The close relationship between revolutionary proto-communism and avant-garde art began in France in 1825 during an economic downturn. Olinde Rodrigues placed artists at the heart of a utopian government, arguing that they deserved to be part of a ruling triumvirate of leaders. Later, the idea of the avant-garde found roots in the Soviet Union—now the avant-garde flourished as the tool of the revolution, providing propaganda for the communist cause, and under its authoritarian heel, Russian artists who dared to assert their individualism were censored, deported, or killed.
By Michael Pearce for Mutual Art and The International Chronicles
Eugène Delacroix, La Liberté Guidant le Peuple
The close relationship between revolutionary proto-communism and avant-garde art began in France during an economic downturn caused by an exceptionally bad harvest in 1825. In this season of unrest, Olinde Rodrigues, a disciple of the radical proto-communist Henri de Saint-Simon, appropriated the military term “avant-garde” and applied it in the context of art, writing in a text that was published in the name of Saint-Simon himself: “It is us, artists, who will serve you as avant-garde: the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and the fastest. We have weapons of every kind: when we want to spread new ideas among men, we inscribe them on marble or on canvas; we popularize them by poetry and singing; we use alternately the lyre or the galoubet (ed. a pipe, like a recorder), the ode or the song, the story or the novel; the dramatic scene is open to us, and it is here especially that we exert an electric and victorious influence. We address the imagination and the feelings of man, and we must always exercise the most lively and decisive action; and if today our role seems nil or at least very secondary, it is because the arts lack what is essential to their energy and their successes, a common impulse and a general idea.”
From this moment, which was the birth of the original, true avant-garde, we see a marriage between art and revolutionary proto-socialist politics, and an indication of the ministerial task avant-garde artists had as militant leaders leading a sheep-like congregation of the proletarian herd. Rodrigues placed artists at the heart of a utopian government, arguing that they deserved to be part of a ruling triumvirate of leaders from three classes of men: the industrialists, the scientists and the artists. Artists – writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and so on – were included in this Saint-Simonian government because they would provide a moral compass to society. Although Rodrigues acknowledged that it would be tough to persuade the proletariat that these artists had an important role to play in government, he believed that the arts were essential “to rehabilitate passion, directing their work toward the common goal, the greatest physical and moral improvement of the human species.”
What kind of art was Rodrigues talking about when he described this Saint-Simonist artistic avant-garde? He wrote that imagination had had a powerful hold on the experience of art, but now it was the time for art to serve the cause of social reform, the “common goal.” Art was to be in service to the public good. The glorious role of artists and writers was to work to “impassion” society as leaders of a humanity united in joy and labor. “What better destiny for the arts than to exert upon society a positive power, a true priesthood, and to leap ahead of all the intellectual faculties at the time of their greatest development!” Thus, Rodrigues established the idea of an elitist avant-garde of artists as a quasi-religious priesthood that ministered to the people by inspiring enthusiasm for the new utopian government. Artists were to be propagandists.
Saint-Simonists coined the words “socialist,” “avant-garde,” and “individual.” These words would begin the conflict that would turn art into the battlefield between socialist revolutionaries and individualists that it became in the 19th and 20th centuries. Until Rodrigues adopted the words “avant-garde” they had only been known as a military term to describe a formation of soldiers who advanced ahead of the main body of an army. Its personnel included scouts riding ahead to report upon what it was approaching, officials to demand the surrender of the enemy as they encountered it, and engineers to clear any hindrances to the progress of the main army.
Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers
This remarkable and imaginative casting of artists as priestly leaders would stand for two hundred years. It was an attractive idea which gave artists a glorious role to play on the political stage, and even the passionate Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix briefly became a devoted propagandist with his Liberty Leading the People, promoting the 1830 revolution, which is an excellent example of Saint-Simonist avant-garde painting. Rodrigues’ use of “avant-garde” separated politically motivated artists who led the way from other kinds of artists who followed meekly. But as much as these other artists might have objected to the bourgeoisie, they needed them for financial sustenance, and the most idealistic of them wanted to live for art within a bohemian subculture sheltered beneath the bourgeois capitalist wing. Avant-gardists wanted to destroy bourgeois capitalism completely and wanted to use art as a weapon to overthrow it, attacking the traditions and practices that had built Western civilization and replacing it with a new utopian society. This was the beginning of the cultural civil war that continues into the present, an opposition between individualism and collectivism.
Soon Delacroix would be followed by Gustav Courbet, whose avant-garde realism championed the Saint-Simonist cause. His devotion to proto-communism was so well-known that when the short-lived Paris Commune took power amid the chaos of Paris in 1871 toward the end of the Franco-Prussian war, he was named Delegate of Fine Arts and installed as a member of the Commission on Education. He advocated the demolition of the imperial column celebrating Napoleon in the Place Vendôme, and it was duly torn down — and when the commune was crushed, Courbet was forced to flee into exile in Switzerland, where, with his assets seized and bowing under the pressure of an enormous fine levied against him to pay for the re-erection of the imperial column, he died from his alcoholism.
Later, the idea of the avant-garde found roots in the Soviet Union, where Lenin became an admirer of the writings of Nikolay Chernyshevsky, the utopian socialist novelist who applied Saint-Simonist ideas about propaganda to Russian dissent against Czarist feudalism and produced a manifesto for communist art. Chernyshevsky was sentenced to internal exile in the East, but this was the beginning of Socialist Realism — now the avant-garde flourished as the tool of the revolution, providing propaganda for the communist cause. In 1932, Socialist Realism became the official brand of the Soviet Union, and under its authoritarian heel Russian artists who dared to assert their individualism were censored, deported, or killed.