Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Man Who Ruined Painting

[posted by Callimachus]

Courbet, believe it or not. Whose work (with one or two exceptions) seems so mild now. Some interesting insights in the conclusion of this book review:

Courbet “paved the way for modernism in art,” Chu writes in the last sentence of her book. The praise is fully justified but remarkably uninspiring, in the sordid light that Chu’s critical approach casts on the emergence of modern sensibility. Her Courbet “opened a perspective on a new culture in the art world in which the public’s approval was valued higher than that of the government or an official élite, and money was seen as a more legitimate gauge of artistic success than official honors.” He “demonstrated that controversy need not be harmful to an artist’s reputation, as it was just another form of publicity.”

Hooray? Variations on those terms, often employing the shorthand “hype and fashion,” pop up perennially both in conservative denunciations of new wrinkles in art and in leftish critiques of capitalist culture. Baudelaire had entertained no illusions about art’s new social dispensation, writing with bitter resignation in the prologue, “To the Bourgeois,” of his “Salon of 1846”: “You are the majority, in number and intelligence; therefore you are power; and power is justice.” Setting his own sights elsewhere—“Anywhere out of this world!” he specified in a poem—he saw that the fate of true artists would henceforth involve forms of internal exile, even in bright circles of cosmopolitan fame. That sort of compunction was lost on Courbet, and it is hard to imagine, let alone detect, in the conduct of the art world today. It is a virtue that, on the evidence of disenthralled art-historical work like Chu’s, no longer enjoins the tribute of lip service. Dirty laundry has become the emperor’s new clothes.