Renoir Sucks at Painting is an activist collective opposed to the public display of works attributed to Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Why? Because he sucks at painting. The following is a speculative history of the collective’s activities to date.
On April 3, 2015, an urgent electronic missive burns its way through the internet toward wherever the President of the United States keeps his laptop. In fiery prose, littered with perfervid typos, the missive hints that its author, one “M.G.,” is on the brink of a meltdown:
The #RenoirSucksAtPainting movement seeks to critically reassess the terrible oeuvre of Pierre Renoir [sic]. Through the process of de-hanging Reniors [sic] from our nation’s museums, we work to reverse the deleterious effects Renoir’s treacly, puerile paintings have had on our nation.
We call on Mr. Obama to issue a Presidental [sic] Proclamation denouncing Renoir for his saccharine scribbles in general, and, in particular, removing all Renoirs from our National museums.
Finally, any ‘Fine’ art worthy of its name, imparts on its viewer emotional force and inspiration. The time has come for we [sic], as a nation, with grim resolve, to recognize Renoir’s utter failure in these regards. We call on the President to take proactive steps to correct the historical mistake and end Renoir’s reign of aesthetic terror.
In October of 2015, North America watches with tepid interest when a protest at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, attracts seven people in solidarity with M.G. and the above demand.
Photographers appear, as photographers always appear. In addition to the signs they capture—God Hates Renoir, Aesthetic Terrorism, Rotting Vegetation—they find something strange. People are having fun and eating pizza, all while expressing a principled outrage. A rarely seen aspect of grassroots organizing begins to unfold—the protesters’ righteousness emerges from, and feeds into, the rhythms of convivial life.
In the months that follow, a search for #RenoirSucksAtPainting reveals a group first dozens, then hundreds, then thousands strong. A movement had organized around a collective desire to de-hang the work of one of European painting’s central figures.
Max Geller is, to his detractors, an uneducated, uncouth Mephistopheles on Adderall. To his compatriots, he is the walking embodiment of cultural justice, his bleating Boston accent reminiscent of the fiery rhetoric of Adams, Gerry, and Strong. On conservative talk radio, Geller passes himself off as a messiah of anti-elitism. On German talk radio, he makes good puns about Gustav Mahler.
Whatever you think about Geller, one thing is certain—he is unignorable.
“It’s not yet 7:30 a.m.,” the Huffington Post reports, “but Max Geller, leader of the Renoir Sucks At Painting movement, is already all riled up.”
But what does this man, and the many thousands he claims to represent, actually want to say?
On October 10, 2015, Sebastian Smee of The Boston Globe, describes RSAP as sophomoric and silly. 1Rumor has it that, after reading the article, Geller challenged Smee to a “duel.” He appears to miss the point. RSAP is clear in its claim that treacly paintings exert a deleterious effect on viewers and that Renoir’s whack, imperialist assumptions degrade his representational failures.
What could be sophomoric about that?
In Winter of 2015, protests flourish outside museums in half a dozen cities across the United States.
Alongside these demonstrations, RSAP develops an idiosyncratic critical vocabulary. From #treacle to #steamingpile, #sharpieeyes, #rosacea, and #flipperhands, these terms map directly onto the compositional disharmony, muddy textures, and figural bungling of Renoir’s aesthetic style.
RSAP’s critical metalanguage amounts to a complex, fluid form of parody, pointing to the limitations of street protest, its populism, and the horn-rimmed boringness of cultural critique on the intellectual left. Hand-painted signs that read God Hates Renoir parody not only the Westboro Baptist Church but, the thundering, super-simplicity of protest itself.
“It’s all for a joke, right? A spoof?” asks a news anchor on WGN, her pancake makeup crinkling into a rictus of well-intentioned bonhomie.
“No,” replies Geller, “Renoir did really suck at painting.”
In order to be novel, RSAP must be serious. In order to be effective, it must also be funny. The cranky sincerity of protest does not make one immune to appropriation, hijack, or neutralization, and the questions that Geller raises—“it’s about who has access to our museums,” he said on WGN—are too important for such folly. 2#blacklivesmatter becomes #bluelivesmatter, for instance.
As of the time of writing, President Obama is yet to respond to Max’s petition, submitted through the White House’s We The People website in April, 2015.
As of the time of writing, Max has given more than 200 hundred interviews in the national and international press.
Despite President Obama’s silence, the democratization of beauty is underway.