With the Brotherhood against Germaine

Although born a Melbournite and raised a Catholic, Germaine Greer, while she was a post-graduate student at Sydney University, was a late child of one of Australia’s Bohemian moments, The Push.  How odd, then, that she should take against that earlier group of Bohemian artists, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

In her Guardian column, Germaine Greer first criticizes the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) for not being original as artists, since their style resembles that of the slightly earlier German Nazarenes.    I question the fairness of such a criticism for art made in the days before public art collections, colour photography, satellite TV, and international blockbuster exhibitions.  But at least from this we know that she values originality in art over other criteria, and thus reveals herself captive to that insidious idea which has held most of our cultural critics hostage these last two centuries:  that only those with something new to express should be permitted to make art.    Nice to see you using your own critical faculties there, Germaine, and not just swimming with the art-critical tide.

She goes on to say:

It will be obvious to many that, while France was experiencing the dazzle of the impressionists, Britons were happy to applaud and reward the false sentiment, fancy dress and finicking pseudo-realism of a dreary horde of pre-Raphaelites.

The PRB led its followers into a welter of truly bad art: stultified, inauthentic, meretricious and vulgar. Where the Nazarenes went for luminosity, simplicity and piety, the PRB wallowed in elaboration, erotic suggestion and overheated colour. If they hadn’t had sex with their models, they wanted you to think they had. They realised pretty early on that nudes are not erotic; their languorous models drooped, swooned, gasped and died in ever more elaborate, flowing gowns shot through with new synthetic colours: arsenic greens, cobalt blues, alizarin crimsons.”

We learn that she does not like their art.   But the justification of her taste leaves a lot to be desired.  The art of the PRB is both “dreary” and uses “overheated colours”.  How exciting to find an English text by a writer as good as this where precisely one, but only one, of two adjectives is used with the opposite of its usual meaning.   But which one?  Clearly, her writing is testing our wits here – challenging us to find a version of reality which enables both these conflicting descriptions to be simultaneously true of the same art.

The percipient Dr Greer clearly doesn’t like bright colours, although (as one might expect from someone with a PhD in EngLit) she enjoys finding the precise words to denote them: “arsenic greens, cobalt blues, alizarin crimsons”.  Nicely put, and not merely the three primary colours, either.  But one does not need the advice of a professional art critic to decide whether one likes certain colours or not.  Any child can do that. And nothing provided by the indefatigable Dr Greer justifies – or could ever justify – her individual, peculiar preference here, because colour preference is entirely a matter of personal taste (itself perhaps partly of biology, for the colour blind), and not of art theory or art criticism or even of art newspaper mongering.   I find the PRB’s colours and colour combinations riveting, electric and enchanting.

Consider some of those other adjectives the irrepressible Dr Greer applies:  “false sentiment”, “inauthentic, meretricious”.   How, precisely, does one determine that a work of visual art is inauthentic or meretricious?  Oh, I am sure one can do this with literature:  a writer’s choice of words may reveal his or her true thoughts even when the surface description is pointing elsewhere.  The novel, The Godfather, by Mario Puzo, for example, seems to show a writer reveling in the violence which his own text ostensibly deplores.  But those arts which do not use language – visual art, music, dance, etc – have a murkier connection to the world they inhabit, and they do not have this capacity for self-reference and hence self-revelation.  So how can the good Doctor actually determine the authenticity or otherwise of a painting?   Perhaps by comparing its subject with its treatment, for example if a serious scene were painted in a slapdash manner, or the reverse.  But against such an argument, one could just as easily argue that the means do not necessarily vitiate the ends, but instead may empower or ennoble them:  ie, a careful, finicky, technically-adept painting of an apparently flippant subject could actually enhance the subject and bring it to our attention, as in Mozart’s operas with their silly plots or those Haydn symphonies containing musical jokes or even Duchamp’s Fountain.  Or indeed, with the PRB’s careful, elaborated, and finely-accurate paintings of imagined scenes from myth and history.  No, arguing the inauthenticy of visual art would only ever be persuasive if done painting-by-painting, and even then would need greater intellectual subtlety, depth and heft than the inestimable Dr Greer has chosen to provide here.

Pre-Raphaelite art, for reasons unclear to me, has almost always been unpopular with art critics.   Depending on which historical era you select, art critics of the time have tended to believe that all art should celebrate us, or uplift us, or provoke us to thought, or confront us, or even attack us.  Almost never have art critics wanted art merely to entertain us, to give pleasure to us, to be enjoyed by us.  One has to ask what is wrong with a profession so opposed to simple beauty and pleasure.   And what does our Germaine think?  Well, she describes the PRB’s art as “vulgar”.  Now this is a very interesting adjective, and in this word I believe we have found the deep ground of her dislike.   This word is usually used to refer to objects and activities which are popular, which ordinary people do or which they enjoy, but of which the person deploying the word disapproves.   That one word “vulgar” gives her game away.     It is certainly indicative of the irony-rich subtlety of Greeresque thought that this word should be deployed by someone who has appeared on reality TV.

By an accident of historical timing, one of the great world collections of Pre-Raphaelite art is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Sydney.  I have no way of knowing if that collection and her time in Sydney and in The Push are connected to her present dislike of this great, technically-sophisticated, life-affirming, ennobling, and pleasing art.  By the very same accident of timing (local people made good, collecting the latest in British art when the PRB were active), the other great world collections of Pre-Raphaelite are in the northwest of England, particularly the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, the Lady Lever Gallery in Birkenhead, and Manchester City Art Gallery.

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