Wendy Steiner: Venus in Exile – The Rejection of Beauty in 20th Century Art (The Free Press, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001) Having read a few blurbs for Steiner’s Venus I’ll have to admit I was filled with hopeful curiosity if not necessarily hope. She seemed to think that conceptualism, detritus, service to the worldwide proletarian revolution and the destruction of the male gender were not the sole options available for serious and pleasurable art and literature. Perhaps she even stumbled on a few principles for understanding and appreciating art that weren’t limited to self conscious flatness and semiological doubly articulated talk. Then I read the book. At the beginning I was dismayed by what appeared to be a lot of blather about some individual named Kant, amazingly the eponym of the great philosopher who struggled mightily and in vain to provide a firm basis for science against skeptical doubts. Halfway through Steiner’s book I was still hopeful – willing to concede that I liked where she was headed though I warn’t none too happy about how she was gettin’ there. By the end, however, I had lapsed back into post-post-modern despair. I didn’t like where she was going either. I had to face the facts. Sipping chamomile with one hand while caressing the palm of my non-gender-specific soulmate with the other as the two of us watch Oprah in an orgy of domestic bliss is simply not – well, to put it bluntly, not my cup of tea. I’m more of the 69 type, preferably with a justmet anonymous female camper, while keeping an eye out for park rangers and bears.
The book is for all intents and purposes too confused and general to merit detailed disentanglement, the result of which may just be that anything like viable argument or any content at all would simply disappear from off its pages. So I will content myself with a few a priori propositions (There’s that darned Kant again) which are the gist of an opinion that Steiner’s more programmatic pronunciamentos are either wrong headed or too vague and poorly supported to be headed anywhere.
1) So Kant invented some notion of the sublime that involved hatred of women, or at least domesticity, artistic formalism, violent sadistic revenge, imperialistic fetishism, nasty monsters and mechanistic materialism? Phew! And I thought Hitler was a bad guy. Surely, or so I believed through most of the book, surely Steiner must know that the concept of the sublime was a part of Western aesthetic thought as far back as Longinus and was a variation of the Aristotelian tragic? Surely she must be aware that the notion of the beautiful and the cultivation of refined taste were hot topics in 17th and 18th century Europe. Surely she must know that some of the cultural attitudes and themes she abhors developed with the English Garden and the art of Goya and Henry Fuseli somewhat spontaneously as a contrapositive to Rococo delicacy and that these cultural attitudes and themes became a rallying cry of sorts in reaction to the French Revolution. Of course Steiner was perfectly well aware that Kant did not devise the conceptual scheme of the beautiful and sublime whole cloth, but rather that he took it over from Burke who extended to the realm of the aesthetic the general Enlightenment onslaught against noble and abstract ideas and sought to show their proletarian origins in natural phenomena such as instinct and habit. The Critique of Judgment was designed as an answer to Burke just as the first two Critiques were answers to Hume, Shaftesbury et al. Kant’s intention was not to promote some content rich ideology of the sublime – most assuredly not the one Steiner attributes to him – but to ask, given that people exercise something like artistic judgment and profess to experience feelings of the sublime, what is the nature of the human mind such that those judgments and experiences are possible? (Kant, of course, tacitly betrayed his philosophical neutrality throughout the second and third Critiques just as Aristotle had done in his philosophical works, but that was a sin against his own creed; what makes Kant’s work philosophy is the stance that, however men act and whatever their beliefs may be, he wishes to investigate the conditions of the possibility of those beliefs and actions.) Surely Steiner must have known all this and for reasons of her own wished to attribute to Kant an aesthetic ideology rather than a critical investigation. By the end of her book, however, I wasn’t so sure. Perhaps Steiner was simply ignorant of much of the history of Western civilization. By way of footnote, Steiner frequently mentions Kant and the Enlightenment in a single breath as if the association were some sort of truism. However, many believe that the third Critique is the beginning of a Romantic reaction against Enlightenment ideas about art more accurately exemplified by Diderot and Burke. And, however vague and unsatisfactory even this opinion may be, it is probably closer to being accurate than the one Steiner assumes.
2) So every single modernist or avant-garde artist advocates or exemplifies an anti-woman sadistic formalism infused with notions of the sublime. Every one of them. To the man (Well, except Bonnard). That’s a lot of people. So many people in fact that a wild claim like this could never be justified within even minimum standards of scholarly acceptability. In chapter after chapter Steiner presents a veneer of building a case, but even a cursory inspection of her evidence shows she relies almost exclusively on secondary sources and “doxographical” source books most of whose snippets are presented in unverified translation. This intellectual laziness piles insult on injury. We don’t know if translations are accurate or even, if two individuals used the same word, whether they meant the same thing. Simply quoting someone else’s book does not prove your point. All it shows is that both of you may be wrong. I would never presume to present myself as a scholar of 19th and 20th century art and literature, but I do know that in the time I have spent thinking about it, I have written very little on the subject. One reason is that the complexity of the period and the flood of source material almost invariably mean that even much more modest generalizations than Steiner’s are immediately tempered or even invalidated by a thousand counter examples. Even a relatively circumscribed investigation into the factual political affiliations or religious attitudes of what are commonly considered the major artists, not to speak of the thousands upon thousands of minor figures, neglected artists, non Western artists who adopted Western cultural practices and popular and folk artists, leads to a distressing maze of ambiguity and inconsistency. I understand, or I suppose I do, that the critic of contemporary culture is not a scholar in the sense that a Hellenist may be a scholar. I guess the idea is to throw striking and even outrageous ideas against the wall in the hope that, if they stick, you will have a tangible and perhaps beneficial impact on your culture going forward. But without some basis in fact you would have to be very lucky indeed to produce a beneficial impact. This is a particularly acute issue in the current situation in America and perhaps elsewhere where the goddist community, in its self-serving and dare I say Stalinist willingness to convert patent falsehood into "fact" by unrelenting repetition, is wreaking havoc with established standards of scholarly objectivity and legitimate verification. Having said this, I concede that the essayist, the ideologue and even the philosopher (Philosophers have their own quite different standards of rigor; Bertrand Russell was a great philosopher but as a historian he could give Steiner a run for her money) cannot be held to the most rigorous standards of scientific scholarship. If that were the case, nothing would get written at all. Or nearly nothing of any value. The essayist contributes by way of insight or unexpected aperçus often based on very slim evidence. These insights are often much more valuable for the ultimate purpose of humanist discourse than the technical philological article. Susan Sontag and Christopher Hitchens wrote this way, not to mention the legions of Surrealists and the incomparable Nietzsche. But if your conclusions are off track or simply fishy, lack of factual support for your claims stinks like an untreated sore. It would be hard to find a single instance of Sontag, Hitchens et al. simply quoting someone who appeared to agree with them in order to support one of their conclusions (Well, the Surrealists often did, but Bataille in particular exercised some care in evaluating his secondary source material). They stood up and fought for themselves like – well like men (or at least like my personal pinup girl, Lara Croft). I think it is a sign of a bad cultural critic to engage in this kind of neo-scholastic appeal to authority and I am equally dismayed when people I mostly agree with like Sam Harris indulge in the same intellectual mollesse.
3) Steiner effects a truly breathtaking glissando whereby Greenberger modernism and its exemplars – much despised by the post-modernist crowd – metamorphose into the entire avant-garde including every movement and artist (except Bonnard) from approximately 1912 through the advent of Marlene Dumas, thus sucking in gullible browsers like myself who expected an argument for replacing flat paintings not with incisive deconstructions of the paternalist, sexist, capitalist, racist, imperialist and, of course, bourgeois society it is our miserable luck to have been born in, but with art that might be described as a tiny bit – well, sexier. The trick is to call every 20th century artist a formalist as well as a sublime loving MCP (This includes Breton whose status as a “formalist” is a bit hard to swallow). Formalism, you see is Greenberg’s term for liking flat paintings. So, by calling everybody she doesn’t like a formalist, Steiner can ride on the back of all the abuse that has been heaped on Greenberg’s head lo these past few decades (Nobody will ever be able to accuse me of a paucity of metaphor). No, she doesn’t argue for moving beyond Kenneth Noland to another form of visual pleasure. Rather, she proposes junking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Ulysses, Wozzeck and other newly christened modernist horrors in favor of a Gemütlichkeit that sounds suspiciously like a Martha Stewart course in home decorating. In fact that is the strategy of the entire book: To take our justified impatience with the absurdities of post-modernism and the art it spawned and extend that impatience to, identify the absurdity with everything Steiner doesn’t like - porn (kind of), avant-garde art and literature, Kant - all thrown together into a single roisterous sack fastened with the chords of her own piss poor scholarship. I guess this is the greatest source of my disappointment. I wuz conned!
4) The only reason I object to Steiner’s interpretation of American Pastoral with a certain degree of trepidation is that I hesitate to address the meaning of literary works at all, particularly in the context of a few offhand comments about a very bad work of cultural criticism. This is particularly appropriate to Roth, whose novels are not designed to make a point or teach a lesson or advocate a position. And that is precisely Steiner’s sin. She twists Roth’s novel into a roman à thèse whose lesson is, not surprisingly, precisely the cultural doctrine Steiner herself has been advocating through the course of her book. Amazingly she reads the maundering crotchety self-made father of the central character as teaching the youngsters that anti-porn, glove wearing domesticity is the most precious of traditional American values. Roth himself is not espousing (or deploring) those values. Lou Levov's tirade is pure standup. It provides a comic counterpoint to Swede's discovery of his wife's infidelity. Also it is probably not the most enticing subject to choose as a way of flirting with an ageing alcoholic WASP. It is important to remember that most of the novel is written from the point of view of one character or another, mostly Swede Levov, whose embrace of Jewish conformism and domestic bliss informs what deceptively appears to be an authorial point of view through much of the novel. But it is not Roth who is observing, analyzing and judging; it is Swede. And many incidents, most notably Jerry’s lengthy denunciation of Swede’s behavior to his daughter, serve as warnings that many of Swede’s attitudes, though presented in the guise of objectivity and a rational longing for a happy life, may be misguided. In fact the third person stream of thought that constitutes the greater part of the novel is not even Swede’s own. It is a speculative reconstruction by Nathan, the authorial first person of the opening chapters. And the fact that Nathan never raised a family serves to bracket his views and fictional reconstruction as themselves not to be regarded as authoritative. My snapshot mental image of Roth’s work is that it’s all about how people, sometimes with the best intentions and the most rational views of life, make each other suffer, that psychological pain is permanent and structural and not something amenable to practical solutions. Having said this, I am perfectly willing to allow that the passion with which Swede's disillusion is expressed, not to mention the sheer repetitiveness of it all, may indicate that the empirical individual who wrote the novel is not unsympathetic to Swede's viewpoint.
A second constant theme is the impenetrability of others and how people may be completely mistaken about apparently the simplest of social situations – whether a mother is upset that a friend is borrowing her daughter’s clothes, or whether a child is truly happy or not. This inaccessibility of others is clearly related to the suffering of small social groups Roth depicts so well. It may even be one of its sources. It may also account for the ambiguity about whose narration is to be trusted in American Pastoral. If one of Roth’s themes is that people cannot really see into each others’ thoughts and feelings, why should he, the author be exempt?
A third theme is the position of Jewish Americans, particularly in the Northeast. Roth’s early stories seemed intent on painting a picture of Jews that belied the cliché of cultured and victimized emigrés. The Jews in Goodbye Columbus, sports mad go-getters were largely of a kind with characters in Sinclair Lewis or John Updike. In other stories Jews were swindlers and sycophants, willing to use a sense of Jewish solidarity for their own ends. The story entitled "Eli, The Fanatic" (pp.187-225) takes an intriguing angle. It deals with assimilated Jews in New Jersey, largely the same community depicted in American Pastoral, who, by way of the irruption in their midst of Orthodox Jews - very likely Holocaust survivors - are confronted with the moral and self-identity issues raised by the strategy of assimilation. Roth does not to my knowledge, address the wider historical perspective, but the local issues he raises show noteworthy parallels to the situation of German and Austrian Jews during the long history of anti-semitism preceding and during the Nazi takeover. American Jews had succeeded enormously in adapting to and thriving in the American atmosphere of freewheeling commercialism. But, as Roth illustrates, their capacity to identify with this culture remained problematic. The issue was far more acute for German speaking Jews, since what we have come to recognize as the magnificent flowering of German culture in the 19th and 20th centuries was in fact largely the creation of German speaking Jewry after the emancipation. The shock of being told that you were now dispossessed from the cultural home you or yours had built is difficult to imagine and appears to only be resolved in our day by the gradual fading of German culture into a historical phenomenon and the assimilation of new generations of Jews into a broader culture that has absorbed the German contribution and now enjoys the participation of various ethnicities. (The sad exception to this "happy ending" is philosophy. This is a complex topic whose treatment I must defer.)
Much of this cold, critical eye is also evident in American Pastoral, although the character of Swede is engaging enough to highlight much that is positive in the Jewish American experience. But even here, we must remember that Swede, Nathan’s construct has spent much of his life living an illusion. The domestic bliss he so desired never existed and did not even exist in the older generation as the final climactic dinner scene reveals. (The content of the dinner conversation, by the way, is not important despite Steiner’s emphasis. What is important is how trivial it seems in counterpoint to Swede’s inner agony ignited by his encounter with his daughter.) A most telling metaphor is Swede’s self-image as Johnny Appleseed displayed in his dance of sowing seed across the New Jersey countryside in a chapter entitled “Paradise Lost.”
By way of footnote, let me mention that the character Swede is a development of the grandfather, Willard, from When She Was Good. Both explicitly organize their lives around rationality and tolerance and neither is capable of preventing his family from disintegrating. However, Swede’s inability to understand correctly the mental life of those around him is a trait he shares with Lucy, Willard’s granddaughter. In fact it is our realization that she had been wrong all along about what others were thinking and feeling that lends an element of surprise to the end of that novel. As far as Swede is concerned, empathetic weakness results in such unfortunate peripeties as his discovery that his mistress helped his daughter escape the law or that his wife was having an affair with their neighbor. On the other hand, Lucy’s moral absolutism and simmering potential for violence is the model for Merry. Indeed both undergo flirtations with the Church of Rome, perhaps the most inflexible and superstitious of contemporary sects. Intense blondness and the nicknames that accompany it – “Swede”, “Whitey” – as if the nicknames signal that there is something askew, out of the ordinary about being blonde, are another favorite Roth image. Merry and her father are blonde just like Lucy and her father. There is another Roth theme that I find difficult to get a handle on, but the scenes in which it is portrayed are unforgettable. That is the sexuality of the young female, both when she has barely escaped being a toddler and when, like Merry, she is on the threshold of puberty. The eleven year old Merry’s desire to be kissed sexually by her father and the startling image of her exposed nipple recalls the sexual passion of little Cynthia for Gabe, the hero of Letting Go. In Cynthia sexual feelings unleash a storm of confused and violent reactions that culminate in her accidentally killing her brother. There is no equivalent objective act on Merry’s part, though Swede speculates that her request for a kiss may have been her first trauma on the road to her detonating a bomb.
One thing does bother me about Roth. In the aforementioned dinner scene I initially noted with pleasure that the guests seated around the table represented a cross-section of the American people whose unity and reconciliation was Swede’s dream and Roth’s subject. There were Wasps and Jews and non-Jewish immigrants. But then I was caught up short. There were no Asians or Latinos or Blacks. Upon reflection, though I have not read all of Roth’s novels, I could not recall a single one that featured a non-White, non-Jewish character. Even worse, in this novel Blacks were treated either as the enemy, the moral equivalent of underpass winos, or else as the plantation mammy. It may be, though I wouldn’t go so far as to make a positive assertion to that effect, that some of the blame for inner city blight and the perceived ingratitude of Blacks to the assimilated Jews might lie on the Jews’ own shoulders. It is said that we naturally focus our attention on those above us and ignore those below. Sophomores know the names of seniors and not those of freshmen. Jews fantasize about Wasps and not about the Schwarze. This may not in itself be blameworthy, but actions and attitudes have consequences. And the – inexplicable to Swede – disruption of the American pastoral might be one of them. In fairness to Roth, he is, as I said above, depicting his characters attitudes, not stating his own, and his very depiction has value in that it provides a touchstone for moral reflections such as these. But Roth could have, or he could have tried like Steinbeck, to create non-white, non-Jewish characters and paint a picture of their own equally limited perspectives. The position of Portnoy père in Portnoy's Complaint exhibits a more insightful picture of the relation between Jews and Blacks. In effect he participates in the exploitation of the underclasses by selling them insurance policies they may not need nor be able to afford. And he may be aware of this fact. The Jewish salesman occupies a middle position between the minority clients and the goyim owners of the insurance company. Anyway, back to Steiner. The negative light on the “modernist” Marcia Umanoff is cast not by Roth but by Dawn. Everything is perspective.
5) I have found no clear and satisfying (to me) reason why Manet’s Olympia (Courbet’s L’Origine du monde was not submitted to a Salon) should have raised the storm of controversy it did, but one thing is sure. It is not, as Steiner contends, because the depicted figure appeared is a strong self-sufficient woman capable of running her own affairs. Olympia is a dumpy hooker - nothing so exalted as even a courtesan or a petite maîtresse. If you want an image of a strong self-sufficient woman, I’ll show you one: If you object that Ashley Lawrence is too far outside Manet’s cultural context to be relevant, I can also cite Manet’s depictions of Berthe Morisot and even Nana as women far more evidently in control, to the point in Nana’s case of controlling a bit too much. I’m afraid Steiner’s ideology has distorted her vision so much that she sees qualities in a painting that simply are not there. The model for Olympia could be as strong a character as you like. She could be the prototype for Ayn Rand or Emma Goldman for all I care. Her biography and personal qualities have little more than anecdotal and art historical interest for a reading of the painting itself. Olympia is a character in Manet’s visual fiction, not a real person.
But don't forget Olympia’s bold, no nonsense stare that meets the eyes of the viewer straight on. Surely this is the sign of a woman who is really together even though she happens to be nekkid as a jaybird. Well, unambiguously accomplished women depicted in Western painting don’t necessarily stare like that. Not Morisot and not Laura Battiferri. Now where have I seen somebody looking at me that way before? Of course! That’s the way the window girls in Amsterdam stare at anyone who pauses before their display. Their purpose is to attract business and the technique is to establish a personal relation with the viewer by the unexpectedness and incivility of the stare. “This impudent woman connects with me; I am part of her mental universe.” She also seems to see directly into the viewer’s soul. She knows what he wants and she signals that she can provide it without the bad faith of appearing to actually want it herself. I understand these window scenes were once common in Paris and Brussels as well and I daresay it is a window display Manet was depicting, not a boudoir slice of life. Well, OK the presence of the maid and the cat is pretty strong evidence against this reading. On the other hand, who knows what tableaux vivants an enterprising hooker might devise? Let’s proceed along the somewhat delusional road that some sort of sales presentation is in the offing, if not exactly in a street display at least in a quiet alcove. In either case Olympia looks posed not because she is posing for a picture like the models for Manet’s sources The Naked Maja and the Venus of Urbino, but rather because she is posing within the visual fiction. She is posing for the strolling customers or valued hobbyist. Manet did not paint a portrait of a woman posing for his canvas. He painted a genre scene of a window hooker on display. This is, I am tempted to say, a reflective allusion on the very idea of a model posing for a painting. It sets the common posing customs of painting in relief and makes us see them not as natural but as conventional and perhaps even hypocritical – genuine mauvaise foi. Much posing for art perhaps from the High Renaissance on but certainly since David is not a capture of a non-theatrical “natural” gesture or facial expression but the theatrical (Manet’s contemporaries could have called it “operatic”) representation (If I were a semiotician I would say “re-presentation”) of an emotion or of a reaction to an event (Many paintings were literally depictions of scenes from plays). It is somewhat analogous to the Southern Belle having the vapours. In a sense this is a painting about a pose. It becomes a tale of the emotional iconography of painting by simply not conforming to the conventions of that iconography and also by depicting in a way that would come to be called “naturalistic” an example where an individual in real life assumes something like a conventional pose. This element, of course, does not by itself account for the visual pleasure of Olympia. An illustration of actors rehearsing could have achieved the same effect. But it is certainly part of its powerful poetry. Olympia is staring directly at the flâneur or connoisseur - an action within the fiction of the painting. But of course (and I don’t want to overstress this since it is a point that is so darned Foucauldian and hip that any art history undergraduate should notice it) she is also staring at the gallery goer in real space. Her direct eye contact with the art lover places him or her in the exact position of the prospective hobbyist, thus expanding the world of the painting into a blurring of lived and imaginary space not to speak of a blurring of aesthetic and (in this case rather faded) erotic pleasure. Moreover, and this is slightly more difficult to express, one gets the uncanny feeling that the painting itself, or rather art itself, is staring quizzically at the art lover. Maybe that’s going too far. Manet’s hero Velazquez almost certainly created the prototype for this apparently modern conceit in Las Meniñas. These are the sorts of observations it’s fun to make over your deconstructed salad dressing.
One additional level of artistic meaning and one crucial to a reading of Olympia comprises the formal means by which Manet formed his socially transgressive and art historically reflective image. Manet’s technique was criticized by its first critics including Baudelaire for being slapdash; his coloration was also considered glaring and unpleasant. Of course first impressions rarely last. The technical awkwardness of Olympia - which is real – in fact constitutes one of its poetic strengths. The depicted scene is tawdry, so Manet’s way of depicting it was intentionally tawdry. Imagine Olympia painted in the style of Fragonard or even William Etty. One of the great pleasures we take in Olympia is when we perceive the homology between the limited palette and imperfect modeling on the one hand and the offer of a sad kind of sexuality on the other.
Considerations like this lead me to take issue with Bataille’s belief that Manet inaugurated a phase in the history of art where iconographic content declined in importance to be replaced by a reflection within the work on the formal devices – line, shape, space, color – essential to painting (and sculpture) as an autonomous activity. (Analogous contentions by Blanchot I’m sure are not accidental, but those by Greenberg probably are.) Aside from the fact as I just mentioned that the formal considerations in Olympia can barely be properly appreciated unless we also appreciate how they interlace with the subject, Bataille’s view as a general thesis betrays something of a misunderstanding of how artists work. All art – avant-garde, pre-avant-garde, modernist, primitive, Gothic, classical you name it (Well, maybe not conceptual art) – all art is concerned with form. The illusion that modern artists are more concerned with form than their predecessors in the Renaissance/Baroque tradition is due to the fact that formal issues as they were addressed by that tradition were always conceived within the context of that great discovery, unitary container space. Form was the arrangement of shape, color, light and objects within an imaginary three-dimensional recessive cube. Modern art most likely from Cezanne forward conceived types of spatial structure – most often depicted planes in imaginary space or the real frontal plane of the canvas – as a distinct and independent formal element. What modern painters gained in terms of a newfound formal richness (the additional variable of types of space or spatial modes) they lost, we should not forget, in an inability to situate shapes and colors within a uniform three-dimensional framework. (There is an analogy in photography. Color photography gains an extra variable but loses the ability to clearly manipulate certain types of shading.) It should also be noted that modern artists do not at all eschew iconographic subject matter. Gauguin didn’t slog off to Tahiti just to paint colored planes. Mondrian felt he was depicting the otherwise imperceptible intelligible realities that were his true subject. Even such an apparently pure colorist as Rothko asserted that he was creating representations of real things. We might regard the so-called New York School or at least several of its members as adding to the iconography of Buddhist art and fitting more comfortably in the Eastern and not the Western history of art. And if all Manet is about is form and if the iconography of his work is irrelevant, then he is an artist on the level of Jules Olitski or Paul Poiret, but nothing more. I’m afraid the cliché that modern art is somehow more formally preoccupied and less concerned with iconography than the Renaissance/Baroque tradition is simply bankrupt.
Olympia’s stare is not just a self-reflexive painterly icon. It is also as an intriguing capture of a charged moment between prostitute and hobbyist, a moment of psychological intensity and revelation that fits nicely with equally charged expressions in Le Balcon and Un Bar aux Folies Bergère and I daresay the distracted glance of the perhaps unwilling and vaguely foppish male sitter in Le Dejeuner dans l’atelier. It is noteworthy that the bar maid in Un Bar aux Folies Bergère (which, because of the lush and intentionally beautiful color, light and movement – all seeming to emerge from his Impressionist experiments - that is not sacrificed to a contradictory poetic need as in Olympia, I believe is Manet’s masterpiece, not Olympia – as if that sort of evaluation were anything more than a parlor game) is also staring at a customer but with a completely different psychological charge. Olympia perhaps did not see her customer as an individual but she nevertheless perceived him. She looks at him in the painting. The bar maid looks straight through her customer. She doesn’t see an individual because she doesn’t see anything at all. Each one of them breaks with operatic exaggeration and conventionalized signs of emotion to reveal an inner life that we recognize but cannot label. It is Manet’s ability to provide an unexpected and hypnotic intimacy with the persons he depicts that distinguishes him from many of his Impressionist and even Symbolist successors who, though also avoiding the operatic and conventional, did so quite often at the expense of eliminating depicted psychology and even expressive faces altogether. Similarly Manet’s intimacy manages to show people who are not performing, unlike much Rococo art whose characters, though miming non theatrical naturalness and spontaneity, were still just performers, still aware of the “camera,” still acting like mimes. Manet’s characters are caught in a passing moment of a barely tangible often inward feeling. What he shows is just as far from portrait preparedness, beauty queen or commercial happiness and timeless Hellenic repose as it is from Racine or Puccini.
There's more. Olympia's stare is rendered additionally disconcerting by the mysterious blotching of her left eye. I'm sure this is not just an example of Manet's intentional slapdash technique because deviations in the way the face is depicted distort the represented individual's expression and potentially ruin the subtly inexpressible feelings the depiction of the face is meant to convey. Certainly Manet's psychology is more important than the self-reflexive painterly technique of this work. Yet Olympia's left iris is definitely larger than her right iris and her left eye appears swollen in comparison with her right. In fact the iris is kind of smeared about as if there was something actually wrong with the eye. It fills practically the entire space between the lids, leaving almost no room for the white. Its lack of expression definitely gives extra intensity to her confrontational glance much the same way a glass eye seems to stare because it conveys nothing from inside the individual. Especially if you note that the left eyebrow is inquisitively arched. The deadness of the eye and the intention to express something (The emotion she actually expresses is a combination of the interrogatory challenge of the arched eyebrow and the intention to convey an interrogatory challenge) by the left side of her face conflict. Is Olympia blind in that eye? Did some blow damage it? If we let our imagination run riot we begin to see the entire left side of Olympia's face as somewhat stiff as if it were paralyzed. Interestingly enough the apparent paralysis of the left side of the face adds a disturbing dimension to her droll, quizzical stare. It is as if Olympia is trying to say "Et alors?" with her face but the physical deformity turns the intended expression into a grimace (There is a great deal of writing on Manet most of which I haven't read, but the only place I found a mention of Olympia's distorted eye was an article in The Guardian that I happened upon on the internet. Perhaps there's even a scholarly accounting for the left eye out there somewhere based on the circumstances of the work's creation, but, if there is, I haven't found it.)
So what about the Olympia scandal? That event has come to constitute the defining myth of the avant-garde and has had somewhat of a distorting influence on the subsequent development of art and our understanding of art. So it is worth thinking about. I’m not, as I said, really satisfied with any explanation I have heard as to what caused it. The major reason is that in Olympia Manet never really did anything that not only had not been done before, but had in fact not been consecrated as part of the post Renaissance artistic heritage in the minds of both critics and artists and the general public. La vie moderne was an integral subject of Dutch painting in the 17th century including numerous hooker scenes many of which were far more vulgar than Olympia. 18th century illustrations for pornographic texts (admittedly not presented for hanging at a Salon) combined classical imagery with obviously up to date filles in just the way Manet was accused of doing. Moreover, Baudelaire’s plaidoyer for Constantin Guys appeared pretty much at the same time. So the in crowd should have been primed for the subject matter. As far as the rough style Manet adopted for the painting was concerned, that approach to painting was already familiar in Goya. In fact there’s clearly less anatomical distortion in Olympia than in Ingres’ Grande Odalisque so the complaints about the physical appearance of the model can’t be totally convincing. The idea that Manet assaulted the established academic methods of painting doesn’t do it for me. If we assume the style of Thomas Couture was what people meant by the established methods of painting, then any work by Watteau would have been as thorough an assault. It is also hard to see how the charge of outrage to public decency could be made to stick since Manet toned down the one element that made the Venus of Urbino a true pornographic masterpiece. Titian’s Venus (as Mark Twain observed, choosing to speak truth to power) is resting her thumb on the base of her clit and about a quarter inch of her index finger has found its way into her vag. She’s kind of defiantly looking at the viewer, but she’s mainly thinking about the pleasurable tickle as she masturbates. Olympia, on the other hand, has her palm squarely on her thigh. The purpose of her hand is to hide her genitals, not to bring herself off. One would think that such pudeur would have been lauded by the forces of decency. We should also remember that Olympia was accepted for exhibition at the Salon, so the jury could not have anticipated any trouble.
The critical reviews are not much help (Cf. Bataille, t.ix pp. 138 ff.) since they came out after the initial public reaction which appears to have happened spontaneously on opening day. All they really talk about is the émeute itself and not the painting except as it was viewed by the public. Interestingly enough, Baudelaire was of two minds about Manet and in fact shared a bit of the disquiet (Ibid. p.108). Baudelaire’s ultimate judgment, however, was that Manet didn’t go far enough (He wanted him to man up like Wagner). I’m sure there must have been hundreds of genuinely bad paintings in the Salon of 1865 and previous Salons that could have been mocked without being subject to the intense ridicule of Olympia. But were there previous demonstrations of public ridicule at Salons that have not been the subject of repeated historical reporting simply because we agree that the paintings were bad or because they did not have the good fortune of a publicist like Zola not to speak of a subsequent history that would trace its decisive origin to the Olympia scandal? Was this kind of reaction something like the behavior of audiences at La Scala? It’s worth looking into. Assuming that the Olympia scandal was unique one can only lamely speculate that the scoffers sensed something of the genuine beauty of the painting that made them want to single it out as something worthy of opposition. Whatever set off the scandal, its explosive growth and persistence through attempts on the part of the Impressionist School to exhibit finds a more ready explanation: Identity politics. 1865 France was a nation that had undergone three revolutions, two republics and two coups d’état the second of which produced the current regime. Society may have felt like a succession of grenades whose next explosion was just a matter of time. The idea of class identity had arisen with the Revolution of 1789. In response the Restoration sponsored the notion of a French national identity. Either way of defining oneself implies some group that is excluded, indeed a potential enemy. National identity played a role in the Parisian rejection of Tannhäuser. By 1865 there was a feeling among the middle class that certain artists such as Baudelaire and Courbet were associated with the political left. So once Manet was condemned on more or less aesthetic grounds, it became part of the self-definition of the Parisian bourgeois to hate him as a political and social enemy just as many Americans today feel it is part of their identity to hate the French because of political differences with Chirac. Sédition was exactly the term used by the obscure reviewer, Jean Ravenel. The Parisian working class did not rally to Manet’s side probably because for one thing he definitely did not identify with them such as Courbet or Zola may have done, and for another they may not have even been aware a scandal was taking place. I suspect the world of arts and letters was definitely a middle class affair. Anyone who doubts whether members of the proletariat were sitting around discussing aesthetics over their fines should consult the wedding party scene in L’Assommoir. On the other hand, if politics played a role, why didn’t the students, one driving force behind 1830 and 1848, become involved?
Well, here we are after I had started with the intention of writing no more than a couple of dismissive paragraphs. It’s kind of like one of my girly friends who always goes to parties resolved to get away with a quick blow job or two and more often than not stays for a three hour double vag.