Author’s Note: The following was given as the James lecture at New York University on April 15. The nature of the occasion will perhaps explain the tone of provocative assurance used to deal with complicated and subtle issues which I hope to explore more fully elsewhere.
I want to discuss “the curious and mad public which demands of the painter the greatest possible originality and yet only accepts him when he calls to mind other painters.” Gauguin’s brilliant boutade is to be found in a letter he wrote to Emmanuel Bibesco in 1900 and it is, I believe, the most acute observation yet made on the theme of my speculations here: the break, always noted but never seriously analyzed except as a matter of polemics, between the public and a certain concept of modern art in the nineteenth century, as well as the consequences that this break, may have had for the nature of art itself. For Gauguin’s paradox seizes on the two conflicting (and often unconscious) attitudes toward contemporary art, the result of which are still with us: on the one hand, the search professed by virtually every writer of any significance for the new, the vital, the inspired, the unconventional; and, on the other, an almost uncontrollable distaste for just those qualities when (so it seems to us) they do in fact appear.
Let me begin with a startling and familiar example—indeed, I choose it just because it is so familiar. Just over a hundred years ago the journalist Albert Wolff began his article on the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876 with the following words:
The rue Le Peletier is out of luck. After the burning down of the Opéra, here is a new disaster which has struck the district. An exhibition said to be of painting has just opened at the gallery of Durand-Ruel. The harmless passer-by, attracted by the flags which decorate the façade, goes in and is confronted by a cruel spectacle. Five or six lunatics, one of them a woman, an unfortunate group struck by the mania of ambition, have met there to exhibit their works. Some people split their sides with laughter when they see these things, but I feel heartbroken. These so-called artists call themselves “intransigeants,” “Impressionists.” They take the canvas, paints and brushes, fling something on at random and hope for the best.
And so on….
Vulgar abuse, typical of the reactionary hostility met with by all great innovators? But Wolff, however mediocre, was in fact famous for his extreme liberal views in both politics and the arts. A homosexual and a Jew, he was pilloried by the right, associated with the opposition under the Second Empire, and claimed to be constantly on the lookout for young talent and to be eager to defend every kind of novelty. He was, according to Jacques-Emile Blanche (the special friend and admirer of Degas), a critic of the extreme left—in artistic, as well as in political terms (I will …