Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Clive Bell on Impressionism's Paganism

The New Republic will from time to time reprint old essays on various subjects.  Here is a 1923 piece by the formalist art critic Clive Bell, whose ideas about the nature of aesthetic experience have always seemed to me nearly universally wrong.  That notwithstanding, I found his discussion in this piece of the connection between impressionism and paganism to be illuminating — one of the most concise explanations for why I have always disliked impressionism with such great intensity.  A bit:

The cultivated rich seem at last to have discovered in the impressionists what the impressionists themselves rediscovered half by accident. They rediscovered paganism—real paganism I mean—something real enough to be the inspiration and content of supreme works of art. Paganism, I take it, is the acceptance of life as something good and satisfying in itself. To enjoy life the pagan need not make himself believe that it is a means to something else—to a better life in another world for instance, or a juster organization of society, or complete self-development: he does not regard it as a brief span or portion in which to do something for his own soul, or for his fellow creatures, or for the future. He takes the world as it is and enjoys to the utmost what he finds in it: also, he is no disconsolate archaeologist spending his own age thinking how much more happily he could have lived in another and what a pagan he would have been on the banks of the Ilissus. No, paganism does not consist in a proper respect for the pagan past, but in a passionate enjoyment of the present; and Poussin, though he painted bacchanals galore, would have been quite out of place in the world of Theocritus. Your true pagan neither regrets nor idealizes: and while Swinburne was yearning nostalgicly for “the breasts of the nymph in the brake,” Renoir was finding inspiration for a glorious work of art in the petticoats of the shop-girls at the Moulin de la Galette.


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I’m not an unabashed enthusiast of Impressionism as a movement or particularly fond of many Impressionist paintings, but I nonetheless have a hard time understanding how someone might, with “great intensity” no less, dislike its products. So I decided to carefully consider Bell’s argument and came away rather disappointed and therefore thoroughly unpersuaded. And while it is usually gratifying to have someone concisely articulate one’s visceral response to some idea, subject matter, object, event, what have you, I think Bell was a quite over-the-top in his assessment. I find it hard to criticize the Impressionists in toto for helping us better see or appreciate the light and color of our (or their) everyday world, for it seems they’re here being castigated for looking upon what God and man have created, and finding it “very good” (cf. Genesis 3:1). And while Bell proclaims “[y]our true pagan never regrets or idealizes,” he must not have been thinking of the pre-Islamic poets of the Bedouin tribes who did both in ample measure. The social and cultural impact of the Impressionists’ putative celebration of life did not run deep: witness the unprecedented brutality and carnage that made up the next century’s carnival of death, World War I. Apparently the elites of European civilization found it easier to revel in death than life. And I rather think that it is not the case that the human subject frequently found in Impressionist paintings, a pagan par excellence one would surmise, “took life as it is,” and was thus constitutionally unable to regard life “as a brief span or portion in which to do something for his own soul, or for his fellow creatures, or for the future:” look again at Morisot’s “The Cradle,” or the women and children in Cassatt’s works (indeed, the general subject matter itself), I’ve always been intrigued about the young woman in Manet’s “Pflaume:” What is she thinking? And why do we care about what’s on her mind? Or spend some time with “A Philosopher” and tell me again this signifies nothing but “passionate enjoyment of the present“ (and yet there is, I think, nothing intrinsically wrong with that, as our Buddhist friends who have assiduously cultivated practices of ‘attentiveness’ would remind us). I might proceed with more evidence for the defense, but I trust this can suffice to at least suggest that Bell may have been profoundly wrong on many counts here, albeit enabling us to better understand why the term “Puritan“ has become a purely pejorative epithet.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Apr 7, 2012 10:24:54 AM

Erratum: "I think Bell was quite over-the-top...."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Apr 7, 2012 10:41:49 AM

Patrick, fair points all, and far be it from me to defend Bell's views too much, since (as I mentioned) I tend to disagree strongly with his view of aesthetic experience generally.

Paganism is, as you note, too various an experience to be captured well by any single set of descriptions. But I suppose that my interest here was more in a particular cultural reaction to impressionism which I was interested to see prevalent in the '20s, rather than in the description of impressionism itself (Bell tries to qualify the connection with paganism as to the latter). Bell describes a kind of here-and-now-ism, a mindlessness -- in the real sense of absence of mind -- which I find characteristic of much of the response to (and therefore of the contemporary love for) impressionism. Surely there are exceptions both in impressionist art itself, just as there are in paganism, as you point out as to both cases. But I thought it interesting to see that the cultural reaction to impressionism that I sometimes see today was observed by somebody else almost 100 years ago. It's that lack of mind -- the ready enjoyment of splashy colors and easy pictures for the immediate pleasure that they offer, and the cultural point of view that such enjoyments celebrate -- which makes me dislike impressionism -- even intensely. Perhaps that makes me Puritanical, but I hope not (it will have been the first time anybody will have said so about me!). It's more the ineffably, willfully, insidiously easy appeal that I object to.

Thanks again for the good comment.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Apr 7, 2012 11:01:23 AM


I suspect the “lack of mind” your refer to is more in the eye (and absence of mind) of the beholder than intrinsic to the art itself. In other words, such a response is, in a vulgar sense, purely impressionistic, and represents the inability to truly contemplate a work of art: it is to “see” without seeing, the artistic equivalent of Clark Griswold at the Grand Canyon. If one experiences one of the better products of Impressionism as a moment of entertaining instant gratification, the failure lies in the perceiver as subject, not the subject of perception. The surface enchantments (its ‘insidiously easy appeal’ in your words) are, so to speak, designed to get our attention, they’re invitations to something deeper, and thus it is the viewer’s fault if the light and colors blind him to the subject matter, if he stops at mere aesthetic feeling in a minimalist or litealist sense and fails to emotionally (and intellectually) engage the material close at hand. The Impressionists left their dark and damp studios to venture into the outside world, an experience that no doubt was, at first, and not only figuratively, often blinding or disorienting, something they in fact captured in an inimitable manner, yet they recovered their perceptual equilibrium, and so too should we: our judgments are better made from that moment forward. Its seductions are intended, in the end, to sharpen our perceptions and change our conceptions, they are not meant to leave us content with the status quo in any sense of that term. The Impressionists retained the perhaps naïve belief in the painterly possibilities of “alchemical experimentation,” unlike the cynical postmodernist artists of our time and place.

Bell’s description of a portion of the public’s response to Impressionist works might be compared to the “cultured” response of much of the nonsense that falls under the heading of “postmodernist” art today: art is here being “consumed” as a sign and symbol of conspicuous fashion and class “taste” by a wealthy public grown accustomed to being enchanted by what is on the surface, by what “shines,” by “easy” money, and so forth. The mode of artistic consumption here is not the fault of the artist or the art but the commercial world into which the art is subject and circulates. What we are witnessing here is the beginnings of a certain kind of capitalism and its cultural consequences for the art world in all its ineffable, insidious, and willful glory. In short, I share your repulsion with the cultural response to and conspicuous consumption of Impressionist art by certain social groups, but believe the forces that shaped and perhaps continue to shape that response and fuel that consumption do not inhere in the art, properly appreciated, but are instead intrinsic to a certain sort of socio-economic world defined by a form of capitalism and the class or classes that stoke its fires. With postmodernist art, we generally find artists in full-fledged and uncritical cooperation with that world, their art structurally unable to critically or sufficiently distance itself from the powers of Mammon and or what Lewis Mumford memorably christened the “Megamachine,” indeed, deliberately or unwittingly colluding in the creation of its idols, blurring if not fusing the boundaries between the everyday world of Bell’s paganism or banal reality with “creative” imagination (in which case we need, as Donald Kuspit reminds us, theory and ideology to ‘explain’ its meaning). Impressionism is quite a distance from the fetishized and commodified art of our own time. In postmodern art we discover, as Kuspit points out, a regression to childhood and madness in the service of fun and games, of art as entertainment or marketable novelty and intellectual amusement.* The art of the Impressionists is in striking contrast to postmodernist works only too proud to proclaim or parade its bewitchment by “chaos, banality, perversion, and anti-sociality,” only too eager (motivated, no doubt, by the allure of fame and fortune) to serve as a clever artistic mirror for all that is narcissistic, narcotizing, and nihilistic in a society suffused with a technocratic and capitalist ethos. Oh my, who’s the Puritan now?!

See Kuspit’s The End of Art (2004).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Apr 7, 2012 12:55:29 PM

Erratum (first para.): "in a minimalist or literalist sense"

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Apr 7, 2012 12:58:49 PM

Now...errata (second para.): "to proclaim or parade their bewitchment by..."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Apr 7, 2012 1:09:14 PM

To my mind the trademark of paganism is fatalism, from which come a depth of personal defeat that is only possible to men and women who suppose that they are the failed gods of their own reality. If in defeat they fall into an all-too-familiar kind of morbid materialism, it is true that that is a natural consequence of paganism, but not in the sense that it is some sort of pagan creed.

Impressionism was the ultimate moderist art: all method and technique pointing nwhere. But the technique and the method were brilliant a notable achievement too. Pray that some greater genius will find a way to put them to use. "Wheatstacks" indeed! Piles of dead grass clippings painted in a the most breathtaking array of never-before-seen shades.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Apr 8, 2012 12:23:11 AM

Analogous to the Psalmist who “merely beholds the hills, the heavens, and the deep and finds there the presence of the Lord,” Monet, perhaps the premier Impressionist, could be said to have made what James Kellenberger termed a “realisation-discovery.” In other words, and for example, we might justifiably argue that Monet’s haystacks enable us “to see the significance of the familiar as that which establishes what they had not thought or had not fully realized or had even denied.” Indeed, the theist might, with St. Bonaventura, look upon the sensible world as a mirror (speculum) through which she can come to see God, and Monet’s “Haystacks” series has polished that mirror, enabling is to open our eyes, to better see God’s invisible nature (with Paul) “in the things that have been made:”

“[The Psalmist] merely beholds the hills, the heavens, and the deep and finds there the presence of the Lord. He looks upon what we all look upon—what the fool in the Psalms looks upon too—and he realises what it means: that there is a God whose presence creation bespeaks. At any rate so he believes he realises. [….] While the Psalms include much besides expressions of the Psalmist’s experience of God’s presence, they are vibrant with the Psalmist’s sense of the presence of God.” (Kellenberger)

Similarly, for the Muslim (cf. the Qur’ān 41: 53), anything in the natural world is potentially a “sign” (’āyah) of or from God:

“The creatures are signs; the change between day and night is a sign, as is the loving encounter of husband and wife, and miracles are signs (cf. 30: 19-25): they all prove that there is a living God who is the originator of everything. These signs are not only in the ‘horizons,’ that is, in the created universe, but also in human souls, that is, in the human capacity to understand and admire; in love and human inquisitiveness; in whatever one may feel, think, and experience. The world is, as it were, an immense book in which those who have eyes to see and ears to hear can recognize God’s signs and thus be guided by their contemplation to the Creator Himself.” (Annemarie Schimmel)

Or, in the words of an ancient hymn, the theist might proclaim:

“O Godhead, here untouched, unseen
All things created bear thy trace!”

Monet’s haystacks facilitate a different kind of seeing and knowing (beauty, after all, has to do with cognition, as was well understood in the European Middle Ages generally and Aquinas in particular), not unlike that William Blake experienced when he discerned “eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower.” Contemplate these paintings, observe their proportions, their integrity, their clarity. In the first exhibit of the Haystacks series, Octave Mirbeau described Monet’s paintings “as representing ‘what lies beyond progress itself.’ Others described the grainstacks as ‘faces of the landscape,’ and viewers seemed to take assurance that the series would help preserve rural traditions despite industrialization and urbanization. They represented the countryside as a retreat from daily problems and home for contentment with nature.” Conversely, today we might look upon these paintings as bringing about “a melancholy sense of the beauty that passes,” as rural life did largely succumb, for better and worse, to the forces of modernity, and to lament this does not mean we need romanticize such a life. This decidedly is not style for its own sake. To see such art, therefore, as an example of “all method and technique pointing nowhere,” or as mere “piles of dead grass clippings,” is not to see at all, in effect, it is to be both blind and obtuse. As Ananda K. Coomaraswamy said, “beauty is objective, residing in the artifact and not in the spectator, who may or may not be qualified to recognize it.” Forget for a moment, Impressionism, forget, for a moment, who painted these haystacks, and look afresh at them: they illustrate “the attractive power of perfection in kind,” evidenced in the harmony of the parts which bespeak clarity and illumination, recalling the doctrine that beauty, after all, is related to formal causes: “It is not just that the sensuous properties of things are seen; rather, there is a perception of properties and qualities which are organised according to the immanent structure of a substantial form,” hence what is “seen” is at the same time an act of knowledge, “an intellectual, conceptual act of comprehension” (Umberto Eco). In the Middle Ages “the most obvious symptom of qualitative aesthetic experience was the…love of light and colour” (Eco), a love passionately shared by the Impressionists. “[P]hilosophers and mystics alike,” writes Eco, “were enthralled by luminosity in general, and by the sun’s light,” and yet we would decry this selfsame enthrallment among the Impressionists.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Apr 8, 2012 2:42:27 AM

I suppose I simply don't understand why Olive Bell believes that seeing beauty in the simplest of things, like A Child's Garden of Verses, or a work of art, makes one a pagan,

Posted by: N.D. | Apr 11, 2012 9:35:12 AM