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The Color of Monet

With impressionism you can have it both ways--radical subversion and pretty flowers, all in one rapidly appreciating package.



Sitcom Ellen is at an art gallery. For a reason known only to the show's writers she's brought her philistine pals with her, and they're now capering doltishly around, making embarrassing remarks without any respect for the art on display. Ellen makes one last, exasperated attempt to bring them back into line. This is a multimillion-dollar painting! she exclaims. The flower of civilization! Behave yourselves with decorum, as you would in any comparably important financial institution.

However we of pure motive may recoil in disgust from Ellen's simple equation of market value with artistic virtue, she expresses an increasingly common understanding of art and what it means. She's right in sync, for example, with a new TV commercial for the Oldsmobile Aurora that attempts to cash in on the Monet mania now sweeping the land. The car, this commercial insists, "could be described as a radical new art movement," as "audacious as Monet was in creating the impressionist movement." A typical Monet picture is shown hanging in a gallery to help us understand his radical audacity: nice Victorians relaxing in the soft French countryside. "But he was such a non-comformist," says a subsequent title, to which the announcer replies, "Yeah, but have you seen what his paintings are going for lately?"

Such is the state of the cultural economy these days: audacity, particularly in art and luxury car design, is more valuable than ever. A few years ago, newspapers teemed with astonished accounts of paintings, mainly the beloved impressionists, being sold for wildly inflated sums to investors, mainly Japanese industrialists. In London, home to many of the auction houses where the decorations of the Old World are transferred to the New and points east, investors pay close attention to the Daily Telegraph's "Art 100 Index," which charts the prices currently commanded by many of the masters: Warhol up five and three quarters, say, or Bellows off yet another 15 points.

As a result of continual hounding from investors and the marketplace, artists, to a degree greater than any group except their close relatives in fashion and advertising, know the intimate relationship that exists these days between transgression and investment. While previous centuries valued things like lavishness of display, verisimilitude, and piety, the various art movements of our time are united mostly by a common aim to smash art's traditions and stand bourgeois propriety on its head. But throughout their hundred-year dash to startle, defy, and violate decency in every imaginable way, artists have never been able to shock the bourgeoisie enough to make them stop buying. No matter how they twist and turn, spit and spite, artists cannot seem to escape that annoying throng whose lavish spending and childlike enthusiasm increase with every new outrage and insult. Just as the advertising industry finds it useful to promise that a given product will deliver us from the everyday, will "break the rules" or "resist the usual," so it is beginning to seem that an artwork's cultural value, and ultimately its investment value, is directly related to its subversiveness.

After all, the charade of cultural rebel versus prudish bourgeois is central to the workings of our society these days. Where would Hawkeye Pierce have been without the hilarious counterpoint of Frank Burns? And who would buy Tropicana Twisters or Cinn-a-Burst gum if their ads didn't feature a host of puritanical old folks cautioning against it? Rebel just doesn't work without prude. This is common knowledge at the Reader's Digest, a vigorous denouncer of offensive art which also doles out huge sums to artists every year and displays prominently in its offices a group of large photographs by none other than Robert Mapplethorpe. Gossip around Pleasantville has it that the photos appreciate every time Mapplethorpe is blasted in the Digest's pages.

Of course there have been certain, much-celebrated instances in which the artist's imperative of annoying the bourgeoisie was fulfilled so adeptly that the bourgeois in question was actually moved to bite back. In 1932 the Rockefeller family commissioned then-famous muralist Diego Rivera to decorate the entrance to the RCA Building, part of their great family edifice in midtown Manhattan. Rivera, though, didn't just aim to shock the bourgeoisie by making a bold statement on two-dimensionality or the nature of spectatorship; an outspoken Marxist, he decorated this monument to capitalism with a sly bit of red propaganda, a labor leader who looked suspiciously like Vladimir Lenin. The Rockefellers didn't give the painting's resale value a second thought: they promptly had it destroyed.

But impressionism, the favorite of Oldsmobile, Ellen, and investors alike, has never suffered such a fate. Impressionism has a magic quality that has allowed it to appreciate wildly over the years, to consistently lead the high-growth talents on the Art 100 Index. Impressionism, unlike almost every other school of painting, gets it both ways. On the one hand it is nice art, profoundly appealing to the very people whom artists strive endlessly to offend. (Relax with the smiling soft-focus ladies of Renoir, always enjoying a vacation at some modest pleasure spot. Luxuriate in the pleasant pastels of Monet, those soft pinks, purples, blues, and turquoises that can be found to match any suburban bathroom.) On the other hand, one never reads a discussion or sees an exhibit of impressionism that neglects to mention over and over again the impressionists' exalted status as the very first bourgeoisie-shockers, orthodoxy-resisters, and rule-breakers. Their famous rejection by the French Salon is viewed by many as the starting point of modernism, the original cosmic exchange between intolerant patriarchs and rebel bohemians. With impressionism you can have nice pictures of flowers and fantasies of persecution by an intolerant establishment, all in the same package.

The two make for a potent combination, and you can be sure that the Ellens of the world will never tire of the impressionist double whammy. She can both enjoy the pictures on the most uncomplicated level of all--they're so pretty--and feel like a nonconformist standing up to the prudes for doing so. The same strange logic that allows a bottle of expensive scotch to be marketed as a signifier of rebellion ensures that exhibits of the impressionists will always (1) enjoy long lines of suburbanites waiting their turn to gawk, (2) retain a certain amount of street credibility even as they (3) go for record prices to bankers and brokers anonymous.

Monet may be the most prominent beneficiary of this strange state of affairs--what with the giant exhibition that's just arrived at the Art Institute and the Oldsmobile commercials comparing his "audacity" to their pseudo-advances in "luxury performance car design"--but it was even more noticeable at the Art Institute's earlier exhibit of paintings by "Urban Impressionist" Gustave Caillebotte. Leaving aside all their obvious and less obvious merits (I must admit I was particularly taken by one rendering of an uncooked roast), it is evident that Caillebotte's pictures rank among the all-time libidinal favorites of the American middle class. You know the ones I'm referring to: nice-looking people in top hats and umbrellas wandering along the streets of Paris in the soft European rain. For many viewers the appeal is placid reassurance, no more. But the text that accompanies the paintings is stuffed not with references to Caillebotte's affirmation of the bourgeois vision, but with homages to his subversive daring, his positive defiance: we read of "Caillebotte's readiness to challenge the norms of picture-making," of his "unorthodox viewpoints and radical compositions," of his "readiness to subvert traditional themes and challenge even the norms established by the Impressionists," of how "Critics denounced this painting...because it was seen as subverting the natural order of male-female social relationships."

But the long lines of suburbanites waiting to purchase Caillebotte product at the gift shop (and the significant uptick in Caillebotte futures that almost certainly registered on the Art 100 Index) gave me an idea. Perhaps, through their enthusiasm for the soft niceness of the impressionists, the investors have put a formidable weapon in the hands of the artists. Perhaps, at long last, artists can shock the bourgeoisie and make it stick.

The underlying weakness of the investors' position is that ultimately they must rely on artists and critics, their putative arch-enemies, to tell them what to buy. Investors are terribly ashamed of their underlying boorishness, and they require the services of less materialistic experts to reassure them of their acquisitions' value--they only buy stuff when they know its critical track record is spotless. As the British financial publication Investors Chronicle noted in 1993, "The longer an artist has enjoyed critical approval and the higher the reputation the more secure his market value. Rembrandt, for instance, is critically unassailable, though since 1968 the academically weighty Rembrandt Research Project has been busy reattributing dozens of 'Rembrandts' to his pupils with disastrous consequences for their prices."

Armed with the power of their sanction and aided by a little organization and disingenuousness, artists could finally wrest control of the art world from those they so profess to loathe--could administer a fearsome fiscal spanking to the Rockefellers and anyone else who has bought art over the last 20 years, could cause a mighty crash on world financial markets and punish the international haute-bourgeoisie so severely that they would stop investing in and otherwise annoying artists for a long time to come. How, you wonder? Easy--by universally agreeing on one critical premise: "impressionism sucks." Repeat it to yourself a few times. Now add the words "banal," "shallow," "suburban," "confectionary." And then try this one: "Even the mature works of Monet are aesthetically less sophisticated, less cognizant of the two-dimensional, and at the same time more willing to conform to the social orthodoxies of the Second Empire than the casual drawings of, say, a playfully subversive figure like Bouguereau." Ouch! Such a line, repeated in enough museums and art journals, would cause the world's leading banks to collapse overnight.

As a gesture of good faith, I'll take the first step myself: I can't stand the impressionists. I hope I never have to stand in front of one of their pretty purple pictures ever again. The Monet exhibit? Revolting. Caillebotte? Sickening. I'd rather go to a shopping mall and spend the day reading Hallmark cards.

And as long as we're at it, let's go all the way: Diego Rivera? A genius, a true subversive. Warhol? A posturing conformist buffoon. The unknowns who illustrated all those WPA buildings? Dynamic revolutionaries in the raw, questioning every inherited piety of the 20th century (too bad you can't get those murals off the walls and sell them). Anyone who's ever executed one of those teeth-grindingly stupid ads for Absolut vodka? A certified commercial charlatan. Get thee to an ad agency.

Shock the bourgeoisie? Hell, we'll have them on their knees.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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