Culture War, Identity Politics

Renoir Is Canceled

Identity politics didacticism is taking over the art world.
October 28, 2019
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I regret to inform you that Renoir is canceled.

To be “canceled,” in the parlance of our politically correct age, is to be found to be ideologically “problematic” and to be banished from morally respectable “woke” society—not merely to lose a job or to be ostracized, but to be eliminated from all recognition of having ever existed. In the older terminology used by George Orwell to capture the totalitarian spirit of his day, to be canceled is to become an Unperson.

And it just happened, retroactively and posthumously, to the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who died 100 years ago.

The announcement came from Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, in a review of an exhibition of Renoir’s female nudes that the magazine titled “Renoir’s Problem Nudes.” That’s “problem” as in “problematic.”

A tremendously engaging show that centers on the painter’s prodigious output of female nudes, “Renoir: The Body, the Senses,” at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, sparks a sense of crisis. . . . The art historian Martha Lucy, writing in the show’s gorgeous catalogue, notes that, “in contemporary discourse,” the name Renoir has “come to stand for ‘sexist male artist.’”

What brought the New Yorker piece to my attention (and made it very briefly Twitter-famous) was the prudish neo-Victorian way in which Schjeldahl expressed the case against the painter: “Renoir took such presumptuous, slavering joy in looking at naked women.” Summon a docent to bring Mr. Schjeldahl his fainting couch. God forbid that the female nude in art should be sullied by the intrusion of unseemly male sexual desire.

As a matter of taste, Renoir is not my cup of tea, and Schjeldahl is onto something when he complains, of Renoir’s women, “Their faces nearly always look, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb.” But then he starts in with the heavy interpretation, asserting that this “[bears] out Renoir’s indifference to the women as individuals with inner lives.”

The evidence for this, at least as presented, is rather shaky. For example, “His models were often amazed at how little they recognized themselves in pictures that they had posed for.” (Pablo Picasso’s models were unavailable for comment.) This complaint seems to indicate a woeful ignorance of how artists work. The nude in art is not portraiture, and the painter is not a photographer. The model is there to provide the artist with inspiration and a visual reference for light, shadow, and anatomy—but the artist is producing his own vision of a female figure, not an exact reproduction of his model.

Then there is this bit of Talmudic overinterpretation: “Peculiarly, Renoir did grant the women wonderfully articulated hands, the body part hardest to render convincingly—good for doing things, perhaps around the house.” So “detailed hands” equals “barefoot and pregnant”? And all because of a critic’s “perhaps”? This idea that Renoir’s work is sexist has the feel of one of those judgments rendered by a “social justice” mob. Somebody asserts it, a few more people jump on the bandwagon because it seems edgy and brave and gives them a sense of power, then everybody else accepts it because they’re afraid they will look sexist if they defend him.

But what’s going on here is also something bigger: Political messaging about race and gender, indeed the whole contemporary ideology of “identity politics,” is now becoming the dominant standard for judging art. Schjeldahl makes that clear in this passage.

[Renoir]’s great, though, according to the standard of art history that values the refreshment of traditions by way of radical departures from them. . . . You can’t dethrone him without throwing overboard the fundamental logic of modernism as a sequence of jolting aesthetic breakthroughs, entitled to special rank on the grounds of originality and influence. The more politicized precincts of the present art world are bent on just such a purge.

Schjeldahl seems a little uncomfortable with this p.c. purge—though not concerned enough to take a stand in this case: “An argument is often made that we shouldn’t judge the past by the values of the present, but that’s a hard sell in a case as primordial as Renoir’s.”

Interestingly, while Schjeldahl quotes art historian Martha Lucy summing up the common view of Renoir as a sexist, Lucy herself offers a spirited defense of Renoir’s work, in a lecture that is really worth watching. She ends with this trenchant diagnosis of the source of the hostility to Renoir.

The current Renoir aversion, more than reflecting the actual goodness or badness of his art, reflects shifting cultural politics, a change in American art theory and practice, and a change in our attitude towards pleasure in art. Pleasure, once celebrated, now sets off alarm bells. It must mean kitsch, or misogyny, or bourgeois blandness, or—even worse—that we are not serious viewers of art.

It reminds me of an old Monty Python gag in which a sad-sack folk guitarist, used to fill space during scene changes in one of their live shows, declares to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve suffered for my music. Now it’s your turn.” Renoir is dismissed because angst and social criticism were not part of his subject matter. His paintings were too happy and pleasant, and if we’re not suffering for art, then we must not be serious about it.

But Schjeldahl’s rejection of Renoir is about more than his own pet obsessions—he has been hostile to Renoir for decades, following the influence of “abstract” Modernists who dismissed him as too realist. The more interesting part is that Schjeldahl now sees the grounds for rejecting Renoir as a challenge to “the fundamental logic of modernism.” That’s interesting because for a half century, Schjeldahl has been a kind of spokesman and booster for precisely that logic. Back in the early 1990s, Roger Kimball described him as a “mouthpiece for the pieties of the contemporary art establishment,” who could be counted on to blow enthusiastically with the prevailing wind of the latest art-world fad. Those winds are now taking him in a new direction.

*   *   *

Schjeldahl is actually right about the basic idea behind Modernism: “a sequence of jolting aesthetic breakthroughs, entitled to special rank on the grounds of originality and influence,” in which “radical departures” from tradition were the standard of value and the basis for an artist’s status. He’s not quite blunt enough about what the “originality” and “radical departure” consisted of. It usually consisted of the breaking down, the destruction, of what came before. Across centuries, previous artists had perfected techniques like perspective, color harmony, and the finely detailed rendering of the human figure. The Impressionists buried all of it under hasty brushstrokes and splotches of paint, and among the later Impressionists, deliberately distorted perspective lines. The Modernists ultimately dispensed with realism altogether.

By the time Schjeldahl entered the art-critic business, in the 1960s, this had largely been played out. When we get to artists like Jackson Pollock, whose paintings are simply canvases on which he has dripped random gobs of paint, what element of traditional painting is left to be radically departed from? Modernism as a subversion of traditional painting had nowhere to go.

Hence the eventual rise of political didacticism in art: After decades of highbrow art “commenting” on esoteric theories of interest only to critics and academics, the turn toward politics gives contemporary art some widely recognizable, emotionally engaging content.

Schjeldahl has been noticing this trend. The rationale of old-fashioned Modernism, in which cultural value consists in the negation of prior tradition, is now viewed—quite correctly—as empty. So what is filling that void is identity politics.

Hence, in another recent New Yorker column, Schjeldahl  that now, “Race applies as a condition and a cause for resetting the mainstream of Western art.” This observation—that “when art changes in the present, it changes in the past, too”—gave Schjeldahl “a dizzy sensation . . . of ground shifting under my feet.” Likewise, here is how he described the atmosphere at this year’s Whitney Biennial—a major trend-setting exhibition for works that art-world insiders gush over and nobody else ever knows about:

With scarce exceptions, the mostly youthful artists gravitate to identity or otherwise communitarian politics—strikingly, they are not, for the most part, militant, as if they had resigned themselves to ineffectiveness, but they appear entrenched. The show is about many things, but the irresponsible joy of aesthetic experience is only fitfully one of them. . . .

[Whitney Museum director Adam] Weinberg and the curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley bear down hard, in their catalogue essays . . . on invocations of historic crisis. Weinberg writes, “How do artists continue to work in the face of mass dislocation and migration, racism and xenophobia, the crisis of neoliberal capitalism, the rise of fascism, and the rapidly deteriorating environment?” I’d say probably as artists always have, by taking the world as it is and competing for glory in service to some social authority, be it that of religion or connoisseurship, billionaires or activist cohorts. The rhetorical challenge is to adduce a unity—akin to herding cats—among a multitude of self-centered interests and causes. Hockley’s solution is global paranoia: “There is nothing accidental about our heightened states of fear, mistrust, and anxiety. Unease is what we are meant to feel, what the stimuli we receive from our president, our media outlets, our twenty-first-century world are meant to engender.”

Again, Schjeldahl doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with this direction, yet he accepts the idea that art is supposed to “serve some social authority,” so who is he to swim against the current?

He attributes this new current to the fact that this was the first Whitney Biennial whose works were chosen after the election of Donald Trump. Certainly the reaction against Trump has fueled the rise of “woke” culture. But the woke-art trend has been building for a long time. A New York Times overview of supposedly trend-setting popular music in early 2017, only a few months into the Trump presidency, was already proclaiming a grand return to a new form of ethnic music:

In 2017, identity is the topic at the absolute center of our conversations about music. There may be times when this fact grates at us, when it feels as though there must be other dimensions of the world to attend to; “surely,” you moan, “there are songs that speak to basic human emotions in ways that transcend the particulars of who we are!” But if you look through the essays in this magazine, you may notice two things. One is that, unbidden and according to no plan, they find themselves continually reckoning with questions of identity. The other is that they’re doing this because the musicians are, too. . . . This is what we talk about now, the music-makers and the music-listeners both. . . . Artists have to figure out whom they’re speaking to and where they’re speaking from. The rest of us do the same. For better or worse, it’s all identity now.

Or consider the career of the artist who became a superstar after painting Barack Obama’s official portrait, Kehinde Wiley. As a young man, he learned the skills of realist painting, but he became famous because of the political message he used those skills to convey. Wiley’s signature works are paintings in the grandiose style of the old masters, but featuring ordinary, contemporary black people. There is a certain cleverness to this, to be sure, though the paintings are also painfully derivative—a Kanye West lookalike, for example, inserted into Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. It is a gimmick that derives most of its interest from its political message, and it’s interesting to note that when called upon to paint a black man whose portrait will hang next to those of Washington and Jefferson, one that calls for a literal treatment in the style of the traditional masters, Wiley’s work was rather uninspired, with the figure of President Obama disappearing into a weirdly floating hedge of flowering shrubs.

Yet Wiley is off to a career as a towering figure in contemporary art, and he just revealed his latest big work: a monumental equestrian sculpture ripped off from a statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, but featuring a young black man in the recognizable contemporary urban streetwear of a hooded sweatshirt. The statue was unveiled in New York City but is destined for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Virginia, as a sort of rejoinder to the long row of statues of Confederate heroes on nearby Monument Avenue.

This is a much better and more constructive answer to the Confederate monument question than others have been offering. But note that the value and meaning of this art is almost entirely derived, not from its own content, but from the didactic political message that it serves to publicize. The VMFA’s Valerie Cassel Oliver explains that Wiley’s “work builds on the iconography of power—how individuals are memorialized and edified. . . . It just seemed to be the right place to expand the conversation about monuments and who gets memorialized.” So it’s not a statue, it’s a “conversation.”

On his own website, Kehinde Wiley describes his evolution as an artist:

As an undergrad at the Art Institute of San Francisco, I really honed in on the technical aspects of painting and being a masterful painter. And then at Yale it became much more about arguments surrounding identity, gender and sexuality, painting as a political act.

Peter Schjeldahl is just starting to grope his way toward this new approach to art, but others have already gone all the way. One art-education website even describes “Identity Politics” as essentially its own school of art: “Wiley’s work falls into the category of Identity Politics, which is art, film, and writing, which deals primarily with aspects of the artist’s identity, for example race, gender, and sexuality.”

The director of the VMFA has said that Wiley’s monument is “the most expensive acquisition of a sculpture we’ve ever made in our history,” so this is really sending a message about what the contemporary art world values. Identity politics in not merely a new school of art. It is rapidly becoming the dominant school of art.

The new didacticism in art is, in effect, a revival of the Stalinist school of Socialist Realism, in which the purpose of art is not to inspire or delight, but to instruct the people on the correct political views. This will no doubt leach down from highbrow citadels like the Whitney Biennial, where it could go unnoticed by ordinary people for decades, and trickle into popular culture—as I have already been cataloguing—though on that level it will be limited by its lack of appeal in the marketplace.

What is more important is that this obsession with “identity” will leach from elite culture back into our politics, reinforcing our dangerous obsession with race—as it is already doing, on both sides. Art ought to enlighten and inspire. This art merely preaches, and what it preaches is balkanization and division across racial lines.