Contemporary Reception, and the Last Laugh

Gustave Courbet’s The Sleepers, 1866. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, France.

There is always a battle between the new and the old, between the old and the young, between conservatives and progressives. There is always a faction frantic to hold onto power, established, stodgy, stubborn power, and those who rise to fight that power and make their own way in the world. Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris reminds me of that battle and the reception by the old guard of new techniques, subject matter, and new artists without establishment ties. His book reminds me of the almost laughable reception of such greats as Corot, Courbet, Manet, Pissarro, and the young Cezanne by that old guard. Almost laughable, because of its fight against the inevitable. Or what appears to us now as the inevitable.

We never learn. We really never, ever learn.

There is always someone, something, or some powerful group trying to put the genie back into the bottle. There is always some silly prude, some ridiculous puritan, all too stiff and rigid in their ways, closing the gate after the young stallions have bolted. Inevitably, these groups ignore reality and evidence in order to maintain their hold on the present by referring endlessly to the past. It’s all such an incredible waste of energy and time, because time moves on. Inexorably. It just does. It always has and always will. Move on.

I wonder if there is some book out there that documents, for all the arts, the comedy and fear and silliness involved, across the ages, across cultures, across the globe, when it comes to trying to stop time. Is there a book that covers the attempts in literature, music, painting, sculpture, philosophy, etc. to prevent progress, to prevent revolutionary actions in the arts? I wonder if that same book also explores the tragedies that must accompany all of that, the artists who suffer through their own lives in obscurity, only to be “discovered” far too late to alleviate that suffering.

We never, ever learn.

And the shame, the tragedy almost never stops after that “discovery.” To make matters worse, the very same painting, musical composition, novel, poem, or idea once dismissed as laughable or heretical by the old-guard gatekeepers, often ends up taken completely for granted and co-opted by yet another establishment. Thus reducing — if not destroying — its revolutionary essence, its originality, its place in the grand march of artistic time.

Of course, innovation and newness are not guarantees of true art. Obviously. A young artist is never guaranteed a superiority or inevitability over older artists. Nothing is automatic. Nothing should be assumed. But the dynamic of dismissal or indifference typically starts with the old, the established, the powerful, and falls heaviest on the young, the powerless, the not-yet-established. That is the age-old comedy, drama and tragedy replayed a thousand times across the centuries.

What is new today that we overlook and shrink from? What do we fear today that will be seen as sheer genius tomorrow? Will we ever evolve enough to at least minimize the numbers of the forgotten, the ignored, or the overlooked?


Contemporary Reception, and the Last Laugh
Scroll to top