Wednesday, March 31, 2021

I should have done this a long time ago. more updates p.12.

Remember Weber… and Saint-Simon, and the first modern* use of “avant-garde” to refer to artists, in a dialogue between an artist, a scientist and an industrialist. 

From Dreams of Happiness: Social Art and the French Left, 1830-1850, by Neil McWilliam.

 

Taking up Saint-Simon’s belief that in a fully developed industrial society government would be rendered redundant, the artist argues that it is the triumvirate of progressive capacities who best understand popular needs and whose destiny it is to administer the state. Only suspicion and misunderstanding prevent them from assuming this role and bringing about sweeping change in the moral and political order. The remarks placed in his mouth signify the artist’s final admission into ruling circles as the peer of both industrial and savant. His newly recognized powers transform him from an independent professional into a public figure whose work must be dictated by broad considerations of polity. In this respect, Saint-Simon robs him of the autonomous exercise of moral judgment demanded by such eighteenth-century commentators as Diderot and La Font de Saint-Yenne; in return for social eminence, he is obliged to direct his talents toward propagating ideas that emerge from the deliberations of the administrative triumvirate. From this perspective, the artist in the Dialogue foresees his colleagues taking on decisive responsibilities:

 

It is we artists who will serve as your vanguard, [C'est nous, artistes, qui vous serviront d'avant-garde.] since art’s power has greatest immediacy and rapidity. We have arms of every sort: when we wish to spread new ideas among men, we inscribe them on marble or canvas; we make them popular through poems or melodies; we use in turn the lyre or the flute, odes or songs, stories or the novel; the dramatic stage is also open to us, and it is there above all that we exert an electric and victorious influence.[i]

 

“L’Artiste, le savant et l’industriel”,  following “Le Catéchisme des Industriels” [Catechism of the Industrialists], sound like contemporary fantasies out of Silicon Valley and MIT, minus the need for deliberation, since the distinctions between the three have vanished. We’ll get to that later. 

 

Nochlin, in “The Invention of the Avant-Garde” [ii]cites the passage as quoted by Donald Egbert in “The Idea of "Avant-garde in Art and Politics”.[iii]  Neil McWilliam responds to Egbert in a footnote.

 

Egbert’s suggestion that the phrase avant-garde prefigures its later usage in the sense of an artistic vanguard is entirely misleading. Rather than referencing formal or thematic experimentation, the context in which the term is habitually used within modernism, its deployment here refers exclusively to the political relationship the artist sustains as mediator between the leadership and the people. Valuing the artist only insofar as his talents contribute to the progressive amelioration of society, Saint Simon restricts his discussion to a range of functional priorities entirely indifferent to any formal characteristics intrinsic to the various media embraced within the term beaux-arts. In emphasizing his designation of the artist as being in the avant-garde, Egbert ironically overlooks the term’s appearance in Saint—Simon’s earlier work, where he speaks of a scientific avant-garde in a sense closer to modern usage, albeit in the context of a different discipline.  

 

As if intellectual history weren’t a game of telephone, of evolution, decay, and transformation. Etymology and philology are the history of change, of ideas and objects signifying one thing at one time and the opposite two centuries on. And Egbert is clear in describing what artists took from Saint-Simon and what they left behind. The history of the avant-garde is a history of visions and revisions. Honest history, partial by definition but stripped of enthusiasms, makes a mockery of fantasies of rational continuity.  McWilliam himself says Saint-Simon is “important in elevating the Middle Ages as a period of exceptional creative achievement.” [p.49] He and his disciples, like the Catholic revivalists, "judged the Renaissance from the perspective of the Middle Ages, and regarded the later period as initiating a critical era of which contemporary society was the inheritor." [p.133]. This is humanism seen from the perspective of anti-humanism, an ideology foundational to modernist purism in both politics and form. 

 

Nochlin cites Baudelaire’s reply, in his posthumous Mon cœur mis à nu, but doesn’t quote him. 

 

XXXI

Of love, of the predilection of the French for military metaphors. Here every metaphor wear s a moustache. Militant literature. —To man the breach, —To bear the standard aloft, —To maintain the standard high and firm. —To hurl oneself into the thick of the fight, —One of the veterans. All these fine phrases apply generally to the college scouts and to the do-nothings of the coffee-house.  

XXXII

To add to the military metaphors: Soldier of the judicial press (Bertin). The poets of strife. The litterateurs of the advance guard. [Les poètes de combat. Les littérateurs d’avant-garde] This habitude of military metaphors denotes minds not military, but made for discipline, that is, for conformity, minds born domesticated, Belgian minds, which can think only in society.[iv]



*Matei Călinescu finds an earlier source, in the late sixteenth century. Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism, Duke, 1987 pp 97-8


[i]Neil McWilliam,  Dreams of Happiness: Social Art and the French Left, 1830-1850, Princeton, 1993, p.46

[ii] Nochlin, “The Invention of the Avant-Garde”, in The Politics of Vision,  Harper and Row, 1989

[iii]Donald D. Egbert, "The Idea of  'Avant-garde' in Art and Politics," The American Historical Review, vol. 73, no.2, 1967

[iv] Baudelaire, “My Heart Laid Bare”, trans. Joseph T. Shipley, in Baudelaire: His Prose and Poetry, ed. T.R. Smith, Modern Library, Boni and Liveright, 1919, p.234


I was in living in Bloomington Indiana when I began this, in 1987, and I didn't know who Matei Călinescu was, or that he lived there. I've posted the quote before but having finally gotten around to putting Saint-Simon in the manuscript I forgot to add it. [now I have, at least as a cite]
The wordavant-garde” (fore-guard) has an old history in French. As a term of warfare it dates back to the Middle Ages, and it developed a figurative meaning at least as early as the Renaissance. However, the metaphor of the avant-garde—expressing a self-consciously advanced position in politics, literature and art, religion, etc.—was not employed with any consistency before the nineteenth century. Among other things, this fact accounts for the indelibly modern appearance of the label “avant-garde. ”Poggioli’s earliest example of the cultural use of the term is from a little-known pamphlet published in 1845 by Gabriel Desire Laverdant, a follower of Charles Fourier. I was convinced, with Donald Drew Egbert, that the cultural notion of the avant-garde had been introduced at least two decades earlier, in 1825, and that the utopian philosophy of Saint-Simon had been responsible for this specific application of the term. Actually, the avant-garde metaphor was applied to poetry almost three centuries earlier, as I found out looking up the word “avant-garde” in the recent and excellent Tresor de la langue frangaise (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1974, vol. 3, pp.1056-57). During   the second half of the sixteenth century, in a period that anticipates certain themes of the later Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns, the French humanist lawyer and historian Etienne Pasquier (1529-1615) wrote in his Recherches de la France:
A glorious war was then being waged against ignorance, a war in which, I would say, Scève, Bèze, and Pelletier constituted the avant-garde; or, if you prefer, they were the fore-runners of the other poets. After them, Pierre de Ronsard of Vendome and Joachim du Bellay of Anjou, both gentlemen of noblest ancestry, joined the ranks. The two of them fought valiantly, and Ronsard in the first place, so that several others entered the battle under their banners.

This interesting passage occurs in chapter XXXVIII of the Feugère edition of Recherches (1849), “De la grande flotte des poetes que produisit le regne du roi Henri deuxième, et de la nouvelleforme de poésie par eux introduite.” The chapter is part of a larger tableau of the overall development of French poetry, one of the first such attempts, in any European country,... 

You can hear the difference between a scholar and a pedant, before anything else,  in their tone: admitting the possibility of error. He's wrong about kitsch, but most people are. 

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