Audio Recording of the Debate
(Note: Due to a technical problem only the first hour of the debate is available.)
Comments by Brian Yoder
Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California some years ago purchased William Bouguereau's The Virgin with Angels and put it on display at their facility. In recent years the painting has suffered from a yellowing effect as time added dust and other changes to the surface of the painting. In 2005 the Getty Museum and Forest Lawn made a deal as part of its Conservation Partnership Program whereby in return for cleaning and restoring the painting, the mortuary would lend the painting to the Getty Museum for a time to display it to the public.
Apparently by coincidence at around the same time two other works, a preparatory sketch and a half-size reduction of the same painting (which sold at auction at Sotheby's last year for $1,650,000) became available to the Getty and they put all three works on display last December. From the moment that it was possible for Getty visitors to view this installation, it instantly became the single most popular work at the museum, ultimately building to tens of thousands of visitors clogging the halls waiting their turn to see the exhibit. One can only imagine what went through the minds of officials who had sided with the common "wisdom" of the 20th century art world which reflexively denigrated all "academic" art from the 19th century, uniformly parroting patently false epithets despite the evidence and scholarship to the contrary.
The museum provided an online description of the display online as well as a discussion forum where visitors could post comments. The volume of comments (mostly positive and a few very negative) were like nothing that the Getty folks had ever seen before either in volume or intensity of emotion. Being good promoters, they announced a debate to be held on June 6, 2006 on the question "Was Bouguereau one of the greatest painters of the 19th century, or do his works epitomize everything negative about academic art in a period when Impressionists were challenging conventional painting techniques". The stage was set and a lively crowd of at least 400 gathered at the Harold M. Williams auditorium at the Getty Center to hear the debate.
Overall ImpressionsI very much enjoyed the evening, particularly meeting several ARC/GoodArt people who were attending the event. Virgil Elliot and I in particular have been corresponding for years and it was wonderful to finally meet him in person. Second, I thought that the Getty people did a great job conducting the event. The audio and video resources they made available were superb (the speakers used a projector to show slides of a variety of paintings for the audience to look at during their talks), the organizers were very courteous, the facilities were comfortable, and I think that the overall event came off well and I hope they do more things like this in the future.
Regarding the debate itself I have a number of observations I can share. First, I think that the central question was highly lopsided and intended to inflame passions (one way or another) rather than bring about a sensible focus on the facts including the remote possibility that perhaps these two extremes might just possibly not be one only ones that could be considered. I guess it worked though. They attracted a good-sized crowd and one very passionate about its views on the subject on both sides. My concern is that great painters of the 19th century deserve more than just the entertaining attention provided by a passionate debate, but also the kind of serious treatment and study afforded to the other artists by the Getty.
Professor Ackerman's introductory approach was especially clever. As the crowd settled in, he showed a painting of two girls stealing pears from a walled garden. He started by pointing out its various characteristics with everyone assuming that it was Bouguereau's Petites Maraudeuses, but it was not. It was a fairly competently done copy created by someone other than Bouguereau (perhaps one of his students). When he changed the slide to the real thing, the differences in quality were readily apparent. The overall subject matter and appearance were nearly identical, but the particular "Bouguereau magic" was quite clear in the real thing. I have never seen the presence of the "magic" as clearly highlighted.
I thought that while Professor Ackerman's general approach was very appealing, though his responses to some of the challenges from Mr. Mandarel and some audience members could have been better. One of his defenses of Bouguereau against criticisms that he was somehow producing work that was unappealing or hard to understand was that his art was "from a different time" and that therefore presumably it was hard to understand or justify in terms that we can accept today or by timeless standards. I can't agree with the validity of such a relativist approach. While there can of course be aspects of any art work that are heavily tied to particular aspects of language, culture, or style that may bind them to a particular era and make them less relevant or even less comprehensible from another perspective, I don't think that these factors are universally problematic for all "old" paintings, nor much of an impediment to our understanding and appreciation of Bouguereau in particular.
First, he lived in a time not too much removed from our own, having died less than 100 years ago. Second, the subjects and nature of most of his work was related to very familiar subject matter such as childhood, mischief, grief-stricken parents, the plight of the poor, and the like. These are not alien themes beyond our comprehension. Neither are the more culturally-based works related to Christianity or Greek mythology. Furthermore, the artistic techniques he used to illuminate these themes are fascinating to study and not especially hard to understand in their effects or their mechanisms. One might need to read about Mark Rothko's big dark rectangles in order to "understand them", but Bouguereau is not so opaque. Of course in a debate like this it might be difficult to prove the existence of these things to an unwilling opponent, but it is best to not grant the opponents the kind of ground that Professor Ackerman did. Good design principles and good selection of subject matter are (or at least can be) eternal.
Peter Zokosky, a Los Angeles Artist took a somewhat different approach, addressing more of the particular criticisms leveled at Bouguereau head on and in an entertaining way. Among his responses was a list of charges one might call "criticisms" but that in fact constitute praise of a certain kind. Many criticize Bouguereau's paintings for being "Too perfect", that he demonstrated "Too much skill", and so on. Of course these are laughable criticisms and Peter did a good job of helping us laugh at them.
Peter also did a good and entertaining job of explaining the intolerant atmosphere in universities regarding Bouguereau's art, such as a tradition among art students of poking holes through a Bouguereau painting in their school with a pencil in order to show their disapproval. He also had some hopeful comments about how these attitudes have broken down in recent years among younger artists who very much approve of Bouguereau's work.
Against BouguereauIn the anti-Bouguereau position there was only one speaker, Patrice Marandel, Chief Curator of European Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Like most of the critics of Bouguereau, Mr. Marandel's criticisms of Bouguereau were all over the map and rather internally incoherent. On the one hand his paintings are supposed to be cold and unemotional and on the other, Mandarel claimed that Bouguereau was focused too much on feelings. On the one hand his paintings are "too perfect" and on the other he pointed out numerous flaws in them. On the one hand, Mandarel complained that Bouguereau was too much of an individualist who didn't listen to what others said he should paint, and almost in the same breath he was critical of Bouguereau for bending too easily to the desires of his clients (most notably in Le Bohemienne where Bouguereau added a distant image of Notre Dame in the background after the painting failed to sell initially). On the one hand the paintings are criticized as being "too pretty" and on the other his subjects are referred to by Mr. Mandarel as "bovine" and in various ways unattractive. On the one hand he claimed that the paintings were thoroughly conventional and therefore uninteresting, yet he then went on to declare much of the subject matter to be "weird". These kinds of internal contradictions come up all the time in various criticisms of Bouguereau's work and I don't think that their origin is in lack of intelligence among those who make the arguments, whether from Mr. Mandarel or others. Anyone can see that these arguments are at least internally inconsistent. I suspect that what sustains these irrational positions has more to do with the psychology of the viewer regarding the virtues of the painting than to any flaws in either the art or the artist. This is a subject I have written on a number of times in the past and no doubt will again.
One interesting comment Mr. Marandel made was that trying to hang a Bouguereau at the museum was hard for him because it didn't seem to belong next to the other paintings there. He's right! The problem is that he seems somehow convinced that this is because there's something wrong with the Bouguereau when in fact it is something wrong with the other paintings and a direct side-by-side comparison makes it pretty tough not to see the virtues of the Bouguereau and the flaws of the others in the vicinity.
Mr. Marandel peppered his talk with numerous attempts at humor (many of which were fairly witty). This is a technique I have seen many times before among people attacking someone or something to help soften the anger and nastiness in the argument. Usually the humor suffers greatly in this (though I thought that Mr. Marandel pulled it off fairly well), perhaps it's his charming manner that makes it work. To this he added a somewhat annoying bit of backpedaling. Rather than coming right out and saying what he thought clearly, he outlined a position and then almost immediately took it back by saying something contradictory which would presumably leave him some rhetorical ground to return to if he got in over his head. This is presumably intended to make him seem less extreme in his views than he really is. I know that some people have theorized that this just means that his criticisms are faked and inflated in order to (as he put it) &34;play the part of Darth Vader", but I'm not so convinced of that. It seems to me that the intentionally inserted contradictory backpedaling is just a mask to cover up an ugly hatred for Bouguereau that he (probably rightly) fears to show in public and in particular to a crowd containing a large number of people who disagree. In the end, this kind of attempt to be "likable" and to provide some room for rhetorical retreat just undercuts his arguments and makes him seem less genuine than be might otherwise be.
Another of Mr. Marandel's techniques was to ridicule Bouguereau by trying to draw parallels between his work and that of the creators of 20th century kitsch. For example, he showed pictures of a couple of works by Jeff Koons and Thomas Kinkade.
It seemed to me that these approaches fell flat because just putting the two next to one another makes it all the more clear that there are very significant differences in the nature of the works. Here is an actual comparison he made in his talk:
Of course there are superficial similarities between these images. In truth there are only three. One is that they both contain recognizable subjects. A second is that the recognizable subjects include nude women. The third is that (presumably) Mr. Marandel doesn't like them. Beyond that, where are there any further similarities? Unfortunately, he didn't really say. He just joked about them and tried to provoke similar sneers in the audience as if that constituted an argument.
He also showed a slide of this Jeff Koons piece:
Not too surprisingly, there was no parallel Bouguereau that he showed with even superficial similarities. He went on insinuating that there were somehow some important flaws that they both contain, though he couldn't say quite what they might be. I wish he would have offered some kind of explanation of what it was that he thought that Michael Jackson and Bubbles had to do with any Bouguereau painting, but apparently he either thought that the similarities were so obvious anyone could see them or he realized that no amount of explaining could justify any conclusion of similarity.
All in all, it was an excellent event and the kind of thing I would like to see happen more frequently. As for the content however, I think that a more constructive opponent to Bouguereau would have provided more arguments to chew on than Mr. Marandel was able to muster. As long as Bouguereau's opponents are able to marshall no arguments better than Mr. Marandel's his status is bound to continue to bubble up form the depths it reached in the past century.
Comments by Brian ShapiroGoing to the Bouguereau debate at the Getty, I was skeptical that it would be productive, because the frame of the debate as Getty paintings curator Scott Schaefer laid it out beforehand was that "you either like Bouguereau or you think he's the most abhorrent artist who ever lived." Schaefer likes to compare this to the abortion debate, where neither side in the argument succeeds in convincing the other. But one of the truths in situations like this that is usually not upfront is that there is such intense debate, because both sides think the issue is so clear the way they see it that there should not even be a debate in the first place. Then, of course, when you bring together people who don't understand why there is a debate, and expect them to out-argue each other, they'll get nowhere. As I came up to the auditorium and settled in there were groups of people who came there because they were supporters of Bouguereau, and some who felt they had to defend against him. If I had been asked where I was, I would say I don't like choosing a side but I would probably end up supporting most of the arguments in favor of him, because despite the public's admiration for him within artistic discussions, he has for so long been under-recognized, justified with theories that have already fallen out of fashion, and it's becoming harder and harder to keep him in the low place he has been put in history books.
Patrice Marandel, the Chief Curator of European Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who had introduced himself by stating that he liked some of Bouguereau's paintings very much, but that he was designated to play the role of the "bad guy" started out by expressing that he wished it would be like in the French revolution where he could have partisans from one side on the left, and from the other side, on the right. Another analogy might be the one pointed out in the 1984 Bouguereau exhibition catalogue to which Marandel referenced is the anecdote about how Charlemagne, keeping himself in the dark about the base or noble birth of children at the Palace school, had the good students placed to his right and the lazy students to his left. This is apt because this is how partisans tend to think of people, as those grouped into good thinkers and those grouped into lazy thinkers. But, despite how Marandel tried to knock down Bouguereau from being considered one of history's great artists and for this he was challenged by an audience member who questioned how he didn't think people should exaggerate their evaluations of Bouguereau he had to admit, throughout the debate how he had a certain attraction to his paintings, through trying to dismiss this attraction in unflattering terms in very piquant and sometimes snide language. Those on the other side of the argument did less to vacantly praise him, than to question why he was degraded, and to point out serious, interesting aspects of his work that are often not recognized. One could tell, that even though the partisans felt they had to disagree with each other, that they wished they didn't have to. Debates are ended, but only when the facts that are behind them are fully understood, and there is nothing left to say. In some ways, there should not even be a debate but this can only happen when things are able to be presented in a way in which things are settled, and nobody has to play the role of "good guy" or "bad guy."
In the very same ways that Marandel and Schaefer fell from understanding Bouguereau, so did his proponents. Gerald Ackerman, a professor emeritus of art history at Pomona College, gave a scholarly introduction to Bouguereau's art and painting in the academy, coming to the topic of how Bouguereau's faces are criticized for showing too simple emotions. Ackerman's response was that he was simply using the language of the time, the science of art, as laid out by the academic teacher Charles Le Brun. But there is an enormous difference between Le Brun's sketches of emotional states and Bouguereau's paintings; and no great artist was expected to be derivative from Le Brun. There was a contest in the academic world referred to as the "tete d'expression" in which artists tried to best represent a specific emotional state. If it were, for academics, just a matter of copying from Le Brun, there would be no assignments or competition within the academy to do such a feat. If one were to look at a Bouguereau painting on the subject of a specific emotional state, and look at that of another academic artist, one would see large differences, and ultimately it would evince Bouguereau's great expressive talent as Bouguereau by far captured his subjects in much clearer terms than any of his contemporaries. When someone speaks of Bouguereau's technical skills, it's assumed that the discussion is the ability to mix colors and accurately paint drapery and flesh but his skills went as far as expression of the subject matter and this is no longer a matter of 'mere skills'.
Toward the end of the debate, Scott Schaefer tried to sum up his general disinterest in Bouguereau paintings, comparing them to his reaction to something by Degas. Bouguereau's painting, he said, one could sum up with a description, and then one is bored with it while with Degas, he could never capture what Degas was doing in words. In part, this is missing the whole point and glossing over any appreciation of Bouguereau at all. It was true that a lot of academic art was made and intended to be simple enough to represent something expressed in words there were in fact a lot of academic paintings which were very simple allegories where nudes stood in for Ideals that were being represented. And a tete d'expression by Bouguereau on the subject of "Inspiration" would show you the emotion of inspiration; one on the subject of "Melancholy" would show you the emotion of melancholy. But there is a great difference between such a painting by Bouguereau that works well, and by a lesser academic artist that doesn't and what is extremely difficult to express, to put into words is what makes the Bouguereau painting work better. In many cases, you can put a Bouguereau painting into words, but for some reason people don't see the words can't ever substitute for the painting. If you ever had just a great description of the imagery in the painting even put into the most beautiful prose or poetry it would fall flat, while the painting by Bouguereau would impress. Like there are some visual expressions that work and others that don't, there some expressions that work as images and not as words.
The type of painting that could be described was not new to academic art or music, or literature and any art historian who focuses on the 19th century should understand that one of the modern art movements emerging was focused on challenging that aspect of art symbolism. Symbolists thought that instead of a painting expressing something clearly, art should express something ambiguous which only conveyed an incommunicable mood. This was not a complete denigration of academic art, and many symbolists are now grouped with academics because they were just interested in moving the idea of an expression best expressed by an image to the next logical level; an image that one couldn't have something else speak for it.
This movement and other early modern movements were just changes in a moral tone, however and as there is more research done on the 19th century, the more we find out that not only academics and symbolists associated, but so did academics and impressionists. For all of them, and for all attractive art, art that is not just ignored, as Ackerman described truly banal art there is something there that was found fit to be expressed in that medium. While Schaefer couldn't describe what he was looking at in a painting by Degas, it isn't that hard for others to do. The plain fact is that it only becomes hard when you try to describe it in pictorial terms and impressionists moved away from the importance of pictorial expression but when you describe what impressionists are doing in terms of manipulation of their medium it becomes easier. There are still some nuances that one might not feel you can reduce, but the same is true for a painting by Bouguereau, where one may be at loss to fully explain why his paintings reveal their subjects better than someone else's.
Ackerman pointed out after Marandel had been talking about how his paintings seemed non-real and artificial, that painting had been more concerned about expressing the subject than about self- expression. At one point, he led himself into a defense of Bouguereau in terms of his contemporaries, explaining that in Bouguereau's generation none of the artists were interested in social concerns, but in the subject matter. While it's true that after Bouguereau's generation there was much more of a focus on being involved in social matters and politics, one would be led to believe that Bouguereau in his paintings was completely detached from artistic and social discussion and withdrawn into being purely escapist pictures. Neo-classicism, shaped by the French revolution, focused on the idea that art capable of symbolic power was used for moral purposes, and that it enlightened through its conveyance of moral lessons. This strongly informed Ingres, who championed the use of strong line over strong color, as was used by Poussin, to convey moral themes. By Bouguereau's time in part due to a battle between neo-classical lessons and romanticist revolts there was not this strict neo-classical dogma anymore, but it had evolved into a focus on the ability of beauty in aesthetics to reveal truths about nature. Bouguereau had often chosen to take very simple subjects, sometimes from popular imagery, and scrutinize them through the method of art in order to reveal their truths. Another well known academic artist, Thomas Couture, had once said, deriding realist artists that ugliness in painting is not the truth of nature, and it's easy to paint things ugly finding truth in painting is difficult and requires talent and treatment of form.
And noticeably, academic paintings are not realistic, nor were they ever intended to be. If one just looks at Ingres, his portrait sketches which showed a high level of detail and realism were not valued by him or his contemporaries as great examples of art. In order to depict "truth" you were no longer trying to show a real thing, but a formal depiction, an idealization. Marandel had to have realized this, as he noted that showing something that was not real was not necessarily bad, and more admired paintings by old masters that also indulged in allegory though expressing his disdain for religious works. But a lot of his criticisms seemed to imply this false expectation of Bouguereau. He wanted Bouguereau's paintings to imply a story like a certain painting by Greuze instead of just convey an image. Greuze's sentimentality, one should note, is much more abused in many of his paintings than in any painting by Bouguereau. Marandel mocked the title of the painting "The Nut Gatherers", finding the subject silly and puzzling, as if there was a profession of nut gathering. It's hard to know whether he, or Scott Schaefer, could put into words why that painting is attractive what is the truth and emotional resonance of the moment that Bouguereau is depicting, that makes something as simple as gathering nuts so monumental. There is no excessive sentiment, no exaggeration, and yet he is able to express something a thousand other artists painting pretty girls gathering nuts probably could not. Bouguereau was said by one of his contemporaries to be the greatest artist to have captured what is in the "mind's eye". He intentionally painted something artificial which some people may when comparing realism and academic art on similar terms find cold but the way it agrees with people emotionally is by revealing truth in nature. There is nothing similar in a painting done by Thomas Kinkade someone who Marandel at one point though admitting he didn't want to equivocate Kinkade and Bouguereau and was pushing a line used as a comparison. But whatever comparison you could make, is for all aesthetic purposes, superficial.
Marandel acerbically mocked the idea that any girl would wear flowers in her hair as in one of Bouguereau's paintings but in a contradictory way, laughed at Bouguereau's comment on impressionism that he had never seen blue shadows. Marandel, by the way, described the passage in which Bouguereau made this comment as a "tirade", even though Bouguereau modestly comments in that passage that he had nothing against the modern artists, except that he didn't see like them. Marandel also used a line where Bouguereau praised Titian and Veronese as a way to imply Bouguereau was arrogantly describing himself as being great as those painters, which was unjustified on Marandel's part. He, at one point, expressed he didn't understand why the public didn't have a greater attraction to Ingres, who Bouguereau had just been a derivative of. Much had changed, however, between Ingres' time and that of Bouguereau. This is evinced in the very same interview which Marandel quotes a passage from Bouguereau explains to the interviewer that the 19th century had seen two masters, one was Ingres, and the other Delacroix, who had opposed Ingres' approach; he referred to them as "fire and ice". While a lot of academic training still was close to Ingres' approach, the artistic culture and the academy had moved on, and Delacroix had become an establishment figure. In passing, Bouguereau also mentions the artist Decamps, someone forgotten today but, even though he didn't do painting strictly to academic methods, was much admired in his time, as someone who helped define a middle ground between neo-classicism and romanticism as was a focus among critics until later academics. Bouguereau, as well as a few artists, perhaps ended this debate. Bouguereau had once said the key to becoming a great artist is to see line and color as the same thing; Thomas Couture that to talk of better line or better color is nonsense, because they complement each other.
"One could make a thousand pictures of Twilight, and not come to one as meaningful as the painting by that title as made by Bouguereau."
There is in fact a great deal of change from Ingres' art to Bouguereau's, and one just needs to compare their paintings side by side. While it's true that Bouguereau's art moved more towards pictorial imagination, this was one of the intentions, and his art focused more on how formal qualities of an artwork could reveal the subject. His paintings have much more harmony, use simpler compositions, and are directly accessible and one could criticize them for not being "complex", but they were greatly complex in how they achieved this aim. One could make a thousand pictures of Twilight, and not come to one as meaningful as the painting by that title as made by Bouguereau. He in fact made dozens of sketches on the same subject while planning out a major painting, struggling through similar but slightly different poses of figures until he found the perfect composition to express it. It was implied by Marandel that there was no great meaning in any of Bouguereau's pictures of girls; that he just had girls sit in his studios as props for him to paint from demonstrating this with a photograph of Bouguereau painting some girls. But one could see that what he painted was greatly modified from the actual pose of the girls, a pose which Bouguereau probably did not randomly select to paint, either. There is a story about how he let young infants crawl in his studio and would sketch them in various positions. Even in a studio model, someone could draw a lot of inspiration.
There was some brief discussion over how Bouguereau had changed one of his paintings, The Bohemian, to include the cathedral of Notre Dame, so that it would sell better for his dealer. Some members of the audience pointed out that at a lot of times in history the artist was at the dictate of his patrons. Marandel somehow seemed to think this situation was different because of the times, and he found the idea that an artist would change a painting because of his dealer to be "weird". I would argue that Bouguereau did change the direction of his painting based both on critical reception and market reception, and ended up doing paintings that were not like what he originally had hoped to paint. But Bouguereau most likely felt that he do meaningful paintings on these other subjects, and that it was not so much a big of a deal to add a small detail to a painting if he could do it well. When he gained some amount of money, he returned from doing smaller genre depictions to large historical and religious paintings. It may sound 'weird' but often writers seek advice on what does or doesn't work in their novels, filmmakers later realize something didn't work as well as they envisioned when they see audience reaction, and composers have others listen to their compositions before they complete them. Reactions can illuminate things, and there is no reason to suppose that if Bouguereau felt that changing a painting would destroy its aesthetic, he would have gone ahead with the change in order to satiate his dealer.
By both sides of the debate, there has somewhat been a non- discussion about whether Bouguereau had done something important in the development of art. While opponents like Marandel may take for granted that he was derivative, proponents like Peter Zokovsky and Ackerman may be content to say it was not necessary to do something new, and that he was good between artists in his generation. But the increased focus on formal expression, is exactly what gave way to modern art movements without academic art, there would not be modern art and not because modern art needed something so bad to rebel against, but because there would be missing step. Bouguereau was neither merely painting sentimental pictures, or more interested in decoration than content, but using the two to express each other and he and his peers had accomplished something in the frame of art history.
What does it mean to be sentimental? both sides in the debate dismissed the idea that it was necessarily bad, which is somewhat new in this kind of debate; Marandel himself liking the sentimentality of Greuze. Peter Zokovsky, a painter invited as a proponent of Bouguereau, tried to say that sentimentality is just the depiction of human sentiment, which every artist does. This is true only on a superficial level in the way that everything is emotional, and everything is theatric, and everything is abstract. Sentiment, as conveyed in Bouguereau, is on the level of what might be considered 'ordinary' human emotion and feeling "sentiment" not put in the frame of a cosmic drama, like Baroque art, or designed to be heavy as a monument, as in neo-classical art, or theatricalized with bravado like in romantic art. The reason sentimentality was so important in the academic style of painting, was because sentiment gives importance to ordinary gestures, movements, and poses that resonate like a memory that's being recalled. Capturing the simple beauty of common things, one is led to have a sentimental style and led to discover truth behind images, which are not just pictorial frames detached from reality, but referring to it.
Many of Bouguereau's paintings of girls were not given the subject of an emotion, a narrative, or a situation, either. There is a great body of paintings of his that are framed around an object in the painting or act a stool, a bowl of cherries, breakfast, or sewing. But each of these don't vapidly use the subject, they express it. The painting of a girl on a stool, is about the object of the stool and how the girl sits on it; the painting of a girl eating breakfast about the act of eating breakfast. The feat of Bouguereau in being able to bring some degree of profundity to such simple innocent things is part of his appeal. One could not help but see how he had his place before Cezanne, who sought to do the same thing while moving away from the figurative element that Bouguereau used. When he moved to more involved subjects, the depictions did become more complex. The painting of his that hangs at the Getty Center, Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros, once had a description on the placard by it which commented on the ambiguous nature of what was being shown it was not clear if the girl was pushing away Eros, or playing with him. Since then (I think since Schaefer began in his position) the placard changed to a banal description of how the painting went to market. This leads me to wonder if Schaefer could put into words what exactly catches people's attention about that particular ambiguity. There's a similar ambiguity in one of Bouguereau's paintings that is often looked at as kitsch. The First Kiss, which shows Psyche and Eros as infants, with Eros planting a kiss. It may be an assumption that people like this painting because it's cute and sentimental and pretty, but the iconic nature of the painting depends on the strange and hard to describe look on the infant Psyche's face and in her bodily gestures, which shows both a discomfort and an acceptance. Eros grasps her, and while she's in the same ecstatic pose as in Bouguereau's Abduction of Psyche, she seems aloof and ready to push away. A similar ambiguity is in Bouguereau's Jewel of the Fields, in which an older sister is seen finishing a crown on her sibling who is in a serious and aloof pose, almost as if she were Christ wearing a crown of thorns. These are presented as simple, direct compositions, but there is a lot of complexity in what makes these images affect people. I would want Schaefer to say this is easier to describe than how a painting by Degas works.
Ackerman and Zokovsky were correct in many of their analyses of Bouguereau's paintings. In his Pieta, Bouguereau is able to depict the body of Christ as something both dead and divine, as Zokovsky pointed out. Marandel later commented that he didn't find it at all interesting, instead preferring a different portrayal of Christ, which was more on the 'edge' in just that it was odder looking, but was actually less poignant. He did say he was impressed by Ackerman's analyses of The Song of Angels, where Ackerman pointed out that it showed the Christ child, in a very human slumber, right before he would awaken and be seen as a king, portrayed as such in many of Bouguereau's Madonna images, and that Bouguereau used visual devices to center on the child and to point to a halo that wasn't there.
"...there was that feeling I sensed that nobody really wanted there to be a debate.34;
At the end of the debate, however, one could see that nobody wanted to move from their standpoint, whether in opposition or support of Bouguereau. Marandel, though using unfair and mocking jokes at one time referring to the "bovine" expression on one of Bouguereau's girls did squirm often, trying to qualify things by saying that he liked many Bouguereau paintings and would acquire them. Ackerman wanted to point out correctly the merits of Bouguereau's paintings, but did not sway the Marandel or Schaefer who were not shown how to appreciate these things--it's impossible to convince someone that something isn't too cold and still too manipulating (as much as that seems contradictory) by insisting it's not, the other person sees what he does and he needs to be brought how to see value in it. At the same time, there was that feeling I sensed that nobody really wanted there to be a debate. Someone in the audience who mentioned how he found Bouguereau boring, nodded while the proponents of Bouguereau made good points; and others nodded while the opponents made points both were applauded and both received laughs. What's missing is that the debate, really, should be settled. Opponents should acknowledge Bouguereau's historical and artistic importance, and proponents should acknowledge which they seem reluctant to do. I'd suppose because it would make him too similar to Modernism that Bouguereau was as much involved in formal and aesthetic concerns and theory as much as he was interested in his subjects and his rendering skill. If this can be settled, Bouguereau can finally find his place in art history texts and his art understood and appreciated objectively and there will never have to be another Great Bouguereau Debate.
I agree that an artwork has to stand on its own merits, and make its own case. Discussion over criticism and art theory is important in the way that it is embedded in our institutions, and determines what people are open to looking at or exposed to looking at. If you just take a look at the role of a critic, he brings attention to artists that are ignored that should be seen, or targets artists that may be overexposed or over-evaluated for political reasons. In debunking anti-Bouguereau propaganda you're already acting as a critic, which shows how useful a critic is to the art world. But I think at some level simply arguing or debunking doesn't settle things for people, and this is when you need to come to positive understandings. This is important, because this is the basis on which art history is recorded, and the basis on how art practice classes are taught. (And also has more indirect influence on fields other than art). This again, is a matter of what people are open or exposed to because people are directed to different art by the culture and its institutions. At the most important level, discussing art theory is important for discussions of art, and is not necessarily important for the individual artist doing the act of making a painting. However, most great artists have been aware of aesthetic theory and art history, not casually, but because its a guide which them to see different aspects of what they are doing as artists, just as its a guide for the public. Ultimately, obviously, it can't override any real artistic instinct, but often it complements it.
I don't think its true that everyone who hasn't been swayed by modern art propaganda admires Bouguereau. People who are interested in art, but have stayed away from modern art teachings tend to admire him. But a large amount of the public simply doesn't see anything in most representational art, like they don't in most classical music or poetry. They see a picture and don't find it interesting, not having an 'eye' for interpreting pictures. Part of this is maybe because our culture doesn't respect these things, but again its not because of direct propaganda but what I mentioned about how our culture presents things to people. Its true that as modernism gained more and more influence, people became alienated by the 'art culture'. This doesn't mean, either that there was no problem in traditional art that needs to be addressed, if people want to continue it, to reach a modern audience. Modernism as a program wanted to address this, but in a self-effacing way.
It was sort of strange at one point in the debate where Ackerman and Zokovsky said that art like Bouguereau had to be thought about to be understood and admired, even though it was presented that most people admired Bouguereau by default and it was the art critics who draw everything into long analyses who disliked him. I think its a both a slight myth that everyone in the public by default cares about Bouguereau, and on the other hand that every establishment critic and historian by default dislikes him--even though these are the type-casts that shape up in any debate.
In the debate I think clearly Gerald Ackerman knew a lot more what he was talking about and concentrated on facts more than Patrice Marandel who made many distasteful comments. However I think the reluctance to talk about the role of art theory and history in art just delays Bouguereau's acceptance--not because people will see Bouguereau differently if this was done, but because they'll better understand and accept and appreciate [give credit to] what they see.
Comments by Mark JungeI attended the debate as well and found both Schaefer and Marandel expressed views that raised more questions than answers.
Schaefer mentioned that after writing about Bouguereau's style, there was nothing left, or something like that. But Degas' style is harder to write about. From this, Schaefer concluded Degas was the superior artist. Paintings are a visual media. Question: why is the challenge level of writing about style a valid criterion in evaluating the noteworthiness of an artist?
Marandel discussed briefly the problem he had with hanging a Bouguereau among the European collection of paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and finally placed it in the American art collection, finding it "worked&34; better there. Why was it such a difficult task for him? Other museums, including the Getty, apparently had no problem with hanging THEIR Bouguereau paintings. Maybe the problem has more to do with Marandel's ineptness as a curator than with the Bouguereau in LACMA's collection.
For that matter, Marandel gave no indication of what objective criteria he uses to evaluate paintings, whether Bouguereau's or anyone else's. He seemed to grade artists' value based on his own personal likes and dislikes. If a guy simply doesn't like an artist's body of work, fine. I can live with that. But to settle for making his sneering little half-assed comments, or showing a Bouguereau next to a picture of a figurine of Michael Jackson and a chimp, implying there's essentially no difference in the level of kitsch between the two items? None of Marandel's comments seemed to have been thought through at all. I wondered if he had ever been in a position before where he had to clarify his thinking to anyone except underlings, employees or clueless students?
Comments by Virgil ElliotI have to say, Patrice Marandel's arguments against Bouguereau at the "debate" were very feeble cheap shots of the sort we have all heard before. My impression of his presentation was that it was either a half-hearted, insincere attempt to represent the negative side of the debate (if it really deserves to be called a debate), which was the role he was selected to stand for, a position to which he did not seem truly committed, or else he simply couldn't do any better than that because he was arguing against the obvious.
I am not among those who see a need to establish an artist's greatness, validity, stature relative to other artists, etc., through verbal debate. I think it is sufficient to limit debate, in this instance, to debunking the anti-Bouguereau propaganda that has been unfairly dumped on him, and once that is exposed for what it is, it can cease to influence people's judgment and attitudes, and then each person's quality receptors can be the determining factor when the artworks in question are viewed. The art itself makes its own case eloquently enough when the game is not rigged in such a way as to prejudice the individual's perceptions against it, and that, I believe, is the way it should be. I don't place as much stock as some do in the importance of verbal debate in matters of art and the relative quality of one kind of art or one particular artist versus another, at least as far as settling the issue in question conclusively is concerned. I think exposing the BS as BS is enough. Once that is accomplished, the artwork stands or fails on its own merits or deficiencies. I think it is unnecessary and misguided to try to use verbal arguments to establish any artist as the Greatest of All Time, unless one simply enjoys arguing. The quality of the work should speak for itself, and serve as its own strongest advocate.
After the debate was over, I asked Mr. Marandel whether he felt it was more appropriate to judge an artist by his best work than by his worst or more mediocre works, and he did acknowledge that, yes, to be fair, the gauge should be his best work. Of course that was not what he did during his presentation, but as I said before, it seemed to me he was not strongly committed to the anti-Bouguereau stance. Either that, or he was influenced in what he said by a desire to avoid being tarred and feathered, hence the hedging and the selection of weak arguments. He did mention Fred Ross during his presentation, and quoted Fred at length, expressing the thought that perhaps Fred might be there at the debate. I think it's good that Fred was not there, for Fred's own sake, because he might have popped a blood vessel over some of the nonsense that was included in the anti-Bouguereau talk. None of it seemed the least bit persuasive, and Bouguereau came out of it with his reputation more enhanced than diminished, it seemed to me.