Max Geller flew to Chicago in late October to help organize two rallies: one against Israel and one against a dead French impressionist. On October 25, Geller marched with a group of 250 people outside the Jewish National Fund’s national conference. The march featured a human-sized JNF-style blue tzedakah, or charity box bearing the anti-JNF message “Land Theft Is Not Tzedakah.”
The next day, Geller led a small rally outside the Art Institute of Chicago at which one marcher carried a placard with the slogan “Renoir Paints Steaming Piles.”
Geller, 31, sits on the national steering committee of Students for Justice in Palestine and is a member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. He also leads a semi-parodic effort he calls the Renoir Sucks at Painting movement, an Instagram account-turned-street-theater-protest arguing that the French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who died in 1919 and whose work is a staple of fine art museum collections, was not good at painting.
The protest at the JNF conference went almost entirely ignored by the mainstream press. The Renoir protest got Geller a five-minute in-studio interview on a local TV morning show, the latest in a deluge of press attention to his anti-Renoir campaign that has also included stories in The New York Times, The New Yorker, the Guardian, France’s Le Monde, Spain’s El Pais, Brazil’s Folha de S.Paulo and Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, among others.
Geller is annoyed by the disparity. “I think it’s a shame that the Forward isn’t covering the fact that there were hundreds of Jews protesting the JNF,” he told this reporter, “but you are covering this sort of thing where people are holding up signs that say, ‘God Hates Renoir.’”
The Forward has, in fact, covered left-wing critiques of the JNF and does not often send reporters to cover live events. But Geller’s frustration over the coverage his Renoir stunt has garnered is not limited to this outlet. An activist who uses theatrical stunts to heighten his impact, he seems almost dismayed at the impact this stunt has made, as though he didn’t expect the media to go quite so mad over his game of using bad words to take down high art.
Geller’s sit-down with the morning news team on local Chicago television station WGN-TV on the day of the anti-Renoir rally started off weirdly when the male co-host, Larry Potash, banged on his desk as the weatherman shouted “Yeah!” off-screen. “It’s about time, Max!” Potash said.
“It’s profoundly gratifying to be on such an intellectually rigorous news program,” Geller responded.
Later in the segment, Geller suggested that, rather than interviewing him for hating Renoir, the hosts should have invited on a group of Chicago activists arrested two days earlier while protesting for less police funding outside a conference of police chiefs being held in the city. Potash broke in to ask Geller whether Renoir’s popularity wasn’t proof of the quality of his work. “Why not let the free market dictate whose paintings are good or not?” Potash said.
“I think when we let the free market dictate things, we get things like climate change,” Geller responded. “We get things like the prison industrial complex, like Zionism and the destruction of sea otter habitats. The free market is not a barometer — ”
Robin Baumgarten, Potash’s co-host, interrupted: “Let’s stick with Renoir, though.” When WGN-TV put the interview online later that morning, they did their best to distance themselves from Geller, appending the parenthetical “(note this is not an endorsement of his views)” to their promotional tweet.
It is, in a sense, obvious why Geller’s anti-Renoir campaign has gotten so much attention. “That’s easy,” said Michael Schudson, professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a media historian. “It is funny.”
Geller’s assault on Renoir is one-third a joke about applying the language of political protest to art criticism, one-third a gleeful slaughter of sacred cows and one-third a serious argument about how high culture is defined and policed.
“I think Renoir, and the exultation of Renoir, is a very obvious symptom of the problems with cultural hegemony,” Geller said.
In his Renoir Sucks at Painting Instagram feed, Geller has described Renoir’s subjects as having been painted with “sharpie eyes,” describes the greenery in the background of his work as “rotting vegetation” and has repeatedly derided the artist’s work as “treacle” that provides “empty calories.”
On the WGN-TV spot, Geller called Renoir’s depiction of trees a “collection of disgusting green squiggles.” Later in the spot, he blamed Renoir for all manner of artistic travesties: “I would say every sort of bad art you see up on the walls is the sort of aesthetic inheritance of Renoir, and the decision to exalt that treacle in the beginning has led to things like Dale Chihuly, Thomas Kinkade, movie sequels, whatever you want,” Geller said.
When this reporter suggested that the sorts of cultural gatekeepers who put Renoir in museums were very different from those who put the kitschy works of Kinkade on bathroom walls, Geller pointed out that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston sold Chihuly pieces in its gift shop during its major Chihuly exhibition in 2011.
“We are in earnest trying to impact curatorial decisions,” Geller said. “But we also are using funny memes to do it. Just because we’re being humorous doesn’t mean that we’re not serious.”
Since his first post on the anti-Renoir Instagram account in April, the feed has gained 10,000 followers. Geller put on his first anti-Renoir march in early October at Boston’s MFA; since then he’s taken the show to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and to Chicago’s Art Institute.
For Geller, the Renoir stunt is the latest in a line of acts of political theater. Geller, who grew up in Boston attending the Boston Workmen’s Circle secular shul and had his bar mitzvah there, said that he became politically aware during the George W. Bush administration.
“I realized early on in his administration that I disagreed with everything that man said and stood for, and he really, really loved Israel, so I began to question that, too,” Geller said.
Geller was president of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at Northeastern University when the group was briefly suspended from campus over an action in which members distributed mock eviction notices meant to dramatize the Israeli practice of demolishing Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The protest outside the JNF’s convention, co-sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago and IJAN, among other groups, called for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel while condemning JNF policies toward the Palestinians, including the repeated destruction of the Bedouin village of al-Arakib in the Negev. Geller spoke into a bullhorn at the protest, standing in front of the massive blue box.
The only press notice that protest received was a brief mention on the website of ABC7 Chicago. And while the SJP suspension did draw media, including from this newspaper, nothing has been comparable to the attention the Renoir Sucks rallies garnered.
“I would say that we would be living in a different world if the other activism I’m engaged with would garner similar types of headlines,” Geller said.
Yet protests, as a rule, are often ignored. Schudson, in an email, listed some factors that get protests in the newspaper: the involvement of celebrities, violence, arrests, hot news hooks. Geller knows from experience that even massive protests often pass without notice: He recalls his early days as an activist in 2003, when he helped organize buses for a rally against the invasion of Iraq, which had not yet begun. “The drums of war kept right on beating as though we weren’t there,” Geller said.
Geller recalls the dejection after those protests failed to stop the Iraq invasion. “I’m glad that feeling didn’t last,” he said.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.