Centre d’Histoire de Sciences Po


Jules Lavirotte, Working-class detached home, Paris Home Show, 1903.

Catherine Méneux
Social Art at the Turn of the Century

Christophe Prochasson
Neither Doctrine Nor School Nor Movement

Editorial Director: Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Editorial Assistant: Elodie Antoine
Translator: David Ames Curtis





The Model Child

The beautiful and the useful

New Publics, Between Utopia and Marketing

Photographs by amateurs

the market, at the start

art in the republic

the voyage of the avant-gardes

Major exhibitions


        In the middle of the nineteenth century, the reaction against spiritualism was a prelude to the struggle that would start up against art for art’s sake--against art seen as autonomous and rid of all social responsibility. A certain number of thinkers paved the way at the time by attacking this vision of an ethereal, deceptive, and stupidly comforting world, and they showed that the Heaven of Platon or Bossuet was but a sorry refuge when what was needed was to face reality. In his Philosophes classiques du XIXe siècle (Classical philosophers of the nineteenth century, 1857), Hippolyte Taine called upon people to take up again the realist tradition and to place themselves on the ground of facts and science.
        It is well known to what extent this return to the real was ill greeted by the critics, who denounced its hideous materialism and its obsession with evil. With no Hereafter, this sort of realism could be the harshest kind possible and the most resolutely opposed to any kind of moralizing aesthetic. Behind its expressions of detestation loomed a critique of Germany that, starting in 1870, was to combat, inch by inch, the spell of a nation Madame de Staël had cast in De l’Allemagne (Germany, 1814). The liberal union of neighbors (a prefiguration of Europe) so wished for by the Renans and Taines was then jettisoned in favor of a return to a France injured in its pride and ready for revenge.
        While one side of the French intellect shut itself off amid its feelings of disenchantment, the other side devoted all its forces to a reconstructive effort. It was in the wake of this energetic rebirth that the idea prospered of creating a kind of art that would be so connected with social life and morality that it could change the old world. Indeed, between 1889 and 1914 debates were rife around the topic of “social art.” As Catherine Méneux shows, social art could not completely deny the autonomy and freedom of action gained from modern artists. In an industrial society that was undergoing a complete reshaping of its economic, political, and religious framework, art was one of the symbolic objects numerous actors took up in order to invent a more just society--one in which each person would have access to culture, to beauty, and to harmony in the private realm as well as in the public space. We rediscover, in this way, the premises of Saint-Simonism, the philosophy of Taine, and the rationalism of Viollet-le-Duc, to which were added anarchist impulses and, from abroad, the efficacy of the English (with William Morris, especially) and Belgian models.
        Christophe Prochasson insists upon the exceptional character of this turn-of-the-century history, a “moment” in which it seemed possible to bring art, politics, and science into harmony. He is very well aware of the contradictions that were inherent in these hopes of seeing art reconciled with the people when the latter were viewed as alarming on account of their mass character and their supposed absence of “good” taste. Added thereto were social art’s numerical weakness and the paucity of its real achievements, followed by the funeral toll of the Great War.
        Defense of a kind of art that would be both modern and French was, of course, blocked by the outbreak of world conflict. Yet it was to reemerge in the 1920s and 1930s in new ways and with a clearer, State-led willingness to act whose effects could be felt above all at the 1937 International Exhibition of Arts and Technologies. After the combats in favor of “social art” came the intestine struggles of anarchists who had defended modernity against the eternal poverty advocated by their theorist Peter Kropotkin, and there were fights with Picasso, too, who had so established himself as the artist capable of linking together modern individual freedom and history that Robert Delaunay could cheekily declare in 1935: “Me, artist, me manual worker, I’m making revolution right on the premises.”

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac

Letter published with the support of the Foundation of France