Archive for July, 2010

Grown Up Digital: The Net Gen as Learners and Teachers



By Don Tapscott


Is the Internet changing our brains?  We know what our brains look like on drugs—-but do we know what our brains look like on the web?  Don Tapscott, one of the experts in the realm of Internet communication says that our minds have been improved by unlikely mechanisms, such as video games and the much-scorned Wikipedia.  Even though it is hard to imagine World of Warcraft as the implementer of intellectual prowess and the facilitator of social skills, today’s children and teenagers, the sons and daughters of Dungeons and Dragons players, are smarter than their parents.  For some educators, the news that their students have sharper, better developed minds than they do, will come as a bit of a surprise.  However Tapscott insists,

…what we are seeing is the first case of a generation that is growing up with brains that are wired differently from those of the previous generation.  Evidence is mounting that Net Geners process information and behave differently because they have indeed developed brains that are functionally different from those of their parents.  They’re quicker, for example to process fast-moving images…

What does it all mean? What are the implications for the future?  Tapscott’s book is an informative and insightful journey into the way the twenty-somethings—the Net Generation—think.  Despite the scientific data that suggests that the brain of a person who has been web-trained his or her entire life is different from the book generation, the main thesis of Tapscott is not so much brain change but power change.  He posits the Net Gen as the “Lap Generation,” the first generation to lap or pass their parents by possessing authority their elders do not understand: how to use electronic technology.  The result of the younger generation’s apparent natural mastery of all things tech, Tapscott thinks, is the end of hierarchies and the abolition of a centralized authority.  The author focuses on four areas, family, education, business, and politics. All of these entities are being faced with the Lap Generation and their egalitarian mindsets.


The youth of today are better informed, more adept at technology, and savvier with the ways and means of the Twenty-first century than the adults who are still in charge of education, businesses, and governments.  What Tapscott’s book points to is a huge generations gap, a chasm as wide as the famous “generation gap” of Margaret Mead.  For the Baby Boomers, their parents’ pre-war knowledge and experiences were irrelevant and useless, making what the author refers as the authoritarian family structure of the era extremely frustrating for the Boomers.  The fathers, who acted like CEO’s, as Tapscott calls them, pontificated, but they had little of use to share and were unwilling to learn from their children.  After years of having to endure lectures on topics that were alien to teenagers in the Sixties, the Boomers escaped the home front, never to return to the clutches of authority.

In contrast, today’s parents, who are the Boomers grown up, are more open to listening and to allowing their children to show them how to log onto the Internet. The relationship between parent and child is more open and more nurturing.  Parents and children are close, so close that an entirely new kind of parent has emerged, “the Helicopter parent.”  As an educator, I am familiar with that kind of ever-hovering parent but did not know that these same parents will continue to hover.  They will go on job interviews after college, and will even confront the boss if their child is not well treated.  How are the parents so well informed about the office politics for their child?  The Lap Generation, the “boomerang” generation, making a strictly economic decision, likes to live at home.  There are no hierarchies, only equality, in this new family.

After reading Tapscott’s observation about the new family, it occurred to me that this new arrangement bodes well for the distant future when the Boomer parents are elderly.  For the first time in generations, it may be possible that the children will care for the parents.  The Boomers ran away from home and abandoned their parents.  Many Boomers today are facing the conundrum of what to do about an elderly parent or two.  It is not uncommon for the Boomer’s elderly parents to be abandoned—again—in a facility where they will live out the last of their golden years, unvisited, and will die, unmourned.  But the Boomers who have been respectful and kind to their children should expect better care from their children.  What else could this new kind of anti-authoritarian family offer to the future?


Educators should take note.  The current model of pedagogy is teacher focused, one-way, one size fits all.  It isolates the student in the learning process…. (Net Geners) will respond to the new model of education that is beginning to surface—student-focused and multiway, which is customized and collaborative… says the author.

Tapscott states that the Net Gen carries with it two sets of expectation when these students enter schools and colleges.  First, they are shaped by their experience with the Internet, which demands that they interact with technology, search for content, and socialize with their peers, long distance.  Second, they expect to shape and participate in their own education.  Rather than passively accepting intoned truths delivered from behind the lectern on high, this generation wants to participate and collaborate in what they expect to be a joint enterprise.  The author characterized current education as being a one-way model, that is one-person talks and another listens.  It occurs to me that, in fact, the educational system reflects the technology.  The Guttenberg technology, based upon the printing press, is a one-way form of communication.  The author writes and the reader reads.  The radio repeated this form of speaking and listening that reflected the print technology.  Then television came along and replicated the Gutenberg method once again.  Education is based upon the premise that an educated person, i.e. e. the teacher, is also a reader who has read and who, is, therefore, qualified to redeliver the written messages in an oral form, again repeating the model of one way communication.

Following my line of thinking, the real challenge to today’s educational model is the Internet, which is a two-way mode of communication.  In contrast the traditional Sermon on the Mount, the Web is participatory, non-authoritarian communication, a call and response format that is ignored and discredited by the authorities until they feel threatened by the sound of Other voices.  The call and response nature of the Internet—this new technology—means that education must become more participatory for the Net Gen students.  Tapscott writes that the Net Gen students expect interactive teaching and learning.  If they cannot actively collaborate, they will tune out and get bored with traditional methods of lecturing.  Although Tapscott does not get into the weeds of pedagogy, I suspect that, contrary to their current teachers, this is a generation that would accept and welcome distance learning.  Today’s students are used to learning from the computer, an instrument that many of today’s educators view with suspicion.  On one hand the computer is a convenient tool, on the other hand, it challenges the authority of the teacher who wants to be the sole source of knowledge.

Tapscott describes the elders of the Net Gen, the Gen Xers, as being “aggressive communicators who are extremely media centered.”  But unlike the Gen X, the Net Gen grew up using the “programmable web.”  “And every time you use it, you change it.”  The author continues later, “On the Net, the children have had to search for, rather than simply look at, information.  This forces them to develop thinking and investigative skills—-they must become critics. Which Web sites are good?”  Tapscott rightly calls the model of education we currently use—-teacher lecturing and student listening—-as Industrial, but I think he may be off by a few centuries.  The model is more that of a pre-Gutenberg culture, before the printing press made it possible for people to read what they wanted.  I would agree with Jeffrey Bannister, quoted in Tapscott’s book, who uses the term, “pre-Gutenberg.

We’ve got a bunch of professors reading from handwritten notes, writing on blackboards and the students are writing down what they say. This is a pre-Gutenberg model.

I might point out in passing, to Bannister, that in attempting to accommodate multiple learners, it is considered good practice to write on the board for the students who learn by reading, not hearing.  Indeed, Tapscott also states that,

Students are individuals who have individual ways of learning and absorbing information.  Some are visual learners; others learn by listening.  Still others learn by physically manipulating something.

As early as 1967, as Marshall McLuhan, also quoted by Tapscott, said,

Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the nineteenth-century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment, where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patters, subjects, and schedules.

The New Learning must be customized for each student’s needs.  Tapscott also quotes Howard Gardner, who called today’s educational model as mass production, a reflection of the industrial economy, which created assembly lines and Taylorism that forced human beings to work in tandem with machines.  According to Gardner, school is also mass-production.  “You teach the same think to students in the same way and assess them all in the same way,” he says. True but this is how No Child Left Behind teaches, as it must, for the standardized test.  Even the best secondary schools teach towards to entrance exams so that the students can get the highest scores, not necessarily the best critical thinking skills.  The test becomes the teacher.   How are the Net Geners going to respond to a mechanism so crude and arbitrary as an SAT test?  Note that these standardized tests do not take into account the way that the test-takers, the Net Gen, actually think.  Change takes place at a glacial pace, especially when the entire educational system comes from a foundation based upon magical thinking: if the speaker says it, it is so.  Education equal authority—unquestioned authority.   How did strange combination of information without questions come about?  And how did such a procedure become labeled as “education?”

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the Church was against this new instrument, because the sacred words, once intoned only from the pulpit would be distributed to the great unwashed, delivered by the voice of authority.  The Church feared, rightly, that the power of the printed word and of reading would allow the people to challenge the priesthood.  The authority of the Church was unquestioned and was based upon a far older form of disseminating information, an oral culture of story telling.  A culture of story telling is a logo centric culture, backed by the presence of the speaker who is the source of the story, information, and the truth.  God spoke to Noah, to the Prophets, etc. and the word of God was transcribed.  It was the task of religion to tell to those congregated the words of the Lord.  The Church inherited a largely illiterate society—even kings and queens often could neither read nor write–that had to be preached to.  Through years of standing for six to eight hours in cathedrals, hearing mysterious Latin, listening to sermons, and “reading’ the sculptural programs and the frescoes, the uneducated people under the care of the clergy were socially conditioned to listen to one voice (God’s) and one source of authority (the Church). The Protestant movement was proof that once the common person could read the words of the Bible, those people would take unto themselves the power to interpret God himself.

There are historically close ties between the Church and the University.  The first universities, the Sorbonne and Oxford, were affiliated with religion and, with the clergy the only educated group, the priests became the first faculties.  The traces of this history are clearly visible any graduation day with the procession of professors marching down the center aisle of the school auditorium, like the clergy files down the nave, in full “regalia,” wearing the long black robes, very monk like.  Further traces of the Church lie in the very practice of lecturing: the teacher stands at the head of the class and speaks alone.  The students speak only to ask questions and are expected to subside into obedient silence.  Just as the priests re-spoke the Word of God, academics re-speak the words of their precursors.  The very form of academic and scholarly phraseology mimes the sacred scriptures.  “As —- tells us,”  “As —- famously said,” and so on.  Logos being handed down from authority figure to authority figure.  Academics depend upon the logocentric tradition and upon the mystical belief that the speaker is backed by the fullness of authority.  It is as if Moses descended from the mountain, bearing tablets written in stone—not to be altered—-after communing with the Almighty.

The assumption of a plenitude of knowledge, like that of the completeness of presence, is a false one but authority must be protected at all costs.  Another prevailing characteristic of education, inherited from the Church, is, paradoxically, secrecy.  Knowledge is guarded by the initiated, those who are learned in the ways of scholarship; knowledge is not to be given out freely, especially insider secrets. Like the Greek temples where only the priests were allowed inside the inner sanctum, only those inside the circle of the select are allowed to “speak” or be “present,” that is to publish, that is to “re-speak” the already spoken.  The Internet has changed all that.  The Net Geners are not readers, they are not listeners; they are iconographers.  As Tapscott notes,

Net Geners who have grown up digital have learned how to read images…. they may be more visual than their parents are…. (They) tend to ignore lengthy instructions for their homework assignments…

Tapscott points out that students of today learn better through images.  Indeed, this generation has invented a series of new hieroglyphs that function as signs such as happy= (: and sad= ):

Today’s students, Tapscott points out, will want to customize their education.  He mentions that “tinkering” has made a come back.  Indeed it has.  The time of the mash-up has come.  In higher intellectual circles, we call the mash-up, or sampling, bricoulage, that is, taking the existing culture and making something else with it.  This is postmodern thinking, reclaim, reuse, remake, recycle.  The very same teachers who teach postmodern theories are those who insist upon “original” work from students who are what I call, the Mash-Up Generation.  The professors who eagerly and enthusiastically teach Postmodernism, or the questioning of the “metanarrative” of Modernism, will reject cutting and pasting and demand that the student cite “sources,” or the validating voices of authority.  The same professors find it hard to accept that a student has ideas of his or her own, attitudes that stem naturally from their own generation, for, although the Boomers may have resisted authority, they knew it existed.

If my generation got into trouble for questioning authority, this generation gets into trouble for leveling sources.   Every voice, every bit of cultural material has equal value and can be freely borrowed and re-used.  Net Gen seeks convenience and speed over venerated voices, who are often unwilling to make themselves available on the web.   Even more threatening to the traditional authority of educators is the declining value of scholarly knowledge, which is being by-passed and ignored by the mainstream undergraduate.  Every teacher knows that students think that Google is a database.  Students routinely ignore the expensive databases, paid for by student tuition, made available through library websites.  Getting into the date bases is a clumsy and cumbersome and often unrewarding enterprise, because the technology of these databases is antediluvian.  Naturally the student goes to Google’s fast and functional search engine to find information.  Like the Net Gener who gets a job and finds, to his horror, that the technology is twenty years behind the times, the student will not tolerate the ritual of multiple clicks and passwords and all the other paraphernalia that work to make knowledge inaccessible.  Even when forced to read a credible source, the students, accustomed to the all-purpose Net-speak, rebel at the insider jargon, written by scholars writing to scholars.

Net Geners want to be informed, not talked at.  They like to take materials they find helpful or interesting and remake it.  As opposed to always referring back to the authorities, the Net Gen likes to write its own material and to create its own content.  Tapscott indicates that the Web actually encourages creativity and productivity because the Web gives easy access to inventors.  From their habits of playing video games or participating in the virtual reality of Second Life, the Net Geners learn how to play their own game.  Speaking of video games, Tapscott says,

“This kind of play is deeply creative.  It involves trial and error, learning by experiment, role playing, failure, and many other aspects of creative thinking.

None of this kind of creativity is allowed in education.  Play is forbidden and failure is mocked.  In contrast, the author discusses a thirteen year-old writer who contributes stories to a website where they are read by thousands of readers.  “Isn’t that better than writing on paper and hoping that some day it might get published?” Tapscott asks.  For today’s teachers and professors the Web 2.0 is something Roland Barthes would have loved: this new Web is called the “read-write” web—we read it and we write it.

Although there are many teachers who are eager and willing try more experimental student centered ways of making learning a collaborative enterprise between mentor and apprentice, they are constrained by a system that demands command and control.  Distance Learning still attempts to replicate a now-obsolete classroom format, by demanding assignments at set due dates, by demanding chat room appearances at a set time, and so on.  This is hardly learning the way the student needs it, customized, when the student can devote the time to it, at a pace that facilitates learning.  Even distance learning classes end after a set number of weeks.  Traditional classroom education is ruled by the physics of time and space: one teacher to a classroom, a certain number of students in a space, taught a common denominator course that must fit into a larger curriculum at a specific time.  Student centered education is evidenced by allowing students to speak more or to participate in class discussion.  There is no time for the teacher to waste.  S/he has a set amount of material that must be covered.

Students are increasing unwilling to learn in the traditional manner, because they assume all knowledge is available on the Internet. Why learn math when one has a calculator?  Why not teach how to use the calculator to find the answer?  Why plow through many books when Wikipedia tells you anything you want to know and, even better, you too can write the content.  Tapscott tells an amusing story about interviewing a young man named Joe O’Shea who stated that he never read a book—why should he?  All the information he needed is on the Internet.

“I don’t read books per se,” he told the erudite and now somewhat stunned crowd.  “I got to Google and I can absorb relevant information quickly.  Some of this comes from books.  But sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense.  It’s not a good use of my time as I can get all of the information I need faster through the web.  You need to know how to do it—to be a skilled hunter.”

Before you educators out there jump to your feet to explain the difference between “information” and “knowledge,” know that the punch line was that the young man had just been awarded a Rhodes scholarship.


Tapscott describes a new world in which the consumers remake the product, as they are remaking education. Education, he suggests, should think like a business and respond to the consumers, but Tapscott also points out that the businesses, which do not respond with agility to the demands of the Net Gen can get into trouble.  The Net Gen, rightly, in my view, views businesses and corporations with suspicion.  Tapscott points to the empowerment of the NetGeners who like to be “prosumers,” that is, proactive consumers, who customize their products.  Young people have been prosumers for generations, but no one has named their practices until recently.  Little girls have always treated their Barbies to new hair-dos and teen-age boys have always modified their cars with after-market products and custom decoration.  This desire to contribute to mass-produced and mass marketed products has only recently been harnessed by companies such as Apple where “there’s an app for that.”

The users of Apple have often been referred to as a “cult” because of their devotion to the product.  The term “cult” is derogatory and comes from those who simply don’t understand how the Net Gen thinks.  Apple is thought of by the techies as an honorable company, which strives to produce a product that is beautifully designed and user friendly.  In addition, the company also works closely with its user base, from the Bleeding Edgers to the novice customer, asking the tech savvy to participate in the improvement of the function and design of the product and watching for the difficulties of the blunderer so Apple can make function more straightforward.  The reason why the flap over the iPhone4 and its broken antennae was so minor to Apple users is because those customers know that the company will fix and improve the problem with the next iteration of the phone.  The Apple user is invariably an Early Adopter who expects such glitches and enjoys participating in the fix.  This kind of audience participation is the Apple business model and it has won the company a devoted following.

But all companies are not so accommodating to the customer base.  Witness the hostile relationship between music lovers and the music industry, publishers and those who write and read books, the car companies (Toyota) and those who drive.  The new generation of consumers wants to customize their experience with the product, Tapscott declares, but the corporate mind thinks in terms of profit not prosumer.  To the Net Gen, music and art and literature and knowledge, like information, should belong to no one and everyone.  Downloading “illegal” music is common practice, done without shame or remorse.  How can anyone own music?  Doesn’t art belong to everyone?  The Net Gen is forcing companies that want to survive to be transparent and participatory, Tapscott writes.  Older corporations do not want to interact with their customers.  Like the traditional media, the corporate mind insists upon a one-way communication: top down. As Tapscott says,

…the industry has built a business model around suing its customers.  And the industry that brought us the Beatles is now hated by its customers and is collapsing.  Sadly, obsession with control, privacy, and proprietary standards on the part of large industry players has only served to further alienate and anger music listeners…

Tapscott states that the Net Gen prefers flexible hours and “want to chose when and where they want to work.” not only that these young people what their work to be “meaningful.”  “They’re not loyal to an employer; they’re loyal to their career path,” he remarks.  Imagine the surprise of business types when the Net Gen shows up to “work.”  The Net Gen wants to play.   The Net Gen employee comes to a company for one reason—-no, not a job—to learn.  Once the Net Gen worker learns what s/he needs, s/he will move on to the next learning experience.  It is pointless to expect the Net Gener to be “loyal” to the company. The concept of loyalty that his grandfather may have enjoyed was broken when companies began sending jobs overseas in the Seventies.  Companies still expect the employee to commit to being a permanent fixture, while refusing to guarantee lifetime employment, much less health care. For the average corporation, human beings are a financial liability, but the Net Gener comes to play with the idea of contributing creatively.

Companies tend to create what Tapscott calls, a “generational firewall,” which separates the newbies from the oldtimers.  This strange way of not utilizing recruited talent is not unfamiliar to me.  I have often asked, why hire someone who is then suppressed and under utilized?  Business runs on a hierarchal basis, those at the top give orders and the orders roll downhill where the underlings carry out the dictates.  The Net Gen employee, according to Tapscott, does not accept hierarchy and assume that they were hired for their talents.  If they cannot and are not allowed to participate as an equal, the most talented will simply move on.  Their attitude, quite properly, is: if you won’t listen to me, why should I stay?  Net Gen wants to contribute and needs to contribute to something meaningful.  As the parents of the Net Geners changed the modeling of parenting, education needs to change its traditional assignments and business needs to change its traditional models.  Show the Net Geners what’s in it for them.


That same attitude—-what’s in it for me? appears in politics.  Today there are two common questions in popular culture: “What would Jesus do?”  And “What’s in it for me?”  We assume that Jesus would not say, “What’s in it for me?”  We like to think he would say, “What can I do for you?”  “What’s in it for me?” is a business question and the answer has to be “profits.”  “Profits” is a business answer.  So when a politician promises to run the government like a business, that implies that the government will not be in the service of the people but in the service of profit making entities, like corporations. Imagine if government were run like a business, like, say an oil company or a music company. Tapscott is convinced that the Net Geners have a better way. The Net Gen voter is an active participant who, unlike her grandparents, is a volunteer or a community activist, Tapscott says.  Some of the Boomers joined the Peace Corps, some marched for Civil Rights and some protested against the Viet Nam War.   Others marched for women’s rights and demanded gay rights.  The Boomer’s children are the Net Roots who became activated by the prospect of being allowed to participate in the election of Barack Obama.

Tapscott discusses the Internet based campaign at length, and reading these passages, now that we are two years into the Obama administration, is enlightening. I think that much of what Tapscott writes is insightful and informative and I learned a lot from reading his book, however, I do think he is too sunny and too hopeful and too optimistic.  Politics is a case in point as the enthusiasm for Obama wanes quickly.  The Net Gen expected results.  When Obama promised “transparency,” they thought that the President was thinking like the open artless, and fearless sharing that takes place on Facebook.  The web is totally open and uncontrolled as a source of energy and information. The web is a place where things happen.  That is why so many people (like me) devote their time to contributing to it.  But the Net Gen quickly learned its lesson.  As Tapscott writes,

Most Net Geners believe that the mechanics of power and policy making are controlled by self-interested politicians and organized lobby groups…The Net Generation does not put much trust in politicians and political institutions—-not because they are uninterested, but rather because political systems have failed to engage them in a manner that fits their digital and ethical upbringing.

The Net Gen experience as Internet users has taught them that if they coalesce towards a cause they can make changes.  The fact that the Net Gen volunteers for Obama were so excited because they were “natural” Democrats, that is, they shared a cultural attitude that the government should work for the people, and that they—the (young) people could shape the outcome through their participation.   According to Tapscott, the Net Geners are not conservative but more open to change and new ways of thinking than any other generation.  But a Democratic victory did not bring the change they expected.  And now the Net Gen has turned their backs on the administration.  Why?  The problem is that the government is controlled by a group of middle-aged people who will not let go of power.  Just look at Congress on C-Span.  All old White Men.  No one under forty.  No poor people.  Few People of Color.  Some women here and there.  No collaboration, no participation from half of the members of Congress, who appear to have abdicated their governing responsibility in the pursuit of political power.  The strategy of not participating—this is not the Net Gen type of thinking in Congress.

Things only get worse when one turns on to the news programs.  The gap in age is shocking.  Although there are some networks or news programs I do not watch, I do record at least four hours of news a day on TV to which I listen while I am writing) and read three newspapers a day. There are no young faces, no young writers (and therefore no young readers), no young voices, no young way of thinking. Only the Hill reporter, Luke Russert, the bright son of the late Tim Russert, stands out as someone under thirty.  An entire generation is being left out of the conversation.  The elders reflect back on their days with President Carter or President Clinton, prehistoric eras for the Net Gen, and discuss and debate raging political quarrels that are non-issues for the younger generation.

People—usually men—well beyond their childbearing years decide abortion policy.  People—increasingly women as well—who are too old to fight send their young generation off to war for their own political ends or their lobbyists needs.  People with lifetime jobs in Congress decide how much money the unemployed will or will not get. People with guaranteed government health care decide that others cannot have those same privileges and see no hypocrisy in their positions.  Those who are heterosexual (they say) decide the personal lives of homosexuals.   And so on.

Would results be different if the younger generation made itself heard?  As Tapscott points out, this generation is far more tolerant than their parents or grandparents.  It is their grandparents who are concerned about racial and gender equality, interracial marriage, “illegal” immigration, gay marriage, and other hot button issues.  For their grandparents, global warming is debatable, for this generation, raised on green values; a devastated planet is their inheritance.  If you asked a Net Gener which problem worried him more, the budget deficit or global warming, he would say, “global warming.” Always the optimist, Tapscott writes,

I’m convinced we’re in the early days of something unprecedented.  Young people, and with them the entire world, are beginning to collaborate—for the first time ever—around a single idea: changing the weather.

For the Net Gener, it is discouraging to see who is in power and to watch how they behave.  Partisan bickering and political game playing instead of collaborative game, negation instead of affirmation, blocking change instead of accepting it—all of this is alien to the younger generation.  Those in the government and those elected to office are one-way communicators, out of touch and out of date.  They allow the public to “speak” every two years at the ballot box.  And these are the people to whom the question of Net Neutrality will be turned over.  The corporations want to segment the Internet so that they can profit maximize what has been a free good, available to everyone.  The case of whether or not the net will remain the great equalizer will probably be decided by the Supreme Court, presided over by a Chief Justice who does not understand e-mail.

Not a wonk, I am probably better informed than some people and I value the facts over ideology.  So does the Net Gen.   For us it is not Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, it is integrity, honor, and the desire to tell the truth.  For Washington D. C., it is sound bytes and talking points.   By selling the “War on Terror” the “War for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” and the need to Bail Out the Big Banks to the credulous public, the government has created what a Bush appointee called, a “post truth” society.  How true.  For the Net Gen, truth matters.  The trust of the public in its leaders has been shattered, leaving a vacuum for the bloggers and talkers to fill.  Another authority has to be appointed and anointed.  For the older generation, still willing to accept one-way communication, sound bytes stand for wisdom, tweets become knowledge, and talking points are the truth.  The Net Gen finds it astounding when the politicians change their stories and refuse accountability, even when they are caught changing their positions or lying or fabricating stories. The Net Gen is used to trolling the Internet and finding the facts and cannot understand how their elders can lie, get caught, pay no consequences, lie again and so on.  No wonder they are disillusioned by politics.

The Future

Tapscott does not entirely ignore the real problems brought by the Internet revolution.  He points to the gap between the have-nots of technology and those who are active users.  His main examples are the poor or the third world, but there are other have-nots, closer to home, such as the poor, the elderly, or the close minded, or the technophobes who are getting left further and further behind.  Then there are the bad effects of the Web.  One of the odd and underreported facts of technology is that the Bleeding Edge is usually made up of illegal or questionable practices that become outlets for pathologies, including on line gaming, Wall Street derivatives, pornography, pedophilia, including on-line bullying.  It is these Early Adopters who benefit the Web by using it and creating new pathways, meaning that all these nebulous people are always one step in advance to the forces of law and order.   Parents protest the perfectly legal video games, such as the horrible Grand Theft Auto (which has awesome artwork) but forget that they watch and enjoy violent adult films such as Pulp Fiction. That said, the dangers of the Internet are real but, in the name of freedom, the Net Gen will defend the right of anyone and anything to prowl there.  One can only hope that the same Supreme Court that granted freedom of speech to corporations will see fit to allow the Net to remain open to all comers.

Tapscott believes that “Net Geners are quick to recognize that the best way to achieve power and control is through people, not over people.  Good lesson.  The Net Gen is intelligent enough to know that Obama cannot change Washington D. C.  There are too many entrenched interests.  The question has become not what can I do for you? but what’s in it for me?  All that hard work, all that dedication, all that Hope and no pay off, no results.   People go into politics to get things done, to make things happen and when nothing changes, you turn away.  It’s like your last job: you learned something new and then moved on.  How sad.  The problem for the Net Gen is that the fifty-sixty something generation of Baby Boomers have no intention of changing or of letting go of power.  They are impervious to the Net Gen.   “They” being the Big Banks, they being the Big Corporations, like Big Oil, are so powerful, have such a stranglehold on America that “They” answer to no one.  Big Business cares not about the Net Gen, neither as employees, nor as consumers.  By the time the Net Gen will have their turn to come into power, they too will be in their fifties, fully thirty years from now.   The Baby Boomers joined the Tea Party in their maturity.  What will the Net Gen do with their golden years?  Tapscott concludes his book,

The big remaining question for older generations is whether that power will be shared with gratitude—or whether we will stall until a new generation grabs it from us.  Will we have the wisdom and courage to accept them, their culture, and their media?  Will we be effective in offering our experience to help them manage the dark side?   Will we grant them the opportunity to fulfill their destiny?  I think this will be a better world if we do.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Suggested readings from Don Tapscott’s Bibliography:

Beck, John C., and Mitchell Wade, Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Changing the Workplace, 2004

Benkler, Yochai, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, 2006

Carlson, Scott, “The Net Generation Goes to College,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 7, 2005,

Gee, James Paul, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, 2003

Howe, Neil, and William Strauss, Millennials Go to College: Strategies for a New Generation on Campus, 2003

——Millennials Rising: the Next Great Generation, 2000

Keen, Andrew, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, 2007

Moglen, Eben, “Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software and the Death of Copyright,” First Monday, August, 1999,

Prensky, Marc, Digital Game-Based Learning, 2000

Roos, Dave, “How Net Generation Students Learn and Work,”, May 5, 2008

Tapscott, Don, and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: Harnessing the Power of Mass Collaboration, 2006

Weinberger, David, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, 2007

Mentioned in his book but not included in his bibliography:

Carr, Nicholas, “Is Google Making us Stupid?” Atlantic Monthly, July, August, 2008

Work of Art, Bravo Network, Summer 2010

An Open Letter to the Network

Re: Reality show, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist

Dear Bravo Network,

Do not do this again.


Thank you.


A genuine art critic.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

The Kids are All Right (2010)

The Last Prejudice

The Kids are All Right is about a marriage threatened by an affair and a family threatened by a stranger from the outside.  The only novelty, which is hardly a novelty, is that the couple is lesbian.  My question is who is the audience for this film?  I am sure that the people who think that being gay is a sin and a mental disease will boycott this film. I am sure that there are certain small towns that will refuse to show this film.  The very audience that needs to be reached isn’t listening.  Then there are the rest of us.  The supposedly earthshaking revelation that gay people are just people makes the film feel dated, rather like looking at The Bill Cosby Show, which shocked, shocked the world in the Seventies with the news that black people were just people.  For those of us in LA and in the OC, this movie is about people we know, our next-door neighbors, our colleagues, and our friends.

Indeed it was the goal of writer and director Lisa Cholodenko to tell the story of her life. She and her partner were shopping for a sperm donor and the process of selection of a candidate and, finally, of reproduction were on her mind.  Teaming up with her literary partner, Stuart Blumberg, who, Cholodenko tells us, is straight, she wrote the story of her life, projected it into the future and asked “what if?” the sperm donor returned to the scene of the family? Much has been written about The Kids are All Right.  The usual critical theme has been that a family is a family and a marriage is a marriage, regardless of whether the couple is gay or straight.  This is a nice film, well written and well acted by the excellent cast, amusing in parts, and totally good natured.  Totally mainstream, this is a movie you warm to and you leave the theater, feeling good.

That said, once you get beyond the surface, there are some serious points to make here.  Probably unintentionally, this film repeats the prejudices of mainstream straight society. Straight society, for centuries, has forced gay people to accept the strait jacket of straight life.  Many gays and lesbians have written eloquently of the extent to which straight society “sells” the heterosexual couple as if it is the only proper way for people to love each other.  Agreed. The social assumption that the straight couple is “normal” is a kind of cultural tyranny.  But this film replicates that same tactic and reveals another prejudice.  Marriage is celebrated as “normal” and is sold as the only proper way for adults to live.  Single people are cast as second-class citizens, maladjusted and irresponsible.

In point of fact, there are more single people today than married people.  Counting divorces, widowhood, celibates, the never marrieds, the too young to marry, single people outnumber couples.  More and more people chose to never marry or, if they were once married, decide to not marry again (especially women).  And yet the whole economic basis of society and tax system is geared to encourage and reward marriage and procreation.  Popular culture and films routinely portray single people as loose cannons on the decks of the Good Ship Marriage and The Kids are All Right is no exception.

The couple in question, long married, is “Jules” (Julianne Moore) and “Nic” (Annette Bening) who have two lovely children, “Joanie” (Mia Wasiknoska) and “Laser” (Josh Hutcherson), courtesy of their sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo).  This normal family of kind and conscientious parents and smart children with good sense is rocked when the “kids” invite “Paul,” the donor, into their family circle.  Mayhem ensues.  Here I thought that women who were lesbians did not like to have sex with men, but apparently I was wrong, because  “Jules” has an affair with “Paul.”  “Nic” finds out, the kids find out, and the marriage quakes and shakes, but, with astonishing ease, the firm foundations hold.  Accusing him of being an “interloper,”  “Nic” banishes the remorseful “Paul.”  “Joanie” goes off the college and “Laser” stays home with his “moms.”  The bad single person is left behind, his longing nose pressed to the window of marriage and the family he cannot be part of.  The end.

But the central character is “Jules;” the film is really about her.  She has played the housewife to the wage earning husband figure, “Nic.”  “Jules” stayed home and took care of the children, but she resented “Nic’s” power of the purse over her and the fact that she could not get the career she wanted. The “kids” are leaving the nest, which in a few years will soon be completely empty.  Once the children leave home, what should she do with the rest of her life?  Society still does not provide a road map for the stay-at-home partner.  How do you reengage with the real world outside the boundaries of the family?  How do you catch up?  How do you interact with adults who are not your partner?  Very carefully.

Married people live a very sheltered life.  They are able to find support and sustenance from each other.  When a married person who has been the stay-at-home partner leaves the protective circle of the family, there will almost always be problems for this person, male or female.  You tend to assume that the rest of the world is like your family where everyone is on your side.  You don’t know that the world is full of self-interested people who are not like your family.  You will make mistakes, because, like a young child, you have no experience and no judgment. Particularly when it comes to sex.

“Jules” is naïve and is totally unprepared for real people in the real world. She uses the unexpected offer from “Paul” to landscape his terraced garden behind his organic restaurant to start a new way of life, with herself as an achiever instead of a caretaker.  In other words, she left the family and its protection.  “Paul” is made out to be a predator, afraid to make a commitment.  He very carefully selects an unavailable woman, one who is vulnerable and who does not understand that (single) men hit on women all them time.  To be able to hit on all women all the time—that is why “Paul” has never married.  “Jules” makes a mistake so typical of people who wander outside the familiar territory of marriage, she blunders into an ill-advised adventure.  She is used to agreeing to sex, that is what marriage is all about, and “Jules” does not know that, outside of marriage,  you get lots of offers, some you accept, some you don’t.  So “Jules” says, “yes” to “Paul,” because that is what she does.  The film does not address the very real question of why she was so unworldly and ignorant that she was left open to making such a mistake.  “Jules” scrambles back to the family, not older, not wiser, not more grown up. She remains a child, protected by “Nic.”

The affable, free-wheeling, motor-cycle riding “Paul” is a minor character, the outsider, the disruptor. He is the catalyst that works against the grain of the story.  This character deserves to be deconstructed.  The entire plot is told from the vantage point that marriage is best and that being single is an unnatural condition.  But “Paul” is exactly who and what he wants to be.  And although self-actualization is supposed to be the goal of every individual, he is condemned for being “arrogant and full of himself.”  The married people mock him, indicating just how threatening they find him.  But “Paul,” like most single people, likes the freedom.  Although “Nic” scorns him for having dropped out of college and for having done exactly what he wanted to, “Paul” has made a success of his restaurant business, a very real accomplishment, for which he gets no credit.  Paul is condemned for doing what people do: taking advantage of an opportunity to enjoy himself.   In contrast, “Jules,” who obviously has not done what she wanted, tested the waters of a new life by acting out with a man, of all people, gets off with an apology.

The “kids” have much more street smarts than their parents.  They see “Paul” clearly, enjoy the new possibilities he offers, but, in the end, they loyally follow their ”moms” lead and reject him totally.  Too bad, because the man had something to offer.  He was responsible enough to apologize but no one in the family is willing to meet him halfway.  He has committed the cardinal sin: he has attempted to break up a family and a marriage.  Nowhere is it asked why the marriage and the family were so porous.  For “Paul” to be able to enter in, the family had to be in some kind of crisis, if only one of a transition.  “Paul” is not the problem.  The marriage simply needed refreshing.  One might ask why a lesbian couple could not create a more innovative form of marriage. Why would such a couple replicate a 1950s style heterosexual marriage in which the husband held all the power?  That type of patriarchal alliance was bad for straight couples.  Surely in the Twenty-first century, a more equality or a balanced partnership can be found for marriage.

“Paul” is portrayed as a man-child, a perennial Peter Pan who will not grow up, an attitude that assumes that single people are immature and that only married people are adult and only couples shoulder responsibility, because only couples have children.  Even if we leave out the fact of courageous single parents, the attitude of this film is curious because single people have to be strong and independent.  Single people are alone in the world, depending upon themselves and their own resources.  The pay off for being alone, for a single person, is worth not having a partner as a backstop.  It’s not just that you get to eat an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough at midnight, and no one will laugh at you. Although a single person can come and go without ever having to call home, being single is more than sheer self-indulgence.   A single person is free and self-reliant.    Without having to consult anyone else, single person can change jobs, make a new life, find a new identity.  Strong character, self-reliance and the courage to take chances—-this is the goal of every mature adult, isn’t it?   Society has overcome many long held prejudices.  The bias against gay people and gay marriage is today largely a generational or regional concern.   But the prejudice against single people is still alive and well and active in The Kids are All Right.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Inception (2010)

“Life is but a Dream”

“We are the stuff that dreams are made of.”  So said William Shakespeare in his last play, The Tempest. And this, in a nutshell, is the theme of Inception. This is the movie the summer has been waiting for.  Only rarely does one go to a movie and see something that is actually inventive and imaginative.  Most films are recycles of older films and reruns of time worn ideas.  But in the sure and steady hands of director Christopher Noland and thanks to a remarkable group of digital artists, Inception reminds you that movies are us: the stuff that dreams are made of.  Noland takes a very basic premise about human beings—we use very little of our conscious mind and that much of our mental activity takes place while we sleep.  Our minds are unexplored and under utilized territory, but this terrain is inhabited. Beware.

Dreams happen each and every night, but we remember little of the content.  From a Freudian point of view, dreams are the “royal road to the unconscious.”  There, in this buried kingdom, our deepest longings are secreted, our most profound fears are cached, lying under layers of traumas and very resistant to excavation. Freud described the unconscious mind like the city of Rome, a place he never visited but the analogy was apt.  As anyone who has been to Rome knows, you can walk down many streets and many strata of time are laid out in front of you, like an Escher drawing: the ancient world, the world of the Renaissance, the time of Mussolini, and today.  The mind, like Rome, has its own archaeological layers of experiences that have to be mined.  The psychologist uses the dream images for what they are, metaphors that must be interpreted.  Noland is asking the audience to both take dreams literally but to also remember that dreams stand for something else that is hidden away.

Noland also plays with another, more Eastern, more mystical concept: suppose we are the dream of a greater being, a fantasy of some kind of god?  For philosophy, psychology, for theology, and for us all, the real question is what is existence?  The answer has to be is that Being must include that vast amount of time we spend on our fantasy worlds, not just our night dreams but also our daydreams.  Like Shiva, we dream ourselves into an existence.  Noland is fascinated with the mechanics of the dream: that we create the dream but do not know that we are creating all elements of the dream.  In other words, those who chase you and persecute you are you.  Suppose we are the gods of our own dreams and we are dreaming ourselves?  Then what is real and what is the dream?  That is the key question of Inception.

The plot is simple.  The main character, “Cobb,” played by Leonardo Di Caprio, is an “extractor,’ a trained operative, who can go into the dreams of other people and direct the dreams in such a way that allows him to find hidden corporate secrets.  In order to go into the dreams of another, one needs a team, people who will enter into the dream with you and add to the false fantasy.  His team is “Arthur,” who looks like a serious bank clerk, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an incredible “acrobat,” as Noland termed him, doing his own stunts. These stunts, which take place in zero gravity are worth the price of the film ticket.  Not since Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling in Royal Wedding has this effect been so well done.  Other members of the team include “Eames,” played by Tom Hardy, and “Yusuf,” played by Dileep Rao.    The key member of this team is “the architect,” played by Ellen Page, who is called “Ariadne.” She shows off to “Cobb” by building an amazing dream world that folds itself over and lands on top of itself. Amazing.  Obviously, the architect builds a dream world that does not have to obey the laws of logic, but the dream must function logically like a labyrinth constructed in three levels, each borrowing deeper into the mind of the target.  The target in this case is “Robert Fischer, Jr.,” played by Cillian Murphy. Even the veteran actor, Tom Berenger, is on hand to play the lawyer for the Fischer family. According to “Saito,” the corporate client, Fischer is on the verge of making his late father’s energy empire into a total monopoly, and only Saito has a company that could break such a totalizing control.

This plot, of course is a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin.  The quest or the task or the object in question was always unimportant to Alfred Hitchcock.  For this director it was always the couple, the romance and the need to resolve the relationship between the man and the woman. Often, as in Vertigo, the relationship was obsessive compulsive, with the characters repeating their mistakes on an endless loop.  In Marnie, the couple is daunting combination of repression and obsession.  In a Hitchcock film, the male must control and contain the female; but the man does not always succeed, as in Rear Window, where, the hapless James Stewart is ensnared by a triumphant Grace Kelly.

The couple at the core of the film is “Cobb” and his wife, played by Marion Cotillard.  “Mai” also has/had the power to penetrate dreams and to manipulate their outcome.  Hitchcock warned men over and over in many of his films—beware of the powerful woman, the femme fatale.  “Mai,” apparently a figment of “Cobb’s” imagination, has the nasty habit of suddenly appearing in his dream jobs and sabotaging his work.  Every time “Mai” appears, the beautiful Cotilllard slows the film down.  In an action film, it is a problem for the audience to get bogged down in a relationship.  But Noland is a brave director.  He allows “Mai” to be a drag on the film, because this stopping of the flow is absolutely necessary for the concept of the film and its plot.

Noland, who wrote and directed Inception, is well aware of film studies that have equated film with dreams.  We leave the light filled ordinary world and go into a dark theater, we sit immobilized and stare at a screen upon which images are projected.  Our state of watching a movie is similar to our watching ourselves in a dream, full of projected images.  The camera in the theater is behind us, just like we are the mind behind our screen where we experience the dream.  In a dream, we are unable to know that we are dreaming but in a theater we have the choice of suspending belief or not.  We are asked to surrender ourselves to the fiction, as we surrender ourselves to the dream.  Film language uses dream language—particularly important is the effect of “elision,” or the jump cut.  In a movie when a character says something like, “Let’s go out to dinner,” we immediately jump to the restaurant.  As in dreams, in movies, we are spared the logistical details of changing clothes and getting reservations and driving to the restaurant and getting a parking place, and so on.

Noland uses the resemblance of film language to dream language to great effect in this film, seducing the audience into assuming that we are experiencing film language.  But pay attention; ask yourself—-are we witnessing a film or a dream?  The fact that the viewer will be run through a maze is obvious, given the name of the architect, “Ariadne,” a character from mythology who led a Greek hero, Theseus through a maze built by the first architect, Daedalus, to confront a minotaur, the half-man, half-bull.  In the world of dreams, we are Daedalus, the true architect, but we are also Theseus, encountering our deepest fears, the Minotaur, the monster, who is also ourselves.  Ariadne is the psychologist who is following a thread through the dream construct to find the truth and to heal the patient.  We assume that “Ariadne” is the grounded member of the team, the one who holds the string or thread that will lead the hero to the surface.  But what is the Minotaur?

The movie begins with a failed mission, one undertaken to get into the mind of Saito” who subsequently hires “Cobb” to get into the mind of “Fischer” to get him to break up his father’s monopoly by planting the idea to do so in his mind during a dream.  “Cobb” can no longer be an architect, we are told, because he suffers guilt over his wife, “Mai,” who committed suicide because he planted an idea in her mind about the power that the mind has over reality.  This idea caused confusion between the real world and the dream world in her mind.  For those in a dream state, there is a “bump” that can wake you up, such as your own death.  In order to wake herself up to bump out of the real world she was convinced was the dream world, “Mai” leaped to her death and staged the scene to make it look as if her husband had killed her.

Separated from his children, Phillipa and James, cared for by their grandfather, “Miles,” played by Michael Caine, “Cobb” agrees to take on the job offered by “Saito,” played by Ken Watanabe.  “Saito” offers to make a single phone call that will allow “Cobb” to go home to his children.  The team goes into the mind of the target—will they succeed?  Will “Cobb” be allowed to go home?  And that is the McGuffin.  The real clue is the implanation of an idea and the effects of this idea, which can take over the mind.

To Noland’s credit, he is absolutely straightforward with the audience.  We are given all the facts up front.  From the very beginning we know everything, but we chose to go along with the dream world that Noland has written for us. The director tells us that the mind, even the unconscious mind, has defenses that protect the secret.  In real life such defenses are responses to the trauma of bad memories.  We compulsively repeat certain kinds of dysfunctional behavior or we project onto others our own feelings.  In Inception the mind of Fischer creates guards, guns, entire armies to resist invasion with the same single-minded resistance that a compulsive gambler will show to a therapist.  The “secret,” a last will and testament is also a glimpse into the mind of his father.  The mind of the parent is always a mystery to the child who is always futilely trying to interpret the adult way of thinking.  It is the parent who inflicts the first wounds and the primal trauma on the mind of the child who buries the agony in the deepest vault of the mind.  To get to this vault, the team must go deeper into the mind and encounter greater resistance to break into the castle, where the safe is to be found.

For a two-hour film, Noland is exceeding generous to his large cast of actors.  You never feel as if there are “stars,” who are in the lead or eat up most of the screen time. Each actor gets his or her due and is as fully developed as dream characters get.  I have read comments about the violence in this film, but there is actually more action than violence.  Fasten your seatbelts; this is a fun ride.  Because we are in a dreamscape, the special effects are believable and amazing and you never get the effect of “digital effects” or “CGI” that have become so common to the run of the mill movie.   Though less complex than Avatar, the artwork is just as compelling and powerful.

To film audiences unfamiliar with Hitchcock or who did not get the references to Greek mythology or who don’t see Noland’s play with film theory, the ending of the film might come as a surprise.  To those of us who knew where the film was going after about ten minutes, it simply doesn’t matter.  Like a dream, you just go with it.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Jean-Léon Gérôme

JEAN-LÉON GÉRÔME: History Painter

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904) was on the wrong side of history.  Many people have been on the wrong side of history, and, like the segregationist Senator, Strom Thurmond, they deserve to stay there.  However, art history is more subjective than history-history, which is supposedly based upon verifiable facts.  Art falls into the perilous zone of subjectivity and art and artists are subjected to the rise and fall of critical preferences and of aesthetic judgments. Gérôme was art history’s most vile villain, most reliable enemy to all things Modernist.  He was the perfect foil to Manet, Monet, and Cézanne, not because he was a popular and successful Salon artist but because he railed against his Impressionist counterparts, often and in public, on the record.  But since the 1980s, a “younger” generation of art historians, in search of new material for dissertations, began to revive the dead dinosaurs of “official” French art.  And Gérôme was among the most in need of revision.

The current exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, “The Spectacular art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904)”  is one of the highlights of the summer of 2010.  The beige marble citadel high on a hill overlooking the Sepulveda Pass and the 405 Freeway has been honored as the first stop on a tour, which features the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Museo Thysssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.  It is rare for Los Angeles to be the lead in the museum world, especially for such a superb array of paintings, many of which were recently retrieved from ignominy out of museum basements.  Unlike some art historians, I am not interested in rescuing a neglected artist, unjustly discarded by the forces of history, or in making a case for his worthiness.  I am more interested in making sure that history is made complete.  Without championing Gérôme, it can be said that it is necessary for him to be re-placed in the history of Nineteenth-century art, if only to better understand the Modernist artists and their accomplishments and their courage.  It is important to understand the vast differences between Gérôme and the Impressionists in terms of painting techniques and the subject matter in order to comprehend the reception of the art audience and Salon goers.

The Artist

When the real art history of the Second Empire and the Third Republic in France was restored by the new art historians, it was revealed that Gérôme was genuinely popular with the art audiences and collectors of his time because his art was immensely innovative, decidedly novel, technically proficient (not outstanding but good enough), and, above all, featured sex and violence.  A can’t miss combination.   The reason why he fell off the art history pantheon was, as all art historians know, because of the Theory of Modernism.   Beginning somewhere around the art critic, Charles Baudelaire, migrating to the British critic, Roger Fry and culminating in the American critic, Clement Greenberg, this theory put forward an entity called “Modernism,” both a state of mind and a period of time, that produced an artistic attitude called “art-for-art’s sake,” which led to avant-garde art, a reaction to modernité.

According to the teleology of Modernism, the founding fathers (no mothers allowed) were Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet and their progeny, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists and all the “isms” of the Twentieth-century, climaxing with Jackson Pollock.  Any artist, no matter how historically famous and successful, could not be a Modernist unless he (not she: women were not considered) was part of that select group. The artists of the Salon were eliminated, the “official” artists were purged, English and American artists were left out, and only a small group of French male artists were allowed to be part of the club.  The result was an art history based upon an evolutionary theory of a progressive march taken by art from representation to abstraction.  The Greenberg story of art was an excellent metanarrative, as Jean-François Lyotard would later call it, but it was not a proper history of art.  Modernism was a construct, a convenient fiction, complete with heroes and villains.

The Artist and the Public

“The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904)” comes equipped with a large catalogue and a smaller book of essays that strive to re-write the artist back into art history.  Gerald Ackerman, whom I met while I was in graduate school, began the revival of Gérôme.  At the time, Ackerman told me he had been working on Gérôme for twenty years and it is his pioneering effort that is the foundation of scholarship for today’s writers.  Current scholars point out that, even in his own time, Gérôme was as controversial with the critics as the avant-garde artists.  Like the latter, Gérôme had to court and please the bourgeoisie, and the career-minded artist created a juste milieu path between erudite, orthodox, high-minded history painting and low-caste genre scenes of everyday life (“Molière Breakfasting with Louis XIV,” 1862).  Taking a page from the playbook employed by Ernst Meissonier, Gérôme rethought history painting and made it accessible and entertaining to the middle class art audience (“The Tulip Folly,” 1862).  In place of classical knowledge, understandable to scholars and specialists, the artist inserted carefully researched archaeological and ethnographic detail (“Solomon’s Wall, Jerusalem,” 1876).  In place of the relentless ordinariness of Realism and the remorseless observation of Naturalism, Gérôme substituted panoply of information, educating the viewer.  Instead of heroes and noble characters, he created a cast for his theater of history and used the actors to tell arresting stories about life in another place and another time.

Gérôme’s art presents us with spectacle on two levels, echoing the culture of scopophilia and observation of the Other that was the basis of Second Empire power and Third Republic imperialism and the control of men over women.  First, Gérôme’s art showed the sheer spectacle that held sway during the Roman Empire.  Bread, circuses, food and entertainment—-if you provide the people with these two necessities, they will tolerate any amount of tyranny.  Whether or not this conscious policy is smart of despicable depends upon one’s political point of view.  To the middle-class French people, survivors of multiple revolutions and uprisings among the disempowered, a firm hand on the wheel may have seemed a good idea.   Second, there is no reason to assume that Gérôme was trying to anything more than present interesting subject matter to his audience.  There was probably not much sub-text in his work.   Indebted to his imperial patrons, Gérôme was a conservative who would be unwilling to offend his collectors.  All he asked of the viewer was to look.  Clearly he had worked out a formula: sex and violence sells; and the exercise of imperialism is comforting to a second-class power.

His paintings of the Roman Empire enshrine the pleasure of looking, of seeing violence that happens to others and not to you, a pleasure called by Burke, the “sublime.”  That heightened and intense emotion that Edmund Burke wrote of was, not incidentally, in relation to the spectacle of beheading during the French Revolution.  In the Roman arena, there are no victors, only victims of a system of witnessing what was an imperial display of the Emperor’s power.  The gladiators, who were slaves, saluted the Emperor before they died in “Ave Caesar, Morituri, Te Salutant” (1859), the Christians, who in actuality were prosecuted in very small numbers, provided the fledgling religion with its first martyrs.  Maxime de Camp, photographer of the Middle East, complained that Gérôme was inaccurate, and the artist did, indeed, take liberties for dramatic effect.   His painting of Christian martyrs showed human beings used as torches but the scene is set in daytime, while Nero put on such a show only at night.  In “The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayers” (1863 – 1883), the lion approaches the huddling worshipers.  Much has been written of Gérôme’s prediction of film and his use of the long pause in a narrative and, indeed, the viewer can see the emerging head of other felines coming into the sand surface of the Coliseum.  Like the martyrs, we wait.  As opposed to “Gathering up the Lions in the Circus” (1902), in real life, animals had no interest in attacking humans and had to be taught, even forced to pounce.  During these centuries of arena entertainment, wild animals, entire species were either wiped out or put in danger, due to the overindulgence of the Romans.

The Roman audience in “Pollice Verso” (1872) came to the arena to be entertained.  Some commentators and historians have since suggested that the blood lust acted as a kind of drug, dulling the senses, reducing human carnage to a mere theatrical exercise. There was an endless supply of slaves and criminals to put to death in an exercise of punishment and control. Although Gérôme could not have imagined modern film, his paintings of the Roman Empire became sources of inspiration for Hollywood film directors, from C. B. De Mille to Ridley Scott.  But that observation raises a rather interesting question: why are we still so fascinated with an imperial power, which used human beings as stage lights, crucified even the most insignificant dissidents, rewarded the few and persecuted the many, keeping everything in balance through constant spectacles of blood and violence?  Why does Hollywood not make movies about the Greeks, unless they are fighting the Persians in tiny leather uniforms?  Do we conclude that we are superior to the Romans in the arena because we are addicted only to movie violence?

In a world where schools have long since sidelined history, most of us learn of the past from the History Channel and Oliver Stone.  Today we could call Gérôme a “popularizer.”  If he were a history professor today, he would be complimented for helping the students identify with the events of the past.  However, history painting in Nineteenth-century France was not necessarily supposed to be popular, only revered and respected.  Unlike Gustave Courbet who dis-respected the Salon system by portraying unattractive uninteresting modern types on a large scale, reserved for history painting, Gérôme kept most of his works small or medium sized.  He was, in effect, using the rules to create a new space for what the system had already approved.  In the end, he slipped past his many detractors and found fame, fortune, and many honors.  As Scott Allan pointed out in his “Introduction” to “Reconsidering Gérôme,” the artist was “appointed professor at the newly reorganized École des Beaux-Arts in 1863…. (was given) a seat in the Institut de France in 1865…(and was) nominated grand officier of the Legion of Honor in 1898.”  Son-in-law to the grand impresario of art reproduction, Adolph Goupil, Gérôme was one of the most reproduced and widely distributed artists of the Nineteenth-century.  But was he a good artist?

The Artist and Technique

I went to the exhibition with my good friend and colleague, Irina, and, like post-Post-Modernist art historians, we glided among the many theoretical approaches available to us, from formalism to feminism, to discuss Gérôme.  Technically speaking, he was an odd mixture.  On one hand, he could handle paint only in a limited manner, for he was essentially a drawer in paint.  On the other hand, he never won the Rome Prize for good reason—-he was almost blind when it came to the classical approach to the human figure.  Only when he removed himself from the Beaux-Arts tradition did he become at ease with the people he painted.  His nude women are borrowed entirely from other artists, especially from Ingres and Chassérieu (“Character Study for a Greek Interior,” 1850), and are boneless and airbrushed to a peculiar blank flatness.  But when Gérôme clothed his females, he was completely at ease.  His portrait of the daughter of Betty de Rothschild, who was painted by Ingres in 1848, “Portrait of Madame la Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild” (1866) is not as stunning as an Ingres painting but Gérôme held his own with the master.  His”Portrait of M. Édouard Delessert” (1864) with the subject nattily dressed in blue argyle socks is a genuine character study.

Despite these near-great portraits, Gérôme seemed to have had a hard time integrating actual sites with imaginary people. For example, there is a wonderful trio in the exhibition, featuring Napoléon in Egypt. “Napoléon and his General Staff in Egypt” (1867) imagines a very large General on a very dainty camel, but it is not the size disparity, it is the startled expression on Napoléon’s face that makes today’s viewer smile.  Oedipus (1863 – 86) also plays havoc with scale: Napoléon is on a tiny horse, standing in front of a shrunken Sphinx.  But most interesting is “Napoléon in Cairo” (1867 – 68), a simple little painting with the General standing in full uniform with Islamic mosques in the background.  In real life, Napoléon was short and rounded, but here he is tall and slim.  The viewer is given TMI—the details of the uniform are exquisitely rendered and one learns, thanks to the deep shadows of selective folds of his trousers, that the future Emperor “dressed” left.  There are probably several reasons for the disparity of scale and proportion in Gérôme’s paintings.  One would certainly be his academic training, which taught students to think in pastiche and collage and to “paste,” as it were, standard studio poses into grand backgrounds.  Another cause would have been the artist’s use of photography as his source.  Photography tended to make minute details available to the human eye, and when Gérôme copied these details, the effect was to flatten the surface with non-hierarchal information that overwhelmed the displaced figures and threw off the scale.

Gérôme emerged onto the Parisian art scene as the leader of the “Neo-Grec” school (according to the critics of his day) with “The Cock Fight” in the Salon of 1847.  The genre painting tells a story of cocks, both seen and unseen, as a young boy orchestrates a contest between two roosters while a young girl shrinks away, as well she might.  However, Gérôme did not confine himself to antiquity and the choice of his subjects says a great deal about what was going on in France during his career.  Just as his mentor Paul Delaroche spoke obliquely about the French Revolution (matricide and patricide) with “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey”(1833), Gérôme saluted the Second Empire by celebrating the current Emperor’s uncle, Napoléon I in a number of paintings, some direct references, some indirect.  The rather marvelous “The Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors at Fountainebleau” (1864) is a direct steal of Jacques-Louis David’s “The Coronation of Napoléon” (1807).  Two other wonderful paintings, “The Grey Cardinal” (1873) and the “Reception of the Duc de Condé at Versailles” (1878) were painted after the fall of the Second Empire and could be interpreted as a warning against secret power (the Cardinal and by extension the late Empire) and a plea for reconciliation (Duc de Condé) after rebellion, but, given the inherent conservatism of Gérôme, the works could be more comfortably read in relation to the nostalgic Bonapartism and a desire for a monarchy, which marked the unsteady early decades of the ill-fated Third Republic.

The Artist and Gender

In painting after painting, Gérôme clearly demonstrated his discomfort with women.  Before his very profitable marriage to the daughter of Europe’s biggest art dealer, Gérôme lived a rather Bohemian life in a homosocial environment.  Like most men of his time, he would have had little contact with women of his own class and he would not have considered a woman to be his equal.  His nudes are far removed from actual women, as if their nakedness made him so uneasy, he had to use “the nude” as a mask for their disconcerting naturalness.  But he is equally uncomfortable with male bodies.  Both the gladiator in the celebrated Ave Caesar and the belly dancer in “Dance of the Almeh” (1863) are pudgy: the gladiator sports man boobs and the dancer has a large pot.  But Gérôme was comfortable with little boys, carefully delineating their backsides in “The Serpent Charmer” (1880) and his early”Michelangelo (in his Studio),” 1849.  In the former, the backside is bare, in the latter the backside is literally delineated due to a pair of red-striped tights, worn by the child.  My friend Irina remarked that there is something “almost unseemly” in Gérôme’s art.  I would agree, although I would eliminate the polite “almost.”  Many of his paintings are simply unseemly, in today’s terms, in their confirmation of the scopophilia of male desire for conquest through the passive gaze.

“Prynne Before the Areopagus” (1861) presents one of Gérôme’s repeated themes: men looking at an object of lust.  The object, in this case a woman, is isolated and alone and, most of all, naked, totally exposed to the male gaze.  The artist tried to have his specious content both ways—men gaze upon women but the beauty of women’s bodies subdue them, stun them into silence and submission.  But the male is always clothed and always retains his power.  Young “Prynne” is examined by a group of startled old men, dressed in strong red robes, countering her pale hairless body. Nowhere were women under the command of the male as she was in the mysterious East.  The notion of the submissive and speechless woman was especially appealing to Frenchmen, alarmed by the propensity of Frenchwomen to rise up during each revolution at home.  French women had been stripped of any social powers and political disenfranchisement, stripped naked in custom and law.  The “Dance of the Almeh” (1863) also empowers the men, who watch the gyrating dancer who writhes for their amusement.  The males in the circle are equipped with long straight phallic instruments, guns, spears, violin bows and even a pipe, as though they are protecting themselves. The same excess of protection and phallic display can be seen in “The Serpent Charmer.”   The old man at the center of the group has a long sword suggestively rising above his upper thigh as he watches the naked little boy playing with a long snake.  The rest of the men are well equipped with erect spears, raising the unanswerable question of whether or not Gérôme was aware of the sexual subtext.

“For Sale (The Slave Market)” of 1866 is the ultimate expression of the stripped and speechless woman being exchanged among men (according to Engels).  The slave market in the Middle East has replaced the European concept of marriage as a financial exchange and, as the catalogue essay on this painting reports that the French public “hardly batted an eye.”  The idea that the “public” was unphased by this painting implies that the painting was intended for men, which it surely was, and that the art was not viewed by women, which it surely was.  Although women of the Second Empire were not expected to see art but were embarrassed by the painterly display of helpless female flesh, one can imagine that some of these ladies imagined the slave woman biting the fingers of the man who was examining her teeth.

In other paintings, the audience itself is outside the scene, looking it or looking at the imagined world of the harem.  The external spectator was metaphorically internalized as a red robe reclining on a wooden chair in “King Candaules,” 1859), watching the exchange of male looks.  The King’s guard, Gyes, lurking in the dark, off to the right, is watching the queen Nyssia. The queen is caught in a triangulated gaze among men, but as Baudelaire pointed out, she would not have been the “dull puppet,” depicted by Gérôme.  As was typical for the artist, the woman is pale and naked and helpless with her back turned to the audience in a gesture of modesty thrown in by the painter. One could ask if showing a woman’s naked body from the rear is more or less discrete.  “The Moorish Bath” (1872) is noteworthy for the carefully drawn Islamic tiles and for the inherent racism that exposed the naked breasts of the African slave and allowed the white woman to turn modestly away from the viewer.  Echoing European and American notions of racial hierarchy, “The Grand Bath at Bursa” (1885) is yet another Imaginary Orient, complete with white women (presumably captured by swarthy Arab chieftains) who are sexual slaves and black women who take care of the needs of the concubines.  At least in the harem, the women are together and have each other’s company.  In many of Gérôme’s paintings, the women are alone, with no friend and no one to defend or take care of them, reflecting the Western version of marriage, the isolated woman, entirely dependent upon her husband.

The Artist as Colonialist

Much has been written about Gérôme as painter to the colonizers, and indeed his many trips to Egypt coincided with France’s desire to master the Middle East and to build an empire.  Although their imperial ambitions dated back to Napoléon, the French never caught up with the British who had an empire upon which “the sun never sets.”  The Second Empire and the Third Republic, the era of Gérôme, were the high points of French acquisition of territory and artifacts from northern Africa and the Middle East. Gérôme was at his best when he acted as ethnographer, observing the Other.  As distasteful as the Imperial gaze was, it did have the virtue of freeing Gérôme from the tropes of classicism and the poncifs of academia.  One does not often think of Gérôme the landscape artist, but, as my friend Irina pointed out, his desert paintings are beautiful, dappled with the blue of the sky reflected upon the pale golden buff-colored rocks, just as an Impressionist would (“The Lion on Watch,” 1890).  Here in a desert light that flattens everything, the silhouetted sharp edges of Gérôme’s dry drawing make sense.  In “Arabs Crossing the Desert” (1870), the large scale of the figures is permissible in such open distances.  In these paintings of the Middle East, colors are intensified in the light and Gérôme came into his own with his strong colors, unexpectedly pinks (“The Black Bard,” 1888) and brilliant oranges and blazing yellows (The Marabou, 1888), hot reds vibrating on the surfaces (“The Standard Bearer,” 1876).  “The Color Grinder” (1891) summarizes the importance of color with a row of large stone mortars lined up in front of a dark shop in the Holy Land.  In an age of paint in tubes, Gérôme painted the encircled lips of the large stones, which are glowing with vibrant colors pounded into submission.

Although Gérôme replicated the Middle East and its male inhabitants with apparent exactitude, his paintings are fantasy pastiches.  But they are totally convincing and carried a larger truth of white European fantasies of conquest and control of the inferior Other.   The people he so carefully studied and observed during his many visits are from another century were devoid of technology beyond the Seventeenth century, backwards and in need of French guidance.  “Heads of the Rebel Beys of the Mosque El Assaneyn” (1866) mixed actual events with infidel barbarity, necessitating the civilizing French touch upon a people who favored a public beheading.  The irony of such an attitude of superiority may have escaped Gérôme.  (The French continued to use the guillotine into the 1940s.) A fascinating and harmless object of curiosity, entertaining the French audience, “The Whirling Dervish” (1889) needs to be Christianized and Europeanized.  Due to the precise accuracy garnered from a photograph, the Salon goers assumed that the artist was educating them with “The Carpet Merchant” (1887).  Each painting of Middle Eastern life can be seen as a contrast to European life—a market instead of a bank, souks, not department stores, fanaticism instead of Catholicism—with the Muslim barbarians being presented as the Other, as Different, as Inferior, as Strange, as Something to be Looked At, as Spectacle, captured by the artist, commanded by the whitened gaze of the spectator.

The Sculpture

The Getty catalogue included a number of paintings done by Gérôme on the theme of the male sculptor and his female model, reflections on the Pygmalion and Galatea myth.  From “Pygmalion and Galatea” (1890), where Galatea comes to live when the delighted Pygmalion kisses her to “The Artist’s Model” (1895), when Gérôme becomes Pygmalion, we can trace the desire of Gérôme to make the perfect woman.  Strangely enough, his women come alive only when they are sculpted, usually larger than life.  Polychromed Nineteenth century sculpture, especially sculptures with teeth (“The Ball Player,” 1902) and jewelry are an acquired taste, even for people educated by Jeff Koons.  For us today, Gérôme’s “The Gladiators” (1878) are both reminiscent of fascistic works and of fantasy figures from World of Warcraft.  As Édouard Papet pointed out in his catalogue essay on Gérôme’s sculpture, the fact that the ancients polychromed their sculpture had just come to light. Accustomed to the bleached whiteness of marble exposed to the elements or buried underground, Europeans must have found it difficult to adjust their taste to the multiple colors of marble used by Cordier.  By the time of Gérôme, his chastely colored females would have been acceptable.   But to Modernist educated contemporary viewers, Gérôme’s sculptures were simply gaudy bad taste and they disappeared from view.

The Getty has brought together a splendid collection of the artist’s late sculptural work, the highlight of which has to be “Corinth” (1904).  Decked out with jewelry, which is applied to her naked body in every conceivable site, she would be the envy of Jeff Koons; she was the epitome of vulgarity and excess, a siren of the Gilded Age.  “Corinth” and the portrait of “Sarah Bernhardt” (1901) were true highpoints of the exhibition, even for the visitor who has seen many, many paintings already in the previous galleries. Paradoxically, the rare paintings by Gérôme, which allow the woman any agency at all, feature the art of sculpture, the craft of Pygmalion.  In “Painting Breathes Life into Sculpture,” 1893), a young woman, working in the back of a Tanagra shop, is painting the small female sculptures, bringing them to life.  In ancient Greece, there were women who were allowed to participate in their family’s workshop, but, although they were accomplished artists, they did not sign their names.  In”The End of the Séance” (1886) the still-nude model covers the clay repliant of herself, as though to grant the inanimate object some protection and modesty that she herself has been denied.

The Artist and Orientalism

My friend Irina and I noted the penchant of Gérôme to fill in his canvases with overwhelming detail about the Orient.  Full of bric-a-brac, the paintings are crowded with information, much of which was gained from the artist’s many visits to the Middle East and documentary photographs.  From one perspective, the artist’s work was typical of the Victorian “horror vacui.”  From another point of view, the artist was on a mission.  The French tactic of conquest through military might and the gathering of facts dated back to Napoléon’s ill-fated foray into Egypt.  The history of paintings of the Middle East done by French artists also dates from the early Nineteenth-century when the Turks and the Muslims were depicted as brutal and backward.   Gérôme nodded to his artistic precursors in his painting of “Marcus Botsaris,” a hero of the war of Greek Independence who fought with Lord Byron.  But the 1874 painting itself, is typical of Gérôme’s approach to the unfamiliar: he delineated a veritable encyclopedia of  an Eastern inventory of décor and paraphenalia.

Gérôme’s dedication to accuracy was part of larger tendencies: the rise of modern history writing, the rise of the French Empire, the use of photography to record and preserve the known world, and the period’s fear of empty space.  Gérôme’s paintings are packed with these cultural vibrations.  His art owed a great deal to the French delight in the Pre-Raphaelites and their facility for storytelling, which he put in the service of imperialism.  It would be anachronistic to accuse the artist of “complicity” on a conscious level in an enterprise that would,  a century later, be described by the French as an accidental empire.   Undoubtedly, Gérôme shared the prejudices and desires of his time and believed in the right for the French to have an Empire.  His paintings were part of a deeply felt belief system.  In his investigation of the pioneering efforts of French artists in picturing the Orient, Todd Porterfield did not accept that the current French scholarship which insists that the imperialism of France was “haphazard” and “timidly entered into.”    According to Porterfield, the French artists portrayed,

…national attributes are posited that pit French science, morality, masculinity, and intellectual rigor against supposedly representative traits of Easterners: fanaticism, cruelty, idleness, vice, irrationality, deviance, and degeneracy.

As was pointed out earlier, this was exactly the dialectical strategy employed decades later by Gérôme in his paintings of the Mysterious East and the Backward Other.   it would be safe to assume that the artist believed, in common with most other Europeans, that the culture of the West or the Occident was superior.  The discourse of racial and cultural superiority had been in the making among European scholars and writers for decades.  The late Palestinian philosopher, Edward Said, revealed the role of  discourse in the literary manufacture of “Orientalism” in his 1978 book of the same name.  Although the cover of his book featured Gérôme’s “The Serpent Charmer,”  Said did not discuss “Orientalizing” art.  Said pointed out that when the Europeans wrote about the East, the scholars were  creating, not the truth, but a “representation” of the “Orient.”  Using Michel Foucault’s concept of “discourse” in which serious speech acts from experts shape what becomes received knowledge surrounding a topic, Said stated that the “Orient” was constructed in terms of what the West was not.   As Foucault pointed out, representation as constructed by the One would fabricate the Other into a inferior for purposes of discipline and punishment, power and control.  Said continued the French philosopher’s thought by pointing out that an “Imaginary Orient” was manufactured for the purpose of defining the Europeans themselves by using the “Orient” as the negative to the Western positive.  The Imaginary Orient had little to do with the “real” Middle East, for the Europeans were essentially uninterested in the Other.  Europeans were concerned with the task of  writing themselves into a position of dominance.

The concept of Foucault and Said was quickly taken up by art historians, resulting in a major investigation into the attitude that European artists had towards the Other.  Thanks to post-colonial theory, it is possible to view Gérôme and his art as an expression of French power over a dark-skinned people who refused modernity and Westernization.  The art of Gérôme had to overwhelm the viewer with facts, information, detail, as though to compensate for a fundamental Lack of knowledge.  Foucault equated seeing/sight with power: “voir, savoir, pouvoir:”  to see is to know is to have power over.  For all the privileging of vision in Gérôme’s work, the Other, the “Oriental” remained a slippery character in the French imperial drama.  All the knowledge in the world is spread out on his canvases, but it is all from the French point of view and we learn everything and nothing.  In the end, all the superiority, all the power  in the world could not hold the Empire together, and today, as Porterfield, pointed out, the French seem vaguely embarrassed about their role in colonialism.

Looking at Gérôme’s art in today’s world is an interesting enterprise.  The colonized subjects of the French empire have long since come home to the Mother Country, unsure of their identities, as Frantz Fanon so eloquently stated in ” Black Mask, White Skins.”  So thoroughly imbued with the doctrines of colonialism and imperialism, the colonized think that they are partly “French” and came to France to live, but they  insist on bringing their “Oriental” culture with them.  Suddenly, what seemed exotic in the Middle East caused controversy in Paris: head scarves or not?  The fear of the Other continues.   Gérôme, like all artists, was engaged in acts of representation; and, as for his attitudes, his biases, his complicity, his patriotism—that is for history to decide.

The Artist and History

Gérôme studied under the official juste milieu artist, Paul Delaroche, who knew how to please a crowd.  He had a gift that Gérôme did not: Delaroche could move an audience with his spell binding and compelling scenes of arrested pathos.  In “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey,”  the blindfolded teenager, England’s nine day queen, gropes for the wooden block where she will lay her little neck.  Dressed in white to emphasize her youth and innocence, the little girl who has been a pawn of reckless and ambitious adults is a triangle of pity in the center. She is flanked by the axe man, the executioner.  By his side is his axe, the head of which gleams in anticipation.   In Delaroche’s “Princes in the Tower,” also known as “The Children of Edward” (1831), the beautiful young princes cower in the dark alerted by a shaft of light under the closed door to their room.  The minions of their evil uncle, Richard the III, are upon them.  It was this master of the breathless moment who said when photography was invented, “From today, painting is dead!”   It was this painter who trained some of the greatest photographers of the new era, men who transformed photography into an art form, Charles Negre and Henri Le Sec.  But their photographs were doomed to be neglected and unstudied until the Twentieth century.  It was another painter, his pupil, Gérôme, who would profit the most from photography.

Although Gérôme benefitted a great deal from his relationship with Goupil’s, there were many critics in his own time who were wary of the sale of reproduced paintings-as-photographs or as prints.  Presaging Walter Benjamin’s observation that when art is reproduced, it loses its aura, its untouchability, its place in ritual, its role in cult, Nineteenth century critics wondered if Gérôme were cheapening himself and his art.  But being under contract with the firm, the artist had little control over the fate of his images.  The art firm did well for the artist, finding for him an audience of buyers for all levels of his works, from the original paintings to different kinds of reproductions, suitable to a wide range of incomes. Sadly, some of the images in the $80 Getty catalogue reproduced poorly, such as “The Death of Marshal Ney,” where the darks submerge the image into unreadability.  But the original reproductions were clear in replication and enhanced the artist’s reputation everywhere.  When my friend Irina was surprised that”Pollice Versoi” was now in the Phoenix Art Museum, I bet her that the original buyer was an American. I was one buyer off: the first was British, but after that, all the others were Americans in New York.  New Yorkers, especially in the gilded age, as an essay in the catalogue by Mary G. Merton pointed out, loved the opulent visual excess of Gérôme and equated him with all things French.  The American buyers tended to not quite understand the distinctions among French artists, and they would purchase a Renoir and a Bouguereau and a Gérôme, ignorant of theoretical debates in Paris.

But Gérôme was in the thick of the quarrel between tradition and modernity.  The artist who gained the most from technology was the most hostile to artists who dared to think or paint differently.  “Rodin, Pissarro, Monet, Degas are rotten scoundrels,” he exclaimed.  In the “Forward, Picturing Gérôme,” the authors quoted Gérôme as objecting, among other things, to a posthumous exhibition of the art of Édouard Manet at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1884.  The artist derided Manet as “…the apostle of a decadent manner, of a piecemeal art…” Manet, he continued, produced “…highly willful and lurid work…” Of the Caillebotte donation of the Impressionists to the Louvre, Gérôme raged, “I repeat, if the State has accepted such rubbish, then moral fiber has seriously withered.”   This, from the master of the bared bottom.  Invective, no matter how heart-felt or mainstream at the time, seldom passes the test of time.  Meissonier’s prosecution of Courbet after the Commune soured his place in history, and, like Gérôme, who had nothing but spleen for dead artists, the rancor of these popular artists lost them respect from their peers and from history.  The writing that accompanied the exhibition at the Getty suggests that we need to separate Gérôme’s unpleasant nature from our reconsideration of his art.  The audience at the museum, however, seemed unconcerned with the issues Irina and I mulled over.  On a Wednesday afternoon, crowds were large and appreciative. Gérôme would have been pleased.  Back where he belonged. On top.  The center of attention.

See Also:

Allan, Scott and Mary Morton, eds. “Reconsidering Gérôme,” J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010

Cars, Lawrence de, et. al, “The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904),” Skira, 2010

Peltre, Christine, “Orientalism in Art,” Abbeville Press, 2005

Porterfield, Todd, “The Allure of Empire. Art in the Service of French Imperialism. 1798 – 1836,” Princeton University Press, 1998

Said, Edward, “Orientalism,”  Random House, 1978

“Culture and Imperialism,” Vintage, 1994

Thornton, Lynne, “Women as Portrayed in Orientalist Painting,” Art Creation Realisation, 1996

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger