Cynical Lackeys R' Us
Many moons long gone I defended my dissertation, on Jacques Louis David and his role in the French Revolution. Art historians like to carry on about revolutions in Art; not so much about the other kind. So I went to the Designated Marxist in the History Department, who agreed to sit on my committee, no questions asked. The big day came, I was dodging all sorts of daggers from my committee, and the Marxist hadn’t said a word. Then as a hypothetical I quoted Daniel Guérin, the gay anarcho-Trotskyite activist and historian, to the effect that David had been a cynical lackey of the Bourgeoisie. At which point the Marxist pipes up, "Of course he was. He was an artist."
Now there’s a scholar’s challenge. Are all artists lackeys? (Discuss.) And why the Bourgeoisie? David started out a lackey of the King, bucking, yet accepting royal patronage; when the Revolution broke he became a lackey of the triumphant Bourgeoisie with a massive commission to commemorate the Tennis Court Oath, until he joined forces with Marat and Robespierre, a lackey of the radicals — or, as Guérin would argue, Bourgeois radicals. Then, when Napoleon rose to power: lackey once again. But why cynical? Four days after Robespierre’s execution David barely escaped the guillotine himself, protesting to the National Convention:
“You can’t imagine to what extent that wretch deceived me. He manipulated me with his feigned sentiments.”
« On ne peut concevoir a quel point ce malheureux m’a trompé; c’est par ses sentiments hypocrites qu’il m’a abusé. »1
Would “naïve” be more appropriate? Or was David cynically pretending to be naïve? Sincerity and cynicism were mind-games played throughout the French Revolution, to accuse and to exonerate.
That lackey meme has been getting around. Reviewing the recent David show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a politically progressive critic concludes that
“The exhibition […] reveals David to be a careerist through it all. Rather than accentuating his radicalism, it makes David a compelling case study in opportunism and survival.”2
Since when are being radical and being a careerist mutually exclusive? Certainly not when you’re dealing with the French Revolution, a time when your life could hang on your radical creds, let alone your career. At one point David received a note from the writer Sylvain Maréchal, whom he had, apparently, publicly accused. (Maréchal would later join up with the Conspiracy of Equals, the first forerunner of a Communist party. He has been suspected of betraying the leadership, who were executed in 1797.)
“Do you know what an aristocrat is, it’s for instance an artist (even one who painted the Horatii, Brutus, Socrates), who once put his talent in a king’s pay. I was a patriot before you. More than you I’m a republican, because I am so in full consciousness.”
« Sais tu ce que c'est qu'un aristocrate. C'est par exemple un artiste (eut-il peint les Horaces, Brutus, Socrate), qui a mis jadis son talent aux gages d'un roi. J'étais patriote avant toi. Plus que toi je suis républicain, car je le suis avec connaissance de cause. »3
Our critic, too, plays loose with the veiled threats, in this instance addressed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
“Museums need to put up or shut up if they wish to disseminate truly radical ideas about art history.”
Why museums would wish, or would have wished, to disseminate “truly radical ideas about art history” is beyond me. I would highly recommend the correspondence between David’s boss in the Royal Academy and the equivalent of the Minister of Culture, a gentleman by the name of Charles-Claude Flahaut de la Billarderie, Comte d’Angivillier, in 1789. Then as now, Art Museums aren’t so much involved in disseminating ideas, they’re involved in damage control.
Am I cynical? Philippe Bordes is the foremost living authority on Jacques Louis David and foremost contributor to this show’s catalog, abundantly quoted by the critic himself. Thirty years ago Bordes, then the Director of the Museum of the French Revolution in Vizille, France, kneecapped the preeminent Marxist historian Michel Vovelle, forcing him off the Museum’s Advisory Board in a blatant act of Art-Historical McCarthyism. Bordes’ self-justification was published in the Annales Historiques de la Révolution française, the reference publication for French Revolutionary Studies. It tells us all we need to know about opportunism and lackeydom in Art History and Criticism. In Art or Revolution, not so much.
Bordes’ argument hinges on tensions between cultural relativism and universalism. Marxists, you see, are only interested in curating Marxist ideas for a Marxist audience, showing objects and artworks that are meant to appeal to such an audience and that are therefore not objectively, universally beautiful. The Museum’s task is not to promote works that are, or were, meaningful in their own time to a certain segment of the population, only works that express eternal values. Bordes’ criterion for “real” art is that old mule of Matthew Arnold’s, “the best which has been thought and said in the world.”4 Never mind that certain works in the Met show are so amateurish any sharp eye would think twice before assigning them to David: they’re on display, so they must be beautiful, right?
A hundred and five years ago in a society at war, the German sociologist Max Weber gave a memorable lecture on the Politics of Knowledge. Weber was not concerned with what the “correct” stance might be in any one profession or calling, but with the social and ethical implications of that calling, what Marx would have called the “relations among producers.”5 The lecture is entitled „Wissenschaft als Beruf,“ usually translated as “Science as a Vocation;” but more accurately, “Knowledge as a Vocation,” since Art History and Aesthetics figure among the “sciences” mentioned. Weber, who was never averse to multiplying concepts, comes up with the category of “Wissenschaftswert,” “worthy of knowledge:”
"Science further assumes that the knowledge produced by any particular piece of scientific research should be important, in the sense that it should be "worth knowing." And it is obvious that this is the source of all our difficulties. For this presupposition cannot be proved by scientific methods.” [pp. 17-18]
Every discipline in all areas of knowledge is based on assumptions that cannot be justified from within that discipline itself. Therefore, every discipline works backward from its own agenda. Significantly, Weber brings up the example of his own former student, the aesthete-turned-Marxist Georg Lukács:
"Modern aesthetic philosophers (explicitly, as with Georg von Lukács, or implicitly) proceed from the assumption that works of art exist and then go on to ask how that is (meaningfully) possible.” [p. 29]
Contrary to Bordes (and many, many others) there are no eternal values, no idealized essences that justify the operations of one discipline or another. (Ludwig Wittgenstein was to come to a similar conclusion.) This is the trap set by the Art Museum, the trap set from the first day of your first course in Art History. It’s the trap into which our progressive critic, like almost every critic, allows himself to fall: he takes it for granted that David’s creations are “Art” as others are not, and then upbraids the Museum and David for not accomplishing what he thinks Art should accomplish:
“[David’s career poses] some interesting questions for an American audience in the imperial core today, particularly how an artist interested in human rights could justify supporting a colonial empire. The show should be an occasion to challenge David’s support of a a colonial empire. Yet Radical Draftsman fails to meet the occasion...”
I’m pretty sure David had no strong stated positions on LGBTQ rights, either; not consciously expressed at any rate. Guérin’s master book on the French Revolution contains a vehement exchange between himself and Jean-Paul Sartre, though Guérin believes the real object of Sartre’s ire is not Guérin but Weber’s old idealizing student, Lukács. Guérin agrees with Sartre in denouncing a certain type of approach, typical of idealists, that
“consists only of getting rid of detail, of forcing the meaning of certain events, distorting facts or even inventing them in order to find within, as of their substance, immutable and fetishised 'synthetic notions.”
« dont l’analyse consiste uniquement à se débarrasser du détail, à forcer la signification de certains événements, à dénaturer des faits ou même à en inventer pour retrouver par le dessous, comme leur substance, des ‘notions synthétiques’ immuables et fétichisées. »6
Like “Beauty,” for instance. Or “anti-colonialism.” What Bordes was up to, after all, is not much different from most curators and critics: looking for notions, effects or facts that are not there in order to evade those that are. Marx had that one covered in a famous passage when he stated—and he could have been thinking of David:
“In the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles.”7
Hypocrisy, or mere pedestrian self-delusion? There’s a lesson for us all.
Jacques Villeglé, 1926-2022
The Whitney Borennial
« Séance du 13 thermidor, An II, a sept heures du soir », Réimpression de l’ Ancien Moniteur XXI, 376.
Billy Anania, “Was Jacques-Louis David Really That Radical?” Hyperallergic (March 10, 2022); https://hyperallergic.com/712955/was-jacques-louis-david-really-that-radical/ ; accessed June 7, 2022.
Jules-Marie Joseph Guiffrey, ed, « Louis David. Lettres et documents divers », Nouvelles Archives de l'Art Français Vol. 3, 2e série (Paris: J. Baur, 1874 75): 372.
Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, “"Preface” .
cf. Max Weber, “Science as Vocation,” The Vocation Lectures, tr. Rodney LIvingstone, ed. David Owen and Tracy Strong (Illinois: Hackett Books), 3.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Questions de Méthode  ; quoted in Daniel Guérin, La Lutte des classes sous la Première République 1793-1797 (2 vols.). Nouvelle édition revue et augmentée (Paris: Gallimard 1968 , Vol II), 515.
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte . https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm