Why Salon of the Refused?

In the latest episode of Salon of the Refused, I explain why I chose that name. Follow the link to listen or better yet to watch the video, where I include images of the art I discuss. But I thought the point was important enough to polish into a written article, which is below.—RWT

A number of people have asked me why I call my new video and podcast series “Salon of the Refused.” It’s a bit of an art history joke, but one with a serious point about how to change the culture.

“Salon of the Refused” is a reference to the Paris Salon of 1863. The Paris Salons were an annual art exhibit held by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (though after the Revolution, they got rid of the “royal” part). The Salons were hugely influential in the world of art, both in France and internationally, and having a painting or sculpture accepted to one of the Salons gave an artist a kind of stamp of approval from the leading authorities of the day. Being awarded one of the prizes given out at the Salons would basically make your career.

You would be accepted as someone whose work conforms to the consensus set by the leading authorities of the artistic establishment.

Can anybody start to see the problem with this?

The great thing about the French is that they have a long tradition of extensive government support for the arts. The worst thing about the French is that they have a long tradition of government support for the arts. And there are a couple of things that happen when you have government support for the arts.

First, he who pays the piper calls the tune. So for example, there’s an art exhibit currently touring the country—I saw it recently in Richmond—called “Napoleon: Power and Splendor,” and it’s about Napoleon’s use of the royal, or imperial, patronage of the arts to create propaganda. So he installed a guy as head of the academy whose job was to make sure that artists knew that if they wanted support, they were expected to portray the Emperor in a sufficiently grandiose and heroic manner.

But there’s something less obvious than the danger of censorship and propaganda. When the government decides to support the arts, it has to assign someone the job of deciding which artists to support. Somebody has to decide who is a genuinely talented artist and who is a hack. So that job was given to the Academy—the names change a little with the changes in regimes, but let’s just call it the Academy. And the way the Academy is organized is that you get a bunch of the most respected artists of the day, you put them onto a jury for the Salons, and they tend to pick artists who are clones of themselves, artists who will approach art exactly the way they do. You create an establishment.

That brings us to the Paris Salon of 1863. The Academic establishment had two big ideas about art that were being challenged in the years leading up to 1863. First, they valued perfect, finished, realistic rendering of figures, a skill the Academies had helped to develop to a very high level, but which was being challenged by the loose, hasty brushstrokes of the early Impressionists. Second, they believed in the portrayal of an idealized and elevated subject matter, which was challenged by a Realist school spearheaded by Gustave Courbet. What Courbet meant by Realism wasn’t realism in rendering. He meant portraying non-idealized figures from real life—peasants and workers. Courbet was a Man of the People, who also really liked to paint a lot of self-portraits about how great he was. (Also, his portrayal of the female nude was crudely sexual, which I’ll leave you to look up for yourselves.)

Now, these Academic ideals sound pretty good. Modern art history education, if it even mentions anything before Picasso, will portray these standards as small-minded and dogmatic, but there’s a lot to be said for them. The problem is that, as the establishment view, these ideas came to be interpreted very narrowly. So an elevated and idealized subject matter came to mean that the best kind of painting was a category called “history painting,” where artists were limited in their subject matter to stories from the Bible or from Classical mythology, or the portrayal of great historical events.

A good example of this is one of the most celebrated paintings of the official Salon of 1863, The Birth of Venus, byAlexandre Cabanel. It shows us a beautiful nude woman, exquisitely rendered, reclining somewhat unrealistically across a breaking wave—because this is the mythological story of how the Roman goddess Venus came into existence. Above her, and this is what really caught my eye, is a congregation of cherubs. I look at that and immediately think: is this 1863 or 1663? Everything about this painting has been done before. Botticelli did the birth of Venus in 1486. Everybody and his dog has done cherubs by this point. The rendering skill in this painting is developed to a very high level, yet it still has something hackneyed, clichéd, what Ayn Rand would call second-hand. It’s a copy of a copy.

So you can see that this was ripe for challenge by some rebellious young artists. But those artists found themselves shut out by the Salons, particularly by the Salon off 1863. When an unusually large number of artists were rejected that year, they and their supporters got together and petitioned the emperor, complaining that the Academy was too hidebound and conservative.

(The French had an emperor again, by the way. They had the Bourbon kings, and that didn’t work out. So then they had a republic and that didn’t work out. So they had an emperor and that didn’t work. They tried the Bourbon kings again, and that didn’t work out. So by 1863, they had decided to try the whole emperor thing again and put Napoleon’s nephew on the throne as Napoleon III. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work out.)

Napoleon III shared the Academy’s view of art, and he actually bought that Birth of Venus painting. But he also was sensitive to public opinion, so he gave the go-ahead to have a separate exhibit of all the artworks rejected by the official Salon. It was called the Salon des Refusés, or the Salon of the Refused.

The most controversial work in the Salon of the Refused was Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe or Luncheon on the Grass. The painting portrays two nude or semi-nude women, which is not what was scandalous about it. The female nude was a standard subject of art and had been for centuries. But the nudity was always put in this idealized, historical context. What was scandalous about Manet’s painting is that the nude woman in the foreground is looking directly at the viewer with kind of frank sexuality that breaks down this kind of idealized distance. But most of all, her discarded clothes, and those of the clothed men she is with, are contemporary to the 1860s. So this is not an idealized figure from the past or from mythology. It is a real woman of the present day.

(The woman was Victorine Meurent, a frequent model of Manet’s who was assumed at the time to be a courtesan or Manet’s mistress, which made it all the more scandalous. I haven’t been able to find any verification of that, and in fact she eventually became a skilled painter who had her own works accepted in the Salons. The irony is that she favored the old-fashioned Academic style of painting.)

The other thing that was scandalous about this painting was Manet’s use of loose brushstrokes in the early Impressionist style. It doesn’t seem very scandalous today, but you could argue that it was the first step down a slippery slope toward Abstract Expressionism and the whole phenomenon of dripping paint randomly on canvas and calling it art.

What is most important is what happened next. The exhibition of the rejected works, the Salon of the Refused, attracted visitors by the thousands and became the biggest sensation of the year. It featured works not only by Manet but by other painters, like James McNeill Whistler, who became very famous later on. In the long run, the Salon of the Refused, this collection of rejects, was more important and more influential than the official Salon. And more than that, it paved the way for more Salons of the Refused, or Independent Salons, where works that were outside the mainstream set by the Academy were brought to the public’s attention, and the official Salons became less and less important. It was the first step in breaking the hold of an entrenched establishment.

I think you can start to see some of the lessons for today. A political orthodoxy in art or ideas leads, not just to censorship and propaganda, but to the creation of a hidebound, uncreative, pedantic establishment. While this establishment may look invulnerable and hopelessly entrenched, it is susceptible to being overthrown by the sheer vitality of new and original ideas, which will seem all the more vital because they have been suppressed.

I would apply this analysis to the entrenched Politically Correct ideas of today, which I disagree with. But it also applies to ideas you agree with. I actually like the overall ideas of the 19th Century French Academic painters. I think polished, realistic rendering is better than Impressionist brushstrokes. I think an idealized, elevated subject matter is better than a “slice of life” of the man in the gutter. But when ideas become an entrenched establishment—even good ideas—they are diminished. Remember Cabanel’s Birth of Venus. It’s a great example of a painting that ticks off all the boxes on a superficial list of Academic rules—yet conveys not a single vital or important idea or perspective on the world. So the lesson is that ideas die when they become a dogma.

Now I think you can see why I take the Salon of the Refused as my inspiration.

“Salon” is just a French word for “room.” It was used to refer to art exhibits because they would take a giant room and fill it with paintings and sculptures. But “salon” was also used to refer to a room where intellectuals and philosophers would gather to discuss ideas. So it came to mean a group of thinkers who gather to have interesting conversations.

That’s what I’m trying to do with this podcast and video series. I want to have a series of conversations with interesting writers and intellectuals, and particularly with those who are outside of today’s Politically Correct, academically approved mainstream. I’m not going to agree with or endorse the ideas of everybody I talk to, but I want to find those thinkers whose ideas deserve to be more influential than the ideas that are officially approved by today’s establishment.

So welcome to my Salon of the Refused. I hope you have a better understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish here, and I hope you find the conversations stimulating.

If you do, you can subscribe to my YouTube channel or to my Podcast channel, which is now also available on iTunes. You can find more ideas and analysis here at The Tracinski Letter, and you can support us on Patreon, patreon.com/SalonoftheRefused.

Thank you for listening.

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