Nobody has a good day every day. Take Pierre-Auguste Renoir, for example. He lived a long and productive life, painting picture after picture. Some are beautiful, and end up regularly enshrined in art history books; after all, Renoir was one of the Impressionists, who are a sort of major sect in the religion that is art.
Then there are the other Renoir paintings, the not-as-good ones; voluptuous women rendered in spray-tan shades of orange, daubed and dabbed as though he had painted them blindfolded. In a long career, the potential for really bad art is high. If you go to the Barnes Foundation, in Philadelphia, you can see a comprehensive gamut of Renoir’s work. Dr. Barnes seemed willing to buy any Renoir he could lay is hands on, no matter how mediocre.
So Renoir, as an icon of 19th Century art, is a nice target for satire. The Instagram account Renoir Sucks at Painting grew into an ironic protest movement, even picketing the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Max Geller, founder of the movement, if that’s the right term, was interviewed by art journalist Tyler Green on his Modern Art Notes podcast.
The signs should tip you off at once. They have the unmistakable extremist funk that you see at some political events, and especially any event where the Westboro Baptist Church shows up. The WBC crowd have raised asshole-ery to a fine art, showing up to cast their philistine judgements wherever they can cause the most annoyance. They’re about as Christian as a cinder block, but not as smart. Sadly, WBC idiocy seems to be contagious, and the rise of the Tea Party movement seems to have brought more of this strain out of the woodwork. It was a clever conceit on Mr. Geller’s part to bring that form of outrage to the art world. It’s a satire on political extremist made doubly humorous by the change of topic. Is anyone really that passionate about Renoir? Dr. Barnes excepted, of course.
Thing is, a lot of people didn’t get the joke. Even art critics, who, to be fair, don’t deal a lot in satire – it has a short shelf-life, and is better left to artists than to critics – rose in Renoir’s defense. I won’t shame any of these writers for their missing the point, and I will only link to one. The key to good satire is the fine line it walks: right up to the edge of absolute seriousness, enough so people begin thinking, “You know, they have a point…” and then see the humor.
I’m not really surprised. Earnestness can blind people to the absurdity of a situation, and the art world has been attacked by ideologues before – remember the 1980s? But this protest is not an ultra-low-key, is-it-real-or-no, Harry Langdon-esque display. It looks like a joke because it is a joke. I’m sure you can provide examples that run the other way – political opinions, apocalyptic “prophets,” and the whole tin-foil hat crowd, who somehow seem oblivious to their own delusions.
Sidebar: If you don’t know Harry Langdon, go look him up, and watch his silent comedies. His reactions to situations are slow and childlike, earnest rather than broad. His delicate subtlety can be elusive. Walter Kerr, in his landmark book, The Silent Clowns, describes showing Langdon’s best feature film, The Strong Man, to an audience of film students. Their response: “stony silence.” Add earnestness to the lunatic intensity of political extremes and it can be very hard to know where, if ever, the joke begins.
I won’t go as far as to call Renoir Sucks “sophomoric,” as one critic did, but I think the gag has run its course. After a while, repeating the same routine becomes dull, or annoying. Comedians know you have to keep shaping the joke, honing it, introducing variations, or just dropping it when it gets too tired. Renoir does suck, sometimes, as does Picasso, Warhol, O’Keeffe, Koons, etc. Even lowly bloggers like me have off days.