Saturday, April 15, 2006

Type Cast 13

Moral panics over art are few and far between in the post-modern era, and aesthetic panics are non-existent. It’s a blessing and a curse, this complacency.

Of course, a work of art will still upset people and politicians – the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” exhibition earned the ire of Mayor Giuliani in 1999, and, just this winter, a handful of cartoons depicting the Prophet sparked violent clashes around the world – but such reactions are prompted by the content of the works, not their artistic value. Nobody complained that the cartoons of the Prophet were poorly drawn.

A new book by the London-based novelist and historian Ross King, a native of Saskatchewan, looks back at a time when the way a work of art was actually constructed, how it looked, caused social eruptions and even death. His fascinating history of the early years of the Impressionist movement, The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism, is not only a study of the rise of this now-beloved painting genre, but is also a history of a time when words like “ugly” and “repellent” were used to describe art without relativistic apologies.

The art world is full of people who were widely ridiculed before they became icons – the ravishes to raves story is a cliché. But it’s hard to imagine that paintings that now sell for tens of millions of dollars were once described, as in this 1873 review of an exhibit by Monet, Degas, Pissarro and Cezanne, as “debaucheries … nauseating and revolting”. And that’s just the mild stuff. Cezanne was accused being “no more than a kind of madman, painting while suffering from delirium tremens.” Manet’s work was compared to the work of lunatics in an asylum, and was generally considered ignoble and brutal. Wags in periodicals passed around the story that the new painters were all opium addicts and that they achieved their effects by loading their pistols with tubes of paint and firing the wet bullets at the canvas.

King’s book is peppered with such juicy jibes and misjudgements, but the book never bogs down with he said/he said (all the key players were men). Fast paced and wickedly detailed, King’s figurative and literal blow-by-blow of the scandals, intrigues, and outcries that followed his heroes reads more like a thriller than a history. The emotional core of the book is the compelling Mozart vs. Salieri-like narrative played out between the great Manet and one Ernest Meissonier, a forgotten painter who, in his time, was the toast of Europe. While Manet struggled to find acceptance, Meissonier glided through life, painting one precise but lifeless historical painting after the next.

As if all this drama were not enough, King layers his tale with a precise and politically charged history of Napoleon III’s oppressive Second Empire. While the French were busy modernizing and experimenting with new aesthetic ideals, they did so under the constant and murderous threat of political and legal censure. The art world of the day was a pale mirror of the truly treacherous political climate. Thus, The Judgement of Paris makes a strong case for the argument that Impressionism, like many great experiments, thrived not in spite of the dictatorial government of the day but because of it. Put simply, the stakes are higher for artists when they can go to prison for making unpopular art.

What can be learned from King’s recounting of this pivotal moment in Western art? As someone who makes and writes about art, I must admit that my first impulse after reading this book was to hide under the bed. What things have I written about art and artists that I now regret, or am at least willing to reconsider? Am I going to turn up in one of these books someday, as yet another idiot who didn’t know genius when it bit him on the bum? Critics, be warned.

My own neuroses aside, King’s book is an excellent study in how art can be both damaged and nourished by restrictions. While no-one wants to end up like poor Jules Holtzapffel - a painter who, upon learning that he had been rejected from the 1866 Salon (a government-sponsored exhibition of new art), promptly wrote “I have no talent … I must die”, and shot himself in the head – it is likely that had the Impressionists been fully embraced by the art establishment of the time, they would have disappeared or been co-opted by power. It was only their thwarted conviction that they belonged inside the elite club of artists that drove them to eventually become an elite club of artists (those that survived). Hunger for recognition is a powerful motivator, and nothing motivates artists like an entire social system geared to promote mediocrity and sameness.

Which brings me to the inevitable comparison between the time depicted in The Judgement of Paris and today. Conservative foes of public funding for the arts in this country, and even some decidedly not conservative artists, have been arguing for years that government-funded art leads to art that mimics the aspirations of the government – or, at best, to art that is inoffensive and palatable. I disagree, because I know that bad art gets made no matter who is paying for it.

But reading King’s dramatic account of the turmoil caused by Impressionism, of how people once marched down the boulevards of Paris chanting “Assassins! Assassins!” to decry the narrow-minded decisions of Salon jurors, makes me nostalgic for a time I have never actually experienced – a time when art and culture mattered enough to make people march in the streets.