Automatically good? Automatically bad?
The war between the early modernists and the painters of the French Academy is by no means over - even though all the original participants are long gone, and a full century has passed since the major skirmishes.
One would think that Cezanne and Van Gogh were still fighting for their artistic lives, and that modernism itself was desperately trying to get someone's attention.
The resentment still felt in some quarters against the art of the French Academy is considerable. When the Metropolitan Museum opened its Andre Meyer Galleries in 1980 as the new home for its collection of 19th-century European art, it set aside one gallery for academic art. One gallery out of 13 seemed fair enough. It couldn't adequately represent the full range of European academic art, but it could at least provide space for a few of its leading lights such as Gerome and Meissonier.
I felt the Metropolitan had acted judiciously and responsibly. Without in any way downgrading the century's great figures, it had acknowledged that they weren't the only ones on the scene during that period.
Not everyone agreed. A well-known painter of advanced years denounced the Metropolitan's decision as a betrayal of everything he'd fought for all his life , a handful of art professionals felt it was ''a disgrace,'' and one of America's leading critics condemned it out of hand.
Only the young seemed to harbor no resentment. But then they weren't taught, as entire generations of art and art-history students were, that the modernist/academic controversy was entirely a matter of right and wrong. That all those who had sided with Monet, Seurat, Cezanne, Gauguin, and so forth were automatically Good - and all those who had sided with the Academy were automatically Bad.
I know, because I was taught that way. Anything that even vaguely resembled academic art was treated with withering contempt. To speak favorably of an academic painter such as Pils was tantamount to speaking well of Hitler.
But then, modernism was actually fighting for its life in the United States at that time and wouldn't score any significant victories until well after 1946. Its success was still in doubt here, and so we all, in a manner of speaking, became combatants.
It took me a long time to shake off my prejudices, but there are many of my generation (and of older ones) who haven't. They still fume over any suggestion that there was any good in such artists as Stevens, Bastien-Lepage, Dupre, or Breton. And they will walk away in disgust from any ''accurate'' rendering in pencil or oils of the human figure.
To these individuals, the issues are clear-cut and absolute. No compromise is possible, they argue, because to do so is to weaken even further the moral fiber of our age.
The irony is that many of them, by the very nature of their rigid and dogmatic attitudes, have become every bit as academic and arid in spirit as those artists the early modernists did battle with. In their blind, undeviating insistence that only what they believe in is true and good, they've blocked themselves off from knowing what their heroes knew so well: that art must be open and generous, must forge ahead into new territories, or grow hard and stale.
Most particularly, they fail to realize that the early modernists didn't fight against the Academy so much as for their own vision of art. The early modernists weren't defending, they were advancing, and if they were alive and starting out today, I'm certain they would once again be leading the way.
They most assuredly wouldn't be wasting their time pretending that their academic contemporaries never existed. And neither should we. It's time we really began to look at what was produced and inspired by the various national academies during the 19th century. Much of it, I'm sure, deserves to be forgotten - but then that's true of most of what is fashioned in the name of art.
The problem lies in finding enough of such work. It definitely exists and is on view, but more often than not it is relegated to the back rooms and dark corners of museums, or to a few specialized art galleries. A dramatic exception was the huge and superb exhibition organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1981 and entitled ''The Realist Tradition, French Painting and Drawing, 1830- 1900.'' It presented an excellent overview of what else was happening in French art between the time of Corot and the very young Picasso, and surprised quite a few viewers with the quality of much of that work.
The best of it was carefully observed and precisely, though not painstakingly , rendered. Much of what was depicted was obviously drawn from life (although filtered somewhat through a 17th-century Baroque vision), and some of it was remarkably stark and uncompromising. Laborers,farlers, beggars, and street urchins x yx4Oer and over again, as do religious subjects, portraits, landscapes , and sentimental family groupings.
This tendency to sentimentalize, of course, was one of the biggest bones of contention between the modernists and the followers of the various academies. Even the Realists, whose stated objective was to paint life precisely as it was and without emotional overtones, were often ''guilty'' of introducing a touch of sentiment. But then, sentimentality was in the air, and although France seemed more immune to it than Victorian England, it still couldn't quite shake itself free of its influence.
In Alfred Stevens's ''L'Atelier,'' for instance, three obviously very refined young women, one of them an artist, another a model, and the third a visitor, are shown in conversation. All are ravishingly beautiful, very sure of themselves, and obviously of the upper middle class. Everything about them and their surroundings bespeaks comfort, if not wealth. It's an exquisitely painted canvas, and yet the more one studies it the more aware one becomes of its oversweet sentiment and its relentless insistence on elegance. It's a rather artificial work that by no means compares with what Lautrec or Degas were painting that same year. And yet it is, in its own way, a painting of considerable quality, and much too good to be dismissed out of hand as ''academic trash.''