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Art and Revolution

The Idea of Art as Propaganda in France, 1750-1799

by James A. Leith
University of Toronto, 184 pp., $4.95

The Invention of Liberty, 1700-1789

by Jean Starobinski, translated by Bernard C. Swift
Skira, 222, 63 color and 7 black-and-white plates pp., $20.00

In the evil Stalinist days when the arts fell under “the social command” the Congress of Soviet Writers announced that “a-political literature does not exist,” and the On Guardist Group of the Left Front summoned authors to be allies of the Revolution. The journal October proclaimed in 1936 that “the interests of the Party and the People are the immutable supreme law governing the work and conduct of every truly Soviet writer.” But Trotsky had already pointed out the fallacy in this policy when he wrote that there is really no revolutionary art, since art is prophetic, and thus the genuine revolutionary art is always pre-revolutionary. Besides, he added, there are domains where the Party leads imperatively, and there are domains where it merely orients itself. Art is one of the “unprotected flanks” of the Revolution. So Trotsky, however grudgingly, paid his best tribute to the artist, who, being avant-garde, is a recruit to the permanent revolution in modern history, although he eludes policies.

The Stalinists were not the first to face the task of converting art to propaganda, and James A. Leith’s monograph describes how the Societé populaire et républicaine des arts during the Terror in Paris urged that the duty of artists is “d’être philosophe; leur premier devoir est de choisir des sujets qui tendent à instruire, à régénérer les moeurs, à inspirer l’amour de la patrie, et l’enthousiasme de la liberté.” Meanwhile the Committee of Public Safety ordered architects to make their work as Greek as possible to exhibit democratic grandeur.

Of course the policy failed. In his closing pages Leith tabulates the themes of paintings shown in salons from 1789-1799. Of some 3,500 works hung, only about 130 were devoted to revolutionary subjects (i.e., episodes of civic virtue either classic or contemporary), whereas over 400 had traditional antique (i.e., harmlessly academic) motifs, 900 were landscapes, and over 500 were genre or still-life. Precisely while the guillotine was busiest, only four Academicians were imprisoned, and not one lost his head, although two-thirds were known royalists. Indeed, most continued to live in the Louvre and kept their offices in the nationalized manufacturing agencies. The Academy, in short, withstood not only the Terror but the very ideology of the Revolution.

Somewhat indirectly, Leith is studying the irony of time-lag in painting, and few remarks can be more important for the sociology of styles than his conclusion that “in order to mobilize the visual arts successfully a regime must have more stability than existed during most of the French Revolution.” (One recalls Ilya Ehrenburg’s frantic axiom that books should be written “for one second” if they are to keep the tempo of history.) To extend Leith’s conclusion: history cannot dictate a style, but style accommodates itself to history. Or, to rephrase Trotsky, the artist belongs to the vanguard, yet painters cannot be marshalled in the vanguard at the eleventh hour of a political program. Even revolutionary art is traditional.

However, if the artist has difficulty in playing a political role, art can be propaganda, as it was in the middle ages and the Counter-Reformation. The artist is amenable to ideologies, as he was under renaissance and baroque patronage; but propaganda is seldom art when the pace of history is stepped up, as it has often been since the Renaissance, in shortening spans of political strategy. Whenever a revolutionary program moves too fast, the artist does not adequately respond. This platitude is documented in Leith’s useful tables on the salons of the revolutionary era: some paintings did carry a republican message—Romans dying in stucco attitudes to save Rome, etc.—but for one such compliance there were dozens of “scenes of Venus emerging from the sea, Oedipus left to die on Mount Cithaeron, Orpheus lamenting the loss of Eurydice, the love of Paris for Helen.”

More specifically, the irony is that the revolutionary committees were not making any demand on the painter that the old regime had not already made, for the democrats on the Mountain “were simply expressing their version of an idea propounded earlier by royal officials,” namely, the immorality of self-centered luxury. With great effect the encyclopedists had been urging this theme for years before the republicans tried to get it translated into a programmatic idiom. Ever since the middle class spoke through the pages of Rousseau and Diderot, there had been a reaction against le luxe, whether it was the imperial debauchery of Louis XIV or the more closely cultivated and depraved pleasures of Louis XV. The eighteenth century had its own puritan revolution, which, in the name of social well-being, took the form of disapproving personal indulgence. Instead of self-seeking pleasures there should be the benefit of the greatest good for the greatest number. This middle-class hedonistic calculus was phrased at the start of the century in Alexander Pope’s moral epistles and in the early utilitarianism of Francis Hutcheson, who worked up his formulas for social happiness long before Bentham.

Ironically, then, the really revolutionary painter was Greuze with his petty-bourgeois moralizing, which was very legibly written well before revolutionary tribunals sought to legislate public virtue. Or there was the plain pre-revolutionary realism of Chardin, who practiced a kind of anti-rococo. The Committee of Public Safety attempted to transcribe the message of social utility and civic virtue into artificial Greek and Latin. Greuze was their man, and they did not know it. So they promoted David, who, again ironically, was as academic as anybody, and thus derived from the ancien. But his message was negotiable “for one second.”

As a “study in the history of ideas” Leith’s book brings into sharp focus many of the topics diffused through Jean Starobinski’s Invention of Liberty, one in a Skira series of fourteen large volumes dedicated to Art, Ideas, History—and to luxe. It is primarily a sumptuous collection of color plates of rococo paintings reproduced with all the sensitivity and finesse of Skira standards. Obviously Starobinski has had to adapt his text to this elaborate graphic layout, a montage of black-and-white fold-ins along with color plates, appreciative commentary, and five interspersed catch-all essays on such cosmic matters as the universe of the eighteenth century, its philosophy, anxiety, festivity, nostalgia, and utopianism. The translation from the French is gauche, and the history is not only episodic but sometimes diluted into casual generalities. Groping or reeling, as he must, through this pictorial display, Starobinski is barely able to hold to his guideline, the theme that rococo gaiety eventually disappeared before a new “style of willpower.” So it did, since there was an iron will behind David’s revolutionary art; but Starobinski’s account, bounded by the year 1789, is given largely to rococo vanities, and deals only erratically with the increasing gravity of the eighteenth-century temper, its quest for order amid variety. Nevertheless, believing as he does that art should be seen in its context of “sociological circumstances,” Starobinski makes some shrewd and sympathetic notations. For instance he remarks that the changed methods of surveying betoken a radical social overturn: the old cadastral or medieval inventory of land was symbolic of religious and hierarchical values, whereas the new property values required another means of appraisal. His short bibliography, also, is remarkably informative.

As for the temper of the age, Leith, rather than Starobinski, stresses that in its last phases eighteenth-century liberty was an “invention” in the damaging sense of the term. Revolutionary liberty was a highly synthetic construct with many ingeniously conceived notions of rights and policies. But the earlier rococo liberty was not “invented” in this fashion, being, rather, a trouvaille, a dream fancied by Watteau and the wistful, greatly disabused, painters devoted to luxe, not civic virtue. Civic virtues closed in on this half-fanciful liberty, but while reading Starobinski one might take this whole century as a continuing libertine culture in France, England, Germany, and Italy, minimizing or blurring distinctions between baroque, rococo, and the later neo-classical or Directory styles. The eighteenth century is thoroughly transitional and accommodated itself to talents as unlike as those of Lancret, Boucher, Fragonard, and Blake, not to mention Chardin, Hogarth, Hubert Robert, and Longhi, Guardi, and Tiepolo, artists whose incompatibility is more apparent in the Skira plates than in Starobinski’s text.

Howbeit, one may say, following the drift in Leith and Starobinski, that in France, at least, the century abandoned the elite felicities of rococo for the ideological rigors of Directory art. Excited at first by its delicate, fugitive perceptions, the Enlightenment was gradually committed to the abstract notions that were also political imperatives. Largely by way of cherishing its sensations—as in the tremulous susceptibilities of Lawrence Sterne—the century allowed itself an immodest responsiveness; the age was filled with temperaments as intimate and unconcealed as those of Rousseau, Richardson, and Diderot, who was scandalously congenial to Rameau’s Nephew. Referring to eighteenth-century portraits, Starobinski notes that pastel was a medium perfectly suited to give an easy, almost unconsidered, impression of the features. Boswell has the transparent charm and naiveté of the pastel. Strictly speaking, this art rendered the personality, not the person. It leapt from the formal portrait to the delineation of the personality without, however, meeting the anxieties that caught up with the person during the nineteenth-century. Byron, Stendhal, then the underground man belatedly paid a penalty for this anachronism, and the luxe and volupté Baudelaire seeks on his voyage are not the luxe and volupté of Watteau’s “Embarcation for Cythera.” The melancholy, the hyp, the spleen, the “gothic” depressions of the eighthteenth century are superficial compared to the stormy anguish of the self that set in later, after the libertines were followed by libertarians. Starobinski misunderstands the “anxiety” of the Enlightenment, which was not the deeper disturbance afflicting painters and poets after the republicans had instituted their liberty.

Leith straightens things out. He finds that French art was an increasingly severe campaign against le luxe as it was embodied in Boucher’s lascivious nudes, by which Mme. de Pompadour tempted the jaded flesh of Louis. It was only “a short step from revulsion against fashionable art to the notion of art as propaganda,” and the attack on luxury was the avant-garde, truly revolutionary art of the day, as Diderot implied when he distinguished between two kinds of pleasure, a private indulgence, and social happiness. When a critic of the 1783 salon said “J’aime mieux qu’on choisisse des sujets nationaux” he spoke for the libertarians, whose mode of self-indulgence was intoxication with their own social programs.

Thus the new social morality hides a contradiction, for in the name of liberty the Revolution required a surrender of private enjoyment. The democratic policies of the philosophes and their heirs, the Jacobins, reveal an ever-widening difference between liberty as personal experience and liberty as an ideology. The encyclopedists and the Committee of Public Safety invented political liberty but left unresolved the question of personal freedom, a dilemma that was faced by Mill and the thoughtful liberals of the next century, forerunners of the existentialists.

Yet Starobinski’s pages on the rococo commitment to pleasure do suggest that Watteau and Lancret and Fragonard invented a small theater where “joy in painting replaces joy in living.” Rococo had a fine instinct for the scenographic, as Watteau’s carefully staged “Enseigne de Gersaint” shows. By treating sensation as a source of ideas, Locke’s psychology inspired a fresh sensitivity to personal impressions and a new aesthetic consciousness, an aesthetic which made the picturesque garden a private delight, and heightened awareness of the difference between perception in art and perception in life. The frail world of the fête champêtre and the gothic domain of Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey or Piranesi’s prisons were an extravagance that brought life into illusory contacts with art, and prepared the way for the aesthetic adventures of the romantics, Delacroix, and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. The rococo theater began to fail in Rousseau, with his socialist puritanism and his talk about liberty that proved, during the revolution, to be an ideological dungeon.

The freedom of rococo was an aesthetic release, having something visionary, the quality of freedom that transformed Shelley, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé into the figure of a skylark or Icarus. It is not the liberty invented by high-minded revolutionaries, who seem, after all, to be only intruders between rococo and romantic artists.

Owing to an error in the course of make-up for press, the concluding paragraphs of Frank Kermode’s review of Ramakrishna and His Disciples by Christopher Isherwood (NYR, June 17) were omitted. We print them here:

Eliade, in his exhaustive book on yoga, condemns Western syncretism and especially the “detestable spiritual hybridism inaugurated by Theosophy” and continued, “in aggravated forms, by the countless pseudomorphs of our time.” But he finds the genuine appeal of Hindu religion in non-dualistic Vedantism (of which Ramakrishna was an exponent) as a means to universal non-sectarian spirituality. I know of no better account of the impact of Vedantism on a Western sect than Lady Emily Lutyens’s naive and charming book, Candles in the Sun, which is about the London Theosophical Society and the advent of Krishnamurti; Mrs. Besant brought him over, and from the moment of his arrival the Society, not to mention its associates, such as the Temple of the Rosy Cross and the Liberal Catholic Church, were dominated by him. Mrs. Besant was intelligent enough to be a friend of Shaw’s, and Krishnamurtu was less fantastic than Ramakrishna, but the same claims were made, and the disciples of this guru squabbled like those of his predecessor. Lady Lutyens was talking about something that, as far as he was concerned, had ended; Isherwood’s Los Angeles group is presumably very much alive. Vivekananda, the first of Ramakrishna missionaries, prophesied in 1897 that all England would be converted in ten years. He was wrong, but the movement seems to have some staying power.

What is its appeal? One can only guess. Certain superstitions (alchemy, for example) have had to wait for western rehabilitation until a Jung emerged in reaction to the tradition of scientific rationalism. Prestige was more easily to be had from the East. Another reason may be that in an atomized society a religion which accepts anybody’s beliefs, however offensive to reason, as valid has a good chance. The same society values leadership, and yoga is acknowledged to be impossible without a guru. This combination of authority and antinominianism is attractive; it licenses what Arnold called “the dissidence of dissent.” Yet another reason may be the ambiguities inherent in Hindu doctrines on sex. Ramakrishna is said to have undergone the Tantric disciplines without lapsing into depravity; the dangers of doing so, or seeming to do so, are illustrated by Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where Mellors’s sevenfold arousing of Connie’s kundalini has often been misinterpreted. Eliade’s book shows how the borderline between sexual depravity and high Tantric achievement is as vague as that between yoga and magic. It is one thing to acquire pranyama, which has to do with retaining the breath, and another to acquire maithuna, the retention of semen in intercourse; the former requires only solitary practice. Lastly, the sheer permissiveness of Ramakrishna’s religion blends interestingly with his personal austerity: drugs, sex, kicks of all kinds, can be somebody’s “way.”

Given this permissiveness, this inclusiveness, this interesting ambiguity, one can see how Western irrationalism and antinominianism continue to be receptive to Ramakrishna’s kind of religion. I admit that I am incapable of a sympathetic appreciation of the phenomenon Mr. Isherwood describes, but somebody, surely, is entitled to address the opposition—the party that believes the West is committed to reason, and that it will never find its salvation by embarking, with however much protective camp, in a ship of fools, however holy.

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