It’s not yet 7:30 a.m. in California, but Max Geller, leader of the Renoir Sucks At Painting movement, is already all riled up.
Specifically, he tells me with some amount of glee, he’s pretty sure that dueling is technically still legal in Massachusetts. This is good news for Geller, who can think of no more appropriate response to the Boston Globe article calling his protest of French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir “sophomoric” than challenging the author to a bloody fight to the death in the middle of our interview.
“He can pick his weapon, he can pick his second and he can meet me at high noon at Boston Common,” Geller said.
He went on, as he so often does. “Just as we can allow some antiquated archaic stuff from hundreds of years ago to fade away into irrelevance like a dueling law, we can do the same thing with Renoir. Or we can take it mad seriously and have a fight to the death on Boston Common.”
In case you haven’t read the Boston Globe article, or The Guardian’s half-joking portrayal of Geller’s protest as a harbinger of a sort of art apocalypse, or any of the other denunciations and appreciations that Geller has garnered in recent days, here’s a recap of the episode that has raised eyebrows and ire throughout the art world. Earlier this week, Geller and a group of friends took to the sidewalk in front of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Their aim: To convince the museum to remove all of its Renoir works from display. Their signs were pithy, amusing and, to some onlookers, frankly outrageous. For example: “Put some fingers on those hands! Give us work by Paul Gauguin!” And: “Other art is worth your while! Renoir paints a steaming pile!” And: “God hates Renoir.”
The seed of the movement was planted years ago when Geller visited the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which hosts the world’s largest collection of Renoir’s work. (“Its collection is not fit for human consumption,” Geller says.) Eight months ago, the Renoir Sucks At Painting Instagram account was born. It began to attract both fans and detractors, among them one Genevieve Renoir, who says she is the painter’s great-great-granddaughter. “When your great-great-grandfather paints anything worth $78.1 million dollars (which is $143.9M in today’s dollars), then you can criticize. In the meantime, it is safe to say that the free market has spoken and Renoir did NOT suck at painting,” she wrote.
It’s hard to witness Geller’s antics and the reaction they’ve provoked without pondering a question that seems to have preoccupied and flummoxed the public and the media in recent days: is this dude serious? On Oct. 6, Sebastian Smee, the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the object of Geller’s chivalric challenge, attempted to cut through the haze of confusion. “Let’s be (briefly and boringly) real,” Smee wrote. “The ‘protest’ was not so much a protest as a coordinated cry for attention. Welcome (if you’ve been away) to our new social media ecosystem, which magnifies effects without causes, encouraging the hyper-dramatization of the pettiest, most fleeting notions and a psychological enslavement to clicks, likes, and catty comment threads."
"If you don’t like Renoir, fine, don’t like him. You and I have plenty of other pictures to choose from at the MFA. If you want to stage a protest about Renoir, you clearly have other motives. Or no meaningful motives at all," Smee wrote.
In response, Geller, borrowing a term from his critics, decried this statement as “outrageous” when I reached him by phone in Los Angeles.
“Since when are irony and humor meaningless motives?” he demanded.
Neither Smee nor the Governor of Massachusetts responded to my request for comment on the matter. And, as Geller learned to his disappointment later Thursday afternoon, dueling is not legal in Massachusetts after all.
Whatever Geller’s motives, and whether or not one deems them sincere, this is not his first foray into surreal public performance. I would know. I’ve known Max since he and my brother were campers together in Vermont, and through those many years, he has left a trail of intrigue and outrage in his wake. (You know what’s an interesting experience? Watching Geller, who calls himself “as Jewy as they come,” walk into a party full of people he knows to be hardcore Zionists wearing his trademark Boycott Israel baseball hat.) Some of his fights are clearly very serious: he’s worked as a political organizer on campaigns to pass a single-payer health care law, end mass incarceration, and, of course, boycott Israel “until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights.” Others are purely absurdist. For sheer audacity and surreal entertainment, Geller's appearance on "Judge Mathis" perhaps tops them all.
When Geller was in college, he and and a friend conned their way onto Mathis' show. I could tell you all about it, but you should really watch it yourself. After his Renoir protest went viral, I decided to call Geller to try to get to the bottom of it all. Scroll past the video to read our edited and condensed conversation.
I want to start out by talking about what Smee accuses you of. “If you want to stage a protest about Renoir, you clearly have other motives. Or no meaningful motives at all.” What’s your response?
Well, first of all can we just talk about how funny it is that this dude is named Smee? And just like his ancestor who groveled at the feet of Captain Hook, this dude is groveling at the feet of another evil white male overlord, only this time it’s Renoir?
It’s actually outrageous. Since when are irony and humor meaningless motives? I honestly don’t know if, when Abbie Hoffman in 1968 ran a pig for president, people kept asking him "Do you really think a pig should be president?" I certainly wouldn’t, if I were Abbie Hoffman, answer that question truthfully. I would simply let these idiots keep getting it wrong. And this Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic is definitely getting it wrong.
Abbie Hoffman was protesting the Vietnam war when he ran a pig for president. Are you suggesting that what you’re doing is comparable?
No. I'm suggesting he probably had a lot of stupid questions lobbed in his direction.
Do you think that most people seem to understand where you’re coming from?
Can I have another note on clown prince Smee? He seems to argue that we should put up with work that he acknowledges is indefensible garbage so that we can see a couple paintings that Smee thinks are actually good. What sort of logic is that? Take out the trash! De-hang Renoir!
But seriously, the Globe has certainly been leveraging my work for attention in this "social media" age. Three articles in four days, all of which have been shared liberally by the Globe's social media staff and in fact have been the most shared, viewed and commented-upon articles each day.
I guess all entertainment is done for "attention," including smears of paint on ill-begot canvasses.
Ed note: so as not to be overly repetitive, we are abbreviating this section where Geller challenged Smee to a duel.
Why do you hate Renoir?
Well, I hate his vile anti-Semitism and his rampant misogyny. And as an artist, I more just resent his jejune treacle. Renoir's eyeballs all look as though they were colored in, violently, with Sharpies. In reality, the human eye imparts real emotional force. Renoir just sucked at painting.
Let’s get into your history. Would you say that the Judge Mathis experience was your first brush with this kind of experience?
I don’t know. When I was in college I watched a lot of those Judge Judy-type shows, and it’s pretty easy to figure out how they work -- and I made up a script. What do you really want to know -- was it a formative experience? Yes. It made me realize that people would take your word for it.
I was watching it last night and trying to think about the connection between that show and your Renoir protest. In both you’re making fun of the forms of the thing you’re participating in, by participating in it. Court TV on the one hand, activism on the other.
I don’t think that I’m making fun of activism. I’m more making fun of activist spaces, but I do think that aesthetic activism is a frontier that will be more and more. This might be the first instance of aesthetic activism but I don’t think it’ll be the last. And I doubt I’m the first.
What’s the difference between making fun of activism and making fun of activist spaces?
I think everyone should be an activist. I think everyone should become activated or should stay woke or whatever the current way of saying it is. I think it’s really important to care about stuff. And I think caring about fine art is inherently funny. Any time you elevate fine art opinion to the level of political issue that’s a good joke. But what’s also funny is that Renoir actually sucks at painting. And I don’t think it would have gained the traction it did if it didn’t have both of those aspects.
Where is the line where activism is serious or activism is a joke? What is the difference between the Renoir Sucks At Painting movement and Boycott Israel?
I don’t think the two are that closely related. I certainly wasn’t thinking about the two when I was doing them. I think it would be like obviously really trite to compare one to the other.
From an outside perspective, it seems like it is on some basic level making fun of activism, because it’s so absurd.
Don’t get me wrong. I think a lot of activists are truly irritating people -- and I say that as an activist and as an irritating person. But I think a lot of activists, like a lot of other people, are truly irritating and they need to be made fun of every now and then, because everyone does.
On the Mathis show, your adversary accuses you of suing him because you basically just love arguing. I know your appearance on the show was a ruse, but is there any truth to the accusation?
He also said this is just a way for me to show off my verbal acuity. I’m not super comfortable with how show-offy this Instagram is. As far as my serious work on Palestine, I don’t like to argue. I’ve read 75 books about Israel and Palestine and most of my fellow Jews have only their feelings and that isn’t much of an argument.
Have you gotten many death threats?
To be honest, in the last 48 hours, I have received on my Instagram account too many comments to keep track of. I have to turn off the notifications on my phone because my phone couldn’t cope with the deluge. Can I just say I’ve gotten 135 new followers since we started talking?
Do you consider yourself a troll?
Look, it was a hard day when I looked into the mirror and realized that, no matter how many pithy and distilled witticisms I made, at the end of the day I was staring into the eyes of nothing more than an internet troll. But at the same time the eyes I was staring into did not look like Sharpie eyes.