“Creativity takes courage,” Matisse said. This week Fauvist artists like him will have center stage at Sotheby’s auction house. It is appropriate. The Fauves were the outcasts of the art world. Their name, translated “Wild Beasts,” was coined by art critic, Louis Vauxcelles. He found their strong colors and bold brushstrokes distasteful. So in his piece on the 1905 Salon d’Automne, where they were shown, he christened them “beasts” and dismissed them outright.
How little did he know.
Sotheby’s estimates Fauvist painting, “Red Sails,” by Andre Derain will fetch $15 to $20 million at auction this week.
Why are potentially transformative movements de-legitimized before they are given a chance?
When Fauvism arrived on the art scene few could digest it. It grew out of Impressionism and Pointillism, but it was raw and unwieldy. No one had seen anything quite like it. So they did what most people do under those circumstances; they sought to get rid of it. The status quo was too comfortable and the new too scary.
Luckily for us, good art has a way of sticking around until its moment arrives. It can take a hundred years, but when that moment comes, the familiar no longer looks so good. We can’t turn back.
That is exactly what is happening today.
In politics, we are seeing the rise of anti-establishment candidates and shifts towards more progressive agendas. In criminal justice, we are coming to realize that defaulting to prisons will not fix crime’s root problems of poverty and despair. In the economy, we are beginning to understand the wide disconnect between labor and executive leadership.
We seem to be questioning everything. It is very healthy. But it takes courage. Before there can be new and better ideas, we have to go through the catharsis of releasing the old, outmoded, ways of thinking. We have to look at problems like extreme inequality or mass incarceration with a new lens and ask “Why?” and “How can we do better?”
The Fauvists forever changed the art world. And today’s social movements are forever changing ours. It is easy to dismiss and disparage them. But history shows that sometimes the most radical, fringe movements also come to be the ones we value most. The Civil Rights movement was hardly met with universal approbation. But would anyone say it was not absolutely essential for our progress?
That Derain’s painting has gone from the periphery to Sotheby’s demonstrates the arc of change. Without Derain, the art world would be stuck in Impressionism and condemned to picnic scenes and lily flowers. Expressionism would not have been possible. No Jackson Pollock or Jean-Michel Basquiat. No progress.
I won’t get a chance to see “Red Sails” before it is auctioned off. Once bought, it is likely to be stored away, out of sight. But I think it is more than mere coincidence that this painting came up for auction now. It has something to say to us, unique and important for just this moment. You will need to draw your own conclusions about what that is. For me, it is that sailing is precarious. That strong winds can set a ship off course. That we need good captains. That we should be careful of who we put in charge of steering ships.