A regular feature of French life is the blockbuster art exhibit, a temporary show at one of the big museums with lots of works by a particular artist or about a particular theme. France takes its cultural heritage very, very seriously– in some ways it defines the country’s national identity–, and people make big efforts to visit these shows. So they tend to be uncomfortable mob scenes, and culture-snob comedy often ensues– you can find yourself at a dinner party earnestly discussing some seventeenth-century painter you’d never heard of a few weeks earlier. But despite the crowds and the comedy, these shows can be fantastically powerful, and some of the memories are still with me decades later.
Which makes it interesting that this year’s first blockbuster– opening tomorrow at the Orsay Museum– is called “Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910,” and the museum describes it as “the first major show on the subject of prostitution.” Certainly it’s an appropriate subject for a big art exhibit. All the nineteenth century’s heavyweight painters portrayed prostitution over and over, and so did the big writers.
So in the culture history sense the Paris show is no surprise. But it is a surprise in terms of the “why here, why now?” questions, because in recent years sex-for-money has been a culture flashpoint in France, evoking heavy-duty anger. Some weeks ago, I described the example of the economist/politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. As long as he was thought to be just an over-aggressive playboy seducer, Strauss-Kahn enjoyed support from both his family and the public; once it turned out he’d been consorting with prostitutes, they dumped him. Legislation to criminalize buying sex has gained serious traction in the French legislature, though for now it’s legal; prostitution itself is also legal, but anyone connected to prostitutes risks big trouble– husbands can be arrested for pimping just because they benefit from their wives’ earnings, even if they have nothing else to do with their wives’ activities.
That was decidedly not the world of the great artists who loom so large in France’s cultural patrimony. Until 1946 brothels were legal there, and artists experienced them first-hand. Anyone who knows Degas only for his dreamy ballerina pictures should check out his ultra-realistic brothel pictures; the elegant aesthete Marcel Proust even includes a male brothel in Remembrance of Things Past. And it’s not just that they experienced and depicted these scenes– as various scholars have pointed out, they also made realistic prostitution scenes central to their art. That applies to a whole series of the works that created our modern aesthetic outlook– Manet’s “Olympia,” Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” pretty much everything written by Baudelaire. (For a wonderful discussion of all this, take a look at T.J. Clark’s Painting of Modern Life.)
So what we seem to have is this: the cultural monuments that have shaped our own world and constituted France’s present-day identity were created by men who frequented prostitutes and thought a lot about them. They’ve made us moderns what we are– yet our era increasingly looks on their preoccupations as distasteful.
Does this count as a cultural contradiction? You could say no, in the sense that every culture great has their embarrassing sides, which later generations have to excuse, ignore, explain, or work around; often it’s some combination of all four. Think of Shakespeare’s anti-semitism, Mozart’s sexism, Jefferson and Twain’s racism– in cases like those, we try to separate out what’s valuable from what’s disturbing, and we historicize, by treating the disturbing parts as reflections of a past that we’ve outgrown. We evaluate Shakespeare and the rest by the standards of their times, and avoid judging them by our own.
But that way of thinking doesn’t really work in the art-meets-prostitution case, because if you take prostitution out of pictures like Olympia, there’s not much left. It’s not only the subject matter that vanishes, either– in these works prostitution poses the intellectual problems the painting asks us to think about. As T. J. Clark explains, pictures like these meditate on the encounters among money, desire, and power. They don’t gives us algorithms for sorting these out, but they do insist we join the meditation process. Especially, they make us think about the limits of buying– does it stop before we get to sex and love, or is that for sale too?
So here’s an uncomfortable hypothesis: maybe we’re less comfortable thinking about these questions nowadays than they were back in 1910, because all of us are so much more entangled with money systems. Maybe we’re more desperate to draw bright lines demarcating what money can’t buy, just because we worry more that those lines are actually dim and fuzzy.
As I say, an uncomfortable and complicated hypothesis– I’ll try to pursue it in a second post.