t always get Bresson, I must admit, but films such as “A Man Escaped” or “Pickpocket” really seem to me wonderful. In non-English cinema, I particularly admire and feel close to the films of Satyajit Ray, Luis Bunuel, Akira Kurosawa. There are many other greats as well – Bergman, Fellini, Renoir, and so on. Most of my favourite films, however, are from the Golden Era of Hollywood.

      But, as in any other form of the arts, the canon, such as it is, is formed by consensus. My own views and tastes are part of the consensus, as are yours, but I don’t know that it makes much sense to claim that the canon should be consistent with what I, personally, may happen to think. Like you, I can’t see why Vertigo is regarded so highly. Even restricting ourselves to Hollywood, films such as Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Farewell My Lovely (the Edward Dmytryk version), The Big Heat, The Maltese Falcon , etc. etc. seem to me far superior as thrillers. But as I say, these films will all be in my personal canon way ahead of Vertigo, the views of people with credentials – such as Bergman or Welles – are bound to count for much more.

      Oh dear – I’ve rambled on a bit, haven’t I? Sorry about that…

      Reply

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