"God hates Renoir": He sucks at painting, and this is why you should care

The media treats the Renoir Sucks at Painting movement as a joke, but it has serious, important political critiques

Published November 9, 2015 7:00PM (EST)

A 19th-century French impressionist artist who perished almost a century ago is the world's leading aesthetic terrorist; you just don't know it.

Fortunately, the Renoir Sucks at Painting (RSAP) movement is here to change that.

In October, demonstrators in major cities around the U.S. gathered outside of leading art museums to protest the inclusion of works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Activists carried signs including messages like "God hates Renoir," "Renoir paints steaming piles," "Renbarf," "Aesthetic terrorism," "Illegalize it #RottingVegetation," and "Treacle harms society! Remove all Renoir NOW!"

Satirical counter-protesters showed up with messages like "You can take our Renoir when you pry them from our cold dead hands" and "Je suis Pierre Auguste," expressing solidarity with the besieged late Frenchman.

Out of nowhere, RSAP exploded. Stories about it filled the headlines of every leading newspaper.

Lacking in much of this media coverage, however, were the very serious -- and important -- political critiques behind the jokes.

In order to learn more about these political critiques, I spoke with Max Geller, a 30-year-old activist who stressed that he is not the leader of RSAP, but rather "the spokesperson for a grassroots movement for cultural justice."

RSAP is "non-hierarchical," Geller said, noting "people participate from literally all over the world." It's "a movement of the people, not of art scholars," he added.

He also said it's hard to pinpoint where and when exactly the movement began, because, as The Atlantic revealed, critics in the 1870s were already lambasting Renoir for painting portraits that looked like "total putrefaction in a corpse."

On the subject of humor, Geller stressed that "Just because it's humorous doesn't mean it's not serious. That's something important to keep in mind."

At the core of RSAP's serious political critiques are Eurocentric aesthetics and beauty standards and the domination of art museums by white men. "If the problems with Eurocentricity were personified in a man, Renoir would be the disgusting" embodiment, Geller insisted. He did not mince words, adding "Renoir is the most pulsating, puss-ridden boil which is the most blatant essence of the problem."

"The fact that this utter charlatan can get by the watchmen defending the high altar of art is the proof positive that the system is broken, and that, for far too long, these decisions have been made by people who have access to fancy art educations and pursue them with an eye toward dictating taste," Geller explained.

On Twitter, RSAP's official account God Hates Renoir wrote "Chicago's Art Institute has 65 works by Renoir. They should -- there's still a market -- sell some and use the money to buy work by women and POC [people of color]." Similar statements can be found peppered across the movement's wildly popular Instagram account.

"We want to democratize the notion of beauty, and we believe that beauty can come from any artists, not just white males," Geller told me. "That space where Renoir is being hung could easily be given over to masterpieces done by artists who weren't white men."

Multiple times, Geller reiterated a quote by writer and critic Susan Sontag, who insisted "rules of taste enforce structures of power." Geller said this quote "would be the epitaph on the Renoir Sucks at Painting movement's grave once we're successful."

It was a chilly New York autumn afternoon when Geller and I discussed RSAP, and he had just left an interview with the German media about Manhattan's lavish Frick Museum. Geller said he has done around 100 interviews in the past month or so, and called the unexpected explosion of the movement "stupefying."

When I asked what he discussed in his previous interview, Geller jumped into the grim history surrounding the Frick Museum. I could immediately tell that this is an activist who is tremendously knowledgeable about the injustices against which he has pitted himself.

Henry Clay Frick, whose mansion was turned into the Frick Museum, was among the most powerful capitalists of late 19th- and early 20th-century America. Chairman of the prodigious Carnegie Steel Company, Frick was militantly against unions, and used violence to crush workers' attempts to take democratic control over their lives.

The industrialist "dispatched the Pinkertons to murder trade unionists at his coal mine in Pittsburgh, and then he used all his money to buy art," Geller recalled. "Then Frick moved it out of the coal mining town, because he was concerned that the air would damage it, so he just put it in his Midtown mansion."

"It serves as a perfect metaphor for the whole thing," Geller said, "because he can use it to deaden the insides of people, to put them to sleep, so they don't think about why this guy is so much richer than all of us, and how much blood of workers is on his hands."

At the museum, Geller said there was a "breathtakingly bad Renoir painting -- so we surreptitiously placed a barf bag right in front of it, on a very expensive piece of furniture that was purchased with the literal blood of coal miners."

[caption id="attachment_14202649" align="aligncenter" width="600"]An RSAP barf bag at the Frick Museum in NYC (Credit: RSAP/Max Geller) An RSAP barf bag at the Frick Museum in NYC (Credit: RSAP/Max Geller)[/caption]

This is by no means Geller's first rodeo. The RSAP spokesperson is a veteran activist, and has worked on a variety of political and social issues. For the past decade, he has been deeply involved in the Palestinian solidarity movement, and identified as an organizer with the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.

Geller travels a lot around the country, speaking at various conferences and events about his Palestinian human rights work. It is on the flights to speak at such events that he says he "reappropriates" motion sickness bags to be used for RSAP. He asks flight attendants for not just one or two, but rather a dozen barf bangs, and they happily give them to him. The movement is "using the tools of the master to disassemble the master's house" he said, quoting activist Audre Lorde.

In an interview on Chicago's WGN-TV, when Geller insisted that the Art Institute of Chicago should get rid of Renoir's work "and instead buy some art that is painted by women or painted by people of color," a host pushed back. "Why not let the free market dictate whose paintings are good or not?" the white male anchor asked. Geller promptly replied, "When we let the free market dictate things we get things like climate change, things like the prison industrial complex, like Zionism, and the destruction of sea otter habitat."

When I asked him about his climate change and sea otter comment, Geller quipped "I guess it's sort of redundant, but it's important to mention sea otters, because they're the best animals."    

Huffington Post. #Renoirsucksatpainting A photo posted by Renoir Sucks At Painting (@renoir_sucks_at_painting) on

Not an artist himself, Geller grew up frequently going to museums and said he loves art. His critiques of museum aesthetics come from a very real place of concern. Several hashtags have spun off the movement, including #SteamingPiles and #SharpieEyes. Explaining the latter, Geller said "All of Renoir's eyeballs look like they were violently colored in with sharpies. And that sucks; that harms, that dilutes your overall experience at a museum, seeing that lackadaisical B.S."

He is extremely well-read, and has a charmingly witty and dry sense of humor. (In the education section of his Facebook profile, Geller writes "Studied at: Fatuous Navel-Gazing Liberal Arts School.") In between side-splitting jokes, Geller made references to a variety of prominent intellectuals and thinkers.

Despite his strong intellectual streak, Geller was very critical of scholars. "People are saying to me, 'You know, a lot of scholars agree with you.' Well, yeah, but Renoir paintings are still in the museums, bro. It's not like those scholars have won, because they are dogmatic scholars. We're building a grassroots movement to change the museum. That's what we're taking on right now: It's not scholarly opinion of Renoir, but his presence in the museum."

He stressed the influence of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, who argued that the ruling class in a given society not only controls its economy and politics; the bourgeoisie is ultimately also the arbiter of that society's culture -- its values, its customs, its tastes. These values, customs, and tastes ultimately reinforce and reify bourgeois ideology, according to Gramsci, in a concept he termed "hegemony."

"I was reading Gramsci in college, not art history books," Geller said. RSAP is ultimately about "challenging cultural hegemony," he continued, "and it's the first step in a long march through our cultural institutions. That's how we politically orient."

Although the media almost unanimously refuses to acknowledge this serious politics, Geller lamented, it is certainly not lost on everyone. Before RSAP blew up, Geller recalled, someone with the name "InstaGramsci" followed the movement on Instagram. He called moments like this "the most gratifying" thing of all.

  Guerrilla Art Lecture. Coming to a confused art museum near you. #renoirsucksatpainting   A photo posted by Renoir Sucks At Painting (@renoir_sucks_at_painting) on

Despite RSAP's quite clearly articulated politics, much of the media -- not just in the U.S., but around the world -- has treated the movement like a joke. Geller insists that it is far from it.

When I asked if he would like to discuss the media reaction to RSAP, Geller forcefully replied "Yeah, I would very much like to talk about the media. Thank you for asking."

He blasted the press for misunderstanding the movement. Journalists "keep blaming me for decisions they're making," he bemoaned. Geller explained that journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winners, accused him of creating a "media circus" when, in fact, he argued, it was they who were responsible for misunderstanding RSAP and creating the circus.

Geller had several horror stories he wanted to share with me. He said an Australian journalist called him out of the blue, at 2 a.m., for an interview. He got out of bed for the interview, in which he discussed the underrepresentation of women and people of color in art museums and the overrepresentation of Renoir's "mediocrity." The Australian public radio station then edited out all of the substantive political points Geller made and turned the story into a joke, even going so far as to refer to him as a "scallywag." Geller was furious. He censured Australia, which he characterized as a genocidal regime "that engaged in brutal settler colonialism" and ethnically cleansed the indigenous peoples before later developing "an accent so offensive to the ear that it sounds" like death.

Deploring the fact that the media had turned RSAP into mere "clickbait," Geller explained that, "instead of talking about the actual important issues, they have me on to talk about what they think is just a joke." He said in his VICE interview, "I told them on camera that I thought that they are vortexes of journalistic compromise and corporate interest." "And they didn't even flinch," he added.

As for the pundits, Geller did not mince his words. "I just want to make clear to the critics and trolls out there: It does not bother me that you use the Renoir Suck at Painting movement as a vessel for your narcissistic outrage. Because I see you for the whack, craven, mediocre thinkers that you are. And you are blaming me for your own journalistic laziness."

Geller was also angry at what he perceived to be journalists' inability to understand what exactly censorship is and how it works. He firmly denied that the movement is advocating censorship. "We don't have any power; we are lay people. Art museums and art curators with their art degrees, they have all the power; they are making and dictating the choices."

"It's not censorship. If you just asked a lay person what kind of art goes into a museum, they say 'The best art.' That's what a museum is," Geller explained. "So we're telling ordinary people that this is the best. And that's not true."

Our movement is spreading across the World! Come Picket Treacle in Chicago! The #RenoirSucksAtPainting movement is unstoppable!   A photo posted by Renoir Sucks At Painting (@renoir_sucks_at_painting) on

When I asked what he and his comrades' goal is with RSAP, Geller promptly replied "I want the private market for Renoirs to continue to bottom out. I want people who are holding Renoirs in storage somewhere, waiting for the next big art auction, to start sweating. Because, unarguably, the Renoir Sucks at Painting movement has started a global conversation about whether or not Renoir sucks at painting."

"And, by the way, he totally, totally sucks at painting," Geller added.

In many ways, Geller says the movement has already won. "Nobody wants art that was made by someone when there's a debate raging about whether or not he sucks."

Much of the media has characterized Geller as a clown, but he is actually much more of a pioneer -- albeit a pioneer who happens to actually have a sense of humor. RSAP is not a joke; it is a serious political movement that just has a lighter tone than most. And this tone, and political message, Geller points out, have clearly resonated with people around the world.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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