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The Unhappy Medium’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Unhappy Medium from the May 27, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

Ideological confusion and cynicism now reign in the field of art history. Zerner and Rosen’s review of my book Thomas Couture and the Eclectic Vision [NYR, May 27] dramatically testifies to this outlook. Not only did they fail to consider the problems and material introduced by the work, they even retreated into a bizarre homage to Léon Rosenthal’s 1914 publication Du romantisme au réalisme. They avoided entirely analyzing the social and political implications of a painter considered “minor” from a modernist perspective. My intent was to use such a type to test the historical boundaries imposed by art historical orthodoxy, to get beyond rigid assertions and dogmatic categories. Indeed, their failure to consider the implications of Couture’s life and work in the larger historical context demonstrates their unyielding support of the status quo.

The clearest indication of this mind set is disclosed by their application of the term “neo-conservative” to my effort. Originating in the political principles of the group comprising Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Daniel P. Moynihan, and Norman Podhoretz, this term must be judiciously applied to current art historical thought. Would this movement espouse my attempt to challenge the modernist canon and to enlarge the art historical context by reinserting those artists whose work has been arbitrarily dismissed and suppressed? Their spokesman in art, Hilton Kramer, an avowed avant-gardist and neo-conservative, most recently denounced the radical mind for allying itself to “philistine taste and populist values” and claimed that modernist culture could only flourish within a “free-wheeling” bourgeois context. Thus the actual aesthetic position of the neo-conservative movement more rightly designates the attitude of Zerner and Rosen. Presumably, by implication they view themselves as “neo-liberals,” or perhaps even as “old liberals.” But these categories are empty of meaning unless they refer to specific political positions. As used by my reviewers, these labels become a reductio ad absurdum referring to the subject matter of research and not the method of research. Hence if scholars investigate the art of Nazi Germany they may be accused of harboring fascist sympathies. Nevertheless, since Zerner and Rosen based their review on the polemic implications of the term “neo-conservative” and its antithesis it may be instructive to examine in more detail their use of these categories.

According to the reviewers, alleged “neo-conservatives” are reviving the pompiers (the once fashionable nineteenth-century painters now rejected by the proposed “neo-liberals”) out of hostility toward the concept of the avant-garde; they are unappreciative of the research published on the subject early in this century; they cannot bring themselves to say that the pompiers are “wonderful” or even muster enthusiasm for the aesthetic merits of their work; and finally, they indicate a desire for “a return to the grand tradition, and a more impartial view of history”—in short, they are “rewriting the past to reform the present.”

On the other hand, it seems that “neo-liberals” would revive uncritically Rosenthal’s Du romantisme au réalisme; they are passionately committed to the avant-garde whose members may be praised as “wonderful”; they dismiss any challenge to their preference and despise the pompiers for their emphasis on intelligibility and content (forgetting that “pompous” was another sense of this term); define avant-garde painters as those “who changed non-painting into painting” and whose innovations supplied an account of change; claim that the only good pompier is an artist like Puvis de Chavannes who painted avant-garde images all along but never knew it; and finally, accept as given the avant-garde ideal without ever questioning the assumptions upon which it is based or specifying its precise content.

Ironically, Zerner and Rosen begin their review by lamenting the fact that historians do not repeat each other often enough, especially the ideas of Rosenthal who published his important book on the eve of World War I. Rosenthal, born in 1870, actually represented the first generation of art historians to have grown up with the myth of the avant-garde and advocate its supremacy. While he insists on the links between the art object and the historical situation, his views of nineteenth century painting are profoundly colored by a modernist bias.

This is especially true of his chapter on the “juste milieu” painters, the weakest section in an otherwise remarkable work. Here he arbitrarily selects a group of popular July Monarchy painters who evade the sharp classic-romantic distinctions (examples in other chapters like “La peinture abstraite” and “Tendances éphémères ou périmées” could have easily fitted into the “juste milieu” category), and deals with them in direct contradiction of his self-professed goals of objectivity. Their worst sin, according to Rosenthal, is their seemingly exclusive preoccupation with the subject: “This predominance of the subject is the clearest sign of the inferiority of the juste milieu” (p. 207). Delacroix and Decamps, on the other hand, paint subjects only as a pretext for an imaginative and picturesque arrangement; above all, “They are colorists” (p. 146). Yet he also recalls that Delacroix was irritated by those who saw in him only his coloristic traits, and proclaimed that technique should always be subordinated to the concept. Is it possible that the painter of Dante and Virgil, the Massacres of Scios, and Liberty Leading the People was less interested in his subject than his technique?

But Zerner and Rosen take as their point of departure Rosenthal’s assault on the juste milieu painters for their emphasis on subject matter at the expense of “aesthetic merit” and their disregard for features such as “the study of the exchange of colors, of reflections.” Zerner and Rosen recoil in horror at the observations that “painting for [the juste milieu] is only a medium,” and that in viewing them the “spectator’s eye goes right through the painted canvas to the scene or object represented.” Above all, they want to see Rosenthal’s study as “definitive,” as if his definition and views were fixed forever in a Neo-Liberal Heaven. Here the reviewers betray an absence of historical objectivity which overlooks the fact that Rosenthal’s views were shaped by the ideological needs of his own time: written when the Third Republic stood on the brink of war, Rosenthal’s study projects the taste of the dominant class for innovative cultural ideals to reinforce nationalist priorities and commercial competitiveness.

Another lack of historical concern on the part of Zerner and Rosen is their total disregard for the immense popularity of the pompiers in their own day; from the same perspective they ridicule Norman Rockwell—once the most popular artist in America—in our own. Conversely, it matters little to them that the avant-garde meant nothing to their contemporary public and constituted less than 1 percent of the entire community of painters at a given time. They accept as inalterable the validation “neo-liberal” art history has bestowed on the avant-garde and its relegation of the pompiers to the historical dustbin. Yet the recent revival of realism contradicts this assumption and underlines the notion of the avant-garde as a relative concept contingent on changing historical circumstances. The reviewer for Newsweek, writing on this subject in the June 7, 1982 issue, noted that painters who only a decade ago depicted recognizable images were still being considered the mediocre heirs “of the detestable academicians of the nineteenth century, while modernist painters—particularly abstract painters—continued to wage the vanguard battle for the serious values of high art.” Yet now that “late modernism has itself become an official style…it is now possible to argue that, in the last twenty years, representational painters have established an alternative tradition to the mainstream of late modernism.”

Zerner and Rosen also forgot that social and socialist realists in the 1930s, and revolutionary artists in post-World War I Russia and Germany, and in Japan, France, Germany and America during the 1960s debated these very issues, and often rejected avant-garde ideals as the province of the exploitative class and therefore antithetical to an “art for the people.” At the same time, these artists did not perceive intelligibility and emphasis on formal definition for the sake of the subject as incompatible with a progressive political position. Nor does it seem to chafe my reviewers that avant-garde types like Gauguin, Degas, and Puvis de Chavannes were political reactionaries or that pompiers like Gleyre, Delaroche, and Couture held progressive views at various stages in their careers. Listen, for example, to what Cézanne—the paradigm avant-garde painter—has to say in 1902: “Unfortunately what we call progress is nothing but the invasion of bipeds who do not rest until they have transformed everything into hideous quais with gas lamps—and, what is still worse—with electric illumination. What times we live in.” Couple Cézanne’s critique of modernity and cosmopolitanism with his anti-Dreyfus position and you have the avant-garde contradiction in a nut-shell.

Not surprisingly, it was this contradictory character of the avant-garde and the intransigent position of the “neo-liberals” that sparked the interest in the late 1960s in the pompiers: in a letter to the New York Times (September 28, 1969) I wrote that “the present generation…desires to explore our common assumptions about academic art, just as it wishes to question the policies emanating from the government and the university.” This attitude paralleled the general challenge taking place during the period toward existing political and cultural systems of authority.

Zerner and Rosen express astonishment that in all the “hundreds of thousands of words on Couture, Boime cannot bring himself to say that Couture was wonderful,” or that he “is a great painter—or for that matter, a good, or even very nice, man.” They see this absence of hyperbole as a clue to the “neo-conservative” position in general, as evidence of its failure as a “revival.” They recall that earlier revivals made extravagant claims for their heroes and monuments, akin to the unabashed admiration “neo-liberals” express toward the avant-garde. Here again the disregard for historical issues and political affiliations prevents them from distinguishing the conservative and reactionary elements from the progressive strains in such movements as Neo-Gothic, Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, Impressionism, Realism, and Art Nouveau. Thus they are unable to reconcile their perception of my work as “revivalist” with my lack of ecstatic effusion for the protagonists and their work. My interest in pompiers represents an effort to amplify the historical context by reinserting into history a group of artists and a body of work which the avant-garde and their “neo-liberal” supporters have tried to suppress. The unqualified praise for the avant-garde and the unmitigated abuse for the pompiers has seriously distorted the contemporary view of the historical situation and arbitrarily delimited the range of art historical studies.

Neo-liberals” refuse to recognize that the past is a mental vision—verified or disqualified by scholarship—that is constantly shifting and changing according to the needs of the economically powerful in a given period, and depending on what questions are being asked and who is asking them. They cling steadfastly to the belief that the avant-garde ideal was established once and for all, and now is absolute and immutable. It is transparent that not all partisans of the avant-garde tradition kept up this unwavering faith in the 1970s: Hilton Kramer, for example, confessed in the New York Times (July 13, 1975): “Even the most sluggish minds among us have begun to recognize that the avant-garde impulse has run its course. So thoroughly have the champions of the avant-garde achievement realized their aims that the idea of the avant-garde now constitutes a kind of academy of its own….”

The avant-garde triumphed in the university and the museum during the twentieth century because the dominant elite shifted its allegiance from the Academy to the modernists. To support this end, the Vanguard was taken to be with all its attendant insecurities, risk-taking, and bohemianism, a band of recruits whose function was an acting out of the ideal of freedom under capitalism—to demonstrate capitalism in its individualistic, transcendent aspiration. Capitalism encourages the production of visual artifacts of cultural change and rediscovery for the purpose of merchandizing, for the sake of class differentiation, and to exemplify its ideals of progress and dynamic growth. The myth of the “free” artist as a capitalist metaphor explains why movements like the New York School, and (in a somewhat more programmatic phase of production that acknowledges market forces) why individuals like Joseph Beuys and Christo have been so widely reported as entertaining, and entertained by, the wealthy. Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover of January 13, 1962 displays an imitation Jackson Pollock lovingly admired in a museum by a Wall Street executive fashionably attired in homburg and kid gloves. Rockwell and his “populist” constituency knew all along the connection being woven between modernism and the power elite.

One could speculate about the need of “neo-liberals” to identify with this relationship. Traditionally, art history, with its conservationist and connoisseurship functions, served privileged social groups. Art historians authenticated purchases, surveyed new areas of pleasure and investment, “revived” neglected artists, and even encouraged contemporary artists whose work showed an affiliation with the rediscovered painters and styles. In this way, art historians derived a good measure of personal satisfaction, self-esteem, and monetary support from their proximity to the rich. But when art history entered the sacred halls of academe, with its pretense at objectivity and academic standards, it could not easily justify its function as authenticator and evaluator for the rich. Historical studies, moreover, centering on art and its role in society could only reveal art history’s weakness as a social science. It preferred to stay close to practicing artists in university departments and resolve the contradictions of their discipline through explication of the system of formalism. This gesture toward objectivity in a perceptual sense was the great byproduct of the historically dislocated avant-garde mind set. Since influential groups then backed modernist practice, the art history professor and graduate student used the historically disengaged theory of formalism to guard their integrity while still grasping for the social prestige that the connection with the elite ensured.

This involved a combination of transparent hero-worship and sympathetic magic; they attached themselves to the great masters past and present in parasitic fashion, deriving self-esteem from the elevated ranking of the heroes they researched. These heroes, however, needed to be detached from history, propelled by an art historical time capsule into that transcendent realm where inhabitants are classified as “ahead of their time.” This “timelessness” lay in the formal values above all. Aesthetic merit alone made them “wonderful” and “great.” Hence formalism and stylistic definition became standard equipment for art history and could bridge art production of old masters, modernists, the art of the insane, primitives and children.

But the kill-joy “neo-conservatives” subverted this position by daring to investigate those classified by the “neo-liberals” as “mediocrities” and “second-raters.” This constituted a threat to those who earned their self-respect through their identification with “genius.” Furthermore, the “neo-conservative” approach tended to reveal the arbitrary character of these distinctions since it was clear from the most cursory examination that types like the pompiers had a profound grasp of Renaissance and Baroque design principles. In the end, the avant-garde position of “neo-liberals” proves to be nothing more than a desperate attempt to salvage dwindling social prestige and self-esteem.

It is this historical development that informs Zerner and Rosen’s anxieties over the juste milieu. Finding on the Left the burgeoning critical and social approaches to art history, and on the Right the (Norman) Rockwellian-Orwellian manipulation of both avant-garde and pompier, they retreat into the exhausted category of avant-gardism for its own sake. They refuse to recognize that modernism today fulfills the role of the pompiers in the past, and that study of the latter yields essential information for an understanding of the historical and social role of the former. The phenomenon of the hardened “neo-liberals,” and their resistance explains why art historians, akin to Rodney Dangerfield, “get no respect” from their colleagues in other disciplines. Given this scenario, it is easier and seemingly more worthwhile to have less respect for the subjects of study and more self-respect than vice-versa.

Neo-liberals” grasping desperately for the life-boat of vanguardism may find that it is the Raft of the Medusa. Zerner and Rosen end their review by claiming that the “neo-conservative” approach “is an old strategy: rewriting the past to reform the present.” But in reality it is theirs which is the old strategy: maintaining the status quo as if it had always been there.

Albert Boime

University of California

Los Angeles, California

I am grateful to Myra Boime, Sandra Dijkstra, Jacob Kaufman, David Kunzle, and Susan Rosenfeld for their collaboration in writing this letter.

Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner replies:

We can well understand that Professor Boime is angry if he thinks that by “neo-conservative” we intended to bracket him with Norman Podhoretz, but we only meant to indicate those art historians, both on the right and the left, who are trying to revive the academic painting of the nineteenth century—what would he like us to call them? Indignation has evidently prevented Boime from noticing that we agree with many of his points—and, in fact, made them throughout our three articles. In particular, we have repeatedly emphasized that the avant-garde ideal was not a fact but a continuously changing historical construction, and—far from being “absolute and immutable”—badly in need of revision.

Most of Boime’s misunderstandings have little to do with what we were trying to say, and require no comment. We, too, believe that the pompiers need study, if not rehabilitation, and we do not really care whether the neoconservatives admire Couture, Norman Rockwell, or Horace Vernet (apart from expressing our surprise that they should want to revive an art for which they have evidently so little enthusiasm). What concerned us was the now fashionable trend to assert that avant-garde and Academy are indistinguishable. Boime claimed years ago that the sketches of the pompiers looked just like the finished pictures of the avant-garde; we thought he was wrong then and said so, in a review printed in The New York Review in 1975. He now claims Gauguin is indebted to Couture, that Manet’s innovations are inspired by Couture and even that Couture is an eventual source for the painting of Jackson Pollock: we think he is even more absurdly wrong, and argued so at length. And we still believe, as we wrote in 1975, that “bad as it is, the old avant-garde myth has more to be said for it than the revisionist movement with its new worship of official reputations.”

One passage of Boime’s rhetoric should not be allowed to pass without comment:

Zerner and Rosen also forgot that social and socialist realists in the 1930s, and revolutionary artists in post-World War I Russia and Germany and in Japan, France, Germany and America during the 1960s debated these very issues, and often rejected avant-garde ideals as the province of the exploitative class and therefore antithetical to an “art for the people.”

To this tendentious list of progressive social realists who rejected avant-garde ideals from the 1930s on should be added the men in power in both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. We, too, believe that politics and art are connected, but the relationship is less primitive than Boime thinks.

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