Editorial of October 11th 2004

Neil McWilliam
A Revolutionary Aesthetic ?
The Politics of Social Art in France c. 1820-1850

  Eric Michaud The authoritarian socialism of the Saint-Simonians
Seminar of October 11th 2004
Eric Michaud is a Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He has published, among other writings, Théâtre au Bauhaus (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 1978), La fin du salut par l’image (Nîmes: Jacqueline Chambon, 1992), Un art de l’éternité. L’image et le temps du national-socialisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), and Fabriques de l’homme nouveau. De Léger à Mondrian (Paris: Carré, 1997). His Histoire de l’art, une discipline à ses frontières (Editions Hazan) is forthcoming shortly.

The authoritarian socialism of the Saint-Simonians

        Neil McWilliam’s lecture—which was quite clever and quite dense at the same time—sheds new and unusual light on one of the principal ideological sources of our modernity. We are surely indebted to him for this discovery. He rightly sees the importance of these debates from the 1830s and 1840s in the fact that, “one hundred and fifty years later, the cultural regime that characterizes modern society contains quite a number of elements that could be characterized as ‘Saint-Simonian.’” And I am particularly struck by his final remarks on “the profusion of audiovisual media we have inherited from the twentieth century” that goes “far beyond the wildest dreams of Saint-Simon and his disciples” and by the way in which he has been able, with all the necessary nuances, to identify in Saint-Simonianism the origin of our mass culture which, having usurped the dreams of happiness of the old utopias, now assigns to art—in the broadest sense of this term—and to its manufacturers the task of deluding us with the “dreams that money can buy.”
        Neil McWilliam makes the assumption that the two main competing conceptions of art in the nineteenth-century France are well known. It nonetheless seems to me useful to recall here, in a few words and in order to underpin the brief remarks that will follow, the way in which social art was contrasted with the theory of art for art’s sake.
        For the upholders of social art, the image was to show the way that leads to the coming establishment of heaven on earth. Oriented toward the future, social art therefore proposed deferred enjoyment of the absolute. Contrary to this, and by reaction against what they deemed to be a base instrumentalization of art, the partisans of the theory of art for art's sake proposed its immediate, though fictive, enjoyment: the work, they said in substance, offers us the reflection of a fragment of the absolute, but you must know that this absolute will remain ever inaccessible to you.
        Now, it very well seems, however paradoxical this might appear (since one is in the habit of deriving art for art’s sake from the Kantian “finality without an end,” via Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël), that social art was something like the French version—that is to say, marked by the French Revolution—of the religion of art the German Romantics had been formulating for thirty years. Because, as Novalis said, “It is no longer the time when the Mind of God was understandable,” and because “we have lost what manifests itself beyond the phenomenon,” we have, more than ever, a need for a mediator: “Nothing is more indispensable for a true religiosity than a mediator who would unite us with the deity. It is absolutely impossible,” Novalis said, “for man to be connected with the deity in an immediate way.” And that is why he made of art the mediator par excellence, the one that alone could unite us now with the deity who has become invisible, inaccessible to the senses: “Every representation rests upon a presentification of the nonpresent [ . . . ] — (miraculous force of fiction).” Art therefore has to take over from Christianity and to ensure the continuity of religion’s function by preserving in the present the ties that link it to the past. After all, this definition of art as mediation between a Being who has become invisible and the physical world was a commonplace of German aesthetics at the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth century.
        Now, in France, starting in 1825, while the Saint-Simonians campaigned for an art that would be specifically Christian in nature—and close to the Germans on this score—these heirs of the Revolution wanted an art that would also be social. This was possible only at the cost of a reversal of the temporal vector of art which, oriented as it was toward the representation of the past, was thenceforth to strain entirely toward the production of the future. Saint-Simon himself had, in 1814, completed his opuscule entitled De la réorganisation de la société européenne (On the reorganization of European society) with the following words :

        "In their imagination, the poets have placed the golden age at the cradle of the human species amid the ignorance and coarseness of the earliest times : yet it should quite rather have been the Iron Age that was relegated there. The golden age of humankind is not at all behind us; it is out ahead, in the perfection of the social order. Our fathers did not see it one bit; our children will arrive there one day. It is up to us to pave the way."(1)

        While the German Romantics had celebrated a religion of art capable of connecting people to a past that had become intangible, the Saint-Simonians were claiming to construct a religion of art that would be turned wholly toward the future. Since the Golden Age, as they said, is not behind us but, rather, ahead of us, the task of the artists, who are the true modern priests, is to lead us by “rending the veil that separates us from the future,” by “pulling humanity out of its apathy,” by “impassioning the masses so as to organize them” in line with artistic images, so as to lead them to achieve the Golden Age.(2)
        The main philosophical work of Saint-Simonianism, the Exposition de la Doctrine de Saint-Simon (Presentation of Saint-Simon’s doctrine), consists of the publication of the lectures given between 1828 and the beginning of 1830 by four of Saint-Simon’s followers : Saint-Armand Bazard, Prosper Enfantin, Olinde Rodriques, and Philippe Buchez. And it is as early as the first of these lectures that the true stakes of Saint-Simonianism were given. To a member of the audience who asked these new preachers to state clearly what they wanted and who they were, Bazard gave the following response :

        "We are all at once the heirs of Catholicism and the upholders of the Revolution; we want to complete the destruction of what remains of the throne and the altar and, on these ruins, reconstruct society and authority."(3)

        If it is true that the mass media today, as McWilliam underscores, are the heirs of the Saint-Simonians, this is to a great extent because the mass media are, with greatly enhanced means, in the service of the same “authoritarian” aim as was theirs. And one of the great merits of McWilliam’s lecture (and, even more, of the work that inspired it) is to have brought out this authoritarian dimension of Saint-Simonianism, which has long gone unnoticed since its Marxist description in terms of “utopian socialism.” Indeed, basing oneself on the motor power of the affects so as to set the masses in motion toward the achievement of heaven on earth is only remotely related to “utopia” ; this pertains much more to the most tried and tested techniques involved in any exercise of power. One needs only recall here what the Abbé du Bos said :

        "Those who have governed people in all times have always made use of paintings and statues in order to better inspire in them the sentiments they wanted to give to them, in religion as in politics."(4)

        Now, it really is this link between the affects and power that is at the heart of the theory of “sentiment” expounded in the Doctrine. It follows on this score Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (which at the time had recently been translated by Condorcet’s widow), wherein “sentiment” was synonymous with sympathy —which would later be conceived, in An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as the true motive force of all exchanges and of all human actions. The Doctrine states :

        "It is through sentiment that man lives, that he is sociable. It is sentiment that attaches us to the world, to man. This is what binds us to this whole world that surrounds us. [ . . . ] It is sentiment that brings man to inquire as to his purpose. It is sentiment that first reveals it to him. [ . . . ] It is again sentiment that, in making him desire, love this goal, can alone give him the will to reach it and the forces necessary to attain it."(5)

        To this “sentimental faculty,” the Doctrine clearly opposed the “rational faculty,” whose alleged superiority it denounced. The philosophes had misled us; sentiment is not the attribute of humanity’s childhood, nor is reasoning that of its manhood. No, the superiority of modern times, as compared with ancient times, is not due, as they believed, to the ever growing predominance of reasoning over sentiment. Thus does the hierarchy that was to position the artist, the scientist, and the industrialist in society’s march toward future happiness find its justification. For, “the precepts of science” could not contain “an obligation to act”; “scientific demonstration can very well justify the logical suitability of this or that act,” but it cannot determine those acts, since it cannot make them be loved :

        "It does not suffice that the goal of society and the means of attaining this goal are known to him [the individual] ; this goal, these ends must be for him objects of love and desire. Now, scientists can very well, no doubt, take note of this phenomenon and state as a result what must be loved in order not to hinder the march of civilization as indicated by the concatenation of historical facts. But they are incapable of producing the sentiments whose necessity they nevertheless recognize. This mission belongs to another class of men, to those whom nature has endowed in particular with a capacity for sympathy. [ . . . ] Society, indeed, has never been led directly except by various forms of sentimental expression. These forms, which go under the name of worship in organic eras [those in which humanity has a conception of its purpose] or of fine arts in critical eras [those in which it is no longer aware of its goal], have always in the end excited the desires that are in conformity with the goal society has to propose that it attain and thus instigated the acts required for it to progress."(6)

        In grounding their “Doctrine” on this impotence of reason and, contrarily, on the power of “sentiment,” which alone is capable of making people act by making them desire, the Saint-Simonians, far from having been those utopian socialists Marx denounced, were very much rather the grave diggers of the Enlightenment and the precursors of the modern methods and techniques of advertising and marketing. There does indeed exist a line that connects, almost without a break, the “scientific aesthetics” of Léon Halévy (1825) or of Eugène Izalguier (1836) studied by Neil McWilliam to those modern techniques of manipulation : in particular, this line travels by way of the aesthetics, which also claimed to be “scientific,” of Charles Henry at the end of the nineteenth century, and it goes through the development and application of the theories of hypnosis and suggestion as well as also those of behaviorism at the beginning of the twentieth century. All these theories sought the means for rationalizing the production and propagation of the affects that would be capable of giving bodily form to what Neil McWilliam discreetly calls “a unified and coherent society.” In this way, the formulations of a Purism on the part of Le Corbusier and of Amédée Ozenfant, for whom “a painting is a machine for communicating sentiments,” communicated very quickly with those formulations being expounded by advertisers and propagandists in order to elaborate their scientific knowledge. Thus had the Saint-Simonians begun, indeed, to wipe out the boundaries between Art, in the limited acceptation generally conferred upon it in the nineteenth century, and labor : with the Artist-priest setting the scenery of the new religion by following the calculations of the Scientist, and the Industrialist producing the tools that would allow the promised goal to be attained, each was working, in his own place, upon a common construction. While the Saint-Simonian dream—that of an agreement of the labor of each with the labor of all so as to produce a perfect harmony—was ultimately pursued only by a few totalitarian regimes, that dream has, on the other hand, remained alive within democracies based upon a market economy, which engender through competition their characteristic mixture of order and disorder. Paul Valéry described the stakes and the risks involved in this general movement that was driven by the whole body of society and was vastly accelerated during the interwar period :

        "You are guinea pigs, dear people, and highly ill-employed guinea pigs at that, since the tests you are undergoing are inflicted, varied, and repeated only at random. There is no scientist, no lab assistant who models, measures, checks, and interprets these experiments, these artificial trials, whose more or less profound effects upon your precious persons no one can foresee. Yet fashion, industry, yet the combined forces of invention and advertising possess you, expose you on the beaches, dispatch you to the snow, brown your thighs, scorch your hair, while politics lines up our throngs, make them raise their hands or clench their fists, sets them to marching, voting, hating, or loving in step, indistinctly, statistically !"(7)


1. Saint-Simon, De la réorganisation de la société européenne (October 1814), introduction and notes by Alfred Pereire, preface by Henri de Jouvenel (Paris: Les Presses françaises, 1925), pp. 96-97.
2. Exposition de la Doctrine de Saint-Simon, first year, 1828-1829, 3rd ed., rev. and exp. (Paris: Au Bureau de l’Organisateur, 1831), pp. 385 and 361.
3. Quoted by Georges Weill, L’école saint-simonienne, son histoire, son influence jusqu'à nos jours (Paris: Alcan, 1896), p. 26.
4. Abbé Du Bos, Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture, 4th rev. ed., corr. and exp. by the author (Paris: Pierre-Jean Mariette, 1740) vol. 1, part 1, section 4, p. 35.
5. Doctrine, pp. 268-69.
6. Ibid., pp. 264-72.
7. Paul Valéry, “Notre destin et les lettres” [1937], Regards sur le monde actuel et autres essais (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), p. 201.