Propaganda in Art: Zola vs. Proudhon and Courbet

Émile Zola sharply criticized the socialist ideals of Proudhon wherein artist serve as propaganda tools, instead hailing art as the product of their individualism.

BY Michael Pearce FOR MUTUAL ART

Although his extraordinary achievements as a novelist and his role in the Dreyfus Affair are monolithic milestones in Émile Zola’s distinguished career, he was also a formidable art critic, and a fearless defender of individualism. When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote his popular book Du Principe de l’Art et de sa Destination Sociale, establishing the realist school of propaganda with Gustave Courbet at its head, Zola immediately responded to the authoritarian mandates in it with a scathing rebuke. “In a word, I am diametrically opposed to Proudhon: he wants art to be the product of the nation, I demand that it be the product of the individual.”

Zola claimed that Courbet had gone over to the enemy, and accused him of taking bribes of awards and medals in return for disowning his followers. Dripping sarcasm, he said Proudhon’s book must have given this “poor, dear master” an “indigestion of democracy” and that Courbet should give up on moralizing and socialism and be content with being the premier painter of the era (Delacroix had died in August 1863, soon after the first Salon des Refusés). Zola was being a little unfair to Courbet, whose hilariously rude painting of drunken priests Return from the Conference had been banned from both the official salon and the Salon des Refusés in 1863 because it offended the church — which was in favor again during Louis-Napoleon’s Second Empire. But Zola despised Courbet’s champion Proudhon.

Zola’s acidic essay Proudhon and Courbet took issue with the authoritarian socialist ideas proposed in Proudhon’s realist manifesto, which the bourgeois-bohemian Zola found utterly repulsive. Although he had been called a realist himself, and was famous for his carefully described scenes of real life, drawn from thorough note-taking made during his anthropological explorations of the Parisian streets, Zola was a deeply imaginative writer. He understood the work of the new artists, knew that Proudhon had described only a minutely narrow slice of their vitality, and recognized his restrictive attempt to enforce a regulated life. And while a realist in the sense that he was a keen and accurate reporter of detail, Zola’s novels are neither didactic sermons, nor theoretical ethnographic examinations, but they are rich narratives of the lives of his convincingly imagined characters set within lush word-paintings of the layered environments of 19th century democratic France.

In his sharp critique of Du Principe de l’Art, Zola was quick to recognize the nasty totalitarianism of Proudhon’s thought, sarcastically telling him that it would be more sincere and more reasonable simply to kill the artists rather than to force them to fit into the egalitarian smoothing of humankind that he had proposed. The artists, he said, “. . . are peculiar people who do not believe in equality, who possess the strange mania of having a heart, who sometimes push nastiness to the point of genius. They are going to agitate your people, disrupt your communal intentions; they will resist you and be nothing but themselves.” Contemptuously, he recommended changing the title of Proudhon’s book from, “The Principle of Art and its Social Purpose” to “The Death of Art and its Social Uselessness.”

He imagined Proudhon standing like St. Peter at the gates of his imaginary utopian city, assigning each man seeking entrance with a number for a name and a job. This was a dream of a terrible, utilitarian future. And Zola was scornful of Proudhon’s disciplinarian attack on artists who failed to rally to the socialist cause. Proudhon had concluded his book demanding the banishment of artists who would not bow to the revolutionary socialist ideal; Zola defended them for their individuality, their unaffected sincerity, and their self-sacrifice. “I think I can answer you, in the name of artists and writers, of those who sense the beat of their heart and their thoughts within themselves: ‘To us, our ideal is our loves and our emotions, our tears and our smiles. We want no more of you than you want of us. Your community and your equality sicken us, we make style and art with our body and soul, we are lovers of life, every day we give you a little of our existence. We are in nobody’s service, and we refuse to enter into yours. We report only to ourselves, we obey only our own nature; we are good or bad, leaving you the right to listen to us or to block your ears. You proscribe us and our works, you say. Try, and you will feel such a great emptiness in yourself, that you will weep with shame and misery.’”

Here was the fundamental difference between the utopian, socialist avant-garde proposed by Saint-Simon, Rodrigues, Chernyshevsky, Proudhon and their acolytes, and the broader, richer, anarchic bourgeois-bohemian art world. Both recognized the need for a new art for a new time, but the former placed artists in service to the state and prioritized the use of art as political propaganda, while the latter cherished the artist’s individuality — being bohemian did not preclude artists from being experimenters in alternative lifestyles, including communal living and adopting radical political stances, but making socialist propaganda was by no means their principal focus. Testifying to the lack of political commitment of the bohemians in the days of the Commune, Karl Marx complained of “…the exodus from Paris of the high Bonapartist and capitalist Bohème,” and was contemptuous of bohemian pretensions to proletarianism. The most important characteristic of the bohemians was that they asserted themselves as artistic individuals, and individualism was the antithesis of socialism. When Zola chided Proudhon that artists were “. . . peculiar people who do not believe in equality,” he meant they were individualists, and he was raising the battle standard of one of the great themes of liberal capitalism.

Contrasting to Proudhon’s monotone utopia, Zola insisted that each artist must add his own voice and his own melodies to humanity’s song, on a mission “to live, to make art greater, to add new chefs d’oeuvres to old chefs d’oeuvres, to do the work of a creator, to give us one of the undiscovered aspects of beauty,” although this insistence upon individualism meant that there would be no schools of art. Schools of art implied stagnation, of the duplication of methodology and the repetition of ideas that led to nowhere but a dull state of boredom. Proudhon asserted that the artist must be inferior to the masses, Zola insisted that the artist acted as an individual expressing passion for the masses. “For me — and I want to hope, for many people — on the contrary, a work of art is a personality, an individuality.” Art was a combination of two elements — the real element of nature, and the individual element, which was man, in his infinite variety of minds and works. Without individual temperaments, all paintings would simply be photographs, and he said, “What I am looking for above all in a painting is a man and not a painting.” And Édouard Manet was the exemplar of this man, this individualism.