Sunday, July 26, 2020


Thomas Crow, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris
From the introduction.
The success of the Salon as a central Parisian institution, however, had been many decades in the making. Its actual origins lay in the later seventeenth century, but these had not been particularly auspicious. The Academy’s initial efforts at public exhibition had been limited to a few cramped and irregular displays of pictures, first in its own meeting rooms and later in the open arcades of the adjoining Palais Royal. The disadvantage of the latter practice, according to an early account, was that the artists “had the constant worry of damage to the paintings by the weather, which pressed them often to withdraw the pictures before the curiosity of the public had been satisfied.” By 1699 the Salon was more comfortably installed inside the Louvre, and Parisians were spared the sight of academicians hustling their canvases out of the rain. By all accounts, that exhibition was a popular success, but it was almost forty years before the Salon became a permanent fixture of French cultural life. 
After 1737, however, its status was never in question, and its effects on the artistic life of Paris were immediate and dramatic. Painters found themselves being exhorted in the press and in art-critical tracts to address the needs and desires of the exhibition “public”; the journalists and critics who voiced this demand claimed to speak with the backing of this public; state officials responsible for the arts hastened to assert that their decisions had been taken in the public's interest; and collectors began to ask, rather ominously for the artists, which pictures had received the stamp of the public’s approval. All those with a vested interest in the Salon exhibitions were thus faced with the task of defining what sort of public it had brought into being.   
This proved to be no easy matter, for any of those involved. The Salon exhibition presented them with a collective space that was markedly different from those in which painting and sculpture had served a public function in the past. Visual art had of course always figured in the public life of the community that produced it: civic processions up the Athenian Acropolis, the massing of Easter penitents before the portal of Chartres cathedral, the assembly of Florentine patriots around Michelangelo’s David— these would just begin the list of occasions in which art of the highest quality entered the life of the ordinary European citizen and did so in a vivid and compelling way. But prior to the eighteenth century, the popular experience of high art, however important and moving it may have been to the mass of people viewing it, was openly determined and administered from above. Artists operating at the highest levels of aesthetic ambition did not address their wider audience directly; they had first to satisfy, or at least resoh e, the more immediate demands of elite individuals and groups. Whatever factors we might name which bear on the character of the art object, these were always refracted through the direct relationship between artists and patrons, that is, between artists and a circum- scribed, privileged minority.   
The broad public for painting and sculpture would thus have been defined in terms other than those of interest in the arts for their own sake. In the pre-eighteenth-century examples cited above, it was more or less identical with the ritualized assembly of the political and/or religious community as a whole—and it could be identified as such. The eighteenth-century Salon, however, marked a removal of art from the ritual hierarchies of earlier communal life. There the ordinary man or woman was encouraged to rehearse before works of art the kinds of pleasure and discrimination that once had been the exclusive prerogative of the patron and his intimates. There had been precedents for this kind of exhibition, of cou rsc, in France and elsewhere in Europe: displays of paintings often accompanied the festival of Corpus Christi, for example, and there were moves underway in many places to make royal and noble collections available to a wider audience.‘ But the Salon was the first regularly repeated, open, and free display of con- temporary art in Europe to be offered in a completely secular setting and for the purpose of encouraging a primarily aesthetic response in large numbers of people. 
There was in this arrangement, however, an inherent tension between the part and the whole: the institution was collective in character, yet the experience it was meant to foster was an intimate and private one. In the modern public exhibition, starting with the Salon, the audience is assumed to share in some community of interest, but what significant commonality may actually exist has been a far more elusive question. What was an aesthetic response when divorced from the small community of erudition, connois- seurship, and aristocratic culture that had heretofore given it meaning? To call the Salon audience a “public” implies some meaningful degree of coherence in attitudes and expec- tations: could the crowd in the Louvre be described as anything more than a temporary collection of hopelessly heterogeneous individuals? This was the question facing the members of the art world of eighteenth-century Paris. Many thought so, but the actual attempt caused them endless difficulty.
Gabriel-Jacques de Saint-Aubin, Staircase of the Salon. 1753. Etching
Here is one representative eflort, written in 1777 by a veteran social commentator and art critic, Pidansat dc Mairobert. He begins with his physical entry into the space of the exhibition (fig 2) [above]:
You emerge through a stairwell like a trapdoor, which is always choked despite its considerable width. Having escaped that painful gauntlet, you cannot catch your breath before being plunged into an abyss of heat and a whirlpool of dust. Air so pestilential and impregnated with the exhalations of so many unhealthy persons should in the end produce either lightning or plague. Finally you are deafened by a continuous noise like that of the crashing waves in an angry sea. But here nevertheless is a thing to delight the eye of an Englishman: the mixing, men and women together, of all the orders and all the ranks of the state. . . . This is perhaps the only public place in France where he could find that precious liberty visible everywhere in London. This enchanting spectacle pleases me even more than the works displayed in this temple of the arts. Here the Savoyard odd-job man rubs shoulders with the great noble in his cordon bleu; the fishwife trades her perfumes with those of a lady of quality, making the latter resort to holding her nose to combat the strong odor of cheap brandy drifting her way; the rough artisan, guided only by natural feeling, comes out with a just observation, at which an inept wit nearby bursts out laughing only because of the comical accent in which it was expressed; while an artist hiding in the crowd unravels the meaning of it all and turns it to his profit.
The source of this passage is Mairobert’s clandestine news-sheet, the “English Spy,” hence the conspicuous English references. It appears as part of a lengthy and sober history of official art in France and of the public exhibitions of the Academy (as good as airy the eighteenth century produced). His half-comic observations of the Salon crowd are meant to carry serious meaning and can serve to introduce the principal themes of this book.
I should have read it years ago. But so far at least, he's not connecting art and culture and the economic modes that underlie them. I've read well beyond this point but this sticks with me.
Visual art had of course always figured in the public life of the community that produced it: civic processions up the Athenian Acropolis, the massing of Easter penitents before the portal of Chartres cathedral, the assembly of Florentine patriots around Michelangelo’s David— these would just begin the list of occasions in which art of the highest quality entered the life of the ordinary European citizen and did so in a vivid and compelling way. 
"Art of the highest quality..." Athenian theater was made for a broad audience.

I began the megillah in the mid 80s in the middle of the lit-crit wars. This is a good book. Footnoted in an earlier version.

Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550–1750, Cambridge, 1986
Drawing on a variety of disciplines and documents, Professor Agnew illuminates one of the most fascinating chapters in the formations of Anglo-American market culture. Worlds Apart traces the history of our concepts of the marketplace and the theatre and the ways in which these concepts are bound together. Focusing on Britain and America in the years 1550 to 1750, the book discusses the forms and conventions that structured both commerce and theatre. As marketing practice broke free of its traditional boundaries and restraints, it challenged longstanding popular assumptions about the constituents of value, the nature of identity, the signs of authenticity, and the limits of liability. New exchange relations bred new legal and commercial fictions to authorise them, but they also bred new doubts about the precise grounds upon which the self and its 'interests' were to be represented. Those same doubts, Professor Agnew shows, animated the theatre as well. As actors and playwrights shifted from ecclesiastical and civic drama to professional entertainments, they too devised authenticating fictions, fictions that effectively replicated the bewildering representational confusions of the new 'placeless market'.
The passage below was once part of my discussion of the 19th century Salon, conflating high art with serious literature. But by the logic of high art, serious literature –as serious fiction– is an oxymoron.
Pornography and Art
How were the conventions of Pornography -a genre usually defined by content (the explicit depiction of sexual activity) and intention (to arouse the male reader)- related to the production and interpretation of art?" (Robin Sheets "Pornography and Art", Critical Inquiry, winter, 1988)
In response to Steven Markus' assumptions. in The Other Victorians that pornography is "[Hostile] to language" and "antithetical to the great Victorian Novels" Robin Sheets dissects a poem by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, to expose the influence of a pornographic structure the larger scale of literature. She quotes Susan Keppeler:
In terms of representation and with respect to the objectification of the female gender, the pornographer only reproduces, on a less elevated level and within exclusive circulation, what the artist does in the esoteric levels of high culture. (The Pornography of Representation, Minneapolis, 1986)
Sheets then goes on at great length to argue that this relation exists, and I am not going to argue since I think she's right. But that being said, I'll add a caveat: if pornographic influence is apparent in "High" art, so what? I'm perfectly willing to accept that Markus and others who want art to exist above the world have something to lose by allowing such influences the acknowledgement they deserve. But outside of this well deserved criticism of the "Defenders of High Art" what's the point? Is it that there is no difference between pornography and the high art of a society dominated by white men? If this is her argument, as it is that of Andrea Dworkin, whose work she uses an "an interpretive model" I'll withhold my assent. In 1987 I witnessed a debate along similar lines at a conference on Romanticism at Indiana University. It struck me as so odd that for a year or so afterwards I tried to write an article on that incident alone, but I gave up. It fits perfectly here, however. The argument was about Wordsworth, and happened during a question and answer session after a reading by David Simpson, a professor at Colorado, and Robert Woof, a Wordsworth scholar. Both men were British, but Simpson prefers being an expatriate. In a bit of nasty and unwarranted condescension during their exchange, Simpson responded to Woof's criticism by saying that people like Woof were what made him leave England. Simpson had argued that Wordsworth's politics were at all times extremely confused, and were based on very bourgeois suppositions. He had no understanding of politics, and English Romanticism did not prepare him for the rough and tumble, the inherent sloppiness, of revolution. This he thought was the reason for Wordsworth's later conservatism. These were all good points, but Simpson went further, arguing that this jeopardized Wordsworth's entire literary endeavor. Woof came to Wordsworth's defense, arguing for the respect due the author's literary achievement, in effect for a transcendent ahistorical valuation of his work.

If we place Markus and Woof sided by side, and do the same for Sheets and Simpson, we see the correlation. Both Markus and Woof want to protect literature from something they see as outside it, and Sheets and Simpson want to storm the barricades. For both groups the argument is over ideas of agency, though for the more conservative scholars the issue of agency itself is distasteful: they would prefer to be above the fray. But "radical" academics like Simpson are on the same ground. How is it possible for Wordsworth were something he wasn't? He was a bourgeois romantic, and if his politics weren't particularly useful, his mind was subtle, and he has given us a window into the imagination of an articulate and observant 19th century man. There is no irresolvable paradox between enjoyment and criticism.

Why do "leftist" professors of literature, in arguing for a history and literature of agency conveniently forget the Marxist dictum that economics precedes culture? Why the unjustifiable obsession with art as cause? If it weren't for such forced ahistoricism nothing would stand in the way of a critical but sympathetic exegesis of the work of Wordsworth, Rosetti, or anyone else whose work were interesting enough to warrant it. There seems to be de-facto conspiracy of ideological concerns, however, that treats all art as illustration.
Later I figured out that of course all philosophy is illustration, and I dropped the references to the now forgotten arguments about literature.

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