the Restoration and the July Monarchy, art criticism and, more
broadly, reflection on the arts were a central issue in political
life. In the eighteenth century, the education of public opinion
in matters of taste had appeared as a precondition for the public
statement of a political opinion. After 1815, the haunting fear
of the disintegration of society led some to grant to the arts
a decisive role in the meeting of minds. For both a statesman
and a young man in a hurry to get himself elected, art criticism
was not only a source of income or an entertaining distraction;
it was an intellectual qualification for the exercise of power.
Adolphe Thiers published reviews on two quite major salons, those
of 1822 and 1824.(1) François Guizot practiced art criticism
(see his 1851 collection, Études sur les beaux-arts,
which begins with a “critical examination of the salon of
1810”). He was also a major theorist of the theater. His
long preface to the 1821 publication in French of Shakespeare’s
complete works makes of the theater the site for social mixing,
where “pleasures become disinterested and affections generous.”
They are so to such an extent that the arts are at once the site
where “moral electricity” occurs, which unites individuals
in a common feeling, and the site where what Guizot calls “the
characters of the spirit of the century” are brought out.
The affirmation of the political importance of the arts, which
leads to implementation of a vigorous policy favoring preservation
of France’s heritage,(2) is accompanied by a discourse on
history that connects all the manifestations of civilization in
one and the same “spirit.”
de Tocqueville’s originality lies therefore neither in the
construction of a sociology of the arts, which is also to be found,
in various forms, in Thiers, Guizot, Sainte-Beuve, and the Saint-Simonians,
nor in a thoroughgoing knowledge of the fine arts or literature.
As has often been said, Tocqueville had a deep but narrow mind,
or more exactly, a deep one precisely on account of his concentration
on one question that ties together the threads of his existence,
and that is the investigation of democracy. The thirty volumes
of Tocqueville’s complete works in French include few analyses
or even allusions to artistic works, whether those of architecture,
the fine arts, or literature. That may surprise some. In the aristocratic
circles of the early nineteenth century, literature, painting,
music, and an interest in the monuments of the past were part
and parcel of the education of a wellborn young man. To offer
just one example from a circle rather similar to Tocqueville’s,
the young Charles Forbes René de Montalembert recorded
with increasing frequency in his Journal intime(3) from
his adolescent years onward his attendance of soirées
at the Opéra and the Italian opera at the Théâtre-Français,
visited the museums of France, Germany, and Northern Europe, read
German philosophy along with German, English, and French poetry,
and so on and so forth. Tocqueville, the great grandson of Malesherbes
and nephew by marriage of Chateaubriand enjoyed the advantage
of a beautiful family library and did the traditional “tour”
of Italy at the end of his studies. It is likely that the rarity
of examples we have of his commentaries on artistic works stems
from the absence of a diary. His conversations with Nassau Senior
show that he had read some eighteenth-century novels (Samuel Richardson
and Madame Cottin), performed in private amateur theater [théâtre
de société], and also read, in addition to
the classics, the great Romantics (Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Friedrich
Schiller)(4). It is known that he was a patron of Théodore
Chassériau, one of whose paintings, now lost, he owned.
It no less remains the case that, for him, the arts pertained
to the realm of private entertainment. If there was a “Tocquevillean
moment,” as Lucien Jaume says, it was therefore only on
one very particular point. Tocqueville’s own contribution
is to have wondered not about the relation between the arts and
the progress of civilization but about the relation between the
arts and the equality of conditions. For, equality is the cause
for a radical change both in the social condition of artists and
the public, in the art market, one can say, and in the imaginary
of artists. In taking as the central theme of his thought the
study of the democratic social state, Tocqueville was therefore
led to work out both a sociology of art and an aesthetics in a
more systematic way than his contemporaries.
A Sociology of Art
Crisis of Art? The End of Aristocratic Otium
is a middle-class regime in which neither creative artists nor
their public can get along with earning a living. Aristocrats
were able to give themselves over to otium, studious
leisure, which assured for the arts an available and qualified
audience. Devaluation of the arts is an inevitable corollary of
a democratic society, where usefulness is the prime value and
“seriousness,” denounced by Stendhal, the indispensable
virtue. The entrepreneur, a major figure in democracy, has no
time to lose engaging in the arts. Like Stendhal, Tocqueville
was very sensitive to this devaluation of the arts and of literature.
On August 24, 1850, he drew up for Nassau Senior a report of 45
years of social change:
“The sole object of those among whom I was raised was to
amuse and entertain themselves. One never spoke of politics, and
I believe that one did not even think of it often. Literature
was one of the regular topics of conversation. Any new book, of
whatever merit, was read aloud, discussed, and criticized in an
attentive and detailed way that would today seem a deplorable
waste of time.”(5)
incident in life provided material for a brief poem, while private
amateur theater brightened long evenings: Chateaubriand dressed
as an old woman; novels were events(6). One thus finds in Tocqueville
and in his contemporaries the archaeology of our discourse on
the crisis of art, or a farewell to literature(7). The same trend
toward usefulness affects the sciences, as well: “the human
mind is subtly encouraged to neglect theory and to devote unparalleled
energy to applications or, at any rate, to those aspects of theory
most necessary to the people who apply it.”(8)
Crisis of Art? The Collapse of Authority
all individuals consider themselves equal, they can no longer
recognize any other authority than that of the majority. The result
of this is that there is no longer any stable hierarchy of values,
no more qualified arbiters of taste. Each person’s pleasure
becomes the sole criterion of artistic quality. In Democracy
in America, Tocqueville barely wondered at all about the
role cultural institutions play in guiding public opinion, even
though he was a member of two French Académies and
several learned societies. Each person’s refusal to accept
the other’s judgment seemed to him more powerful. Democratic
aesthetics is thus naturally that of the greatest number. If some
sites of high culture or demanding art remain, they lie at democracy’s
margins. It is the responsibility of moral and political thinkers
to correct democracy’s nature by favoring, through artifice,
this high culture to which democracy is not predestined.
A New Order of Time
Jaume underscores, democracy is the era of thinkers who are in
a hurry, who furnish a fickle public with ever remodeled “products”:
“Democratic literatures are always crawling with authors
who see literature as nothing more than an industry, and for every
great writer there are thousands of retailers of ideas.”(9)
Sainte-Beuve had already denounced this arts industry in his article
“De la littérature industrielle,” in the Revue
Des Deux Mondes, 19 (1839): 675-91.
one must go further, for the fine arts have not only become an
industry; they henceforth belong to the system of fashion. With
the universal mobility of things, the pleasure derived from works
can be but ephemeral: Tocqueville confesses to Nassau Senior on
May 2, 1857 that he himself has become incapable of enjoying Lamartine,
who had enchanted him thirty years earlier(10).
aesthetic consequences of this democratic impatience are huge,
and one can speak of a new temporal regime involved in the creation
of works. The democratic imagination is wholly oriented toward
the present and the future: “Democratic peoples scarcely
trouble themselves about what was but dream readily of what will
be, in which respect their imagination knows no bounds; it stretches
and grows beyond measure.”(11) While Tocqueville is thinking
here of the age of Lamartine’s Jocelyn, whose preface
is a veritable humanitarian manifesto, his remarks would obviously
hold, too, for the social palingenesis of Paul Chenavard.
Democratic Scales: Large and Small Monuments
recalls that in New York Tocqueville had been struck by the contrast
between the grandeur of public buildings and the small size of
personal homes, architecture being the visible sign of a social
state in which the Sovereign towers over a multitude of small
individuals. Tocqueville is systematizing here a key opposition
in the history of the arts. Gigantism passes for being the same
as democracy(12). In literature, the epic (whether one is thinking
of Edgar Quinet, Lamartine, or Victor Hugo’s The Legend
of the Centuries) is the “major genre”—as
well as the lengthy genre—that is suited to tell the immensity
of the human adventure. In the fine arts, the “major genres”
alone are suitable to paint the grandeur of the democratic Sovereign
that takes the place of the king. In 1848, in order to glorify
the Republic, majestic representations were needed, as, in order
to tell of the past, one needed Thomas Couture’s huge canvas
The Enrollment of the Volunteers of 1792, which was commissioned
on October 9, 1848, and in order to tell the course of history,
one needed Chenavard’s Pantheon project.
Tocqueville’s contemporaries heaped political praise on
the “minor genres,” which offered democratic individuals
an aesthetics within their reach. Wanting to define modern beauty,
in his salons of 1822 and 1824 Thiers jointly praised the “great
painting” of Eugène Delacroix and minor genres while
refusing to establish a hierarchy between them. The minor genre
tells the story of the anonymous people who are glorified by Thiers
the historian. Genre scenes in painting and the bust in sculpture
were addressed to the new public of the middle classes, and these
art forms had a fine future ahead of them in a social state where
the patron State now also had to contend with individual patrons.
In particular, Thiers defended lithography, “a veritable
revolution” that allowed one to “reach into places
where art had not yet entered.” We know that Charles Blanc
defended engraving in similar terms as a democratic art in an
1839 issue of the Revue du Progrès Politique, Social
et Littéraire and made it his goal to promote genre
and landscape painting as well as Emmanuel Frémiet’s
animals in 1848. Realism is the aesthetic that is linked to these
minor genres; Thiers spoke highly of the documentary precision
of tableaux de moeurs, while Tocqueville formulated this
triumph of realism in the following sociological terms:
“The painters of the Renaissance generally looked for great
subjects that would either transcend themselves or allude to the
remote past in such a way as to provide a vast scope for their
imagination. Our painters often use their talent to reproduce
exactly the details of private life that are constantly before
them, and copy from every conceivable angle petty objects of which
nature provides only too many originals.”(13)
Bombast and Kitsch
aesthetic correlate to this contrast in scale between the small
and the large is the contrast between kitsch and the bombastic.
Kitsch is the art of pretense, of what is neo-, of imitations
that borrow from the values of the past and copy them in miniature.
This word borrowed from the German, where it appeared in the 1870s,
points to an aesthetic trend dating back to well before that time.
Tocqueville made fun of the small white marble classical palaces
of New York, which were in fact built of whitewashed bricks with
columns made of painted wood(14); Bouvard and Pécuchet’s
house is the Flaubertian French version of these little neoclassical
American palaces. Kitsch is the aesthetic of the middle class,
which is seeking commendation for its social distinction, and
Flaubert is the writer who denounces it with ferocity. To Louise
Colet he wrote on January 29, 1854, “How many nice people
there are who, a century ago, had lived perfectly well without
the Fine Arts, and who now require small statuettes, modest music,
and little literature!”
Romantic bombast, conversely, is the aesthetic of greatness. To
the texts by Tocqueville quoted by Jaume must be added Tocqueville’s
response to Nassau Senior in 1850: “What, in your opinion,”
asks Nassau Senior “is your literary golden age?”
“The late seventeenth century” he answered.
“Writers were interested back then only in glory and they
addressed themselves only to a restricted and highly cultivated
public. French literature was in its youth, the front-row seats
were still vacant, and it was relatively easy to gain notice.
Extravagance was not required in order to attract attention. In
those times, style was but the vehicle for thought. Above all,
being clear and, once clear, concise was all that was desired.
In the eighteenth century, the competition began; it had become
difficult to be original in one’s theme, and one tried to
become striking though one’s style. Ornament was added to
clarity and conciseness. It was done with sobriety and good taste,
yet already one sensed the amount of effort and work involved.
Ornamental style has been followed by the grotesque, just as the
austere style of our old Norman architecture has little by little
become ornate and, ultimately, flamboyant.”(15)
an example of such bombast, Tocqueville offers Victor Hugo, but
also Lamartine, whose Meditations “have found in
each reader an accomplice; he seemed to express thoughts of which
all were aware but that no one had yet organized into words.”(16)
The vague and the bombastic are linked in democratic lyricism.
And according to Arthur Kaledin(17), one would find similar analyses
in Walt Whitman.
Jaume underscores well the ambiguous and paradoxical character
of democracy according to Tocqueville. Democracy is the regime
in which the nation is great and the citizens are small. Democratic
aesthetics, too, is a paradoxical aesthetics, nay an aesthetic
of the oxymoron: creative artists pride themselves on being original
and reveal themselves to be similar; thinkers aim at the infinite
but their works last only as long at that season’s fashions;
great monuments are built, which proliferate into many small kitschy
homes. Like Balzac, Stendhal, Sainte-Beuve, and Flaubert, Tocqueville
offers us an analytics of modernity that, without resigning itself
to saying Farewell to arts and letters, highlights the break with
the former universe and the aesthetic consequences of a democracy
hardly directed at all toward “a sense of greatness, and
a love of immaterial pleasures.”(18)
See Marie-Claude Chaudonneret’s annotated edition, Adolphe
Thiers, critique d’art. Les Salons de 1822 et de 1824 (Paris:
Honoré Champion, 2005).
2. Well studied, in particular by Dominique Poulot.
See my article, “La culture, affaire d’Etat? La politique
culturelle des libéraux dans la première moitié
du XIXème siècle,” La production de l’immatériel.
Théories, représentations et pratiques de la culture
au XIXème siècle, ed. Jean-Yves Mollier, Philippe
Régnier, and Alain Vaillant (Saint Étienne: Publications
de l’Université de Saint Étienne, 2008), pp.
3. Paris: Éditions du CNRS, 1990.
4. Oeuvres Complètes, tome 6,
5. Ibid, p. 301.
6. Ibid., 1857, p. 140. Tocqueville returns on
several occasions to the primacy of usefulness: it is striking
to see that in the chapter he devotes to monuments (vol. 2, part
1, ch. 12), the sole example of a democratic monument mentioned
in his rough drafts was the Cherbourg harbor wall, to which he
dedicated a note in 1847.
7. See William Marx, L’Adieu à
la littérature. Histoire d’une dévalorisation.
XVIIIe-XXe siècle (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit,
2005). This book offers a brilliant summary of the change in the
status of literature in Europe.
8. Democracy in America (Goldhammer
translation), vol. 2, part 1, ch. 10, p. 526.
9. Ibid., vol. 2, part 1, ch. 14, p. 544.
10. Oeuvres Complètes, tome 6,
vol. 2, p. 469.
11. Democracy in America, vol. 2, part
1, ch. 17, p. 557.
12. See Maurice Agulhon, Marianne au combat:
l’imagerie et la symbolique républicaines de 1789
à 1880 (Paris: Flammarion, 1979).
13. Democracy in America, vol. 2, part
1, ch. 11, p. 534-35.
14. Ibid., vol. 2, part 1, ch. 11, p. 535.
15. Oeuvres complètes, tome 6,
vol. 2, p. 303.
16. Ibid., p. 304.
17. See his article cited below in the Recommended
18. Democracy in America, vol. 2, part
1, ch. 15, p. 635.
Guellec, Laurence. Tocqueville et les langages
de la démocratie. Paris: Champion, 2004.
Kaledin, Arthur. “Tocqueville’s Apocalypse:
Culture, Politics, and Freedom in Democracy in America.”
In Tocqueville et l’esprit de la démocratie. The
Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville. Ed. Laurence Guellec.
Paris: Sciences Po les presses, 2005.
Georgel, Chantal. 1848, la République
et l’art vivant. Preface Maurice Agulhon. Paris: Fayard,1998.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America.
Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Library of America/Penguin