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The Avant-Garde and the Academy: An Exchange

In response to:

The Judgment of Paris from the February 26, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

Unusual for the usually circumspect Rosen and Zerner, was their shoot-from-the-hip verdict delivered in “The Judgment of Paris” [NYR, February 26]. In addition to several egregious bloopers, their prose was so shrill that it veered dangerously close to the Woody-Woodpecker rhetoric of Hilton Kramer and The New Criterion. The dogmatism of their assertions (“for this once despised [and still despised] style”) and their inability to distinguish among the various currents of interest in the pompiers (which runs the gamut from Left to Right) undermines the credibility of even their sound contentions about the role of art in French culture and the political machinations behind the Musée d’Orsay, Take for example their claim that none of the many exhibitions of official art organized in the last few years have succeeded in arousing public interest: in fact, the Bouguereau show in Hartford drew 12,000 more patrons than the museum did in the same period the previous year, and the French Salon exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta in 1983 outdrew the selection of twentieth-century painters from the Museum of Modern Art exhibited in 1982. Moreover, to contrast these regional efforts with the blockbuster shows of Manet and Van Gogh, backed as these are with the vast resources of multinational corporations and huge publicity campaigns, is tantamount to blaming apples for not being watermelons. But look what happens when a major museum such as the Musée d’Orsay decides to hang the dreaded pompiers: to quote Rosen and Zerner, “the crowds line up for three hours to get in.” No doubt the same situation will obtain when the Metropolitan Museum of Art finally gets up enough nerve to organize a show of Gérôme or Meissonier. In any case, the popular success of the Musée d’Orsay vindicates its attempt “to rehabilitate the academic or ‘official’ art of the nineteenth century.” Even our intrepid duo allow themselves to be caught momentarily off-guard when they proclaim as “the hero of the museum” none other than the pompier-sculptor Carpeaux, the pride and joy of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Second Empire government. Or are these spokesmen for The New York School trying to smuggle in an unsuspecting academician through MOMA’s backdoor?

Rosen and Zerner keep reiterating that the apologists for the pompiers lack the nerve to exit the closet and openly admit their preference for a Delaroche or a Bouguereau over a Manet or a Van Gogh. They see in this lack of outright praise for the pompiers evidence of ambivalence and even of veiled dislike. They are simply missing the point. They have lost sight of the historical process and have become so enmeshed in modernist dogma that they have overlooked the primary reason for studying the pompiers. They state that “no one with any appreciation of Manet and Van Gogh has claimed for Gérôme the status of Manet, or declared Bouguereau the equal of Van Gogh”—no one, that is, except the most relevant witness of all. Referring to his famous work La Berceuse, Van Gogh wrote:

I know very well that it is neither drawn nor painted as correctly as a Bouguereau, and I rather regret this, because I have an earnest desire to be correct. But though it is doomed, alas, to be neither a Cabanel nor a Bouguereau, yet I hope that it will be French.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of Rosen and Zerner’s highhanded attack on scholars of academic art is their need to uphold some presupposed sanctity of the avant-garde, despite what they themselves admit to be its “mythical” genealogy. They see themselves as standard-bearers, that is bearers of some standard of quality for a misguided civilization. Instead of doing their jobs as historians, they plead for the doctrinal and programmatic exclusiveness of modernism. This throws the shadow of suspicion on their motivation, since it would seem that they start out with a preconceived idea of a Beethoven’s or a Manet’s “greatness” and then proceed in tautological fashion to justify it. The task of the historian is to reconstruct and deconstruct the texts and images of the past and not to validate or invalidate them on the grounds of a hierarchical scheme of quality derived from a system of social relations based on dominance. Rosen and Zerner begin to wax repetitious, flicking before us in a kind of video replay the canonical artists and their artifacts. They would reject history and cling to an outmoded aesthetic hierarchy based on values inculcated in them by late industrial society.

If they must persist in their devotion to an absolute category of quality exempt from the ravages of history then why don’t they just come right out and admit that they are self-appointed Arbitrators of Public Taste? One clue to their elitist position is the madcap assertion that the impoverished Ecole students were necessarily slaves to tradition, while the modernist tradition was created mainly by artists with an independent income who could afford to spurn the Ecole’s seductive prizes. Aside from betraying their own class bias, their statement is a willful distortion of historical fact. Of the five avant-garde painters they mention, four—Géricault, Delacroix, Degas, and Cézanne tried to succeed within the Beaux-Arts system, while Manet totally immersed himself for six years in the academic methods of his teacher Couture. It is surprising to find Rosen and Zerner trotting out the long discredited fiction of an independent avant-garde rejecting categorically the contributions of their academic masters. But the modernists did not simply reject what went before but borrowed freely from the tradition those components that best answered to their aesthetic and ideological needs. Naturally, Rosen and Zerner want to disavow any linkage between the sketching procedures offered by the Academy and the technical methods of the avant-garde. Here I would only refer them back to Duranty’s La nouvelle peinture, the manifesto of the Impressionist movement. There Duranty maintained that true artists (read Impressionists) were less concerned with finished works than with “sketches, preparatory studies and underpaintings in which the painter’s mind, his theme and draftsmanship are often expressed more rapidly and in a more concentrated form than in the finished work, so that one gets a better idea of the grace and vigor of his style and his powers of clear and decisive observation.” This and many other of his statements hark back to the very foundations of the academic establishment.

We are now discovering that technique is negligible in determining ideological differences among painters at any given time; and as more and more studies are devoted to the pompiers we will find startling similarities between their content and that of the so-called “independents.” Rather than loom as threatening, this development should be immediately engaged as a challenge to the stereotypes of the past, both academic and modernist. What we all need to do is to examine the entire art community and its production in a given period and come up with something like a “semiotics of cultural production” demanding explanation in historical terms.

Albert Boime

University of California

Los Angeles

Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner replies:

Professor Boime is so pleased with his quotation from Van Gogh that it seems a pity to have to tell him that he has been misled by the standard English translation. It has a slight but important mistake, and a glance at the original text shows that it completely rules out Boime’s interpretation.

Van Gogh does not say that he “rather” regrets not drawing and painting as correctly as Bouguereau but that he “almost” regrets this (“ce que je regrette presque“). What he is saying is that his desire to be correct is so serious (ayant le désir d’être correct sérieusement) that it has almost caused him to regret not painting like Bouguereau, an artist he didn’t have much use for.

Even the mistranslation will not support Boime’s thesis, and he does not appear to have caught the ironic tone of the letter and, above all, of its references to Cabanel and Bouguereau. Van Gogh’s desire for correctness, however, is not ironic. His admiration for the traditional disciplines of design, composition, and draftsmanship is sincere; if he could have achieved correctness without losing the expressive violence of his color or his “frenzy of impastos” (as he called it), he would have been happy to conform to academic standards, but his priorities were clear. Boime has never understood that the attitude of the avant-garde artist to the Academy was not envy but nostalgia. The tradition represented or misrepresented by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts had to be recaptured independently and subject to modern conditions.

Van Gogh’s references to Bouguereau make it quite clear what his opinion was. He mentions him in another letter:

I already told Gauguin in my last letter that if we painted like Bouguereau we could hope to make money, but the public will never change and likes only what is sweet and slick.

(This last phrase is also poorly translated in the current English version, where the word lisse is rendered as “pretty” instead of “smooth” or “slick.” Van Gogh is talking about the glossy finish of Bouguereau’s painting, which he and Gauguin rejected.) If Professor Boime had really wanted to know what Van Gogh’s true evaluation of Bouguereau was, he would have looked up the other references—just as he would have looked up the original French text if he had wanted to be sure of his interpretation.

His polemics seem to us a waste of his time, and of ours as well. We looked up the original of the Van Gogh letter because we knew immediately that there was something wrong with the idea that Van Gogh wished to emulate Bouguereau. Boime, who is more learned about nineteenth-century art than either of us, would know this, too, if he had not been trying to evade what he found inconvenient.

The rest of his letter is put together with similar misinterpretations, ranging from the loony to the desperate. We were never foolish enough to compare the Manet show in Paris with a Bouguereau show in Hartford, Connecticut, but with the Bouguereau show in Paris—a blockbuster show at the Petit Palais, impressively publicized by the organizers and impressively shunned by the general public. What in the world makes Boime imagine that the crowds lining up for hours to get into the Musée d’Orsay are waiting to see the pompiers? Does he really think there would be the same patient masses if Monet, Manet, Courbet, Seurat, Cézanne, Gauguin, and the other established sacred cows of the avant-garde were removed, leaving only Bouguereau, Gérôme, Meissonier, Couture, Cormon, and the academic glories who so excite Professor Boime? If so, he is living in a dream world where his fairy godmother has just granted his fondest wishes.

As for his desperate attempt to oppose our claim that the modernist tradition was created largely by artists with an independent income who had no need to compete for the prizes of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, it is odd to ascribe this simple statement of fact to class bias, when we would clearly rejoice at a system of education that subsidizes the poorer students without refusing them the kind of freedom already possessed by the well to do. Boime’s counterclaim about the attempt of the avant-garde artist to succeed within the Beaux-Arts system is so flimsy that it is surprising he thinks he can get away with it. Géricault competed once for the Prix de Rome, was thrown out in the second round, and never tried again or in any other competition; Delacroix never competed, nor did Degas, and Cézanne never got into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at all and never tried to compete for a prize. Bouguereau, on the other hand, competed for various prizes of the Ecole at least eleven times!—and it cannot have been that easy for him, since he had been accepted into the school only as the ninety-ninth candidate out of a hundred. Perhaps this was his bad luck.

It is not just our opinion that it was an advantage for a young artist to have enough money to escape from the routine of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, it was Ingres’s. When his pupil, Amaury-Duval, asked him if he should try for the Prix de Rome, but admitted that his father would support his studies in Italy, Ingres cried:

Don’t go to the Ecole, for I tell you and I am certain (je vous le dis, je le sais) that it is a place of perdition. If you can’t do otherwise, then you have to put up with it (il faut passer par là), but one should only go there closing one’s ears [—and he made the gesture—] and looking neither to the right nor to the left.

Nobody has ever denied that avant-garde artists borrowed freely from the academic tradition; we have only remarked that their dependence upon Beaux-Arts training is being much exaggerated and was far slighter than that of painters like Bouguereau who went through the deadening experience of competitions year after year.

Perhaps Boime’s silliest assertion is that because we prefer the modern tradition to the official style, we are laying a claim to being “Arbitrators [sic!—surely Boime means Arbiters] of Public Taste” and believe in an absolute category of quality outside of history. Nobody except Boime is likely to be impressed when we say we prefer Courbet and Manet to Gérôme and Cormon. Nor do we think the modernist aesthetic eternal or unconditioned by the age: we have written many times, indeed, that it needs considerable revision. We do, however, think it superior to the equally history-ridden postmodernist tripe which is today being offered in its place, and of which the latest manifestation is the attempt to rehabilitate Hitler’s personal architect, Albert Speer (see Joseph Rykwert’s brilliant review in the Times Literary Supplement, March 6, 1987).

This is obviously the place to admit that our preference is probably as much moral as aesthetic. Professor Boime has a taste for the art that derives from the academic tradition, the kind of art not only preferred but demanded by the authoritarian regimes of Napoleon III’s France, Stalinist Russia, and Nazi Germany. It was also promoted and encouraged in America by government agencies like the WPA, but the artists here who refused to conform could not be systematically repressed as there was no centralized arts administration. We think, too, that the character of political conformity changed in the nineteenth century. There is an old joke about art and politics: “The expressionist paints what he feels; the impressionist paints what he sees; the social realist paints what he hears.” We cannot simple-mindedly equate the twentieth-century artist who obeys the dictates of the minister of culture with the Renaissance artist who attempted to please his patron. It is in the nineteenth century that independence gradually became not just a luxury but an indispensable artistic virtue.

Professor Boime has a right to his taste for official art and social realism, and he is not to be blamed for his inconvenient bedfellows. Lots of staunch, upright antifascists have shared his preference. He is not, however, entitled to present his approach as historically objective, or as value-free. An art historian who does not “validate or invalidate” the “texts and images of the past” is self-deluded, and his work is a fortiori nonsense; he has even rendered himself incapable of understanding the content of the works he examines.

The saddest phrase in Boime’s letter is “We are now discovering that technique is negligible in determining ideological differences among painters at any given time.” Surely Boime is not so naive as to identify the ideology of an artist with the way he votes. Why does Boime think that the paintings of Emil Nolde, a wholehearted and enthusiastic Nazi, were classed as degenerate art by the regime he so much admired? It is bad enough that historians like Dr. Nicholas Penny cannot tell the difference (in both appearance and ideology) between the slick finish of the pompiers and that of many Dutch seventeenth-century artists. But there is no excuse for Boime’s confounding academic sketches and finished modernist works, resurrecting and perpetuating an outmoded and foolish misunderstanding of nineteenth-century critics. He was at Columbia when Meyer Shapiro gave his famous but as yet unpublished lectures on Impressionism, and Boime should know better.

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