“The Fine Arts Should Disappear Like Prehistoric Animals”

The Cult of Art

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Can anyone tell me about The Cult of Art, a rant masquerading as a book by Jean Gimpel (1918-1996)? I found it while rooting through a giveaway box at a friend’s studio and haven’t been able to put it down since. Not that I’ve been enjoying it. What started out as a refreshingly contrarian take “against art and artists” has turned into the literary equivalent of a car wreck–and I’m the rubbernecker taking in the view.

The Gimpel name rang a bell. Jean’s father, René, wrote Diary of An Art Dealer, 1919-1938, a seminal text for anyone interested in the business of art. René’s brother-in-law, Joseph Duveen, was the Larry Gagosian of his day and a prime mover in assembling the collection of Henry Clay Frick. The father and uncle are mentioned in the author’s bio accompanying The Cult of Art. (Duveen is described as “incomparable”.) We also read that “since 1948”, Jean Gimpel “has not permitted a work of art to enter his house.” The book was published in 1968. Hmm.

Taking his cue from philosopher, anarchist and friend of Gustave Courbet, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Gimpel argues that artists “are a class apart, imperious by their ideal but inferior in reason and morality.” Elsewhere, the novelist Thomas Mann is sympathetically cited for his distaste toward the artist’s “insatiable craving for compensation and glorification.” The line is from Mann’s 1938 essay “My Brother Hitler”. Gimpel begins the book with a swift overview of that failed painter’s career and infers, none too subtly, that Hitler is pretty typical as an artist.

File:Paolo Veronese 007.jpgPaolo Veronese, The Feast In The House of Levi (1573), oil on canvas, 18′ x 42′; courtesy the Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice

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From there, we’re taken on a dauntingly erudite tale of the mean, venal, grubby and often murderous dealings of artists and their enablers throughout history, from “the first bourgeois painter” Giotto to the “divine” Michelangelo to Veronese being accused by the Inquisition of conspiring to “teach false doctrine to foolish and ignorant people” through his painting The Feast In The House of Levi (1573). Veronese’s defense?

“We painters claim the licence that poets and madmen claim . . . “

A recurring beef is the shift that took place, sometime around the fourteenth century, in the cultural standing of painting and sculpture–from “Mechanical Arts” to “Beaux Arts”. The consequent metamorphosis of artists as “plain mortals into . . . beings endowed with divine powers” is similarly galling. Gimpel is unremitting in detailing the social, religious and moral disasters that have been committed in the name of art. What catastrophe haven’t we artists set into motion? It’s enough to make a guy suffer pangs of guilt upon setting foot into Pearl Paint. And I’m not even halfway through the book.

Gimpel has some good points to make.  Here’s his broadside against “Art For Art’s Sake”:

“Romanticism encouraged artists to scandalize the bourgeois and play tricks on him. As a result the latter could no longer tell whether an artist was being sincere or not. He began to distrust artistic productions in so far as they differed from those of the past. There are still traces of this attitude today.”

Nor does the noble cause of art criticism escape his purview:

“Art criticism has generally been the stamping ground of failed or second-rate writers who have found in it a field where their imagination is free to roam without their verbosity attracting the strictures of literary criticism.”

As a firm believer that there are more important things in life than art–living in a free and democratic society, for instance–I looked forward to Gimpel’s takedown of both the business and religion of art. (The relationship between art and culture is an unsettling subject I’ve written about before.) Still, The Cult of Art throws out the Buonarotti with the bath water.

Here, I skipped to the end of the book. Listen to Gimpel’s conclusion:

“The only works that should be considered beautiful are those that have contributed, or contribute, to the making of a better world. In the field of painting I am ready to yield to the aesthetic appeal of Fra Angelico, but not of Giotto; of Donatello, but not Michelangelo; of Botticelli, but not Heironymous Bosch; of Rembrandt, but not Vermeer; of Jan Steen, but not Rubens. I can admire Chardin, not Boucher; David, but not Watteau; Goya, but not Velazquez; Daumier, but not Delacroix; Toulouse-Lautrec, but not Degas.”

I’ll pass on Boucher, Watteau and Delacroix as well, but not because they were rich or egoists or atheists or brown-nosers or “martyrs to society” or aesthetes or assholes, plain and simple. They’re just lousy painters.

As for Gimpel, show me a guy who’ll purposefully forgo this:

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Juan de Pareja (1650), oil on canvas, 32″ x 21-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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. . . and I’ll show you a guy who cultivated soul-crushing narrowness due to unresolved Daddy issues. Uncle issues, too.

That’s the opinion of an armchair psychoanalyst and, as such, a source not to be trusted. All I know for sure is that art-hating is as eternal as art itself. Jean Gimpel was among the most learned of art’s detractors; also one of the saddest. The Cult of Art is a disheartening must-read.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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  • Ziggy Soyler  On August 10, 2012 at 6: 12 pm

    Just saw the book today and deciding whether to buy it. You make a good sell.

    Sounds a bit like Wolfe’s “The Painted Word” meets Johnson’s “Intellectuals”. Both books I esteem.

    But what you don’t tell us is, is this the Jean Gimpel who wrote a history of medieval science or is he the Gimpel who ran Gimpel Fils, a gallery I used to visit offf Grosvenor Square in the 80’s?

  • jenny  On July 26, 2016 at 8: 36 am


    Re comment above, it is the same writer on medieval architecture and brother of gallery owners. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituaryjean-gimpel-1338891.html

    I just found this book in my library (its an art library) and was interested too. I wondered whether you had come across any more documented responses to the book?


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