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 …

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