# 34-2 | Tocqueville and the Arts in Democracy | Françoise Melonio

The principal thesis of the second volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is that the dominant passion of modern societies is equality. One of its effects would be the “softening of customs,” but it would also engender cultural upheaval and an upending of established cultural objects. For, if it is really aristocratic inequality that has encouraged the creation of works that are considered to be major, democratic society, with its egalitarian calling, would on the contrary be driven toward a culture of entertainment that goes off in search of what is new and easy. That is why Tocqueville saw modern societies as unsuited to the production of significant works of art, citizens there being incapable of elaborating reasonable criteria of evaluation.
While we often see art as a force of opposition (above or alongside public opinion), Tocqueville thus envisages it, on the contrary, as an object that is representative of the general spirit of a society. Great experts on Tocqueville’s thought, Françoise Mélonio and Lucien Jaume retrace for us the point of view of this writer, not an art enthusiast but someone concentrated on democracy and its effects on the arts.

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac


On the Arts in Democracy

Françoise Melonio

Under the Restoration and the July Monarchy, art criticism and, more broadly, reflection on the arts were a central issue in political life. In the eighteenth century, the education of public opinion in matters of taste had appeared as a precondition for the public statement of a political opinion. After 1815, the haunting fear of the disintegration of society led some to grant to the arts a decisive role in the meeting of minds. For both a statesman and a young man in a hurry to get himself elected, art criticism was not only a source of income or an entertaining distraction; it was an intellectual qualification for the exercise of power. Adolphe Thiers published reviews on two quite major salons, those of 1822 and 1824.[ref]See Marie-Claude Chaudonneret’s annoted edition, Adolphe Thiers, critique d’art. Les Salons de 1822 et de 1824 (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2005).[/ref] François Guizot practiced art criticism (see his 1851 collection, Études sur les beaux-arts, which begins with a “critical examination of the salon of 1810”). He was also a major theorist of the theater. His long preface to the 1821 publication in French of Shakespeare’s complete works makes of the theater the site for social mixing, where “pleasures become disinterested and affections generous.” They are so to such an extent that the arts are at once the site where “moral electricity” occurs, which unites individuals in a common feeling, and the site where what Guizot calls “the characters of the spirit of the century” are brought out. The affirmation of the political importance of the arts, which leads to implementation of a vigorous policy favoring preservation of France’s heritage,[ref]Well studied, in particular by Dominique Poulot. See my article, “La culture, affaire d’Etat? La politique culturelle des libéraux dans la première moitié du XIXème siècle, ” La production de l’immatériel. Théories, représentations et pratiques de la culture au XIXème siècle, ed. Jean-Yves Mollier, Philippe Régnier, and Alain Vaillant (Saint Étienne: Publications de l’Université de Saint Étienne, 2008), pp. 29-38.[/ref] is accompanied by a discourse on history that connects all the manifestations of civilization in one and the same “spirit.”
Alexis de Tocqueville’s originality lies therefore neither in the construction of a sociology of the arts, which is also to be found, in various forms, in Thiers, Guizot, Sainte-Beuve, and the Saint-Simonians, nor in a thoroughgoing knowledge of the fine arts or literature. As has often been said, Tocqueville had a deep but narrow mind, or more exactly, a deep one precisely on account of his concentration on one question that ties together the threads of his existence, and that is the investigation of democracy. The thirty volumes of Tocqueville’s complete works in French include few analyses or even allusions to artistic works, whether those of architecture, the fine arts, or literature. That may surprise some. In the aristocratic circles of the early nineteenth century, literature, painting, music, and an interest in the monuments of the past were part and parcel of the education of a wellborn young man. To offer just one example from a circle rather similar to Tocqueville’s, the young Charles Forbes René de Montalembert recorded with increasing frequency in his Journal intime[ref]Paris: Éditions du CNRS, 1990.[/ref] from his adolescent years onward his attendance of soirées at the Opéra and the Italian opera at the Théâtre-Français, visited the museums of France, Germany, and Northern Europe, read German philosophy along with German, English, and French poetry, and so on and so forth. Tocqueville, the great grandson of Malesherbes and nephew by marriage of Chateaubriand enjoyed the advantage of a beautiful family library and did the traditional “tour” of Italy at the end of his studies. It is likely that the rarity of examples we have of his commentaries on artistic works stems from the absence of a diary. His conversations with Nassau Senior show that he had read some eighteenth-century novels (Samuel Richardson and Madame Cottin), performed in private amateur theater [théâtre de société], and also read, in addition to the classics, the great Romantics (Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Friedrich Schiller)[ref]Oeuvres Complètes, tome 6, vol. 2.[/ref]. It is known that he was a patron of Théodore Chassériau, one of whose paintings, now lost, he owned. It no less remains the case that, for him, the arts pertained to the realm of private entertainment. If there was a “Tocquevillean moment,” as Lucien Jaume says, it was therefore only on one very particular point. Tocqueville’s own contribution is to have wondered not about the relation between the arts and the progress of civilization but about the relation between the arts and the equality of conditions. For, equality is the cause for a radical change both in the social condition of artists and the public, in the art market, one can say, and in the imaginary of artists. In taking as the central theme of his thought the study of the democratic social state, Tocqueville was therefore led to work out both a sociology of art and an aesthetics in a more systematic way than his contemporaries.

A Sociology of Art
Crisis of Art? The End of Aristocratic Otium

Democracy is a middle-class regime in which neither creative artists nor their public can get along with earning a living. Aristocrats were able to give themselves over to otium, studious leisure, which assured for the arts an available and qualified audience. Devaluation of the arts is an inevitable corollary of a democratic society, where usefulness is the prime value and “seriousness,” denounced by Stendhal, the indispensable virtue. The entrepreneur, a major figure in democracy, has no time to lose engaging in the arts. Like Stendhal, Tocqueville was very sensitive to this devaluation of the arts and of literature. On August 24, 1850, he drew up for Nassau Senior a report of 45 years of social change:
“The sole object of those among whom I was raised was to amuse and entertain themselves. One never spoke of politics, and I believe that one did not even think of it often. Literature was one of the regular topics of conversation. Any new book, of whatever merit, was read aloud, discussed, and criticized in an attentive and detailed way that would today seem a deplorable waste of time.”[ref]Ibid, p. 301.[/ref] Every incident in life provided material for a brief poem, while private amateur theater brightened long evenings: Chateaubriand dressed as an old woman; novels were events[ref]Ibid., 1857, p. 140. Tocqueville returns on several occasions to the primacy of usefulness: it is striking to see that in the chapter he devotes to monuments (vol. 2, part 1, ch. 12), the sole example of a democratic monument mentioned in his rough drafts was the Cherbourg harbor wall, to wich he dedicated a note in 1847.[/ref]. One thus finds in Tocqueville and in his contemporaries the archaeology of our discourse on the crisis of art, or a farewell to literature[ref]See William Marx, L’Adieu à la littérature. Histoire d’une dévalorisation. XVIIIe-XXe siècle (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2005). This book offers a brilliant summary of the change in the status of literature in Europe[/ref]. The same trend toward usefulness affects the sciences, as well: “the human mind is subtly encouraged to neglect theory and to devote unparalleled energy to applications or, at any rate, to those aspects of theory most necessary to the people who apply it.”[ref]Democracy in America (Goldhammer translation), vol. 2, part 1, ch. 10, p. 526.[/ref]

Crisis of Art? The Collapse of Authority

Because all individuals consider themselves equal, they can no longer recognize any other authority than that of the majority. The result of this is that there is no longer any stable hierarchy of values, no more qualified arbiters of taste. Each person’s pleasure becomes the sole criterion of artistic quality. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville barely wondered at all about the role cultural institutions play in guiding public opinion, even though he was a member of two French Académies and several learned societies. Each person’s refusal to accept the other’s judgment seemed to him more powerful. Democratic aesthetics is thus naturally that of the greatest number. If some sites of high culture or demanding art remain, they lie at democracy’s margins. It is the responsibility of moral and political thinkers to correct democracy’s nature by favoring, through artifice, this high culture to which democracy is not predestined.

Democratic Aesthetics
A New Order of Time

As Jaume underscores, democracy is the era of thinkers who are in a hurry, who furnish a fickle public with ever remodeled “products”: “Democratic literatures are always crawling with authors who see literature as nothing more than an industry, and for every great writer there are thousands of retailers of ideas.”[ref]Ibid., vol. 2, part 1, ch. 14, p. 544.[/ref] Sainte-Beuve had already denounced this arts industry in his article “De la littérature industrielle,” in the Revue Des Deux Mondes, 19 (1839): 675-91.
Yet one must go further, for the fine arts have not only become an industry; they henceforth belong to the system of fashion. With the universal mobility of things, the pleasure derived from works can be but ephemeral: Tocqueville confesses to Nassau Senior on May 2, 1857 that he himself has become incapable of enjoying Lamartine, who had enchanted him thirty years earlier[ref]Oeuvres Complètes, tome 6, vol. 2, p. 469.[/ref].
The aesthetic consequences of this democratic impatience are huge, and one can speak of a new temporal regime involved in the creation of works. The democratic imagination is wholly oriented toward the present and the future: “Democratic peoples scarcely trouble themselves about what was but dream readily of what will be, in which respect their imagination knows no bounds; it stretches and grows beyond measure.”[ref]Democracy in America, vol. 2, part 1, ch. 17, p. 557.[/ref] While Tocqueville is thinking here of the age of Lamartine’s Jocelyn, whose preface is a veritable humanitarian manifesto, his remarks would obviously hold, too, for the social palingenesis of Paul Chenavard.

Democratic Scales: Large and Small Monuments

Jaume recalls that in New York Tocqueville had been struck by the contrast between the grandeur of public buildings and the small size of personal homes, architecture being the visible sign of a social state in which the Sovereign towers over a multitude of small individuals. Tocqueville is systematizing here a key opposition in the history of the arts. Gigantism passes for being the same as democracy[ref]See Maurice Agulhon, Marianne au combat: l’imagerie et la symbolique républicaines de 1789 à 1880 (Paris: Flammarion, 1979).[/ref]. In literature, the epic (whether one is thinking of Edgar Quinet, Lamartine, or Victor Hugo’s The Legend of the Centuries) is the “major genre”—as well as the lengthy genre—that is suited to tell the immensity of the human adventure. In the fine arts, the “major genres” alone are suitable to paint the grandeur of the democratic Sovereign that takes the place of the king. In 1848, in order to glorify the Republic, majestic representations were needed, as, in order to tell of the past, one needed Thomas Couture’s huge canvas The Enrollment of the Volunteers of 1792, which was commissioned on October 9, 1848, and in order to tell the course of history, one needed Chenavard’s Pantheon project.
Correspondingly, Tocqueville’s contemporaries heaped political praise on the “minor genres,” which offered democratic individuals an aesthetics within their reach. Wanting to define modern beauty, in his salons of 1822 and 1824 Thiers jointly praised the “great painting” of Eugène Delacroix and minor genres while refusing to establish a hierarchy between them. The minor genre tells the story of the anonymous people who are glorified by Thiers the historian. Genre scenes in painting and the bust in sculpture were addressed to the new public of the middle classes, and these art forms had a fine future ahead of them in a social state where the patron State now also had to contend with individual patrons. In particular, Thiers defended lithography, “a veritable revolution” that allowed one to “reach into places where art had not yet entered.” We know that Charles Blanc defended engraving in similar terms as a democratic art in an 1839 issue of the Revue du Progrès Politique, Social et Littéraire and made it his goal to promote genre and landscape painting as well as Emmanuel Frémiet’s animals in 1848. Realism is the aesthetic that is linked to these minor genres; Thiers spoke highly of the documentary precision of tableaux de moeurs, while Tocqueville formulated this triumph of realism in the following sociological terms:
“The painters of the Renaissance generally looked for great subjects that would either transcend themselves or allude to the remote past in such a way as to provide a vast scope for their imagination. Our painters often use their talent to reproduce exactly the details of private life that are constantly before them, and copy from every conceivable angle petty objects of which nature provides only too many originals.”[ref]Democracy in America, vol.  2, part 1, ch. 11, p. 534-35.[/ref]

Bombast and Kitsch

The aesthetic correlate to this contrast in scale between the small and the large is the contrast between kitsch and the bombastic. Kitsch is the art of pretense, of what is neo-, of imitations that borrow from the values of the past and copy them in miniature. This word borrowed from the German, where it appeared in the 1870s, points to an aesthetic trend dating back to well before that time. Tocqueville made fun of the small white marble classical palaces of New York, which were in fact built of whitewashed bricks with columns made of painted wood [ref]Ibid. vol. 2, part 1, ch. 11, p. 535.[/ref]; Bouvard and Pécuchet’s house is the Flaubertian French version of these little neoclassical American palaces. Kitsch is the aesthetic of the middle class, which is seeking commendation for its social distinction, and Flaubert is the writer who denounces it with ferocity. To Louise Colet he wrote on January 29, 1854, “How many nice people there are who, a century ago, had lived perfectly well without the Fine Arts, and who now require small statuettes, modest music, and little literature!”
Romantic bombast, conversely, is the aesthetic of greatness. To the texts by Tocqueville quoted by Jaume must be added Tocqueville’s response to Nassau Senior in 1850: “What, in your opinion,” asks Nassau Senior “is your literary golden age?” “The late seventeenth century” he answered.
“Writers were interested back then only in glory and they addressed themselves only to a restricted and highly cultivated public. French literature was in its youth, the front-row seats were still vacant, and it was relatively easy to gain notice. Extravagance was not required in order to attract attention. In those times, style was but the vehicle for thought. Above all, being clear and, once clear, concise was all that was desired. In the eighteenth century, the competition began; it had become difficult to be original in one’s theme, and one tried to become striking though one’s style. Ornament was added to clarity and conciseness. It was done with sobriety and good taste, yet already one sensed the amount of effort and work involved. Ornamental style has been followed by the grotesque, just as the austere style of our old Norman architecture has little by little become ornate and, ultimately, flamboyant.”[ref]Oeuvres complètes, tome 6, vol. 2, p. 535.[/ref] As an example of such bombast, Tocqueville offers Victor Hugo, but also Lamartine, whose Meditations “have found in each reader an accomplice; he seemed to express thoughts of which all were aware but that no one had yet organized into words.”[ref]Ibid., p. 304.[/ref] The vague and the bombastic are linked in democratic lyricism. And according to Arthur Kaledin[ref]See his article cited below in the Recommended Readings section.[/ref], one would find similar analyses in Walt Whitman.

Lucien Jaume underscores well the ambiguous and paradoxical character of democracy according to Tocqueville. Democracy is the regime in which the nation is great and the citizens are small. Democratic aesthetics, too, is a paradoxical aesthetics, nay an aesthetic of the oxymoron: creative artists pride themselves on being original and reveal themselves to be similar; thinkers aim at the infinite but their works last only as long at that season’s fashions; great monuments are built, which proliferate into many small kitschy homes. Like Balzac, Stendhal, Sainte-Beuve, and Flaubert, Tocqueville offers us an analytics of modernity that, without resigning itself to saying Farewell to arts and letters, highlights the break with the former universe and the aesthetic consequences of a democracy hardly directed at all toward “a sense of greatness, and a love of immaterial pleasures.”[ref]Democracy in America, vol.2, part 1, ch. 15, p. 635.[/ref]

Recommended Readings

Guellec, Laurence. Tocqueville et les langages de la démocratie. Paris: Champion, 2004.

Kaledin, Arthur. “Tocqueville’s Apocalypse: Culture, Politics, and Freedom in Democracy in America.” In Tocqueville et l’esprit de la démocratie. The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville. Ed. Laurence Guellec. Paris: Sciences Po les presses, 2005.

Georgel, Chantal. 1848, la République et l’art vivant. Preface Maurice Agulhon. Paris: Fayard,1998.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Library of America/Penguin Putnam, 2004.

Françoise Melonio is a professor of French Literature at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and Dean of the College of Sciences Po, where she teaches the history of representations. Editor of Tocqueville’s Oeuvres complètes and a member of the editorial team for the Oeuvres of Chateaubriand and Benjamin Constant, she has published, in addition to Tocqueville volumes, a variety of essays: a work on the reception of Tocqueville’s work (Tocqueville and the French [1993], trans. Beth G. Raps [Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998]) as well as some summary works (Naissance et affirmation d’une culture nationale. La France de 1815 à 1880 [Paris: Seuil, 2001]; La littérature française: dynamique et histoire, vol. 2 (ed. Jean Yves Tadié) [Paris: Gallimard, 2007]).