Cezanne, Matisse, Monet, Picasso—the impressionist and post-impressionist painters bring in the big crowds at the museums. Van Gogh posters have had a fifty-year run as best sellers.

What explains the enduring popularity of the largely French art that, in its day, was seen as shocking and revolutionary?

If one looks at Monet (one of my personal favorites), one encounters the Bohemian promise. If we will but soften our overly rigid and conventional visual expectations, then we will more fully encounter the sensuous, life-giving beauty of reality. It’s a reparative promise, one based on an essential optimism: the human person is fit for beauty and happiness. Loosen the harness of inherited culture, and we will life more fully.

This Bohemian promise differs from the revolutionary ambition or conceptual coldness in other, later trends in modern art. The excitement of Cubism comes from a feeling that our ordinary perceptions are exposed and shown to be arbitrary constructions. Kandinsky reflects a continuation of this trend, which I think of an a visual form of postmodern critique. He treated ordinary aesthetic sensibilities as a anatomy professor does a cadaver, dissecting, cutting, and exposing.

Middle class Americans vote with their feet. They—we—prefer the Bohemian promise to the revolutionary or analytical modes of art. And not surprisingly. By and large, the last fifty years of middle class culture has not seen an overturning of social norms, but instead a Bohemian softening, not for the sake of deep changes, but in order to allow for more plastic, more sensual ways of life. The old haute bourgeois rigidity (a classicism of culture, to use the artistic analogy) is pretty much gone. People still want to get married, still want to have children, still want to be economically successful, still want to be responsible citizen. But they want to do so as people living inside a Monet painting—with relaxed boundaries, blurred lines, flexible rules.

What to think? A great deal I suppose. But one thought: the mass appeal of Impressionism should warn us against apocalyptic anxieties about contemporary middle class culture. We don’t live in a revolutionary age, at least not at the level of taste. We live in a relaxing age, which, at the end of the day, wants to enrich and preserve rather than destroy and overturn. At least that’s what I find myself thinking when I’m standing in line to see a Cezanne exhibit at the MET.

Articles by R. R. Reno

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