It can’t be in earnest, this headline. Can it? Did a human being actually strike the keys that formed these words that set out this accusation? And yet the evidence suggests we are not dealing with self-satire. Someone at The New Yorker typed the following headline: “Renoir’s Problem Nudes.”
Renoir’s nudes are now . . . a problem? After Sonny Bunch’s pioneering work on this matter — “Everything’s a Problem!” declared the headline on his important 2015 piece in the Washington Free Beacon — you might guess that thoughtful individuals would quell any tendency to attach the noun in question to things that nobody thought posed difficulties until 17 seconds ago. Few, you would think, would risk being That Lady who stands up in a packed room of enthusiasts to declare, “It’s a PROBLEM, I tell you!”
Yet while factories may have closed in the Rust Belt, in Cambridge, San Francisco, and Brooklyn, their modern successors are chugging to life: These are the new Detroits of the problematization industry. Journalists and academics tirelessly work the line, allowed only one ten-minute break every 15 minutes to refresh themselves at the Kombucha cooler.
What are the facts available to the prosecution in the case of People v. Renoir, indicted for multiple counts of being problematic in the first degree? Well, he painted nude women. But he didn’t just paint them nude, he painted them beautiful. Attractive, sensual, voluptuous. He liked his naked ladies, Pierre-Auguste. He thought you would probably like them too. Renoir’s nudes aren’t an interrogation or a subversion. He isn’t looking sideways or undermining expectations. He merely celebrates. Artists did that quite a lot in the 19th century. They didn’t know that 21st-century minds would acclaim art in proportion to how expertly it administered a cosmic noogie to the bourgeoisie.
Billed as the “first-ever comprehensive investigation of Renoir’s nudes” (“investigation”!), Renoir: The Body, the Senses, at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Mass. (through September 22, then moving on to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth this fall), comes with a thick catalogue of a trigger warning, by art historian Martha Lucy, that wonders how much we’re allowed to enjoy Renoir’s enjoyment.
Renoir has “come to mean ‘sexist male artist,’” according to Lucy in the catalogue, which bristles with reproving mentions of that toxic thing, the “male gaze.” Men enjoy looking at women, especially nude, and the feminists are on this. “It is now well understood,” says Lucy, “that Renoir’s images of women — particularly nude women — are problematic.” The paintings are also “widely understood as a prime example of what theorists and historians have termed ‘the male gaze.’” In his nudes, “women are passive, simply to be looked at. Deeply rooted in patriarchal culture, this dynamic . . .” All right, that’s enough of that.
New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl springs to his feet to endorse Lucy, saying the exhibition “sparks a sense of crisis” because “Renoir took such presumptuous, slavering joy in looking at naked women — who in his paintings were always creamy or biscuit white, often with strawberry accents, and ideally blond.” Renoir might not have been a misogynist — but then again, maybe he was. “It feels wrong to term Renoir a misogynist, though he was certainly patriarchal,” Schjeldahl writes, adding darkly that a letter in which Renoir celebrated “ancient times” when “women sang and danced for free” might be “worse than misogyny.”
Not for the first time, today’s hysteria-fueled feminism looks barely distinguishable from a Victorian-style hysteria-fueled feminism. Then: Don’t look at these nudes, they’ll ignite your lust! Now: Don’t look at these nudes, they’re objectifying women! Schjeldahl adds that “the tactility of the later nudes, with brushstrokes like roving fingers, unsettles any kind of gaze, including the male.” Renoir is unsettling? Art criticism enters the realm of Orwellian. Lies are truth, beauty is ugliness, and Renoir, that big comfy sofa of blooming luxury, is unsettling. Schjledahl throws in a jibe at the faces of Renoir’s models: They “look dumb,” which is further evidence that Pierre-Auguste was more interested in painting women’s forms than publishing lists of all the books they’d read.
Schjeldahl musters a half-hearted defense of Renoir on grounds that he was “revolutionary,” that he helped engineer “jolting aesthetic breakthroughs.” This, too, is backwards: The circumstances of the era in which art is produced, with all of the squabbles and obsessions of the moment, fall away. What endures, drifting further and further from historical context, is the intrinsic quality of the art. A work must stand increasingly on its own two feet as the decades pass; a century after Renoir’s death, his admirers stand less and less likely to be interested in boning up on whatever people were arguing about on Twitter in 1886.
Four years ago, in the year 2 P.M.T. (Pre-MeToo), a more prescient art critic wrote an essay entitled “Hating Renoir Is Just a Phase” in which he sketched out a trajectory of Renoir response: First you love, then you recoil to prove to everyone that you’re sophisticated, then you acquire a bit of maturity and accept that love was the proper reaction the whole time. This critic was Peter Schjeldahl.
Renoir’s canvases bound into your lap like a friendly puppy, Schjeldahl wrote then. Just so! And friendly puppies are great. Much more enjoyable to have one of those thrown into your lap than, say, a rusty pair of oversized hedge trimmers. Making rusty hedge trimmers, alas, is mainly what contemporary art does. Guided by the tastes of critics and academics, the museums and galleries fill up with the ugly, the sordid, the cruel, the bilious, the strange. Sophisticated arts criticism is what’s left behind after a laborious, slow strangulation of natural reaction (“Hey, that’s pretty!”) and replacement by an academy-manufactured cyborg programmed with a political module instead of an aesthetic one. Iconoclasm, interrogation, perpetual aggrievement, revolutionary fervor, the error of judging everything in the past by whatever the cadres of the unhappy are blaming for their woes today.
Should you go to the Renoir exhibition? Of course. It’s “a hedonist’s dreamland — a glorious celebration of the nude,” in the words of Lance Esplund, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Revel in the canvases, ignore the chin-stroking about “the male gaze.”