At the beginning
of the nineteenth century, there were two opposing views of art:
the idea of art as “finality without end”--as an autonomous
activity whose criteria are defined by artists themselves--and
the one that saw in art a means of expression subordinated to
the ends of social life, to the common interest, and to morality(1).
Described early on as “social art,” this second way
of conceiving of art became the object of particularly important
debates between 1889 and 1914. As soon as the democratic State
began to intervene in artistic life, the question of the relations
between art and society became of concern to the entire citizenry.
In light of the State’s cultural policy, some critics raised
the problem of the social utility of art and of the effect art
works have on the spectator. As for the artists themselves, in
texts, in actions, and in artistic works they expressed themselves
about their potential social role. Writers also fed these discussions.
The debates over social art were thus articulated around four
distinct poles, which were literary, artistic, critical, and political.
Generally, these debates bore on the question of the social function
of art in an industrial and commercial society, whereas what artists
endeavored to gain was some genuine autonomy and to be judged
on a single criterion, their originality, and therefore on the
expressive force of their individuality(2).
The Renewal of Social Art in the Time of Symbolism and
Social art became
a major object of discussion among literary and artistic elites
as republican society and liberal paternalism began more and more
to be challenged. The creation, by writers, of the Club for Social
Art (1889-1890), then of the review L’Art social (1891-1894),
testifies to this(3). Attacking bourgeois individualism and symbolist
literature, these writers advocated a revolution through art and
popular access to culture. In 1892, Paul Desjardins, Gabriel Séailles,
and a few others created an association called The Union for Moral
Action. Spiritualists, they wished to work through charity for
the people. They thus encouraged the reproduction of masterpieces
as well as the dissemination of popular culture and the promotion
of artists deemed by them to be ideal, such Puvis de Chavannes(4).
Critics like Roger Marx also set out to promote decorative art,
invoking both utility and modernity. As for the artists in the
Symbolist movement, they put their energies into popular crafts.
(Fig 2) While not democratic, this craft industry was at least
popular because it borrowed from popularly developed forms. A
work thus became the site where the artist and the proletarian
all these ideas constituted but a false start, inasmuch as the
true questions were not really being raised. Indeed, the demands
being put forth bore more on the freedom of the creative artist
than on his eventual integration into industrial society. The
years 1894-1895 thus were the occasion for a first retrospective
assessment. Symbolist decorative art was criticized, for it emanated
from artists working individually, far from national traditions,
to the detriment of a single, collective style. The objects being
created were also too refined to be accessible to the people.
Debates began to form around the “art industries”
and architecture. Moreover, a number of commentators looked abroad.
William Morris became the object of ardent admiration. Indeed,
not only had he originated a modern, national, and popular art,
but he offered a genuine doctrine for combining art and democracy,
without for all that “compromising” with dealers and
industrialists(5). The ideas of Edmond Picard and Jules Destrée
in Belgium, as well as the productions of Gustave Surrurier-Bovy,
also fueled debates. Among writers, discussions took place mainly
in anarchist journals and within a new circle that in 1896 took
the name “social-art group.” Painters with anarchist
convictions, such as Signac and Pissarro, were then led to express
their own opinions: rejecting the writers’ distinction between
“art for art’s sake” and “social art,”
they insisted upon the intrinsically social character of their
works and upon the emotion likely to be shared with the spectator(6).
The idea of art
as social took on a new orientation at this time. While Saint-Simonism,
the Count Laborde report(7), the philosophy of Hippolyte Taine,
and Viollet-le-Ducian rationalism remained major references, English
and Belgian models now took on decisive weight. Proposals in the
area had a clear reformist ring to them. In 1894, Gustave Geffroy
launched the idea of a “Night Museum” whose purpose
would be to train art workers. The People’s Society for
the Fine Arts, created in 1894, organized lectures and sought
to be a tool of social cohesion by bringing artists together with
a varied public. After the museum and the association, it was
the decor of daily life that became invested with educative power.
The architect and art critic Frantz Jourdain advocated “art
in the streets” and the involvement of artists in the utilitarian
decoration of the public way(8). As for Roger Marx, he shifted
the discussion into the classroom and launched a campaign in the
press in favor of “art in the school.” These men wished
to promote a modern, rational, and French form of art in places
open to the view of the people and of the child. Far removed from
historicist, academic, and realist models, this new art [art
nouveau] was the work of such artists as Henri Rivière
and Alexandre Charpentier. (Figs. 3 and 4) Moreover, such proposals
required the support of public powers, which alone could direct
plans along a common path and provide financing for projects.
Nonetheless, the state authorities remained barely open at all
to these new ideas. In the area of public housing, however, the
Siegfried Law of 1894 testified to a change in thinking: the promoters
of workers’ housing recognized the need to appeal to the
State in order to house society’s poorest members(9). Architects
gradually became aware of the social role they could play. The
creation of the Art in Everything group at the end of the 1890s
is an emblematic example of this trend(10). Bringing together
decorators and architects, the group fought in favor of a genuine
social project and a rationalist aesthetic, offering in particular
furniture and furnishing sets for the middle class.
Art and Democracy
The years between 1898 and 1901 mark a transition toward new cultural
practices. The Dreyfus Affair confirmed the overriding necessity
of education, while talk about degeneracy, the bankruptcy of elites,
and fear of the crowd became more prevalent. It was in this context
that the People’s Universities movement was created. The
architecture and industrial arts shown at the Universal Exhibition
of 1900 allowed one to draw up at the same time an assessment.
What the Exhibition revealed especially was the lack of unity
and of social import in French decorative art. Politicians, critics,
and artists turned their backs on this vast bazaar, and debates
among them then intensified. The French State was now being strongly
called into question. With the political pole removed, social-art
initiatives were able to bring together writers, intellectuals,
artists, and critics.
The objective was no longer the democratization of art but, rather,
cultural democracy. This change ended up rehabilitating popular
culture and revising established hierarchies. The commonly-held
idea was now to bring art to the people through popularization,
exhibitions, and long-term projects. In the enthusiasm surrounding
the 1901 law on associations, many new societies were formed:
Aesthetics, The College of Modern Aesthetics, Art for All, New
Paris, and the International Society for People’s Art and
Hygiene, not to mention the many societies founded in the area
of public housing. Often international in scope and advocating
decentralization, these associations were a direct response to
the inefficiency of governmental policy. Among the personalities
dominant in this movement, we may mention the names of Maurice
Leblond, Louis Lumet, Henri Cazalis (who wrote under the pseudonym
“Jean Lahor”), Frantz Jourdain, and Gabriel Mourey.
(Fig. 5) Some were clearly socialist in their leanings; others,
such as Cazalis, were terrified by the tasteless crowds and wanted
to create an “art for the people” that would safeguard
learned culture while also letting in old popular French stock.
In addition to these predominant figures, we find again and again
the same personalities in the investigations undertaken and the
associations formed: Gustave Geffroy, Octave Mirbeau, Roger Marx,
André Mellerio, André Fontainas, and Georges Moreau.
Among the artists involved in these groups, let us mention Charles
Plumet, Louis Bonnier, Léon Benouville, Auguste Rodin,
Eugène Carrière, Georges Auriol, Henri Rivière,
Adolphe Willette, Etienne Moreau-Nélaton, Pierre Roche,
Albert Besnard, Alexandre Charpentier, and Théophile Alexandre
Social art, which was now integrating ideas from sociologists
and economists, then set its focus on certain “sites”:
- the development [cité], the street, and the
home: whether one’s writings and initiatives bore on low-cost
housing, the planned town [la cité-jardin], or
urban policy [l’urbanisme], many attempts were
made to integrate modernity into an urban setting. The public
way was thenceforth conceived in a functional way: it was to incorporate,
in particular, the park for leisure time and the community hall
for meetings, as well as a library and a museum for education(11).
- the domestic space: the idea was to decorate and furnish the
most modest home, at the lowest possible cost, in line with a
logic of rationality, hygiene, and aesthetics. On the level of
style, the promoters of this new art of decoration defended a
simplified and “Frenchified” Art Nouveau aesthetic
compatible with industrial production.
- the school: it was a matter of introducing into schools the
latest advances in pedagogy and psychology as well as a “hygienic
aesthetic”--one that would be clear, simple, natural, rational,
and patriotic on the symbolic level. (Fig. 8)
With neither the necessary financial means nor the desired level
of recognition, these tiny associations nevertheless struggled
to initiate reforms. Moreover, there was no dearth of opponents
of cultural democracy. Camille Mauclair and groups like the Old-Paris
Commission denounced the utopian thinking and radicalism of such
French Synthesis and Institutionalization of Social Art
With the end of the Dreyfus Affair, the winding down of the People’s
Universities movement, and an unprecedented wave of strikes, the
alliance that had united intellectuals, artists and the popular
classes started to come apart after 1906. On the artistic scene,
Art Nouveau drew its last breaths and the threat of foreign competition
redirected talk toward the national tradition and classicism.
Social art, as the ephemeral reappearance in 1906 of a review
bearing this title testifies, remained, for a portion of the older
generations as well as for the new ones, an ideal to be achieved.
It was no longer envisioned as a popular art but, rather, as a
concept liable to be operative in a democratic, industrial society.
The year 1907
witnessed the creation of two major societies, the National Society
for Art in the School and the Provincial Union of the Decorative
Arts. Both groups were chaired by Senator Charles Maurice Couyba.
The objective of the first one was “to get the child to
love nature and art, to make school more attractive, and to aid
in the education of taste and in the development of the moral
and social education of youth.”(12)(Fig. 9) The goal of
the second one was to “foster and carry out artistic and
industrial decentralization by building back up regional industries
and crafts.”(13) These societies were headed up by senior
civil servants and politicians who had at their disposal the power
required to initiate reforms. They were going to carry all the
more weight as successes abroad began to exert an alarming amount
of pressure around the years 1908-1910.
It was in this
context that Roger Marx, a member of the National Society for
Art in the School, launched the idea of an international exhibition
of social art.(14) Here, he was taking back up a proposal first
put forth by Couyba in 1907. Nevertheless, the expression social
art was not chosen by accident. The point was to leave a
mark on people’s minds and to create a healthy new burst
of energy. The point was also to place the vague reformist efforts
of the abovementioned groups within a French tradition that stretched
from Saint-Simonism to Henri Cazalis, passing by way of Count
Laborde, Proudhon, and Jean-Marie Guyau. On the political level,
Roger Marx’s positioning was that of a radical solidarism
whose aim was to achieve social cohesion and whose belief was
in State action. In fact, this social art, defined as a kind of
art that “is intimately involved in the existence of the
individual and the community,” was no longer addressed only
to the “fourth estate” but also to society as a whole.
In his proposals, Roger Marx thus offered a synthesis of a large
portion of the ideas that had been put forward since 1900.
the main artistic groups rallied to this project of setting up
an exhibition. The proposal gradually gained the status of a true
consensus.(15) As for the idea of “social art,” it
ultimately federated all those who dreamed of an art that would
be both modern and French, despite a well-known set of reservations:
the national, elitist, decorative tradition, nostalgia for the
corporatism and patronage, as well as artists’ own individualism.
The war swept away the promises to which this project had given
birth. The idea of social art was to remain present in people’s
memories. To take one example, the 1934 manifesto of the Union
of the Modern Arts contained this short and simple phrase: “modern
art is a genuinely social art.”
On the first half of the nineteenth century, see: Neil McWilliam,
Dreams of Happiness: Social Art and the French Left, 1830-1850
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton Press University, 1993).
2. Alain Bonnet, L’enseignement des arts
au XIXe siècle. La réforme de l’École
des Beaux-arts de 1863 et la fin du modèle académique
(Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2006); Eric Michaud,
“Autonomie et distraction,” in Histoire de l’art.
Une discipline à ses frontières (Paris: Editions
Hazan, 2005), pp. 13-47.
3. Françoise Scoffham-Peufly, Les
problèmes de l’art social à travers les revues
politico-littéraires en Allemagne 1890-1896, master’s
thesis supervised by Madeleine Rébérioux and Jean
Levaillant at Paris VIII-Vincennes in 1970.
4. Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, “L’Enfance
de Sainte-Geneviève: une affiche de Puvis de Chavannes
au service de l’Union pour l’action morale,”
Revue de l’art, 109 (3, 1995): 63-74.
5. See also Relire Ruskin, a lecture
series at the Louvre Museum, March 8 - April 5, 2001, ed. Matthias
Waschek (Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2003).
6. See 48/14 La revue du musée d’Orsay,
Spring 2001, special issue on Neo-Impressionnism and Social Art.
7. Count Léon de Laborde, De l’union
des arts et de l’industrie, 2 vols (Paris: Imprimerie
8. Frantz Jourdain, “L’art dans la
rue,” Revue des Arts Décoratifs, 12 (January
9. Roger-Henri Guerrand, Prolétaires
et locataires. Les origines du logement social en France 1850-1914
(Paris: Editions Quintette, 1987).
10. Rossella Froissart-Pezone, L’Art
dans Tout. Les arts décoratifs en France et l’utopie
d’un Art nouveau (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2004).
11. Gustave Kahn, L’Esthétique
de la rue (Paris: E. Fasquelle, 1901); Georges Benoit-Lévy,
La Cité-jardin, preface by Charles Gide (Paris,
H. Jouve, 1904).
12. Charles Maurice Couyba et al., L’Art
à l’école (Paris: Bibliothèque
Larousse, no date ), p. 125.
13. L’Art et les métiers,
November 1908: 23-26.
14. Roger Marx, “De l’art social
et de la nécessité d’en assurer le progrès
par une exposition,” Idées modernes, 1 (January
1909): 46-57; “L’art social,” in L’Art
social (Paris: E. Fasquelle, 1913), pp. 3-46.
15. G.-Roger Sandoz and Jean Guiffrey, Exposition
française. Art décoratif Copenhague 1909, General
Report preceded by a Study on the Applied Arts and Art Industries
Exhibitions (Paris: Comité français des expositions
à l'étranger, no date).
Aron. Paul. Les Ecrivains
belges et le socialisme 1880-1913. L’expérience de
l’art social, d’Edmond Picard à Emile Verhaeren.
Brussels: Labor, 1985.
Cazalis, Henri [under the pseudonym Jean Lahor].
L’Art Nouveau. Son histoire. L’Art Nouveau étranger
à l’exposition. L’Art Nouveau au point de vue
social. Paris: Lemerre, 1901.
_____. L’Art pour le peuple, à défaut
de l’art par le peuple. Paris: Librairie Larousse,
_____. Les habitations à bon marché et un art
Nouveau pour le peuple, Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1903.
Couyba, Charles Maurice. Les Beaux-arts et
la nation. Intro. Paul-Louis Garnier. Paris: Hachette, 1908.
Dumont, Marie-Jeanne. Le logement social
à Paris 1850-1930, les habitations à bon marché.
Liège: Martaga, 1991.
Froissart-Pezone, Rossella. L’Art dans
Tout. Les arts décoratifs en France et l’utopie d’un
Art nouveau. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2004.
Guerrand, Roger-Henri. Prolétaires
et locataires. Les origines du logement social en France 1850-1914.
Paris: Editions Quintette, 1987.
_____. “ Les artistes, le peuple et l’Art Nouveau.”
L’Histoire, May 1995: 62-67.
Herbert, Eugenia. The Artist and Social Reform:
France and Belgium, 1885-1898. New Haven: Yale University
Jourdain, Frantz. De choses et d’autres.
Paris: H. Simonis Empis, 1902.
Jumeau-Lafond, Jean-David. “L’Enfance
de Sainte-Geneviève: une affiche de Puvis de Chavannes
au service de l’Union pour l’action morale.”
Revue de l’art, 109 (3, 1995): 63-74.
La Chapelle, A. de. “Un Art nouveau pour
le peuple. De l’art dans tout à l’art pour
tous.” Histoire de l’art, 31 (October 1995):
Marx, Roger. L’Art social. Preface
by Anatole France. Paris: Bibliothèque-Charpentier, E.
Fasquelle éditeur, 1913.
Needham, H. A. Le Développement de
l’esthétique sociologique en France et en Angleterre
au XIXe siècle. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1926.
Tolstoy, Leon. Qu’est-ce que l’art
? Translated from the Russian. Intro. Teodor de Wyzewa. Paris:
Fig. 1: Jules Desbois, Cider jug,
1890-1893, poured pewter, 21 x 15 x 12.5 cm. Paris, Orsay
Fig. 2: Henri Rivière, Sunset,
color lithograph, 54.5 x 83 cm, no. 11 in the Aspects
of Nature series, 1898.
Fig. 3: Alexandre Charpentier,
The Bakers, bas-relief in glazed brick, executed
by E. Muller, 1897. Paris, Scipion Square.
Fig. 4: Georges Auriol, Cover of
the review Les Arts de la vie, Gabriel Mourey,
Fig. 5: Jules Lavirotte, Working-class
detached home, Paris Home Show, 1903.
Fig. 6: Etienne Moreau-Nélaton,
Poster from the Art in the School Show, 1904, color lithograph,
140 x 103 cm. Paris, French National Library, Print Department.
|Fig. 7: Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin,
Project for a classroom, published in Ch. Couyba et al., L’Art
à l’Ecole (Paris: Bibliothèque Larousse,
), p. 50-51.