In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo had the revolutionary
student Enjolras say that the nineteenth century was great but
that the twentieth would be happy. At any rate, the nineteenth
century did identify with the tremendous upsurge of progressivism
that was making itself felt at the time in the name of a social
ideal and through a series of reforms, of which the reform of
the fine arts seemed increasingly inevitable.
Progress was envisaged,
on the one hand, as growth or development, on the other as a process
of “equalization of conditions.” Alexis de Tocqueville
identified the latter as the very mark of the modern sociological
and anthropological process, a process he examined under the new
heading of democracy.
In the world of art, this growth, “and above all that of
well-being,” passed by way of a will to reconcile the beautiful
and the useful, artisans and artists, architects and interior
decorators, builders and painters, political thinkers and artists,
as well as by way of a thorough revision of an outmoded way of
teaching the fine arts that foresaw no point of passage between
the arts, on the one hand, and the role and duty of the artist,
on the other, in a society that, it was hoped, would become better,
more harmonious, less inegalitarian.
the world of art was going to have to be brought down to earth
and be made to take note of the long-standing failure to effect
a reconciliation of the arts. In France more than in England or
in Germany, this effort was undermined by a series of factors :
the backwardness of entrepreneurs and their lack of imagination
as well as an overly timid defense of an ethic of political, social,
and culture change.
“That art might flourish, that the nation might prosper,
and that the worker might earn a living, we need perfect prototypes
suitable for faultless mass production, with the confidence an
ever better disciplined and ever more flexible scientific knowledge
guarantees to industry.”
The artist therefore had to position himself upstream from the
production process and offer models that would beautify the interiors
of homes, lighting the way with his functionalist good sense.
The resulting eclecticism did not truly bode well for the much
longer history of the still ongoing project of allying art with