Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology

By Francis Frascina; Charles Harrison et al. | Go to book overview

39 On the Social History of Art

T. J. Clark

Art — in other words the search for the beautiful and the perfecting of truth, in his own person, in his wife and children, in his ideas, in what he says, does and produces — such is the final evolution of the worker, the phase which is destined to bring the Circle of Nature to a glorious close. Aesthetics and above Aesthetics, Morality, these are the keystones of the economic edifice.

(A passage copied by Baudelaire in 1848 from Proudhon's Système des contradictions économiques ou Philosophie de la misère ( 1846).)

In our oh-so-civilized society it is necessary for me to lead the life of a savage; I must free myself even from governments. My sympathies are with the people, I must speak to them directly, take my science from them, and they must provide me with a living. To do that, I have just set out on the great, independent, vagabond life of the Bohemian. ( Courbet, letter of 1850 to Francis Wey.)

To glorify the worship of images (my great, my only, my primitive passion). To glorify vagabondage and what one might call Bohemianism, the cult of multiplied sensation, expressing itself through music. Refer here to Liszt.

( Baudelaire, Mon cœur mis à nu.)

M. Courbet is the Proudhon of painting. M. Proudhon — M. Courbet, I should say — does democratic and social painting — God knows at what cost.

(The critic L. Enault, reviewing the 1851 Salon in the Chronique de Paris.)

Pen in hand, he wasn't a bad fellow; but he was not, and could never have been, even on paper, a dandy; and for that I shall never forgive him.

( Baudelaire on Proudhon, letter of 2 January 1866 to Sainte-Beuve.)

These statements conjure up an unfamiliar time, a time when art and politics could not escape each other. For a while, in the mid-nineteenth century, the State, the public and the critics agreed that art had a political sense and intention. And painting was encouraged, repressed, hated and feared on that assumption.

Artists were well aware of the fact. Some, like Courbet and Daumier, exploited and even enjoyed this state of affairs; some, following Théophile Gautier, withdrew inside the notion of l'Art pour l'Art, a myth designed to counter the insistent politicization of art. Others, like Millet, accepted the situation with a wry smile — in a letter of 1853 he wondered whether the socks which one of his peasant girls was darning would be taken, by the Government, as giving off too much of a 'popular odour'.

This book sets out to explore this specific moment in French art; to discover the actual, complex links which bind together art and politics in this period; to explain, for example, the strange transitions in the five opening sayings. To call a worker an artist; to call a painting 'democratic and social'; to condemn an anarchist because he failed to be a dandy — these are, to say the least, unfamiliar manoeuvres. What kind of an age was it when Baudelaire took notes from Proudhon and three years later

____________________
Source: T. J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (Thames and Hudson, 1973), pp. 9-20. Footnotes have been omitted.

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