Arts, Featured Column, Column

Riots At The MFA And The State Of Snobbery

Signs of “Renoir Sucks” lined the street and shouts of“God Hates Renoir!” echoed across to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Led by Instagram art activist (and general political organizer) Max Geller, a small contingent took Auguste Renoir—19th century, populist-lite, dead for 104 years, French Impressionist—to task in the Boston streets.

That’s (picking a few hairs here and there) how approximately 54 pieces sprung up on Monday and Tuesday went. Newspapers, NPR, art blogs, and sites of all shapes and sizes threw something on the story up. And why not? It’s funny. It has a compelling lead character, Geller, who says stuff like, “In real life trees are beautiful—Renoir just sucks at painting,” and, “There are plenty of dead, white males and their male gaze in museums already. You don’t need the wack, craven mediocrity of Renoir.”

But Geller eventually makes an interesting point. He says, “When you think about what a fine art museum is and what its function is in society, the people in charge of choosing what paintings belong there and what paintings don’t have lost their way … This is about treacle and its harmful effects on society.”

Gellerright or notbelieves that Renoir is bad, and that bad art is bad for culture, bad for society. I’ll table the specific argument of Renoir for another time. But his argument is one that’s been on the mind of some of our best critics. Last Friday, New York Times critic (and one of the two or three best film critics working today) A. O. Scott wrote “Film Snob? Is That So Wrong?” The piece is in league with the rest of their New York Film Festival coverage. In it, Scott condemns the snobs who like fancy art to seem enlightened or higher class. Scott says, “A snob is a person who brandishes borrowed notions of distinction, whereas I—by temperament as well as by profession a critic—have devoted much of my life to the disinterested application of true standards of excellence.”

Scott (and less articulately Geller) is after measuring and celebrating excellence in art. And somewhere along the line, anyone who disagreed, who said the slower artistic burn—foreign films and more obscure French Impressionists—are better are decried “snobs” and shoved to the side of popular discussion.

Scott is both one of the best film critics in America and yes, a snob. Someone who admittedly takes pleasure in “slow and difficult things.” He frowned at Avengers: Age of Ultron and celebrated The End of the Tour. Part of what makes the films of snobs and proper french Impressionism is that they require specific training: A film class or art class. But why can’t we meet in the middle more often? In our tastes and in the pieces of art we produce and share. Ta-Nahisi Coates is coming to campus in a few weeks. He’s a critically award winning writer, a MacArthur grant winner. They were giving his award winning Between the World and Me out in the English department on Tuesday (the folks generally in charge of canon and high art). And Coates—the Atlantic correspondent—will pen the Black Panther comic for Marvel Comics. There’s plenty of room between high and low art for snobs and commoners to meet together.

On Monday, a few of my roommates and I nestled into our common room to watch Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. It’s an indie about high school, friendship, cancer, and film. And it’s bizarre, touching, honest, and surreal all at once. It’s thoroughly not Fault in Our Stars. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl didn’t make much money, and it won’t win any Oscars. But it was really good. And it was accessible without talking down to its audience. It’s the kind of movie—kind of art—we need more of to bridge the gap between the snobs and the commoners.

Featured Image by The Boston Globe

October 7, 2015