# 1-1 | The Influence of the Saint-Simonians and the Idea of Art in the Vanguard of Social Reform | Neil McWilliam

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If one takes an interest in the function of art in society, one is bound to speak of the Saint-Simonians. And often one does so without knowing it. The English art historian Neil McWilliam deserves credit for having taken stock of the origins of a French line of thought that is far from dead and that has been renewed under other forms, in the past as well as today.
While artists now no longer see themselves as an “avant-garde” that would be spreading new ideas by appealing “to the imagination and to the sentiments,” this is more a matter of a change in vocabulary than of a shift in foundations. As Neil McWilliam concludes in his talk, the cultural system of modern society still contains, one hundred and fifty years later, quite a few elements of “Saint-Simonianism.” Art has expanded into new spheres that express the metamorphoses and adaptations of these elements, sometimes to the point of suffocation.
Nothing that was being thought at the beginning of the nineteenth century is to be laughed at today when examined in light of what we now know about art’s ability to fit into a postmodern culture. While the old utopian dreams have been abandoned, the function of art is really in the process of being redefined within the inflexible framework of the imperatives of consumer society and of the society of the spectacle.
The ambition of this Letter, which we shall publish every two months, is to be a site of discussion. The discussion will center around the condition of art, which is henceforth to be viewed in the light of history. While the debate is already underway, it can also gain by imagining its historical depth.
Our seminar sessions at the French National Political Science Foundation’s Center for History will precede each publication of this Letter. At least two lectures will be included every time. And this time, the second talk, in echo of the first, comes from Eric Michaud of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Michaud is well known for his work on art and totalitarianism. We are in his debt for his investigation into a line of thought that sought salvation through images and that tended to make art the docile servant of a unitary and authoritarian world view.

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Seminar of October 11th 2004

A Revolutionary Aesthetic?
The Politics of Social Art in France c. 1820-1850

Neil McWilliam

In December 1824 a small tract in the form of a dialogue appeared—very discreetly—in Paris that was to mark an important stage in the development of the modern conception of the artist and his social status. Entitled “L’Artiste, le savant et l’industriel” (The Artist, the Scientist, and the Industrialist) and published in the collection Opinions littéraires, philosophiques et industrielles, the text was the work of a former aristocrat, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon. For twenty years, Saint-Simon had devoted himself to elaborating a political system that would reconcile material progress and social order while at the same time ensuring the welfare of the most disadvantaged classes. The transformation of his philosophy toward a mystical humanism was accompanied by a privileging of the arts that reached its highest expression in 1824. Saint-Simon portrayed the representatives of the three classes that were to be granted the leadership of the society he envisioned for the future : the scientist, whose intellectual abilities guarantee the rational management of the community ; the industrialist, who exploits natural resources and seeks out scientific innovations ; and the artist, who summarizes as follows his own duties in addressing his two other interlocutors:

“It is we artists who will serve as your vanguard; the power of the arts is indeed most immediate and the quickest. We possess arms of all kinds : when we want to spread new ideas among men, we inscribe them upon marble or upon a canvas ; we popularize them through poetry and through song; we employ by turns the lyre and the flute, the ode and the song, the story and the novel; the dramatic stage is spread out before us, and it is there that we exert a galvanizing and triumphant influence. We address ourselves to man’s imagination and to his sentiments. We therefore ought always to exert the most lively and decisive action. And while today our role seems nonexistent or at least quite secondary, that is because the arts are missing what is essential to their energy and to their success, a shared impulse and a general idea.”[ref]“L’Artiste, le savant et l’industriel,” Oeuvres complètes de Saint-Simon et d’Enfantin, vol. 10 (1867), p. 210. The attribution of this work has been the subject of discussions ; see the analysis provided in Neil McWilliam, Dreams of Happiness. Social Art and the French Left 1830-1850 (1993), p. 45.[/ref]

For Saint-Simon, the artist therefore fulfills the role of an intermediary who can translate his partners’ abstract conceptions into a language likely to touch and to mobilize all sectors of society. Understood in this way, art can influence public opinion and, ultimately, people’s behavior through the force of sentiment it exerts over minds that are themselves incapable of responding to the appeals to reason. In conceiving the role of the arts as being that of “dashing ahead of all the intellectual faculties,” Saint-Simon was outlining a program of social engagement for the artist that would later be worked out in detail by his own followers as well as by such dissident Saint-Simonians as Philippe Buchez and Pierre Leroux during the July Monarchy. That program would also have an echo in the oppositional movements that developed during the 1830s and 1840s, in particular among the republicans and the Fourierists. The ideological outlook peculiar to each thinker or political tradition brought significant nuances to the way they conceived the social role of art. Beyond these differences, however, one can discern some common concerns relative to the transformational potentialities of art, to the psychological process of aesthetic reception, and to the mechanisms of peaceful social change. It is with such theoretical concerns in mind that a generation of critics would come to engage artistic production in the mid-nineteenth century and elaborate a diagnosis of the scourges of contemporary society and a plan of cultural action for facilitating the advent of a new world.

The theorists of the period following the French Revolution inherited a tradition that privileged the social duty of art and that had its roots in the Ancien Régime, especially in the work of Diderot. Developed in the years after 1789 under circumstances that were more pressing, these ideas had a direct influence upon the aesthetic debates of the following century, in particular among republicans. At the same time, new concerns emerged that helped shape competing ideological models during the 1830s and 1840s in certain directions, and they transformed conceptions of individual psychological makeup and altered the role assigned to the artist in the social structure. Already in Saint-Simon, the distinction between the artist, the scientist, and the industrialist reflected the new psycho-physiological theories that were being heralded around 1800 by Georges Cabanis and Xavier Bichat. In their research, Cabanis and Bichat had challenged the psychological model inherited from John Locke, which had assumed a basic equality in individual potentialities that would subsequently be modified by the contribution of experience to each person’s sensory apparatus. They proposed instead a conception of man that underscored the importance of innate variations in abilities and character and divided society along the lines of a typology organized around dominant psycho-physiological qualities. Such a model emphasized sentiment, understood as the characteristic most highly developed in the majority of people. Moreover, it fostered the conviction that social stability rests upon a system of shared beliefs that were addressed to individual sentiment and that overcame selfish instincts. Religion was thus conceived as a key element for a more just world, though the [one-time Saint-Simonian and later Christian Socialist] Philippe Buchez was the only one for whom Catholicism retained its moral authority in post-revolutionary society.

 The French Revolution’s challenge to traditional beliefs brought about a crisis of values that inspired a profusion of radical movements and played a decisive role in privileging the personality of the artist so characteristic of the first half of the nineteenth century. What Paul Bénichou has called, in a brilliant study, the “consecration of the writer [sacre de l’écrivain],” also contributed to the glorification of painters and sculptors, whose work seemed particularly well fitted to impress a large and often uncultivated public. As Georges Matoré has shown, the term artist became the object of unprecedented attention in the Romantic era and outstripped its blandly professional connotations to designate a creator with transcendent powers. According to Balzac—who was himself attracted by the Saint-Simonians—“The artist is the apostle of some truth, the organ of the Almighty who makes use of him.” In the same spirit, the writer Félix Pyat declared in 1834, “Art is almost a form of worship, a new religion that arrives at just the right moment when the gods are departing, and kings as well.”[ref]Honoré de Balzac, “Des artistes,” in La Silhouette (April 22, 1830) ; Félix Pyat, “Les Artistes,” Nouveau Tableau de Paris, 4 (1834), p. 7.[/ref]

While today the analogy between art and religion has become a commonplace that no longer exerts anything more than a weak metaphorical force, among the supporters of social art who were contemporaries of Balzac and Pyat the notion of art as a religious vocation and of the artist as a reincarnation of the priest was widely debated. The weight granted to this idea varied according to the social and psychological models developed by the theorists of the different movements. The philosophy of labor elaborated by Fourier and his followers, for example, diminished the status others had granted to the artist. According to their theory of “attractive work,” happiness in a harmonious society necessitates a continual change in activity so as to satisfy all aspects of the individual personality. Such an outlook is incompatible with the kind of specialization implied by such a term as artist. Indeed, for Fourier the distinction between art and labor is mitigated if not completely abolished, and each member of society is conceived as being, at least potentially, an artist.

The status of the artist is also less pronounced in the work of Leroux. Leroux altered Saint-Simonian ontology by insisting upon the unity of individuals’ three capacities : sensation, sentiment, and knowledge. He effected a change in the Saint-Simonians’ way of identifying these capacities with distinct personality types—and social duties—as he insists upon their coexistence in each individual. By privileging man’s ontological unity, Leroux also affirmed social unity and challenged the hierarchization of duties and the exceptional status Saint-Simonians granted to the artist.

It is Saint-Simon and especially his followers who most fully develop the notion of art as a priesthood. The elevation of the artist to the summit of spiritual power in future society follows from the transformation of Saint-Simonianism from a political to a religious system. This change was broached around 1824 by the master himself and accomplished in December 1829 with a Saint-Simonian declaration of faith by the two new leaders of the movement, Prosper Enfantin and Saint-Armand Bazard. While Saint-Simon had foreseen “a positive power, a true priesthood”[ref]“L’Artiste, le savant et l’industriel,” p. 216.[/ref] for artists, this promise was expanded and they were now endowed with a real influence whereby they became “tutors of humanity.” This glorious destiny was the outcome of the ever more central role granted to sentiment in Saint-Simonian philosophy. It is sentiment that develops the artist’s heightened sense of awareness and that gives to him the intuitive ability to foresee the future ; the artist thus becomes a prophet. At the same time, among the people sentiment is the faculty most likely to be touched and to transform impressions into action. In a famous sermon delivered in March 1830, the Saint-Simonian orator Emile Barrault solicited the support of artists in an undertaking that would transform society through the hold they have over the popular imagination:

“So come, come to us, all those whose hearts can love and whose brows may blaze with noble hope ! Let us combine our efforts so as to bring humanity toward this future. Let us be united among ourselves, like all the harmonious strings on the same lyre. Let us begin, starting today, to sing those holy hymns that will be repeated by posterity; henceforth, the fine arts are the religion, and the artist is the priest.”[ref]Émile Barrault, Aux artistes. Du passé et de l’avenir des beaux-arts (1830), p. 84.[/ref]

This alluring vision is, however, contradicted by an ongoing tension between the theoretical promise of an artistic priesthood and the practical subordination of the artist to a more exclusive class of priests who enjoy superior authority in doctrinal matters. This tension itself echos the desire of the Saint-Simonians to discover what they called “a science of sentiment”—that is to say, an aesthetic language whose pedagogical effectiveness is guaranteed by an objective understanding of the psychological motivations upon which it plays. Thus the Saint-Simonian Léon Halévy declares in 1825:

“The time is coming when the painter, musician, and poet, having reached the peak of their powers of feeling, will possess the capacity to move or to please with as great a certainty as today the mathematician is able to solve geometrical problems or the chemist to decompose a particular substance.”[ref]Léon Halévy, review of Les Martyrs de Souli by Népomucène Lemercier, in Le Producteur, 1 (1825), p. 83.[/ref]

 Although such ambitions were eclipsed with the transformation of the doctrine into a religion, the tension between the artist’s creative freedom and his enslavement to ideological imperatives was not reconciled. This tension was all the more real as the Saint-Simonians had as their top doctrinal priority the elimination of individualism and the creation of a unified and coherent society. This ambition took shape through their promotion of collective spectacles reminiscent of the revolutionary festivals and in their architectural fantasies, in which technological innovations transformed space through a sort of pyrotechnics that melded the individual into a totalizing experience of the sublime.

 The Saint-Simonians’ anti-individualism is, at least superficially, the antithesis of the libertarian position of the Fourierists. The movement’s founder, Charles Fourier, bequeathed to his followers an apparently infallible systematization of human psychology that, he claimed, allowed for the elaboration of social institutions in perfect conformity with the physical and spiritual needs of man. While the master’s discoveries were supposed to eliminate social as well as psychological conflicts in order to achieve collective harmony, they also offered a formula that attuned individual liberty to the greatest happiness of all. The harmonious coordination of behavior and opinions foreseen by Fourier thus apparently eliminates all need for artistic intervention in society ; and in the theory of the master himself the role of the artist is limited to collective amusement. For his followers, however, art was appreciated both as a valuable tool in the arduous task of converting the inhabitants of our imperfect world to the future joys promised by harmony and, once that harmony had been achieved, to glorifying a nature finally restored to its true destiny. Armed with the formulae of what he calls the “social law” bequeathed by Fourier, one of his followers, Eugène d’Izalguier, offered in 1836 some idea of what an “aesthetic law” developed according to these principles would be:

 “If, indeed, being an expert in the needs of human nature, Fourier was able to calculate accurately the social conditions most appropriate to this nature, most favorable to the satisfaction of those requirements, it will also be possible, by profiting from his works on the passions of man, to calculate the artistic conditions most in harmony with those passions and most capable of satisfying them or directing them in line with the goal of the artist. Thenceforth, every aesthetic combination will have its law and its reason, like every musical combination, like every pictorial combination, like every combination of numbers, and science will be grounded.”[ref]Eugène d’Izalguier, “Loi de la corrélation de la forme sociale et de la forme esthétique,” in Trois Discours prononcés à l’Hôtel de ville, faisant complément à la publication du Congrès historique (1836), p. 127.[/ref]

Such ambitions lose their positivist look in critical reviews of the fine arts published in the Fourierist press during the July Monarchy. For the critic Désiré Laverdant, whose articles on the Salon offered an opportunity to apply a Fourierist aesthetic to exhibited works, artistic harmony exerts a beneficial effect upon the affective apparatus by evoking a world in which there is a perfect correspondence between the form of an object and its “destination,” that is to say, the role it is called upon to fulfill in the world. Ideal beauty is thus conceived as the artistic expression of a perfect harmony guaranteed when the management of nature has eliminated the moral and physical repression characteristic of present-day society. Such a conception therefore invests physical beauty with a political meaning. It allows the Fourierists to see in formal values ideological lessons calibrated upon the priority granted to harmony as the absolute social value. It thus offers artists the possibility to work for the collective welfare while eliminating the need to depict explicitly didactic subjects. As Laverdant explained in 1843, it is the doctrinal priority granted to happiness as the realization of natural harmony that opens such prospects to the arts :

“The goal of art is to make us conceive and love true destiny and to distance us from conditions of life which are false and disordered. The mission of art is therefore to reveal to us, in its most general expression, the idea of happiness as ultimate goal and divine consecration of true destiny.”[ref]Désiré Laverdant, “L’Art et sa mission,” La Démocratie pacifique, vol. 1, no. 2, (August 2, 1843).[/ref]

 While ideal beauty evokes a harmonious future, artists are also encouraged to deal with the ravages of present-day civilization so as to give birth to a feeling of disgust in the viewer that will convince him of the need for a radical transformation of society. Here again, Fourierist critics dismiss direct allusions to poverty and inequality recommended by republican theorists and advocate a more exclusively formal strategy. According to the Fourierists, the pictorial representation of the discrepancy between nature and a world that violates the basic laws of harmony can stimulate feelings of disgust in the viewer that will ultimately provoke a revolt against the status quo. It is thus a formal strategy—what Fourierist critics called “ideal ugliness”—that is seen to possess an inherent critical power forceful enough to mobilize the emotions and hasten the advent of a new society. The efficacy of this strategy is all the more assured, in the view of Fourier’s followers, since the master had discovered a complex system of analogies between the physical world and the moral world. Exact correspondences between colors and forms and the scale of passions which the master had identified and endowed with picturesque names thus allows the artist to attune the pictorial qualities of his work to precise moral ideas. Beyond these exact correspondences, the activity engaged in by the artist itself rests on an analogy between aesthetic harmony and social harmony. This notion was expressed by Laverdant in 1846:

“All of the painter’s work—the marriage and contrast of tones, the opposition and symmetry of groups and masses, the necessary variety of colors, movements, and lines, the layout and execution, in fact the entire pictorial work—rests upon the laws of attunement [accord], discord, and variety, upon the coordination of the elements of the painting in accordance with the requirements of the three passions, composite, cabalist, and butterfly.”[ref]Désiré Laverdant, De la mission de l’art et du rôle des artistes. Salon de 1845 (1845), p. 6.[/ref]

 Thus armed, the artist becomes—often without being aware of it—a powerful critic of the disorder that disrupts present-day society or an instinctive prophet of the joys of a world ordered according to the infallible laws of harmony. Very often, the Fourierist critic therefore applied himself to revealing the hidden meaning of a work, to rendering explicit a meaning that is to be read through the pictorial language deployed in order to convey the subject itself. Thus, the idealized scenes of Italian peasant life painted around 1830 by Léopold Robert became premonitions of a golden age, thanks to the harmony of the colors and forms deployed by the artist.

In comparison to the Fourierists, the theoretical position of republican critics can appear narrowly utilitarian. The demand that art become directly involved in the problems of the contemporary world was indeed frequently repeated in the republican press. Displaying a highly moralizing tone, many republican critics conceived art’s social function in essentially anecdotal terms: the painter is implored to stage the dramas of popular life, to condemn the powerful who exploit the proletarian, and to defend the underprivileged. Thus, in 1839, the critic Jules Baget calls for art to be “good, useful, moral, and national.”[ref]Jules Baget, “Salon de 1839,” Journal du peuple, April 14, 1839.[/ref] Such priorities shape the critical discourse of many commentators who harken back to the mobilization of the arts during the Revolution in order to lambast the contemporary situation which was dominated by well-off clients indifferent to the people’s sufferings. Théophile Thoré vented his anger in 1835 when he proclaimed, “Satin, roses, danses, feasts, a great tapestry that is good at the very most for veiling the tears of thirty million proletarians—that is what our patrons want, since our patrons are bankers and upstarts [parvenus].”[ref]Anonymous [Théophile Thoré], “Exposition ambulante de tableaux contre-révolutionnaires et Salon de 1835. Boissy-d’Anglas – Nantes et Boissy-d’Anglas – Paris,” Le Réformateur, March 11, 1835.[/ref]

 The observation that the market was favoring a kind of art that was indifferent, if not downright hostile, to all social engagement encouraged some critics to develop a theoretical position more suitable for investing the language of forms with moral meaning. Thoré himself found in Leroux’s philosophy an interpretation of nature that allowed him to moderate his support for an explicitly social art. Following Leroux, he advanced a pantheistic conception of God that allowed him to see in the very act of representing nature a highly moral gesture. With his heightened perception of the world that surrounds him, the artist interprets nature and gives a meaning to it with the help of the material resources he has at his disposal. Once again, as for the Saint-Simonians and the Fourierists, but for theoretically distinct reasons, the moral—and mobilizing—effect of the image is to be invested in form, which is itself conceived as a pictorial element with ultimately political connotations.

Along the same lines, progressive artists and critics led a campaign against the French Academy of Fine Arts, condemning the mystification of artistic conventions taught in the School of Fine Arts and favored at the Paris Salon. These official institutions were accused of having stifled the creative spirit and of having frustrated all aesthetic expression inspired by a direct and truthful perception of nature and of the modern world. Such an indictment was indeed leveled by such young republicans as the critics Gabriel Laviron and Jean-Barthélémy Hauréau, as well as by the young artist and future director of the Louvre, Philippe-Auguste Jeanron, in the review La Liberté, which was published between August 1832 and February 1833 under the motto “Death to the Institute ! Death to professoriate !” Although short-lived, the journal would have a powerful resonance through affirming the political vitality of an art freed from the constraints imposed by what one of its contributors called “nothing but an aristocracy in the arts.”[ref]J. Raimbaud, “Union et liberté,” La Liberté. Journal des arts, 2 (August 1832), p. 14.[/ref] For these critics, the liberation of the artist as represented by the affirmation of his personal vision paves the way for a direct and critical engagement with contemporary society. The resulting naturalism is the fruit of the artist’s subjective vision and allows him to assume his responsibilities toward his peers. Deprived of this vision, the artist educated by the Academy and working in accordance with the formulae of the market was presented as the tool of a political regime that flourished through distorting the truth in all areas of life. Thus, in 1850, the critic Auguste de Gasperini revives the arguments advanced twenty years earlier in the pages of La Liberté. For him, artistic convention distorts language and obscures the truth about social relations in favor of the ruling classes. Gasperini argues:

 “It is the part of the ruling order that has created the words corresponding to ideas and that, substituting everywhere the idea of a small number, the particular idea, the conventional idea for the total, universal, and necessary idea, has everywhere diverted words, the figurative signs of thought, from their real and absolute meaning.”[ref]Auguste de Gasperini, De l’art dans ses rapports avec le milieu social (1850), part one, p. 9.[/ref]

This critique of culture as well as of what could be called an Ideological State Apparatus heralds the declaration of independence that would be proclaimed five years later by a painter for whom the truth serves as the theoretical touchstone for a practice that glorifies artistic independence. In 1855, Gustave Courbet presented his works in a retrospective exhibition under the name of “Realism” and drew up a manifesto that served as the preface to his catalogue. In terms that have since become famous, the artist affirms his freedom with regard to prevailing artistic forms and exalts a subjectivity that has freed itself from social and cultural conventions as the source of his perception of the surrounding world:

“I wanted quite simply, with a full knowledge of tradition, to draw upon the measured sense of my own individuality. To know in order to be able to do, such was my thought. To be up to the task of translating the habits, the ideas, the look of my era according to my own appreciation, to be not only a painter but also a man, in a word, to make living art, that was my goal.” [ref]Gustave Courbet, “Le Réalisme,” Preface to Exhibition et vente de 40 tableaux et 4 dessins de M. Gustave Courbet (1855).[/ref]

Though the living art of Courbet stands in a line of descent from social art as it was theorized from the time of Saint-Simon until the Second Republic, it is important to resist the temptation to elaborate a direct genealogy that would underscore too simplistic a family resemblance between Realism and its antecedents. There are certainly some ties between Courbet and socialist currents of the 1840s; we know, for example, that the painter from Ornans had been connected with followers of Pierre Leroux around 1845. At the same time, the declaration quoted above is reminiscent of republican positions during the July Monarchy. It was within this circle, for example, that the demand for contemporaneity was particularly pronounced. Yet Courbet’s practice is much more radical, in that it calls into question theoretical principles that remained intact among almost all theorists of social art, whatever their ideological affiliation. The distance he placed between himself and his precursors can be summed up in a phrase drawn from a letter he wrote to Francis Wey in which he describes The Stonebreakers in November 1849 “art has to be dragged into the gutter.”[ref]The term used by Courbet is il faut encanailler l’art. In her edition of The Letters of Gustave Courbet (Chicago, 1992), Petra ten-Doesschate Chu translates this as “we must drag art down from its pedestal” (p. 88). Both T.J. Clark, Image of the People. Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (London, 1973), 161 and McWilliam, Dreams of Happiness (p. 333) adopt the current formulation.[/ref]

In the immediate context of this letter, Courbet’s injunction concerns the representation of the working classes in art. He lays into “art that is pomaded and tasteful,” that is to say, Salon art, which had also attracted the contempt and provoked the frustration of many radical critics over the previous two decades. At the same time, it must be noted that this same period witnessed the modest yet significant production of works that challenged social injustice by showing the selfishness of the wealthy and the unfailing integrity of the poor. Most often, such works preached the gospel of self-sacrifice and stoicism, encouraging in the viewer feelings of pity rather than a more trenchant questioning of the social hierarchy. This prudent attitude was broadly supported by critics who favored a formula that was expressed in the following way by an anonymous author, in the working-class newspaper L’Atelier, in 1841:

“The goal [of the fine arts] is to make us better individually; they are to inspire in us a love of our fathers, charity, gentleness, the peacefulness of the family, a chaste and pure love; they are to excite in us a loathing of selfishness and of all the vices that lead societies and families to ruin ; in a word, they must make it easier for us to fulfill all our duties.”[ref]Anonymous, “Salon de 1841,” L’Atelier, vol. 1, no. 7, (March 1841), p. 55.[/ref]

This acceptance of moral codes that themselves incorporate the inequalities of a world against which the partisans of social art wanted to struggle highlights a contradiction that sapped the mobilizing force of cultural commitment. From the political standpoint, all the various republican, socialist, and utopian movements endorsed a morality that, on the artistic level, privileged the glorification of the good worker as an artistic theme as well as sanitizing the view of the contemporary world on the formal level. The importance granted to beauty is revealing. Among the Fourierists, beauty forms part of a broader philosophy that regards harmony as an absolute quality enabling collective happiness to flourish. In various ideological contexts, other thinkers of the era—and notably Pierre Leroux—praised harmony as a founding ontological value. Beyond these theoretical affinities, however, one can see critics from the entire theoretical gamut of social art upholding a normative perception of beauty that reproduces the antinomies between the real and the ideal, the high and the low, which had traditionally served to define the natural order of the world in the field of ideology. Notions of beauty, harmony, order, and aesthetic propriety implied a particular view that governed what could be represented and, more fundamentally, the way in which the social order could be conceived. Partisans of social art rarely debated the assumptions upon which the artistic values tacitly accepted by artists and recognized critics were really based. They thus accepted a language of art—and a cultural language in general—that was more likely to normalize understanding of the prevailing order than to call that order into question in a radical way. Here again, art had to descend into the gutter.

It had to descend into the gutter too in order to reach a public that remained at the margins of such dominant cultural institutions as the Salon, toward which the champions of social art invariably directed their attention. Artistic commentary, as well as most of the cultural initiatives encouraged within the radical movements, continued to give priority to traditional forms of art and traditional outlets. It was the painting and sculpture exhibited in the Salon that held their attention—and that provoked repeated expressions of frustration at artists’ indifference to their calls for cultural mobilization. The inability to understand the mechanisms of an art market dominated by private clients encouraged concentration on a domain that was highly resistant to radical aesthetic and social priorities. It thus seems all the more astonishing that, apart from a few limited attempts sponsored by the Saint-Simonians and the Christian artists around Philippe Buchez, the radical movements under the July Monarchy made very little of the popular arts and, in particular, lithography, in their efforts to win over the working class.

While in terms of its practical achievements the social art of the 1830s and 1840s proved to be limited, the moment remains an important one in the history of art as well as in the history of ideas. For students of the socialist and republican movements of the era, the aesthetic field represents an aspect of ideological debate that highlights such basic questions as the role they accord to nature, their conceptions of individual psychology, and the status of sentiment in their epistemological systems. It is the artistic field, too, that allows us better to appreciate their understandings of the mechanisms for achieving peaceful change of the dominant social order. From the standpoint of the history of art, the July Monarchy initiated a debate on the social role of art whose echoes would resound throughout the following century. One hundred and fifty years later, the cultural regime that characterizes modern society contains a number of elements that could be characterized as “Saint-Simonian.” From the technological standpoint, the profusion of audiovisual media we have inherited from the twentieth century has facilitated a penetration of our physical and psychological being by hidden persuaders” that goes far beyond the wildest dreams of Saint-Simon and his disciples. More than by art, as conceived in its narrow nineteenth-century sense, we are today surrounded by a vast and stifling mass culture that has colonized traditional forms of expression and adapted innovative forms to its own ends. Of course, our consumer society has its own norms and forms of behavior that are solicited and legitimized by our popular culture; its messages are all the more effective as they reject direct moralism and appeal instead to our senses of pleasure, sensuality, and material well-being. Promoting an individualism that cultivates the illusion of autonomous judgment and action, (post)modern culture has usurped the dreams of happiness of the old utopias in order to delude us with “dreams that money can buy.”

I would like to thank Laurence Bertrand Dorléac and Eric Michaud for their practical and intellectual support.


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N.B.: This translation of McWilliam’s text has been reviewed and, on some minor points, altered by the author. The present English-language version thus differs slightly from the French original in the wording of certain phrases.

Neil McWilliam is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University (United States).  A specialist in criticism and aesthetics and in its connections with nineteenth-century French political theory, he has published Dreams of Happiness. Social Art and the French Left 1830-1850 (Princeton University Press, 1993).  Monumental Intolerance : Jean Baffier, A Nationalist Sculptor in Fin-de-Siècle France (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), as well as the Bibliography of Salon Criticism in Paris from the July Monarchy to the Second Republic 1831-1851 (Cambridge University Press), 1991.  With June Hargrove, he has edited Nationalism and French Visual Culture 1870-1914, which will appear in early 2005 in the Studies in the History of Art series (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).  His current research is devoted to the aesthetics of the nationalist Far Right in France during the 1870-1914 period.

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