Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Courbet and Proudhon

I've already mentioned the texts that I am teaching in the course "Great Philosophers," but I haven't yet posted about "Theories of Art," which I am teaching for the Department of Visual Arts. The course is organized around three themes, the first being "The Intersections of Art and Politics." We're reading, during this part of the course, Plato, Baudelaire, Proudhon, Zola, and Max Raphael.

Courbet, Proudhon and His Children in 1853 (1865)
Tomorrow, I'll be teaching an excerpt from Proudhon's Du principe de l'art et de sa destination sociale, and next week, we'll look at Zola' rejoinder (to an already dead Proudhon, and not in a metaphorical sense). The debate, as it were, turns on whether the artist or the artwork has some kind of social obligation--and the work of Courbet is right in the middle of it all. Proudhon says yes (in a very moralizing kind of way), Zola says no, and Courbet says, when he rejects being awarded the Legion of Honor in a letter (which was published) dated June 23, 1870:
My opinions as a citizen do not allow me to accept a title that derives essentially from the monarchic order....Honor is neither in a title nor in a ribbon, it is in actions and the motivation for those actions....When I am dead, they must be able to say of me, "That one never belonged to any school, to any church, to any institution, to any academy, and, above all, to any regime except the regime of freedom" (From Letters of Gustave Courbet, ed. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, University of Chicago, 1992).
Courbet demands independence, but not on a purely individualistic basis like Zola. I think at least this much is evident from the fact that Courbet participated in the Paris Commune--and was it not, then, "the regime of freedom?"

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