Under my byline

Critical mess

Posted in Art, Books by Rrishi on 11 July 2009

Monkeys as Judges of Art, Gabriel Cornelius von Max, 1889OVERLEAF 37

In the last few days a handful of writer-reviewer spats — nasty, as they usually are, but also unsatisfyingly brief and lowbrow — have washed up in the books sections of major English-language papers. One, between American writer Alice Hoffman and Boston Globe reviewer Roberta Silman, turned Twitter bitter. Another, between New York Times reviewer Caleb Crain and British pop-philosopher and seeker of beauty Alain de Botton, debuted on Crain’s blog and migrated to Twitter before it hit the books pages. Business Standard columnist Nilanjana S Roy wrote this week about how authors cope (or spectacularly fail to cope) with bad reviews.

The thing is, the reviews in question don’t sound so bad. Being written about could even be seen as a competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace. Consider the crowded marketplace for art in 19th-century Paris, when that city was the metropolis and superpower of art, just as the United States today is by far the biggest market for books.

The Paris Salon of the 1800s was an annual state-sponsored art show attracting thousands of hopeful artists and hundreds of thousands of visitors from every class of Parisian society (sometimes a million visitors, out of a total Paris population of 1.7 million around the mid-century). In a single enormous exhibition space, which was at other times used for agricultural or industrial fairs, the crowds of citizens filed past walls crammed with works.

It was hard enough to have a painting accepted for showing at the Salon. A jury of crusty oldsters did the choosing, and kept new ideas out of this sacred forum. Given the volume of submissions, jury members could no more than glance at each piece. The ones they liked were hung “on the line”, at ideal viewing height, while others receded to the rafters and many more were carted away with a humiliating red “R” (“rejected”) stamped on the back.

But artists also had to deal with critics. In its pre-academic infancy, art criticism was a rough-and-tumble business. Critics were uninhibited in offering praise and scorn, and those whom they took against were unfortunate indeed, because by the mid-19th century a well-known critic could make or break an artist.

Ross King, The Judgement of ParisIn The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism (2006), Ross King describes the historical moment at which tradition, embodied by the “history painters”, first encountered the challenge of “modern” art, embodied by the Impressionists. He does so by picking representatives: Ernest Meissonier, the rich and respected history painter, and Édouard Manet, the charismatic Impressionist.

For a long time, it was no contest: history painting — scenes from the classics or from great moments of history, executed in painstaking detail — remained both fashionable and popular. Meissonier’s small paintings sold for hundreds of thousands of francs; Manet scarcely sold any. On the work of the newcomers, the powerful Comte de Nieuwerkerke, who oversaw the Salon, said dismissively, “This is the painting of democrats, of men who don’t change their underwear.”

King quotes professional critics on Manet’s chief works — then derided, now priceless. Le dejeuner sur l’herbe: “a shameful open sore not worth exhibiting”, “Never was such insane laughter better deserved”, its female model “the ideal of ugliness”. There’s much, much more like this; but King points out that Manet got away lightly: of Ingres’s Grande Odalisque one critic wrote that “it’s like the taste of a sick man’s handkerchief”. More than one artist killed himself after Salon rejection and similarly brutal criticism.

Meissonier outlived Manet, but his reputation died an early death. Authors like Hoffman and de Botton can take some comfort from that — ultimately, the reviewers, too, may be cheated by fate. Moreover, we live in an indulgent age; and the Internet, where the latest spats started, also holds out the promise of immortality (if not wealth) for author as well as artist.

Édouard Manet, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1862-63

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