From Courbet to Che

Social Radicalism and the Arts: Western Europe

by Donald Drew Egbert
Knopf, 928 pp., $15.00

Professor Egbert’s enormously long book refers to the opinions on art of almost every left-wing writer (in the loosest sense of the term) in Western Europe from Saint-Simon and Fourier to Mr. John Berger. Though in his Preface he is careful to disassociate himself from most of these opinions, he is fair and dispassionate throughout, and his volume can be recommended as an invaluable source of facts for those teachers trying to cope with the “Che Guevara and Art” kind of lecture now in demand. It also deserves to be looked at (though hardly read through) with some attention by anyone interested in the wider relationships between art and society. For Professor Egbert has read prodigiously, has brought together a great deal of material which is not easily accessible, and has provided footnotes which will constitute a very useful bibliography—though unfortunately their arrangement makes it difficult for the reader to refer to them as such.

But, after having been enticed by the publisher’s claim that “this brilliantly innovative and exhaustive work…is a comprehensive portrayal of the artistic, literary, musical, architectural—and philosophical—environment of Europe in the past two centuries,” one is disappointed to have to point out that the book is in fact unsatisfactory on virtually every count except as a very thorough compilation of facts.

The reasons for this failure vary. Some of them are trivial, though they irritate and indicate more basic reasons for complaint. Again and again Professor Egbert carries scholarly caution to the verge of parody. Within a few pages he tells us that Diderot “is often called the first art critic in the modern sense of the term,” that Voltaire “is often called the first modern historian,” that Babeuf “is often called the first modern communist,” and that Morelly is “said to have been the first writer to establish an aesthetic based on the sensualist philosophy.” Many other instances could be quoted.

Much more serious than this—and than the pedestrian tone of the writing generally—is the extraordinary lack of balance that he shows whenever he comes to discuss individual thinkers. Bakunin, included apparently on the strength of his fondness for Beethoven and for having influenced Kropotkin, who in turn influenced some of the French neo-impressionists, is discussed at length; whereas the critic Théophile Thore, who really did have some interesting comments to make on the relations between social commitment and painting, is given only three cursory pages; and Gustave Geffroy, the left-wing theorist and champion of all the best modern art during the last years of the nineteenth century, is not even mentioned.

As a result, important issues are trivialized and trivial incidents are treated with the solemn reverence of a gossip columnist. This reaches a climax in his account of the English scene during the last thirty or forty years, and may be illustrated by one characteristic sentence: “Another [exhibition] on ‘The Popular Art of the Picture Postcard,’ which was organized by Richard Carline, then a member …

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