Renoir Haters Clash with Counter-Protesters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
"Sharpies are for protest signs, not depicting children's eyes!"
Passions ran hot on a chilly day as haters and supporters of French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir faced off outside New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday. Carrying signs and delivering spirited chants for and against, the demonstrators tried to shout each other down. The haters were outraged that 14 Renoirs hang at the museum. They denounced what they term his “feathery bullshit” and saccharine subject matter.
“Treacly faces are disgraces!” they chanted. “Hang this trash in darkened basements!”
So went one shout from the dozen or so young people recruited by Brooklyn resident Max Geller. (In the manner of most protests, the organizers claimed their numbers were higher on Saturday than my estimate.) Geller has led anti-Renoir demonstrations at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and, more recently, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, where, he told artnet News, the police were summoned.
As for Saturday, security guards looked on, at times smiling.
The haters bore signs with messages like “The End is Near,” “There is no Renoir,” and “Renoir Was an Inside Job.”
Earlier that morning, Geller had told artnet News that there were rumors of a counter-protest, and, sure enough, three Renoir supporters faced down the haters, bearing their own signs, one bearing the Charlie Hebdo-esque slogan “Je Suis Pierre-Auguste.”
Onlookers were mostly befuddled by the demonstration, some leveling cutting criticisms like “It seems like a funny thing to get so worked up about” and “Don’t they have better things to do with their time?” They themselves cared enough about art to visit a museum, but expressing an opinion out loud struck them as very strange indeed.
A pair of visitors from Belgium, over the course of about ten minutes, repeatedly tried to point out that the demonstrators were wasting their time, seemingly completely unaware of the irony of their situation.
“As soon as they engage with me,” Geller said with a grin, “they’ve already lost.”
A passerby asked Renoir-hater Sebastian Grant whom he thinks is a better artist. “Salvador Dali,” Grant offered, “or even Da Vinci.”
A Renoir supporter in a Boston Bruins jacket told artnet News, “I first heard about the protests on Instagram,” before turning toward Geller and company to shout, “You don’t get into a museum by luck! We know Renoir doesn’t suck!” He gave his name as “Sam Suisman,” but his identity would soon be called into question.
“Of course you get in by luck,” members of the demonstration responded, “the luck of who you know.” They taunted the Renoir supporters: “If you like his work so much, why don’t you go look at it??”
“The Met’s been right all along!” shouted Suisman and his crew. “Renoir hangs where he belongs!”
Another observer was sympathetic with the haters.
“My first art history teacher, Don Yates at Horace Mann, taught me that Renoir sucks,” says Genevieve Medici Martin. “He was showing us slides in the old-fashioned carousel. He showed us a Renoir and then took the slide out and threw it away. He told us, ‘You won’t need this.’ He was a good man.”
A woman running a hot dog cart outside the museum was miffed, gesturing toward the crowds, yelling, “They’re killing our business!”
Meanwhile, a compact man in sunglasses and a mock turtleneck argued at length with the Renoir haters. He appeared to be genuinely angry, saying it was all a matter of opinion, and rejecting Geller’s claim that Renoir “objectively” sucks at painting.
Geller fed the man arguments. “Oh, I know,” he said, “next you’ll say that given how bad everything out there is, why should we protest something like this?” He mocked him. “Things are not going well for you.”
Mr. Turtleneck had had enough. He stormed off, but stopped, unable to tear himself away, and turned around, yelling, “So you don’t like something, and you think we should just get rid of it?”
Geller egged him on. “Come on, say it…come on…what does that remind you of?”
“It’s like Nazism!” The man hollered. Asked whether he wanted to go on record with his opinions, he crisply replied, “Nope.” (He was probably unaware that Geller is Jewish.)
“Look, I approve of protesting with a sense of humor,” Suisman said. “The problem with Renoir is that he painted too much. He did some great works, but he was like a band that recorded too many records. God forbid we should judge Mick Jagger by what he was doing in the ‘90s. Renoir’s no Van Gogh. He’s pretty good, though.”
A trio of German tourists had a theory. “I think the museum must be paying them,” said David Zovko. He’d never seen a Renoir, he said, and just happened to be passing by, but now he was climbing the stairs, curious to see what the fuss was about.
Suisman, the main Renoir advocate, seemed to be coming up with his chants off the top of his head, whereas Geller’s appeared to be more practiced and clever.
“Do your job! Take them down! Rosy cheeks are for clowns!” they chanted.
“I just heard about the protest last night,” Suisman said in his defense.
I pointed out that he seemed to bear a certain resemblance to Geller. Perhaps, he conceded, we come to resemble our enemies. A friend of Geller’s approached Suisman with a sheet of slogans Geller had printed for his team to read from. “Look, man, your brother has much better chants.”
“Suisman” gave me a sidelong look. “What brother?” he deadpanned.
After about an hour, Geller and his team had spent enough time shouting outdoors. After checking his signs at the door, he and his crew headed for the 19th-century art galleries. “What a beautiful painting!” Geller shouted in front of a Monet. A Renoir nude came in for some serious criticism, by contrast. “This is just a sad painting. She’s obviously dead. You can tell by the ligature marks on her neck.”
“This isn’t just a still life,” said “Suisman,” visibly moved by a small Renoir. “I’m not just looking at pears. It’s an emotional painting.”
“We are letting our world get so ugly,” he said. “Look at our cars. Look at our buildings. Aesthetics are a valid place for public expression of opinion.”
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