THE NEW AVANT-GARDE: RETURN TO CHANGE
presented by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
College Art Association, New York, New York
Saturday, February 12, 2011
A hundred and forty years ago, the art world in Paris faced a self-imposed crisis—or to be more precise—refused to face the crisis. Like most crises, this one had been brewing for years—symptoms had been noted—but had been misdiagnosed as problems to be solved.  At issue was the centuries-old system  of training artists—-judging and evaluating their efforts—exhibiting their art.  It was impossible to imagine that such a venerated process could possibly go wrong. After all, the quality of the French education was superb; the quality of the art from the Academy was unsurpassed. The French Academy was envied and emulated throughout the Western world. The academic system had produced eminent artists and the art was justly celebrated. 
Given all this quality work, it was hard to imagine how anyone could be dissatisfied with continuing excellence.  Even the most vocal critics demanded to be included. Even the most unlikely candidates were given a fair hearing.  The jury system gave all comers and opportunity to be accepted and to shine, achieve fame, acquire wealth.  What could possibly be wrong? 
To those outside the system of quality,  the Academy, its elaborate apparatus of rules built level by level over hundreds of years, for the sole purpose of preserving the classical ideal and the methodologies of the Renaissance, in order to maintain the power of those in charge—-to the outsiders—to those not in the in crowd,  the Academy was training students to uphold an outdated status quo, all in the service of a repressive government, intent on controlling the visual culture of France. These outsiders—-mostly a motley crew of indifferently trained painters—-confronted—not a jury of their peers—but a group of old men, who were hostile to interlopers. From the standpoint of the outsiders,  the judgment of the aging academicians, long past their prime, seemed implausible, inexplicable, implacable, improbable, unrelentingly ruthless and capricious.
The Academy and the exhibitions it controlled, the Salons, was, in fact, a bastion of unassailable power that ran a rigged game,  designed to generate losers,  not winners, created to guarantee, not quality,  as was claimed, but a great prize,  available only to a very small number of aspirants, who obediently  responded appropriately to all the prerequisites—-genuflection to authority,  acceptance of submission to tradition,  willingness to forego rebellion against the paternal figures.
By making the prizes so difficult to achieve, the number of winners so small, the Academy made the ultimate rewards—such as they were—-seem intensely desirable worthy of being won.  Many were called but only a few succeeded. Perversely, the young artists, instead of recognizing that the roulette wheel was tilted, that the system was structured for failure,  only increased their desire and intensified their efforts to succeed against the odds—not understanding that the ruthless winnowing indicated, not that their art was less worthy, but that the system  simply could not handle the growing number of supplicants.
For hundreds of years, the Salon system had built a mindset of acceptance of the rules of this game—a victim mentality that was as unassailable as the castle of the Academy itself. Some artists, it seems, did recognize that the Academy was in crisis—was ossified and inflexible—that the Salon was eating its young—and that the selection system was unfair.  These artists refused to play the game, refused to resign themselves to rejection by the Salon juries.
Instead they formed their own alternative  to the massive salon exhibitions and the willful and antiquated whims of the jurors.  These painters—acting as independent entrepreneurs—as enterprising business people—started their own self-generated alternative art exhibitions. Rather than challenging the paradigm of the Salon, they simply created another paradigm—exhibit your own art, in your own way, on your own terms.
We are speaking, of course, of the Impressionists. 
True, there had been earlier attempts by previous artists to free themselves of the constraints of the Salon—David, Courbet, Manet,  Whistler —but the psychological grip of the Academic system was so powerful that, rather than being impressed by the efforts of those artists, the art audience was mostly bemused and puzzled. These independent exhibitions were significant cracks in the fortress wall, but the most famous alarm bell had to be what became the historically significant Salon des Refusés (1863),  ten years before the Impressionists’ first exhibition in 1874. 
The anger of rejected artists  against an unusually punitive jury signaled a genuine crisis: there were too many artists for too few places  to satisfy the demand for inclusion.  Indeed, one mollifying exhibition would not suffice to ease the growing tension between the guardians of the watchtower and the armies of talented young people  assembling at the portcullis—battering at the gates. 
It is important to pause and consider the courage of the Impressionists. They would be laughed at—they knew that—the establishment would feel threatened, if it noticed the artists at all, the critics who accepted the system would be unkind, and call them names, established artists invested in academia would reject them—the Impressionists knew all that—-and all of these indignities came to pass.  True, the Impressionists yearned  for validation and acceptance in the Salon but the painters headed for open territory,  the unguarded terrain of the independent exhibition, building upon the nascent artist-dealer system.  The Impressionists initiated today’s art world.
Although the myth of the Impressionists posits them as the shock troops of the avant-garde of the Third Republic, the painters were reacting to real financial needs.  The Salon system acted as a barrier to economic success.  The gatekeepers prevented an entire class of creative thinkers from earning an honest living at the trade  of their choice and the casualties were not just the renegade rebels. Academic artists suffered as well.  The system of enforced failure  guaranteed that they too must be sacrificed. They too must fail. Undoubtedly, the defenders of the Salon system had their explanations, their reasons for ensuring failure—-those who were rejected by the juries were simply bad artists who deserved to fail. Really? Paul Cézanne—a bad artist?
The upholders of the status quo  would argue that their system was responsible for artistic leaders, such as, Jean-Léon Gérôme.  But, in reality, the system had no room for new ideas, could not accommodate artistic innovation, and could not tolerate artistic freedom or new innovations.  If the Impressionists had not found their way around the artificial barriers and created new opportunities  for themselves, then it would not have been possible for artists in the twentieth century to exist—-even thrive—and find success—entirely outside  the Salon system.  Pablo Picasso could have been the failed son of an obscure Spanish artist.
Impossible you say? Everyone knows that talent will always be discovered; true art will shine through. Really? The eventual success of long dead avant-garde artists rested upon fragile foundations of arbitrary chance. Vincent van Gogh had a brother, Théo, was an art dealer who financed his difficult younger brother, and Théo’s widow was inclined to preserve the paintings of her unstable brother-in-law who had sold one painting in his lifetime.  Other people simply threw his art in the dustbin. 
To say that the Impressionists challenge  to the bulwark that was the Salon system made it possible for the art of some of the most valued artists of the modern avant-garde to be recognized  is to state the obvious but sometimes emphasizing the already known is necessary. Even in the year of our Lord 2011, or especially in our own time, it is necessary to recall the revolution of the Impressionists, for we are facing a similar crisis in art history. Like the crisis of the nineteenth century avant-garde,  our crisis is demographic also, an expansion of an aspiring educated middle class exemplified by an increasing number of freshly minted PhDs who are pumped out of graduate programs—but for what future? Reeling from yet another economic downturn, our own academia is downsizing, and to add to this perfect storm of too few jobs and too many job hunters, the entire publishing industry is shrinking. 
Are those who are outside the magic circle of the privileged and the published any less intelligent, any less gifted, any less capable, do they have less to offer the profession of art history? Surely the academic system of producing art historians works, doesn’t it? The academic stars are not lucky stars, well situated in the northeast corridor, enjoying unrecognized advantages in publication.  These (privileged) people are truly deserving of their success, no argument. Just as it would be wrong to insist that Bouguereau was technically deficient, or that Gérome lacked imagination,  there can be no argument that the academic stars have not earned their rewards, their books, their articles, and their reputation for excellence. Therefore, I am not concerned with them. I am concerned about everyone else—those art historians who are intelligent and capable, who have a lot to offer, but have no outlets for publication, that all-important stepping stone to a job, to tenure. 
The chances of getting published today are less that of wining on a slot machine in Vegas.  There are those who would argue that the current system of publication works perfectly well.  But we cannot argue today in good faith that our process of publishing is allowing talent to be developed for the same reason as those who in the nineteenth century could not—in good faith—maintain that the Salon system of exhibiting art was efficient.  Likewise, we cannot state that our system allows the cream to come to the top, that only the worthy are rewarded and that those who never rise deserved to fail. 
Just as it was illegitimate to make those claims in the nineteenth century, we cannot make them today, because we simply don’t know if we are correct. There is no way of knowing. There is no way of measuring the loss, the lack, the silence of new voices never heard, new words never written, new insights never illuminated, years of training never coming to fruition, scholarship wasted, careers never realized…all because there are not enough outlets for publication. Surely the loss of art historical talent must outweigh any gains.  Such a limited field for publication is not efficient. Any system that wastes its best and brightest, allows them to disappear, and fail to thrive, consigned to invisibility, is a system that values status quo over change, supports vested interests over innovation. 
Let us imagine—if the Impressionists had never tried—and remember that many of these artists died long before Impressionism was accepted. Imagine—if their courage had faltered—there would be no Claude Monet, no Pierre Renoir, no Mary Cassatt, no Vincent van Gogh, no Paul Gauguin, no Georges Seurat. These artists would have lived, painted futilely, and died in obscurity.  Instead the impressionists changed the avant-garde, from the presence of a few outliers to a genuine movement, inspiring large venues for Independent art shows, the Salon des Indépendants–jury-less, the Salon d’Automne–radical–jumpstarting a new way for artists to sell their art outside the Salon system. 
Challenge and change are equally difficult but out of crisis comes—-not opportunity—but the willed creation of opportunity.  Today the will exists, the technology is available, allowing art professionals, art historians, art critics, theorists to take their careers in their own hands—like the Impressionists—to make themselves heard and read and seen.  It is possible to open a new field  of cultural production,  to run a new game, played by new rules, to establish a new paradigm, to build an alternative system that allows the players to win.  And all that is necessary is to forego voluntary psychological handicaps, to give up a constricting mindset  and take advantage of the first real game change  in the art world since the establishment of the artist-dealer-gallery system for artists.
Revised and updated ending:
Today it is possible to open a closed field , the contained field of art historical publication, with independent petit revues or hybrid e-journals, that are open and inclusive, democratic, professional, and dedicated  to the intellectual growth and development of art historical colleagues  who have a great deal to say and no place to publish it. My website, Art History Unstuffed, and my recent book New Artwriting (2014), are examples of a professional taking charge of a career, publishing on her own terms and on her own timetable and in her own style. While others follow the rules of the Academy and frequent the Salons, it is possible to establish outposts on the frontiers beyond the borders and become part of the small group of forward observers.
You deserve to be heard.
 Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 179
 Ross King, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism, p.31.
 King, ibid, p. 32.
 Bourdieu, RA, p. 119.
 Bourdieu, ibid. p. 260-1.
 King, op. cit, p.82.
 Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 241.
 Bourdieu, ibid. p. 251.
 Bourdieu, ibid, p. 83.
 Bourdieu, ibid. p. 83.
 Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 225.
 Ibid., p.167.
 Ibid., p. 243.
 Ibid. p. 169.
 Ibid. p. 230.
 Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 133.
 King, p. 67.
 Bourdieu, RA, p. 148
 Bourdieu, FCP, p. 164.
 Ibid. p. 164.
 Ibid, p. 251-2.
 King, p. 34
 King, p. 57.
 Ibid. p. 57.
 Ibid., p. 354
 Moscovici, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism, p. 65
 King, p. 72
 Philip G. Nord, Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century, p. 6 and 7.
 King, p. 357.
 Ibid., p. 171.
 King, p. 52 and 59
 Ibid., p. 337.
 Bourdieu, FCP, p. 60.
 Ibid., p. 231.
 Wynford Dewhurst, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development, p. 35-36.
 King, p. 197.
 Robert Herbert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” p. 25.
 King, p. 48
 Ibid. p. 26.
 Ibid, p. 27.
 Dewhurst, p. 33.
 Jon Whitely, in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 37.
 Bourdieu, FCP, p. 79 and 83.
 Ibid., p. 252
 Bourdieu, RA, p. 157
 Ibid., p. 105.
 Nancy Austin, “Naming the Landscape,” in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 51-55.
 Bourdieu, RA, p. 236
 ibid., p. 125
 See Kendell, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
 Paul Barlow in Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century, 20-26
 Swinth, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America, p. 39.
 King, p. 371
 Bourdieu, RA, p. 122
 Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84
 Cown, In Praise of Commercial Culture, p. 112
 ibid., p. 127
 Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84
 King, p. 75
 Bourdieu, FCP, p. 41
 Bourdieu, RA, p. 132-133
 King, p. 201
 Schneider, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France, p. 45, 53, 63
 ibid., p. 75
 Ibid., p. 197
 Cowen, p. 112
 Bourdieu, RA, p. 215
 Bourdieu, FCP, p. 183
 Ibid., p. 95
 Cowen, p. 163
 Bourdieu, FCP, p. 58
 King, p. 372
 Bourdieu, RA, p. 249
 Ibid., p. 253
 Ibid., p. 267
 Bourdieu, FCP, p. 106
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The Rules of Art. Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Stanford: University of California Press) 1995
Chadwick, Whitney, Women, Art and Society (London: Thames and Hudson) 1990
Cown, Tyler, In Praise of Commercial Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2000
Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century (Manchester University Press) 2000
Dewhurst, Wynford, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development (G. Newnes, Limited) 1904
Herbert, Robert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” from Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology by Mark Tompkins Lewis (University of California Press) 2007
Kendell, Richard, et al. Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) 1998
King, Ross, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism (New York: Walker and Company) 2006
McDonald, Christie and Gary Wihl, editors, Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1994
Moscovici, Claudia, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism (Lexington Books) 2007
Nord, Philip G., Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge) 2000
Schneider, Andrea Kupfer, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1998
Swinth, Kristen, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America (University of North Carolina Press) 2007