The New Republic will from time to time reprint old essays on various subjects. Here is a 1923 piece by the formalist art critic Clive Bell, whose ideas about the nature of aesthetic experience have always seemed to me nearly universally wrong. That notwithstanding, I found his discussion in this piece of the connection between impressionism and paganism to be illuminating — one of the most concise explanations for why I have always disliked impressionism with such great intensity. A bit:
The cultivated rich seem at last to have discovered in the impressionists what the impressionists themselves rediscovered half by accident. They rediscovered paganism—real paganism I mean—something real enough to be the inspiration and content of supreme works of art. Paganism, I take it, is the acceptance of life as something good and satisfying in itself. To enjoy life the pagan need not make himself believe that it is a means to something else—to a better life in another world for instance, or a juster organization of society, or complete self-development: he does not regard it as a brief span or portion in which to do something for his own soul, or for his fellow creatures, or for the future. He takes the world as it is and enjoys to the utmost what he finds in it: also, he is no disconsolate archaeologist spending his own age thinking how much more happily he could have lived in another and what a pagan he would have been on the banks of the Ilissus. No, paganism does not consist in a proper respect for the pagan past, but in a passionate enjoyment of the present; and Poussin, though he painted bacchanals galore, would have been quite out of place in the world of Theocritus. Your true pagan neither regrets nor idealizes: and while Swinburne was yearning nostalgically for “the breasts of the nymph in the brake,” Renoir was finding inspiration for a glorious work of art in the petticoats of the shop-girls at the Moulin de la Galette.
Herewith my response and further discussion with Marc:
I’m not an unabashed enthusiast of Impressionism as a movement or particularly fond of many Impressionist paintings, but I nonetheless have a hard time understanding how someone might, with “great intensity” no less, dislike its products. So I decided to carefully consider Bell’s argument and came away rather disappointed and thus thoroughly unpersuaded. And while it is usually gratifying to have someone concisely articulate one’s visceral response to some idea, subject matter, object, event, what have you, I think Bell was quite over-the-top in his assessment. I find it hard to criticize the Impressionists in toto for helping us better see or appreciate the light and color of our (or their) everyday world, for it seems they’re here being castigated for looking upon what God and man have created, and finding it “very good” (cf. Genesis 3:1). And while Bell proclaims “[y]our true pagan never regrets or idealizes,” he must not have been thinking of the pre-Islamic poets of the Bedouin tribes who did both in ample measure. The social and cultural impact of the Impressionists’ putative celebration of life did not run deep: witness the unprecedented brutality and carnage that made up the next century’s carnival of death, World War I. Apparently the elites of European civilization found it easier to revel in death than life. And I rather think that it is not the case that the human subject frequently found in Impressionist paintings, a pagan par excellence one would surmise, “took life as it is,” and was thus constitutionally unable to regard life “as a brief span or portion in which to do something for his own soul, or for his fellow creatures, or for the future:” look again at Morisot’s “The Cradle,” or the women and children in Cassatt’s works (indeed, the general subject matter itself), I’ve always been intrigued about the young woman in Manet’s “Pflaume:” What is she thinking? And why do we care about what’s on her mind? Or spend some time with “A Philosopher” and tell me again this signifies nothing but “passionate enjoyment of the present“ (and yet there is, I think, nothing intrinsically wrong with that, as our Buddhist friends who have assiduously cultivated practices of ‘attentiveness’ would remind us). I might proceed with more evidence for the defense, but I trust this can suffice to at least suggest that Bell may have been profoundly wrong on many counts here, albeit enabling us to better understand why the term “Puritan“ has become a purely pejorative epithet.
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Patrick, fair points all, and far be it from me to defend Bell’s views too much, since (as I mentioned) I tend to disagree strongly with his view of aesthetic experience generally.
Paganism is, as you note, too various an experience to be captured well by any single set of descriptions. But I suppose that my interest here was more in a particular cultural reaction to impressionism which I was interested to see prevalent in the ‘20s, rather than in the description of impressionism itself (Bell tries to qualify the connection with paganism as to the latter). Bell describes a kind of here-and-now-ism, a mindlessness—in the real sense of absence of mind—which I find characteristic of much of the response to (and therefore of the contemporary love for) impressionism. Surely there are exceptions both in impressionist art itself, just as there are in paganism, as you point out as to both cases. But I thought it interesting to see that the cultural reaction to impressionism that I sometimes see today was observed by somebody else almost 100 years ago. It’s that lack of mind—it’s the ready enjoyment of splashy colors and easy pictures for the immediate pleasure that they offer, and the cultural point of view that such enjoyments celebrate—which makes me dislike impressionism—even intensely. Perhaps that makes me Puritanical, but I hope not (it will have been the first time anybody will have said so about me!). It’s more the ineffably, willfully, insidiously easy appeal that I object to.
Thanks again for the good comment.
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I suspect the “lack of mind” your refer to is more in the eye (and absence of mind) of the beholder than intrinsic to the art itself. In other words, such a response is, in a vulgar sense, purely impressionistic, and represents the inability to truly contemplate a work of art: it is to “see” without seeing, the artistic equivalent of Clark Griswold at the Grand Canyon. If one experiences one of the better products of Impressionism as a moment of entertaining instant gratification, the failure lies in the perceiver as subject, not the subject (or object) of perception. The surface enchantments (its ‘insidiously easy appeal’ in your words) are, so to speak, designed to get our attention, they’re invitations to something deeper, and thus it is the viewer’s fault if the light and colors blind him to the subject matter, if he stops at mere aesthetic feeling in a minimalist or literalist sense and fails to emotionally (and intellectually) engage the material close at hand. The Impressionists left their dark and damp studios to venture into the outside world, an experience that was, at first, and not just figuratively, often blinding or disorienting, something they in fact captured in an inimitable manner, yet they recovered their perceptual equilibrium, and so too should we: our judgments are better made from that moment forward. Its seductions are intended, in the end, to sharpen our perceptions and change our conceptions, they are not meant to leave us content with the status quo in any sense of that term. The Impressionists retained the perhaps naïve belief in the painterly possibilities of “alchemical experimentation,” unlike the cynical postmodernist artists of our time and place.
Bell’s description of a portion of the public’s response to Impressionist works might be compared to the “cultured” response of much of the nonsense that falls under the heading of “postmodernist” art today: art is here being “consumed” as a sign and symbol of conspicuous fashion and class “taste” by a wealthy public grown accustomed to enchantment by what is on the surface, by what “shines,” by “easy” money, and so forth. The mode of artistic consumption here is not the fault of the artist or the art but the commercial world into which the art is subject and circulates. What we are witnessing here is the beginnings of a certain kind of capitalism and its cultural consequences for the art world in all its ineffable, insidious, and willful glory. In short, I share your repulsion with the cultural response to and conspicuous consumption of Impressionist art by certain social groups, but believe the forces that shaped and perhaps continue to shape that response and fuel that consumption do not inhere in the art, properly appreciated, but are instead intrinsic to a certain sort of socio-economic world defined by a form of capitalism and the class or classes that stoke its fires. With postmodernist art, we generally find artists in full-fledged and uncritical cooperation with that world, their art structurally unable to critically or sufficiently distance itself from the powers of Mammon and or what Lewis Mumford memorably christened the “Megamachine,” indeed, deliberately or unwittingly colluding in the creation of its idols, blurring if not fusing the boundaries between the everyday world of Bell’s paganism or banal reality with “creative” imagination (in which case we need, as Donald Kuspit reminds us, theory and ideology to ‘explain’ its meaning). Impressionism is quite a distance from the fetishized and commodified art of our own time. In postmodern art we discover, as Kuspit points out, a regression to childhood and madness in the service of fun and games, of art as entertainment or marketable novelty and intellectual amusement.* The art of the Impressionists is in striking contrast to postmodernist works only too proud to proclaim or parade their bewitchment by “chaos, banality, perversion, and anti-sociality,” only too eager to serve (motivated, no doubt, by the allure of fame or fortune) as a clever artistic mirror for all that is narcissistic, narcotizing, and nihilistic in a society suffused with a technocratic and capitalist ethos. Oh my, who’s the Puritan now?!
* Please see Kuspit’s The End of Art (2004).