October 22, 2015

COLLINS| What Are We Fighting (Renoir) For?

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For readers who have not yet received their daily reminder of the intense strangeness of our modern world: a gang of protesters recently traveled to three museums to protest Renoir’s paintings. No, as Sebastian Smee notes in The Boston Globe, they’re not decrying Renoir’s anti-Semitism or any other related political issue. The “protests” focus purely on Renoir’s aesthetic, and the group’s name says it all: “Renoir Sucks At Painting.”


Courtesy of The New York Times

However, I struggle to call Renoir Sucks At Painting (R.S.A.P.) an activist group. It is, most simply, the material of an activist group, the elements of protesting deployed simply for the sake of deploying them. R.S.A.P.’s most impressive quality is the group’s ability to access every enraging, sophomoric, God-they’re-so-smug archetype that you would expect from aesthetic-focused protesters.

Describing Renoir Sucks At Painting lends itself to what I’ll call “the fact that” statements. There’s the fact that the group refers to Renoir’s work as “treacle” with such consistency that word shows up in nearly every article about the protests. There’s R.S.A.P.’s primary online social media platform: @renoir_sucks_at_paiting on Instagram. Their feed primarily features smarmy hipsters flipping off Renoirs in museums. There’s the fact that their protest signs are usually far too meme-based to be unironic (“Renoir was an Inside Job”) or outright stupid (“Renbarf”). There’s R.S.A.P. organizer Max Geller’s response to a counter-protester’s criticism, as recorded by Brian Boucher for Artnet News: “As soon as they try to engage with me they’ve already lost.” There’s this Huffington Post headline alone: “Leader of ‘Renoir Sucks’ Movement Challenges Critic To a Duel To The Death.”

Despite R.S.A.P.’s coverage in publications from The New Yorker to Hyperallergic, commentators have attempted to remain restrained in criticizing the movement. The presiding tone of responses can be summarized as: We get what you’re doing, everyone gets what you’re doing, it’s just not that cool. As Geller noted, if you damn R.S.A.P. for being sophomoric, you have to admit that you’re now wasting time criticizing them. If nothing else, R.S.A.P. has allowed a number of commentators to flex their “I’m going to call you an idiot without acting like I care at all” muscles.

Here’s Sebastian Smee concluding his piece for The Boston Globe, “If you want to stage a protest about Renoir, you clearly have other motives. Or no meaningful motives at all.” Benjamin Genocchio similarly wondered in Artnet News, “Even if an artwork itself is the direct subject of the protest, what is the expected outcome of the protest? Removal? Censorship?” Even The New Yorker’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl weighed in with the witheringly titled “Hating Renoir Is Just a Phase.” “If you must hate yourself a little for loving Renoir, do so,” Schjeldahl concludes, “You’ll get over it. And, when you think about it, who’s keeping score?”

Schjeldahl is commenting directly on the act of loving or hating Renoir, but his comment applies easily to protesting over aesthetics as well. Even now, I have a hard time chastising R.S.A.P. To damn R.S.A.P. for caring enough to protest Renoir, I have to admit that I am someone who cares enough about people holding self-serving, posturing protests against Renoir. But there’s that backhanded rebuke showing up again.

I also have to question how much of my dislike for R.S.A.P. grows out of the sad realization that protesting Renoir as “aesthetic terrorism” is something that I would find hilarious if I had thought of it. R.S.A.P. has accessed the weird, polarizing act of taking a recognizable framework and just beating the hell out of it. @renoir_sucks_at_painting on Instagram’s description still includes a link to a now-defunct petition: “Remove all of the literally awful Renoir paintings in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.” Of course, the petition calls not for the removal of Renoir’s paintings, but for their “de-hanging.” The petition condemns the detrimental effect that the “treacly [there’s that word again], puerile paintings have had on our nation.” And I get that, if my friends and I had written that petition, I would still be boasting to people about how hilarious my idea was, and how ridiculous and cool and uncaring of a person I am.

The most optimistic commentators have mustered a weak defense that perhaps we can all appreciate that people are still discussing art in the public sphere, even if they’re doing so in a very attention-seeking and simplistic manner. But in the end, R.S.A.P. is obviously not a protest about art, and it is certainly not a protest about Renoir if it’s even a protest at all. In the most generous treatment, R.S.A.P. expertly exposes the potential for absurdity in the way some form opinions about art. At least, that treatment would make sense if the art-world insiders and people-on-the-street alike did not so resoundingly respond: Like what you like, and don’t protest over aesthetics.

  • El Deplorable

    Right, a point I tried to explain multiple times.You even have the “Faculty & Resident” poster making the same absurd argument. I really hope that that poster is not a faculty member, if only for the sake of the students.

    • Denice Karamardian

      Wrong. Wrong wrong. If anything, Cornell disproportionately holds a larger piece of what would be taxable income to the city. Which holds the rest of us hostage, And Cornell continues to grow and shine, while the residents get nickle and dimed to death. Harvard and Yale are not as large campuses and they exist in cities with much more population to bare the burden of expense. It is a disproportionate burden in Ithaca and Cornell’s contribution has not grown at the rate the tax burden for the rest of us has. Rents have not increased in the 20 years I have been renting. My taxes? Another story. Expenses? another story. You don;t get it.

      • ✓ᴰᵉᵖˡᵒʳᵃᵇˡᵉ

        Who is ‘nickle & diming’ the taxpayers to death? Cornell has never paid taxes, so what has changed? So your rent hasn’t increased, great for you. ask your landlord how much his property taxes & fees have increased in 20 years. It is the county and city that have increased the tax burden far faster than the increase in inflation. Elections have consequences, Ithaca gets what it votes for.

  • aaronmhill

    Considering the following:

    1. The municipality is funded by a variety of taxes, including property taxes, which continue to increase and have an effect on rents for both students AND non-students.

    2. Cornell’s property is untaxable by statute, so any property Cornell owns, acquires, etc. is money that the City can no longer receive and creates an increasing marginal burden on the remaining property-owners.

    3. Cornell has continued to grow and has not provided any indication that it is satisfied with limiting itself to its present acquisitions.

    At what point does Cornell agree to stop acquiring new property WITHOUT compensating the City for lost potential revenues? When does it have “enough”?

    Consider the cost of living in town, due to the shifting of tax burden as CU assumes more tax-free properties ( ) – as of 2 years ago, the median household income in Ithaca was ~$30k (state median: $55k), and the median house price was $176k (nearly doubled from 2000). Someone earning $30k annually could never responsibly get a mortgage for $175k *AND* pay the absurdly high property taxes, in town.

    If CU conceded ~$5M total, instead of merely $1.25M, it would still be vastly benefitting from its tax-exempt property claims, but that $4M difference means that the city may pay off $4.8M debt and NOT have to take out new debt, while still holding fast on its budget tightening. This seems both sensible and responsible by both parties.

    Yes, Ithaca has benefitted from the presence of Cornell, but Cornell and Ithaca are not one and the same, and it’s not like Cornell could pick up and move away as if it were a Wal-Mart. What’s it going to do, move all its operations to their new NYC operation? I suspect they won’t find the NYC mayor as easy to push around, esp since I doubt their presence is land-grant covered there.

    Comparing this to a similar issue:
    “TCAT receives an annual, equal share contribution of $940,000 each from Tompkins County, Cornell University and the city of Ithaca.” ( ). So CU is funding 1/3 of TCAT’s budget… however looking at ridership statistics ( (pages 6+) the bus routes servicing Cornell are disproportionately used, and CU undergrads & employees are able to use their IDs as bus passes (IIRC, doesn’t CU pay a reduced rate per ID-as-bus-pass-use, as well?).

    The report separates the buses into “urban”, “campus”, and “rural” bus routes, however the majority of bus routes pass through campus (cTown to East Ave), and some of the buses, like the route 10 (CU Circulator) are classified as “urban” rather than “Campus”. “Campus” classification appears to be only for the bus routes that are intra-campus circulation ONLY.

    Also, with the recent increases in “Zone 2” bus fares, residents wishing to use the bus system to commute into town, because they cannot afford to pay the rising property taxes in town, are in a rock/hard place situation.

    CU’s relationship with Ithaca was once more of a symbiotic one (or at the very least, commensal), but as it acquires more and more property, it is parasitically strangling the municipality, and CU has historically bullied the municipality into toeing the line (cf. Ben Nichols negotiations several years ago) — I would love to see Myrick stand up to CU here and get some respect before Ithaca becomes a mere bedroom town for seasonal CU students.

    • I’d be careful with income statistics here- figures like median income from the Census Bureau include college students, which skews the numbers way down. The Census Bureau used to do a “Special Tabulation” to release adjusted numbers for college towns, but now that they rely on the American Community Survey data, the question to qualify whether or not someone has attended college-level classes in the past 3 months is absent. It’s an unfortunate omission for places like Ithaca, which could use the data as a powerful tool to separate the populations.

      Here’s the special tabulation from 2000:

  • El Deplorable

    They try that again and will be sued, costing the City even more money that it doesn’t have.

  • CU Alumnus 11

    And the award for “Most out of touch with the English Language” goes to: CU1!

    Congratulations! Your use of “inappropriate, disingenuous, deceitful, AND disgraceful” in succession shows exceptional detachment from the legitimate use of those terms. You could have been using hyperbole, but who could tell? Instead you come across as passionate and out of touch–a special (but not uncommon) combination!

    Sarcasm aside, the man is trying (emphasis on ‘trying’) to do his job, that is, build and support a city, pay-down debt and build credit, prevent crime, advocate, etc. Whether or not he’s wrong and whether or not you disagree with him, you discredit yourself and the good points you’ve made.

    Do you really think it’s ‘inappropriate’ for a leader like him to seek to solve his city’s revenue problem by demanding a greater contribution from an institution if he feels there is justification? That’s his job. For whom would it be more appropriate? Is it appropriate for no one? In that case, I bow to Cornell (which I revere, despite its flaws).

    Do you really believe he isn’t sincerely (see ‘disingenuous,’ above) engaging the Cornell and Ithaca communities on the matter? I’d say he sincerely wants to solve the city’s financial issues and sincerely sees a justified opportunity in engaging Cornell for more $$$.

    ‘Deceitful’ and ‘disgraceful,’ well, those are tougher qualities. The first is hard to ever puzzle out and the second is more a matter of personal option and politics, so I guess you could cling to those!

  • ✓ᴰᵉᵖˡᵒʳᵃᵇˡᵉ

    This argument apparently is as old as time. Rather then getting over the fact that Cornell is a non-profit entity and right sizing spending, Ithaca continues to wants more revenue to tax & spend. Cornell is the largest employer in the area, generating directly or indirectly the lion’s share of local residency & activity and powering an economy that makes Ithaca a pretty sheltered area from the rest of upstate’s dying economy. To argue (whine) that Cornell is not part of the tax base misses the point that it NEVER has been. So what has changed? Only the ever-growing size of government.

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