The Renoir Sucks At Painting movement set up camp outside the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) two weeks ago. With more than 60 Renoir paintings in its collection, the AIC was the perfect candidate for a protest. It joined the ranks of the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Norton Simon in Los Angeles; and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, which have also been protested by the self-described “grassroots movement.” Since their inception, these protests have garnered the attention of the entire Internet, with every major news organization — The Guardian, the New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic, and plenty more — reporting on them.
In Chicago, roughly two dozen people — including the movement’s organizer, Brooklyn-native Max Geller — stood in front of the museum distributing flyers advertising their Instagram page (it’s @renoir_sucks_at_painting, and it’s very amusing), and barf bags that read, in hand-written CAPS, “IN CASE OF RENOIR.”
There is little about this viral protest sensation that hasn’t been written already. Geller is a generous spokesman, and has given lengthy interviews to news outlets all over the world. The first wave of stories all fell under the, “Isn’t this crazy?” “news” category. Write-ups and photo galleries splashed the front pages of Weird-But-True click-bait sites for a few days in early October.
Then people began to get critical. Facebook erupted in fury that anyone would take time to protest something so trivial as Renoir’s painting in an era of real suffering and injustice. The Boston Globe ran an opinion piece calling the protest “sophomoric,” and concluded that it “was not so much a protest as a coordinated cry for attention.”
Lately, though, the media has started to pay more serious attention to Renoir Sucks at Painting. ArtNet News picked up the story that Geller is a full-time political activist, focusing most of his energy on Pro-Palestinian issues. (Indeed, Geller had flown to Chicago not to decry Renoir, but to attend a protest outside the Jewish National Fund’s national conference.)
Last week, Salon ran a fairly in-depth profile of Geller, written by Ben Norton, which pinpointed the ways in which Renoir Sucks at Painting is actually a very serious movement. The article emphasized that the male-dominated, Eurocentric aesthetics that are revered so stalwartly, even today, highlight a tremendous problem in the art world.
The article concluded that Geller’s work is actually pretty deep and important: “Much of the media has characterized Geller as a clown, but he is actually much more of a pioneer — albeit a pioneer who happens to actually have a sense of humor,” Norton wrote.
One of the most interesting pieces of media about Renoir Sucks At Painting is an interview with Geller from the WGN Chicago morning show. The video shows one show host sarcastically thanking Geller for “fighting the good fight,” while the other host laughs incessantly, proving to the audience that she gets the joke. She opens by saying, “Seriously, people are thinking this is all for a joke, right? This is all for a spoof? I mean, seriously.”
Geller, in a purple dress shirt and tie, eyebrows raised, says, “I mean, Renoir really does suck at painting.” The hosts seem displeased with his earnestness.
“You called me the next Sam Adams, the new son of liberty,” Geller says. Then he adds, “But I just saw that on Saturday in Chicago, 66 young Sam Adamses, literal sons of liberty, got arrested protesting outside the police convention, and you’re interviewing me.”
The news anchors don’t want to talk about the “66 young Sam Adamses” who got arrested in Chicago. (Those protestors were among hundreds of people gathering in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign; they marched outside the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s annual conference exposition on October 25.) They want to joke with Geller about Renoir, and they seem frustrated that he’s unwilling to play along to their satisfaction.
I brought the TV spot up when I spoke with Geller on the phone. “I mean, come on. That was a news show,” he said. “The thing right before me was they were talking to a woman whose job it is to photograph rich people who want pictures of themselves ballroom dancing with their dogs. I’m pleased to tell you that I did not succumb to the pressure of laughing with them.”
In general, it seems, Geller has stopped laughing. While Renoir Sucks at Painting started as a joke (yeah, he admits it), it’s turned into an opportunity, and Geller is too smart an activist to not take advantage of it.
The spot on WGN Chicago had been carefully planned. When Geller was invited to do the show, he called friends and activists in his network to discuss what he could use the television platform for. They decided that the best use of air time would be to bring attention to the Black Youth Project 100, which the morning news show would not otherwise have covered.
And that’s not the only conversation that has come out of the viral success of Renoir Sucks at Painting. The campaign has opened up conversation around access, white supremacy, and feminism in the art world at large.
“I’m very interested in using the platform of Renoir Sucks At Painting in giving a week of posts to feminist writers who can talk about their experience looking at Renoir’s misogynistic mythologizing of women,” Geller said.
At the same time, Geller’s unwilling to concede that protesting oppressive structures in art was ever the point of Renoir Sucks at Painting. The point of Renoir Sucks at Painting, he insists, is that Renoir sucks at painting. All the useful conversations that have blossomed in effect are what Geller describes as “happy coincidences.”
“One of the things I promised myself I wouldn’t do was try to impress you with fancy metaphors,” Geller told me. “I do sort of feel like this is a Pygmalion project, or Faulkner’s parchment paper. People see whatever they want to see in it.”
What is perhaps most interesting about Renoir Sucks At Painting is its traction. People continue to be charmed, annoyed, abhorring, and opinionated about it. Its number of Instagram followers — about 10,600 when this piece was published — continues to grow daily. Renoir Sucks at Painting seems to have found the sweet spot between a joke taken to its ultimate extreme and the real frustrations around structures of cultural oppression.
In conversation, Geller comes off as a little unsure of what he is supposed to say about all of this, but he’s articulate and impassioned enough to pull it off. Having spent most of his adult life in self-described “movement spaces,” Geller knows what he believes, and he’s equipped with the rhetoric to talk about it to anyone who will listen.
“It’s all very weird and interesting. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen,” Geller said. “Don’t get me wrong: It’s not a bad place to be.”