Then and Now: The Salon of 1741 and 21st-Century Art Fairs

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Near the Origins of Art Criticism: An Original Tr [...]

by Kerr Houston and Jameson Magrogan

Two hundred seventy-three years is a long time – and it’s especially long in an art world that is often characterized by an intense emphasis upon originality and novelty.  Consequently, it is hardly surprising that a booklet written in response to the Parisian Salon of 1741 – one of the earliest surviving pieces of modern French art criticism, and now fully translated into English for the first time on bmoreart  – can feel distant, and dated. The author’s consistent emphasis upon naturalism feels quaintly conservative, and many of the painters whose work is discussed are now largely forgotten. And what in the world, you might reasonably ask as you scan the text, is a point d’Angleterre? Well, it’s a type of lace popular in the Rococo era – but it’s also a reminder that the artistic world of 1741 was markedly different from our own.

And yet, despite such obvious differences, there are also some intriguing senses in which the 1741 booklet still feels surprisingly relevant. For one thing, the anonymous author’s assessments of specific paintings, while generally typical of their age, can still make good sense to us, several centuries later (as Thomas Crow has noted, in a study of 18th-century painting, “to modern eyes, these are accurate judgments”). More interestingly, though, the booklet also frames its discussions of art in ways that neatly anticipate some of the dominant concerns of art criticism of our own day. If we are willing, for instance, to think of contemporary biennials and art fairs as the distant descendants of the French Salon, then we quickly realize that much recent art writing broadly echoes the 1741 text and its thoughtful references to public space, social class, and privilege.

Consider, for instance, the sustained set piece near the opening of the 1741 text. Our dutiful author arrives at the Salon before its opening hour, and is coolly and efficiently turned away by an officious guard. A few moments later, however, an opulent carriage arrives, discharging three haughty and foppish members of the Parisian upper class – who, in turn, clearly expect the door of the Salon to open in acknowledgment of their exceptional social station. But it does not, and our author takes considerable delight in evoking the shocked surprise of these members of the moneyed class, who are used to privileged access but who now stand powerless in the face of a nascent democratic notion of public space. Or, as Crow once put it, the resolutely closed Salon door “exposes and levels a bankrupt structure of privilege” –and the text, in the process, positions itself as a defense of the public sphere.

Well, now. Such an approach is clearly rooted in evolving notions of space in late Baroque France, and yet it parallels, in some ways, recent art critical emphases on privilege and access. Evocations of the breezy sense of privilege with which both art world professionals and the ultra-rich flit from event to event have become a commonplace in contemporary criticism, especially as the financial crisis of 2008 has shone a glaring light on economic inequalities. You might think, for instance, of Okwui Enwezor’s description of the summer of 2007, during which gallery owners, collectors and curators fluttered from Venice to Basel, and from Basel to Munich, in a parade whose path was marked by glasses of Chablis and dinner invitations. Or you might think of Luna, the 377-foot yacht belonging to the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, which moored prominently at the very edge of the Giardini at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Carriage, jet, or yacht: the form of the vehicle evolves, but the basic phenomenon – the ostentatious arrival of the wealthy, who see themselves as entitled – remains unchanged.

But so, too, does the indignation that such arrivals can spark. For, rather like the pompous trio in our 1741 text, those who have grown accustomed to such privilege have often recently faced a reactive pressure. In some cases, in fact, it’s the art itself that is challenging notions of privileged access. In 2003, for instance, the artist Santiago Sierra closed the Spanish pavilion, for the duration of the Venice Biennale, to anyone who did not have a Spanish passport. Abruptly, most members of the jet-setting art world found themselves standing before a door that simply would not open. (“The piece was a game,” the artist later told Bomb, “because you deprive an international artistic community of the right to access a place”).  And in 2013, Jeremy Deller’s British pavilion included a pointed rejoinder to Abramovich: an image of the social reformer William Morris fiercely tossing the oligarch’s yacht into the water.

Critics, in turn, have taken a visible delight in echoing such an idea. Adrian Searle of the Guardian argued that Abramovich’s yacht “blighted the waterfront,” while his colleague Tom Kington solemnly noted that “the citizens of Venice, a city more familiar than most with extravagant displays of wealth down the centuries, are not impressed.” Meanwhile, in Your Everyday Art World, Lane Relyea was mocking the migratory habits of art world professionals traveling on expense accounts: they alight for a brief spell, he observed, and then, in most cases, “everybody just moves on.” Or, as the author of the 1741 booklet would have it, they “left as nimbly as they had arrived.”

But perhaps the most remarkable recent variant on the theme of privileged access appeared in the reactions of the collector, gallerist, and New York Observer columnist Adam Lindemann to the 2013 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach. In an article entitled “Occupy Art Basel Miami Beach, Now!” Lindeman openly disdained the social pomp associated with contemporary art fairs – and did so in a memorable manner. After offering a long list of parties and events to which he had been invited, he turned the tables, referring to those functions as “all the things I’m absolutely not going to,” and flatly announcing his refusal to appear at the fair. And what, exactly, had irked him? Apparently, Lindeman resented the fact that he had to rub shoulders with less influential viewers: as he put it, “art fairs should be for collectors only; if you’re not coming to buy art, get the hell out.”

In a harsh reaction to Lindemann’s article, Jerry Saltz smelled a rat. “This cocksure contempt for art fairs and all who participate in them,” wrote Saltz, “isn’t coming from disgust with the system; it’s pure, puerile pomposity, the kind that takes pleasure in exclusion, and it’s exactly the behavior that continues to make these events ever more repulsive.” One can almost see the author of our 1741 text nodding in agreement. For Lindemann had more or less aligned himself with the three Rococo characters in his demand for VIP access and in his ignominous retreat, when he was denied that right, to his carriage. “My God,” the 1741 booklet asserts, “but wounded pride cuts a sorry figure!” As we read that, we think not only of the defeated dandies, but also, now, of Lindemann.

But as disparate as Lindemann and Saltz may be, they can surely agree on one thing, and that is that the spectacle of the biennial or art fair is overwhelming the art. Again, though, if we are willing to think of the Parisian Salons as the ancestor of contemporary art fairs, we can see that these concerns are nothing new. Indeed, as Crow stated in relation to the 1741 text, “The parade threatens to become the principal object of attention.” Sure, things have changed in many ways. The art fairs of today have arguably become much more concerned with what will be a sure sell, instead of taking chances to promote new talent and the art world at large. And if the door to the Louvre remained resolutely locked in 1741, it’s hard to believe that in 2014 a certain standing wouldn’t grant one early access to exhibitions, or parties. Indeed, Saltz even mentions munching on almond biscotti, with Lindemann, at a large gallery diner. Some doors, it seems, are always open.

The 1741 booklet, then, doesn’t describe contemporary conditions exactly. Camille Henrot, after all, is not Jean-Baptiste Oudry, and the inflexible Swiss guard has given way to a much more nuanced field of degrees of access. In certain ways, however, this very early text does anticipate certain themes that have colored recent discussions of art world events. “To a certain extent,” Lawrence Alloway has written, “the genre [of art criticism] remains what it was when Denis Diderot invented it.” Indeed – and in fact we might even say that in some senses it remains what it was well before Diderot began to write, when an anonymous booklet was composed in 1741.

** Please note: This is Part 3 in a Series titled “Near the Origins of Art Criticism: An Original Translation of a Review of the 1741 Salon.” To read part 1 click here. To read part 2, the actual translation, click here.

* Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.

* Author Jameson Magrogan is 2014 BFA candidate studying painting at MICA. He lives and works in Baltimore.

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