The Party of the Institutionalized Revolution.
Monet and Jeff Wall in Chicago.
( Claude Monet: 1840-1926 at The Art Institute of Chicago, Jeff Wall at The Museum of Contemporary Art.)
The whole history of modern art runs between Claude Monet and Jeff Wall. The happy coincidence in Chicago this summer of shows of these artists—the Avant-Garde’s Abraham and its Jeremiah—underscored the ways through which each of them exploits their framework in order to subjugate his audience’s expectations, and thus accentuated the cosmetics in which vanguard artists, from beginning to end, have often made themselves up in order emanate the aroma of contemporary-ness found so irresistible by our artworld.
The closest thing to an agreement among the disparate embodiments of vanguardism is the disdain for the Paris’ Salon of the mid-eighteen hundreds, a disposition Wall and Monet utilize to their advantage. So determinant is our abhorrence for the Salon that artworks are read, judged, admired or condemned by us in terms of a Before the Salon/After the Salon schism: Practices we tolerate before the Salon (i.e. mythological or religious subjects) are no longer endured afterwards. Still, in the XIX C. academycists’ view their disgreement with the moderns was largely a matter of packaging: The complaints against the proto-modernists who managed to show in the Salon in the 1860’s and 70’s had to do mostly with their pictures’ lack of “finish,” which was read as either the forgivable expression of youthful vitality, or as right out ineptness. Indeed, the young Monet’s early Salon paintings such as Le Pavé de Chailly (1864) and Camille (1865) were able to elicit a balance between these two readings. But, with Manet very much in mind, he was anxious to showing himself as a brilliant and fittingly controversial talent. “To Cause a Stir” was to become the the Avant-Garde’s motto, but also upstart artists within the Salon needed to device means by which to draw attention to their work among the stacks of hundreds of paintings. The problem for the more temperamental of them was, of course, getting a potentially controversial work through the selection jury. Monet’s subvenience to Manet hinted to the size of Monet’s aspirations, yet it proved disastrous. The youthful Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1865), a large and rather banal take on Manet’s own Déjeuner , announced Monet’s forthcoming retinal aesthetic, but it lacked the contextual subtleties of Manet’s treatment of the allegorical fête champêtre. Although his Déjeuner was never completed, Monet submitted his Femmes au Jardin for the Salon of 1866, a weirdly composed tableaux that managed to somewhat resolve his Déjeuner ‘s shortcomings, as well as to almost evoke a slippery narrative of the sort Manet enjoyed (almost, because up to this day it is hard to know for sure what the hell this painting is about.) But failing to mimmic Manet’s balancing act at staying at the edge of what could pass as barely acceptable for his public, Femmes au Jardin was duly rejected from the Salon, deprived from causing the stir its author aimed at. (Monet eventually made a few paintings expressly calculated to get into the 1880 Salon, one of which was accepted, at a time he felt he needed to cement his reputation as a serious and mature artist.)
By the 1870’s and well into the 80’s a modest market was opening up for anti-establishment art, supported by the likes of Zola for its “sincerity”— the refusés became the independént. After breaking with the Salon, Monet’s increasingly experimental output proportionately asserted his autonomy. The inconsonance of these decades’ landscapes has been sold to more modern minded audiences as the natural product of the spontaneous stroke of raw and unprejudiced genius. However, insofar Monet was known to destroy many paintings of his which didn’t live up to his expectations, why didn’t his well ruminated filtering do away with the many flops the Art Institute proudly displayed in public for the firs time? Perhaps his aesthetic vision was too radical even for his own aesthetic judgment, perhaps he had to spawn paintings en masse when he was financially pressed. But perhaps what we would be likely to think he would do away with, he actually kept, and vice versa. My point is that Monet’s pictorial decisions in his plein-air landscapes of this period were to an extent of a reactive sort—such as to show his viewers the very opposite of what they were accustomed to in a finished picture, and his “failed” paintings did this best: Besides his trademark color treatment, Monet was thoughtful enough to make them look as if they were painted damn fast, to avoid visual and narrative centers of attention, to ignore perspective by choosing views that do not contain deepening orthogonals, and to shun compositional dynamics so that the images remain unbalanced but also static. It is thus likely that Monet’s failed pictures were expressly aimed at being utterly unarresting, just as they indeed are.
The genuine Avant-Garde is said to have had run its course in the trenches of WWI. Nonetheless, its spirit still roams, fueling everything from art-education to the art-market of the day. But the later breeds of vanguardists share less a manifesto than simply a taste-shaping attitude; that of sympathizing in principle—given the discredited standing of truth and beauty as aesthetic ends—with whatever practices be taken at the time as expressions of contemporary-ness and progressive-ness, and thus assumed to being, ultimately, relevant. Jeff Wall has proven most efficient at convincing us that his work is such. . His signature lightboxes are paradigms of contemporary-chic: They are original, spectacular, elegant, technologically up-to-date, and on top of all—also in Manet’s spirit—address the grand subjects of the day—modern politics, predatory social relations, commerce, existential alienation, the environment’s alteration, suburbia. And keeping in with Avant-Garde protocol, controversy could not have been overlooked: For all his vanguardist soul Wall claims “…to make pictures in the traditional way… although…with an effect opposite to that of technically traditional pictures… a specific opposite to painting.” Attuned to post-modern etiquette, Wall wants to avoid the mystified patina of the hand-made painting, but at the same time he wants to “…recuperate the great art of the museums.” Wall’s controversial turn consists in embracing the trope most revered by the Salon’s acedemycists and likewise despised by the early modernists: Allegory. His depictions allegorize the pathos of contemporary life through the same narrative devices by which the fairy tales of Salon pictures allegorized the ideals of bourgeois morality. The formulation and decoding of Salon allegories required competence in classical and biblical texts; artistic excellence was then taken both as a function of the painter’s technical skills as of his erudition. Much the same can be said of the contemporary school of critical art Wall so well exemplifies, with the proviso that “technical skill” is no longer associated with a deft hand but with allegiance to conceptual-art’s production values, and that the now favored texts are by Continental authors such as the ones expectedly alluded to in Wall’s catalogue for this show: Adorno, Lacan, Todorov, Huizinga, Meyerhold, Bakhtin, Blanchot, Shklovsky, and, surely, Benjamin. If anything, Wall proves the inadequacy of the clichéd notion that avantgardism is essentially contraposed to the Salon’s academicism: The Avant-Garde has become our Academy, and the bombastic exhibitions of our day are but ocasions to join in the party of the institutionalized revolution.
But there are powerful reasons why Manet, for one, was so keen on dismantling the hypocritical allegories that so delighted his milieu, and why Monet turned away from them altogether: Allegory substitutes aesthetic presentness for rhetorical complicity. In allegory, meaning is deferred and veiled; it cannot be deduced from experiencing the artwork. And since audiences are left to being told what it all means, implied contradictions in the context of representation are accommodated. Manet’s pictures affronted the sanctimoniousness of the art establishment of his time, while Wall’s polished visuals play to the tune of our over-groomed Avant-Gardist gusto and his critical rhetoric sustains the moralistic pedestal on which our artworld self-righteously places itself.
Not that Wall and his peers aren’t aware of the uneasy standing of critical-art: of perpetrating a practice that sustains the reputation of our less than virtuous artworld and its market, the which are in turn just as thorughly dependent on the order that is being criticized, namely, late-capitalism. Leaning on fashionable critical-theory , Jean-Francois Chevrier argues with typical cryptic flare in his catalogue essay that “a rhetoric of ambiguity” —derived from “doing a thing and its contrary at the same time”— adds up to a “critical effect.” While surely this would amount to all kinds of inconsistencies in the extra-rhetorical world (the existence of which has anyway been contested by the criticalists), the sense of “effect” here is left opportunistically undefined, since “effect” can stand as much for the concrete causal outcome of an action (the ideal of “engaged” art) as for something designed to produce a desired impression (a mere pose.) In this sense Jeff Wall is, as Monet also was to an extent, an Avant-Garde impressionist.
Sexagenarian, Monet outgrew his infatuation with polemics. Distancing himself from younger generations of Avant-Gardists, he retired to his idylic estate at Giverny where he allowed himself to paint in a way that up to this day seems to to stand outside the track of the history of art. His paintings became conservative by its own standards, that is, unconcerned with the progress of the world. The Art Institute gathered nearly twenty paintings from the first group of Nymphéas, a series of 48 nearly square pieces worked over a period of seven years and first exhibited in 1909. Seen together in one room, these canvases’ electrifyingly vibrant reflections on Monet’s lily-ponds still clash into our space, refusing to remain just pictures in the distance, short-circuiting polarities which—by separating the physical from the perceptual—make paintings tame and inanimate (i.e. medium/color, subject/style, flatness/depth, image/meaning.)
Perhaps in a hundred years from now historians and critics will look at Wall’s The Giant (1995) in order to interpret the institutionalized art of the late twentieth century, just as we look at Gerome’s Pygmalion in order to understand the Salon. But surely there will remain those who will rather have their Pygmalions, their artworks-come-alive, in the flesh, or for that matter in the paint. And for them, there will still be the Nymphéas.