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.