1878 c/o Lauren Oyler

“If it had taken place in some Western American town,” Henry James wrote in an unsigned letter to the Nation shortly after the trial concluded, “it would have been called provincial and barbarous; it would have been cited as an incident of a low civilisation.” If it had taken place today it would have happened on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, from there to be reposted on blogs where it would be further reframed and commented on. Because publicity was, possibly, one of the plaintiff’s goals and because today its standards and mechanisms are lower and stranger, the dispute probably wouldn’t make it to court, though actually you know maybe it would make it to court, depending on how wealthy he was and on whether it was supposed to be some kind of performance, though if it were supposed to be some kind of performance it would be hard to say it had nothing or even little to do with pride, either.

As it was it took place in London, initially in a serialized pamphlet called, “Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain.” The author, John Ruskin, the pre-eminent Victorian art critic whose mutton chops announced his kind of seriousness (of its time), saw a show at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 that included James McNeill Whistler’s painting “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.” I don’t want to put too much into this, but Whistler wore a mustache, a thick, flipped personality that seemed to hide a smirk. An example of the movement of art for art’s sake, which aimed to separate art from the low-to-middle-brow demands of the nouveau riche, “Falling Rocket” is a dark canvas, black with bottle green and teals, smudged with smoke and flecked with the yellows of the titular firework through the fog. It gestures toward abstraction while retaining the niceness of representation and expressing an undeniable mood; the scale, too, is interesting.

Ruskin hated the painting, or he did not understand it, or he was affected by problems in his own life that had nothing to do with Whistler and these caused him to feel that he hated it or to not understand it. “For Mr Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser,” Ruskin wrote, subsequently, in “Fors Clavigera,” “Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” To add insult to injury, this is not a quote lifted from a longer passage in a review focused on Whistler and his damning issues, but rather an aside in a broader assessment of the group show in which he and his “eccentricities”—“almost always in some degree forced”—take up one paragraph.

A critic from the past rejecting a form or style from the future is nothing remarkable. We hear about this all the time, and we laugh at the short-sightedness of the nefarious hater as he tries in vain to keep the world from its rightful progress. Being familiar with these examples I sometimes find it difficult to determine, now, as a critic, whether a work is as unskilled as it seems to be or just ahead of me; it is safer, now, usually, to declare that something is “radical.” So it’s hard not to be on Whistler’s side, to read this as a parable about a close-minded conservative rejecting a forward-thinking genius: the painting is good, evocative of emotions, and Whistler’s flicks of firework anticipate Jackson Pollack, etc. A PBS documentary titled, “James McNeill Whistler and the Case for Beauty” establishes the stakes: Do we accept beauty, or do we reject it because it offends our sense of order?

That Whistler really was a “coxcomb,” an insult that stars in a Bustle article called “12 Medieval Ways to Insult People, Because You Are Being Such a Cox-Comb Lately” and refers to a rascally dandy, may complicate things, or it may not. It probably fueled Ruskin’s rejection, just as accusations of fakery and posturing raise the question today of whether work is “genuine” or some kind of money-making scam. (In some cases, the money-making scam is interpreted as genuine, or at least good.) To me, the person who decides he is going to contrive a persona must be the type of person who decides he is going to contrive a persona, which means the contrived persona is part of the person, and the same goes for the work, but it’s possible that I wouldn’t have had to develop such a nuanced perspective on personas if I lived in a time before Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.

Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, for some complex of reasons “genuine” and performative, and the case went to trial the next year, though Ruskin didn’t attend because he’d had a nervous breakdown, the pre-conditions of which may or may not have contributed to his assessment of the painting, some scholars say. The proceedings lasted two days; according to James, “the painter's singular canvases were handed about in court, and the counsel for the defence, holding one of them up, called upon the jury to pronounce whether it was an ‘accurate representation’ of Battersea Bridge.” Whistler was debased as he (valiantly) tried to explain Art to an unsympathetic court room, like a charming but nevertheless out-of-context novelist telling a fellow class reunion attendee what her book is “about.” In my high school art class we were asked on the first day to “define art”; as anyone who has taken a high school art class knows, this is a trick. Whistler technically won the suit, but he received one farthing in damages—not very much—and went broke, given that he was already bad with money, which is one reason he took or performed umbrage with the suggestion that he was a conman in the first place. Ruskin stopped writing for a while and resigned from his teaching job at Oxford, feeling the British legal system had issued a terrible symbolic blow against criticism. A critic wants to be able to push a theory to its limit, to say something because he can justify it, not all the time and not necessarily this time but when the truth requires or simply can take this kind of pressure. He wants, probably, to be able to craft a persona, too.