In Depth

You Can't Make Me Care About Renoir: Some Thoughts On Dead Sexists

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You Can't Make Me Care About Renoir: Some Thoughts On Dead Sexists
Nude from the Back, 1917 via Barnes Foundation

So, remember Pierre-Auguste Renoir? The super-dead Impressionist who painted pictures of thick ladies lounging in the woods?

 Composition, Five Bathers, c. 1918 via Barnes Foundation

Apparently we have to... engage with his artistic legacy, now, which is a shame, especially given the fact that I am at work and thus have limited access to the coffin full of Xanax required to make Renoir interesting. 

  The Bathers, 1919, via New York Times

There’s been a lot of weird criticism circulating on the subject of Renoir’s canon status lately, and I’d like to give my two cents on why a defense of his oeuvre is not only unnecessary in 2019, but totally extraneous to the point. It’s time to talk about red herrings, reading comprehension, and, despite the best efforts of both my employer and my remaining shreds of dignity... butts. 

Big ones. 

Lots of ‘em. 

Despite my skull-numbing distaste for the paintings in question, I’ll be close-reading Peter Schjeldahl’s review of a recent Renoir show at the Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown, MA in order to address the unbelievably bizarre right-wing blow-back he’s received from a range of outlets that all don’t seem to realize they’re all in agreement with each other. Why all the fuss about 19th century BBW softcore? Given that I had to read an article in Quillette to find out, I believe I deserve a small award, or at very least some, uh, Bitcoin—libertarians like Bitcoin, right?

Join me, fair reader, on this thankless journey through willful misunderstanding and dreary ideological rugburn—there is certain to be turbulence. 

 

THE MACRO: 

 Blonde Bather, c 1917 via View of the Blue

For context, we must harken back to 2015, a time when Hillary seemed like a foregone conclusion and man buns were considered fashion statements instead of red flags. The personal essay had reached its zenith online, and lily-white pop feminist hot-takes abounded on Twitter with the bold insistence of teenage acne. You couldn’t swing a dead artist without hitting some sarcastic re-assessment of a formerly infallible cultural touchstone; the “Hemingway” treatment, in pithier terms. As it turns out, a lot of brilliant men were also dicks. The dickishness of brilliant men, oft-chronicled and ethically fraught, began its metamorphosis from journalistic sub-category into taxonomical checkpoint—Thomas Pynchon? Sexist. Picasso? Screw him. ‘Cancel culture’ was in its infancy, and the somewhat Draconian in-group mentality typical of cohering progressive movements was gearing up for the big leagues of #MeToo future. Readers and writers alike were starting to grapple, if clumsily, with the conterminous forces of unruly desire and structural iniquity. Is it okay to love things made by bad people? What does it say about us if we do? In a waning Western hegemony defined by the twin tenets of moral panic and creative production, all this hand-wringing made sense. We all love stupid stuff as intensely as we crave collective adjudication. Everything hurts. Rent is due. Must we really pretend to hate Rosemary’s Baby? (Answer: it’s complicated. I’ll return to this discussion later). 

 Protest of Renoir at the MFA, Boston via The Verge

So, four years ago, Renoir’s ghost found himself under fire from a tongue-in-cheek Instagram account called “Renoir Sucks At Painting” run by a very funny troll named Max Geller who orchestrated a live protest of the artist at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Hijacking the brazen rhetoric of millennial Tumblr politic, Geller managed to spread his anti-treacle gospel to Huffpost, NPR, and The Verge, royally pissing off Pulitzer Prize winner Sebastian Smee in the process (my favorite part). Guggenheim recipient Peter Schjeldahl was even inspired to write a response to Geller, titled “Hating Renoir is Just a Phase,” a short and charming piece culminating in some well-balanced perspective. “If you must hate yourself a little for loving Renoir, do so. You’ll get over it. And, when you think about it, who’s keeping score?” 

Well, evidently, Martha Lucy is. Cut to 2019. 

 

THE MICRO:

 Nude Reclining on Cushions, 1907 via WikiArt

In her catalogue essay for just-closed Clark Art Institute exhibition, Renoir: The Body, the Senses, art historian Martha Lucy declared that the name “Renoir... has come to stand for ‘sexist male artist’,” a quotation Schjeldahl foregrounded in his review of the show for the New Yorker’s August issue. In her lively accompanying lecture, “The Trouble With Renoir,” the entirety of which is available on Youtube, Lucy maps the Impressionist’s fall from fashion, emphasizing his compositional anticipation of Cubism and uninhibited relationship with sensuality as simultaneous points of merit and detraction for contemporary audiences. Lucy delivered a lecture last year at the Barnes Foundation titled “Why We Love To Hate Renoir” that served a similar purpose: to identify sources of discursive derision and examine the social mores informing their shifts. This is an interesting project, one that necessarily exposes the thin, porous membrane between aesthetic delight and social conscience. In “Trouble,” Lucy argues that, while feminist critiques of Renoir were useful and accurate, they don’t tell the whole story of his impact. Viewers won’t transform into de facto misogynists by heeding Renoir’s siren call; we have not been “fooled into obedience,” in Frederick Jameson’s parlance, by virtue of enjoying a nude or two. Rather, she invokes literary theorist Wendy Steiner’s thesis that modernity is inherently “suspicious of pleasure” as a by-product of its own determination. Appreciating Renoir is not a feat of cognitive dissonance, then, but a testament to nuance, to deft critical thinking. This position works both ontologically and in the best interests of the Clark, whose admissions stats probably benefited from lending a tendentious veneer to an otherwise well-trod curatorial exercise. 

Schjeldahl largely agrees with Lucy in his piece, “Renoir’s Problem Nudes,” acknowledging that the while the artist’s figures “aren’t subjects, only occasions” for dense agglomerations of color, he remains “great” by “the standard of art history that values the refreshment of traditions by way of radical departures from them.” The critic goes on to make a case for Renoir’s legacy as a progenitor of Matisse and Bonnard, citing his artisanal background and track record of personal indulgence as direct influences for the painterly glucose that made him famous. None of these are particularly controversial observations, except for the cringe-fest Schjeldahl offers readers with assertions like, “Renoir’s women strum no erotic nerves in me... there’s no beholding distance from their monotonously compact, rounded breasts and thunderous thighs... their faces nearly always look, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb,” followed by a meandering distinction between “active” misogyny and Renoir’s breezy antipathy towards women in general. A first pass of the review made me wonder whether or not Peter was okay, as he had just tried to defend paintings by insisting that he did not want to bang them, but my second-hand embarrassment subsided somewhat after subsequent readings. I get what he’s going for; in her “Trouble” lecture, Lucy stated that presentist appraisals of Renoirs as simultaneously too pretty and too ugly point at a deeper complexity in the work, which more or less squares with Schjeldahl’s takeaway, however navel-gazing. Both parties gaze at these saccharine, voluptuous studies in flesh and see the hand of a brilliant man who was also, it seems, a dick. Both parties have located worth in the effort to retrieve Renoir from hasty and forcible obsolescence. I’m not sold, but who cares? I understand the impulse, especially in the context of an exceedingly careful critical climate; plus, the impulse is the actual point of contention, here. 

And then, the conservatives got a hold of Schjeldahl’s piece, and things got... weird. 

Before I move forward, a disclaimer: you’ll notice that, a healthy thousand words into this essay, I haven’t made manifest my own opinion on Renoir and his big-bottomed beauties. If I’m being honest, I can’t summon much in the way of reaction on the subject beyond a beleaguered sigh. Even as a kid obsessed by the alchemy of painting, Renoir never buttered my roll, as it were. Now I’m an adult with tastes informed by my environment and lived experience, and I find his pieces slow, sugary, and boring, perhaps exploitative, but almost completely devoid of real sex or any of its attendant adrenaline. If we’re talking problematic faves, I’ve always been far more invested in 19th century French academic painting, the Bougereaus and Regnaults of old whose lubricious, mythologically bolstered flights of voyeurism make your average Impressionist look like Judy Chicago. I can’t help that they move me; I find their content pretty indefensible beyond technical prowess, and even then, they never rival Renoir’s innovative spirit or historical significance. If anything, a Bougereau represents artistic regression, a concerted refusal of chance or change. I mention this attraction not to center my own proclivities, but to demonstrate that, in the context of the 2019 Renoir wars, they don’t matter. No one except for Martha Lucy is actually talking about the paintings, here. No, this is a conversation about the alleged scourge of political correctness on carnality, the neoliberal appropriation of feminism, and the choppy, trailing wake of #MeToo in visual art. Critics are using Renoir as a shell corporation for thorny negotiations on the capital 'B' Body and its discontents. What does art owe us in terms of moral high ground? Is the objectification of women negative if it’s beautiful? These are hard, layered investigations, and it appears that not everyone is equally equipped to participate. 

Let’s get to the shouting. 

 

THE SHOUTING:

Seated Nude, 1913, via Painting Mania

So, a few right-wing publications took issue not with Schjeldahl’s impression of the show, but with the fact that he called Renoir a ‘sexist’, which, to clarify, he never actually did; he quoted our old friend Martha Lucy, who stated that “Renoir... has come to stand for ‘sexist male artist,’"  an observation of a larger cultural trend that she goes on to refute in quite literally every facet of her academic career. (Also, Renoir... was... a sexist. Look at the letters. He was a 19th century French guy, for God's sake). If I were going to debate this misunderstanding in good faith, which I have zero intention of doing, I would concede that Schjeldahl believes Renoir was “patriarchal”; he ultimately deems this a more insidious position than straight-up misogyny, because the latter “at least credits women with power as antagonists.” I would also emphasize that Schjeldahl is defending Renoir not from charges of sexism, but irrelevance as a result of sexism. He acknowledges that academic and popular taste have dismissed Renoir as both chauvinistic and artistically specious, while arriving at the following stance; “He’s like a house guest so annoying that you might consider burning down the house to be rid of him. Let’s not do that.” 

I’m not going to spend a ton of time with the fine folks of Washington Examiner, the National Review, or Post Millennial, for obvious reasons, my blood pressure chief amongst them, but some of these excerpts are too extraordinary to ignore. 

From the Washington Examiner

“If even our shrewdest critics are dancing to the stilted and dissonant tunes of identity politics, there’s little hope... expect to see more artists accused not of creating poor art, but of antagonizing our modern sensibilities”. 

...Hm? 

From The Post Millennial:  

"We’re living in a weird time, where we don’t even know how to define the word “woman” anymore. She is not recognized by her shape or her biology, unable to be defined by language, and so indistinguishable from men that she may be a man, or a man may be she. We look upon classic renderings of nude women and we flinch, because they show us something about women that we have lost—namely, the ability to name them." 

...Wait... is this a dig at transwomen? 

From The National Review

"Not for the first time, today’s hysteria-fueled feminism looks barely distinguishable from a Victorian-style hysteria-fueled feminism. Then: Don’t look at these nudes, they’ll ignite your lust! Now: Don’t look at these nudes, they’re objectifying women! Schjeldahl adds that “the tactility of the later nudes, with brushstrokes like roving fingers, unsettles any kind of gaze, including the male.” Renoir is unsettling? Art criticism enters the realm of Orwellian. Lies are truth, beauty is ugliness, and Renoir, that big comfy sofa of blooming luxury, is unsettling."

...Did we all read the same review? (Also there’s no such thing as a ‘Victorian feminist’, Kyle, but... I digress). 

I’ll repeat that I have no vested interest in defending Schjeldahl or his opinions—he wrote a weird, meandering review of a dead Frenchman’s paintings that attempted to synthesize a constellation of common critiques, and he absolutely deserves to be roasted for all those awkward, lusty bits in which he, frankly, played himself. The piece is badly constructed, myopic, and odd. Still, I’m fascinated by the ire his writing stoked in a community of people who purport to loathe the things Renoir so clearly valued, like nudity, and fat girls, and fresh air. Even Roger Kimball weighed in, which... do I have to be sober in the office? H. R. will understand if I pour myself a gin and tonic, right? “Renoir’s Problem Nudes” praised Renoir, you guys! It recommended the show! It absolved the male gaze! What are these people nattering on about?

Since when do Republicans care about painting?

 

THE PROBLEM OF LOOKING:

Judgement of Paris, 1910 via Renoir.com 

I was content to titter in silence while I watched this mess unfold until a friend sent me the link to Marilyn Simon’s essay “In Praise of Renoir’s Male Gaze,” which was published in a magazine called Quillette on September 10th. Reader, I lost it. By way of background, Quillette mostly publishes pseudo-academic screeds against trans people and Muslims disguised as paeans to free speech; perusing its archives feels like being on a first date with a guy who won’t stop playing 'devil’s advocate' instead of, you know, complimenting your hair, or paying for the french fries he keeps stealing off your plate. Marilyn Simon, a Shakespeare scholar, takes the strangest path imaginable to her thesis that Renoir is worth the eye strain, which is to rail against Schjeldahl while lauding Lucy for being correct, undeterred by the fact that their opinions are pretty much identical. So peculiar is her approach that lengthy quotations feel required; please forgive me. 

After quipping, “The man evidently enjoyed the female form, and thought that sex and art were good things. What a monster", Simon continues;

“Schjeldahl’s description of Renoir’s view of women is, of course, entirely correct. After all, Renoir is famously said to have remarked, “I paint with my prick.” But of the many comments Renoir is reported to have made about painting female nudes, one stands out as most expressive of the feelings we see on his canvases: “A painter who has a feel for breasts and buttocks is saved.” As a woman and a product of a recent liberal arts education, I am supposed to feel outraged by Renoir’s sexualization of women, and by the fact that he reduced them—and would have reduced me—to breasts and buttocks. But Renoir’s statement was not about sexual objectification, but about salvation. What does Renoir mean when he says “saved”?”

Oh, dear

Simon wants to reframe our bias towards the “male gaze” in art by highlighting its proximity to delectation, a pretty run-of-the-mill rejoinder to its detractors, real or imagined.  She defines the problem thusly: “This gaze is, for Schjeldahl and many contemporary feminists, necessarily unethical because it turns women into passive objects and men into controlling subjects. Of course, those familiar with John Berger’s seminal 1972 text Ways of Seeing will know that the male gaze is not simply a way that men wield power over women, but that women use the gaze themselves as a way to gain power over men. If you haven’t read the book, a visit to any bar on a Saturday night will tell you much the same thing. What Schjeldahl has failed to appreciate is that the male gaze is not exclusively about power, but about the fantasy of having such power.”

Okay, so... there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with Ways of Seeing, which Simon has gleefully interpreted as a glorified Pick Up Artist manual. Berger does not, in fact, argue that women benefit from men’s unimpeded scopophilia as a means to “gain power”; he theorizes that “according to the usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man,” going on to assert, “in the art-form of the European nude... this unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women.” He concludes his chapter on the European nude with a stark bottom line: “Women are depicted in a quite different way from men—not because the feminine is different than the masculine—but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him…..notice the violence which that transformation does, not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.” Berger was describing the impossibility of power native to necessitated double-consciousness. He was detailing the cost of survival under surveillance. 

Ways of Seeing pre-dated coinage of the term “male gaze” by just three years; in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” film theorist Laura Mulvey proposed that the asymmetry of power between the sexes stems from the terminally heterosexual cinematic eye that renders AFAB bodies vessels for voyeurism. Her findings were derived in part from Satre’s concept of le regard, wherein the act of looking leads to the kind of insurmountable power differential that transformed the beheld into an object. According to that rubric, Simon’s conflation of foundational art theory with a Saturday night bar crawl tracks pretty well, actually. Low lights and hard liquor trace the boundaries of a modern hunting ground. We run interference, we watch our drinks, we invent boyfriends with intimidating hobbies. We flirt, or we don’t. We smile tightly. We take out headphones out.

Later in the essay, Simon doubles down. “Feminism is especially culpable in its assertion that the 'male gaze' is an instrument of sexual objectification and oppression,” she exclaims. “ It can be this. Of course. But to suggest that it is only this is to cut ourselves off from each other and the social bonds that can occur when we let go of our infantile narcissism.”

Wait... she's bringing Freud into this? Really?

“To insist that men are wrong to see women in any way other than how they wish to be seen by men—that is, how women inwardly see themselves—prevents us from reaching a fuller understanding of ourselves that can only occur when we begin to see ourselves socially and relationally. But it is also an impossible task—how exactly are men to start seeing women as women see themselves?—and can lead men to feel resentment against women who feel the need to punish them for being, after all, just who they are.”

Simon then reflects upon whether or not she would like to painted by Renoir, concluding that, after a flinch of reluctance she chalks up to vanity, she would relish the opportunity to have her self-determination temporarily subsumed by an exterior “gazer,” assuming that she would learn new things about both herself and the artist in the process.

She insists that “contemporary feminism” discounts the gaze’s potential to reveal men’s “vulnerable side” (I suspect this is an outpost of the “power fantasy” she named earlier), one that craves the “need for tenderness in a world that can be hard and unkind and which turns men into cogs within the economic machinery,” which I totally empathize with, because I, a woman, also have a job. (I’m joking, of course... I live in New York! I have two jobs!). We’re not done. “What hegemonic theory now sees as 'worse than misogyny' is nothing more than the opposite of androgyny” (... “hegemonic theory”. ... Does she mean dominant critical theory? Does she mean a theory of hegemony? Never mind). Finally, her dismount bears resemblance to old-school Scarry on bath salts; “These are paintings of yearning and of hope and through them Renoir can still instruct us, and breasts and buttocks may save us all.”

Before I return to Renoir, some quick corrections: 

  1. The ‘70s theorists Simon mentions explicitly outline why men can’t see women as women see themselves. Women are forced to see themselves as men see them in order to function socially. Men don’t view women as people because their objectification is rewarded and normalized. Welcome to Lit Crit 101. 

  2. The argument that untrammeled male lust is the “natural” consequence of sexual bifurcation is even duller than the biologically essentialist drivel from which it springs; it’s at worst a transphobic dog whistle and at best a self-evident foot-note on the extant realities of gender. Most reasonable people agree that there is a perceptible difference between the way men and women operate. They also recognize the cavernous distance between harassment and sexy thoughts or sexy pictures. Criticism is not censorship, y’all. 

  3. ...Again, Freud? Freud, girl? 

It’s note-worthy that both the Schjeldahl and Simon essays utilize first person accounts—his of fugitive attraction, hers of hypothetical subjecthood—since Renoir cared way, way more about consumption than individual resonance. Art historians on both sides of the problem seem united on his penchant for the impersonal; the nudes belie a fairly uniform sexual appetite, his milieus amount to little more than miasmatic back-drops. Major museums, feminist critics, and gallery-goers may have wearied of these fetishistic romps through un-specificity, but all this squabbling still feel inescapably intimate, entitled, even. I’d argue it’s not Renoir’s content, but lack thereof, that makes his paintings convenient sites of projection for political exorcism. He created luscious, easy cyphers, and cyphers aren’t hard to hide behind. Traditional masculinity is under siege, for better or worse, and the failure of lifestyle feminism to supercede its own corporatized echo-chamber disappoints and angers all manner of demographics in equal turns. I, for one, understand Simon’s frustration; there’s a puritanical streak to the hashtags and Instagram stories and op-eds women are supposed to ingest without question, a didactic repudiation of life’s inherent squishiness, the dangers we court in the back rooms of our hearts. Even bell hooks has separated herself from “choice” feminism—too white, too branded, too toothless. 

Plus, if straight, cis men are on the losing team of the new world order, what becomes of them? Do we allow their contributions to atrophy? Do we discipline every last infraction? Which punishments fit which crimes? I could itemize forty male contemporary artists who have painted lascivious nudes to great acclaim over the last ten years, I could mention that Lisa Yuskavage wrote an essay for the Clark exhibition catalogue, I could excoriate Simon with an endless barrage of Marxist feminist references that would knock her logic sideways, but each of those options presupposes an authentic interest in Renoir as the subject of her response. At the outset of this essay, I wanted my bratty clincher to ask, rhetorically, of course, where all this explosive energy was for Courbet’s nudes, paintings that ignite the cornea with their haunting, abject carnality. I planned to harp on Renoir’s bounding sameness, on the bloated, cartoonish sterility he couldn’t seem to avoid. But, therein lies the rub, right? 

Renoir works as a red herring for a slippery, right-wing agenda expressly because his nudes don’t elicit desire, that most twisted and ungovernable of ailments, but instead, nostalgia, the world’s most reliable opiate. Renoir trafficked in opaque, stylized shorthand for prurience because his paintings weren’t about women, but his dominion over them. Simon is absolutely right—we can learn a lot about a painter from his portraits of other people, and Renoir only painted portraits of himself. If Renoir’s gaze is stripped of its historical importance or irrevocably tainted by feminist critique, that condemnation reverberates far beyond a prissy disagreement about cancel culture and its anachronistic applications. Men might not be able to mask their “fantasy of power” as benevolent jouissance anymore, and that, reader, could start a riot. 

 Bather with Long Hair, 1895 via Allartclassic

Simon appears to slate comfortably into a category I like to call “post-woke,” populated by former or current leftists whose annoyance with liberal hypocrisy and fondness for Zizek (always Zizek, always) have pushed them down the slippery slope of identity political anarchy. Post-woke is sexy in the way nihilism is sexy; it’s unburdened of feminist party-pooping, it’s funny, and it pisses off nerds, moms, and Tik-Tok teens, the three most rewarding segments of humanity to anger on purpose. Paper straws suck. Roxane Gay is obnoxious. See? I’m seduced by it, myself; I wish I could find stylish ways to unclench my jaw and unloose my tongue as I see fit. I wish I could renounce activistic awareness en entire, and I so, so yearn to live guiltlessly. But I am nonetheless compelled to ask why Simon needed to warn us of the male “resentment” that might follow the “impossible task” of seeing women as fully human. I question her initial flash of horror at the prospect of sitting for an artist like Renoir. No matter your allegiance, common sense dictates objectification as a prerequisite to sex. Cards on the table—we all comprehend that the “male gaze” is not a piece of legislation damning men to a fate of obligatory blindness, nor does it begrudge individual dudes the sweet joy of ogling. The “male gaze” is theoretical jargon describing an almost impenetrable social construct that defines the conditions of female-ness. Simon positions herself as a woman whose fusion of the two denotes support of both. She’s too smart, too self-actualized for erasure. But, then, will men see her the way she sees herself? Or is that an “impossible task”? 

There’s no winning, here, I don’t think, so I’ll get personal, too; I can’t remember a time I’ve felt gorgeous and agential at the same time. Captivating, sure, privileged, exonerated, but always slightly frightened, aware of the exits. There’s precarity in the shelter of a cage. I took a man I was dating to a museum a little while back. As we lingered in the Impressionist wing, he smirked and pointed at a nude by Renoir, commenting that it looked like me. I couldn’t deny the resemblance. I’m tall, I’m pale and curvy, my hair has never been shorter than the middle of my back, and I should have registered his dictum as a compliment, but I balked, stunned silent.

He thought I was offended because the woman in the painting was fat.

I was hurt because she wasn’t a woman at all.  

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