A Republic of Taste

Thomas Crow

  • The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: ‘The Body of the Public’ by John Barrell
    Yale, 366 pp, £16.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 300 03720 1

We inhabit at present a culture that assigns absolute priority to the simple existence of an art object over anything we might find to think or say about it. The latest overnight phenomenon in the galleries of New York enjoys an automatic claim to attention that the most seasoned critic will never possess. The history of art as an academic discipline is by and large aligned with this hierarchy of value. Accounting for the existence of objects consumes the time of most people in the profession: documenting the facts of patronage, original locations and arrangements, details of technique, iconographic choices, provenances down to our own time, states of preservation. To recount these things is what it means to speak about the art of the past in an authoritative voice.

Little thought is normally given, however, to the considerable anachronism that this priority represents in relation to the learned discussion of art in the past. The sort of art-historical industry familiar today was not unknown prior to the 19th century, but it lacked the prestige it now commands. In 1660, for example, the French philosopher and essayist Samuel de Sorbière wrote the following on the subject of the amateur art historians in and around the Royal Academy of Painting:

Their great aptitude consists in knowing how to identify the artist after glancing at a picture, then being able to pronounce on his manner of painting: if the artist made vertical strokes or horizontal, how many pictures he painted, which are the most highly regarded, through whose hands they have passed, and so on. In all this I see nothing of more than mediocre intelligence, and I suspect there exists some degree of servility in this enthusiasm. Dare I say what I think of this debauchery and corrupt curiosité? One must somehow enjoy a swindle so to apply one’s mind to studying pictures.

It could be said generally, for the 17th and 18th centuries, that a gentleman or a man of letters attracted to the visual arts would have had higher priorities in mind. For Sorbière, the work of documenting objects and artistic careers was a job normally conducted by ‘the servile and mechanic’ (to adopt the contemporary English terminology), calculating dealers, and self-interested artisans who wanted to be taken for something more exalted. The disinterested observer was free to dismiss from consideration most of the art produced since antiquity. It was the perceived absence of art worthy of elevated attention that prompted many of the most influential writings on art in the Early Modern period. So in no way were their authors expected to secure their authority by illuminating, let alone celebrating, ‘the object’. Even their chosen instances of exemplary achievement need not have been physically accessible. Writers on painting particularly could discuss the unparalleled works of the ancients on the basis of Classical literary accounts alone. Such practices were fully consistent with period attitudes toward contemporary art. Eighteenth-century Paris possessed the most advanced and self-conscious audience for art in Europe, yet genuine enthusiasts and serious patrons remained exceptional. Reading through the cultural press of the time or in the journals of prominent society figures, one encounters a striking absence of attention to artists or their works. Playwrights, poets, novelists, actors, composers, dancers, carnival charlatans are discussed with great frequency, but references to living painters and sculptors are rare.

This general absence was not, of course, the result of a shortage of worthy objects of discussion, and there were intermittent episodes of excitement around a Watteau, Greuze or David. When an artist had something revelatory to say, when he found ways to represent previously latent perceptions and structures of feeling, an audience was ready to respond. But in the absence of such exceptional art, the business of painting and sculpture became a matter of secondary cultural importance. Those who disagreed with this prevailing indifference were compelled to argue over and over that the visual arts as a category called for and represented a serious intellectual commitment.

The subject of John Barrell’s immensely important new book is how such arguments were put forward over the course of the 18th century in one artistic community. Though he keeps one eye on the Continent, the authors he discusses were all addressing an English audience. As is well-known, England was less able than France to sustain the kinds of epic historical painting that British writers from Shaftesbury to Fuseli agreed was the one truly worthy and redemptive pursuit of the painter. Virtually every writer of consequence took the deficiency of such painting in Britain as his point of departure, and Barrell subjects a representative series of texts to extended, searching and consistently illuminating analysis. In the process, the reader learns what it was like to talk about art when its very legitimacy as a pursuit, its moral and intellectual standing, was perpetually open to question.

The result of these circumstances was very good writing indeed. Standards of argument and of moral seriousness were high; lecturers in the Royal Academy were taking their bearings from literary contemporaries of the order of Johnson and Burke. And their scope was wide, extending beyond the parochial difficulties of their own artistic culture to an assessment of the possibility that a serious, sustained practice of painting in the grand manner could exist anywhere. The conditions that had impeded the emergence of a British school of historical painting – among them the Protestant and later anti-Jacobite suspicion of overbearing ecclesiastical and princely splendour – engendered on the part of England’s pre-eminent painters a compensatory flowering of the word.

The new institution of the Royal Academy, founded in 1768, was the immediate stimulus for the better part of this outpouring of texts. At its foundation a century earlier, the French Academy of Painting had sought to make actual the old ideal of the learned painter by placing instructional lectures by senior members at the centre of its activities; craft knowledge was to take second place to discursive understanding. During the 18th century, however, this had become a largely routine, ceremonial exercise. There is no contemporary body of French academic texts to compare in comprehension to Reynolds’s lectures, none that reflect as subtly on the question of ancients and moderns as do Fuseli’s, and certainly none that transform, as do Barry’s, the liberal-art aspirations of painting into a sustained critique of the status quo. The best contemporaneous French writing on art was produced outside the Academy and very often from a position of opposition to the alliance between Academy and Crown. What these unofficial and dissident writers possessed, and what the French Academicians largely lacked, was a new conception of the audience for art that was fundamentally republican in character.

It is one of Barrell’s central arguments that official art writing in Britain was founded squarely on that same conception. The French case corroborates what Barrell eloquently demonstrates for the British one: that to grasp the higher aims of painting in 18th-century terms was and is to think in political terms. The discourse of the period was framed by the evolving tradition of civic humanism. That term is borrowed with acknowledgement from the work of John Pocock and refers to the complex of beliefs, derived from Renaissance political theory and the example of the Greek polis, that made the fulfilment of man’s life a function of political association: the concept of virtue was displaced from feudal codes of personal honour and birth to an ideal of active participation in a republic of equal, independent citizens. The early British theorists of civic humanism cited the Glorious Revolution as having laid the ground for such a political order in their nation, and some, Shaftesbury among them, posited an equivalent order in the realm of the arts: audience and practitioners together would constitute ‘a republic of taste’. Barrell establishes that virtually all subsequent discussion of the aims of art was bound up with a notion of a public space consistent with this model of citizenship. The public that rewards success and punishes failure in a painting should be the same one that determines policy in the affairs of state. And the absence of one meant the absence of both: ‘where absolute power is,’ stated Shaftesbury, ‘there is no Publick,’ and without a public voice, the arts would decline or never rise at all.

At the beginning, it was assumed that the franchise in this republic would be restricted. Barrell’s account demonstrates that the very term ‘vision’, as applied to a picture, was used as a direct analogue to the vision exercised by the disinterested public man. To exercise vision in this sense was to see beyond particularities, local contingencies and individual interests; it was to demonstrate a fitness to rule. Painting and sculpture were thought far too important to be left to the privatised sensibility and material acquisitiveness of the connoisseur. Both characteristics were seen as antithetical to the higher virtues. The lower orders, their attention narrowed to the pursuit of a livelihood, were by definition excluded.

Despite general agreement on these principles, difficulty soon arose over how this brand of vision would be reflected or, conversely, organised and encouraged in pictorial form. The earliest and most straightforward programme made the public task of painting one of representing exemplary instances of heroic action. Those fit to govern would have perpetually before their eyes persuasive reenactments of wise, courageous and moral conduct. From Reynolds forward, however, exponents of the civic humanist position recognised the lack of fit between the small-scale patrician society assumed in Shaftesbury’s rhetorical aesthetic and the large commercial nation that Britain had become. In Reynolds’s earlier Discourses, observes Barrell, ‘painting no longer seeks to persuade, but to display the world in such a way as to make it an instructive metaphor for the world as perceived by the ideal citizen, whose identity is thus also changed, and is defined less by his willingness to act in defence of the republic, more by his ability to grasp the terms of his affiliation to it.’

This shift in definition allowed the inclusion of many more appropriately disinterested citizens within the republic of taste. His significant public could now accommodate that stratum of the polite that was effectively disenfranchised in the realm of politics. At the same time, Barrell stresses, it made the grounds of exclusion more secure. The old rhetorical aesthetic had depended on the commonplace assumption that the primary work of painting is to deceive the eye. There had thus been nothing in it that precluded the message of a picture from reaching any onlooker whatsoever: the vulgar, more prone to deception, might indeed be more receptive than the educated. Reynolds abandons the notion that painting is pre-eminently an art of deception and substitutes a ‘philosophical’ aesthetic in which the viewer is struck not by the reality of persons and actions but by the truth of general propositions abstracted from empirical experience. The ability to generalise from particulars was now the criterion for inclusion in the republic of taste. From this manoeuvre emerge the logic of ‘the central form’ in Reynolds’s early aesthetic system, the renunciation of the local and accidental in the treatment of the human figure, and a corresponding devaluation of direct attention to nature.

The disparity between Reynolds’s theory, devoted to a universalising historical painting, and the overwhelming predominance of portraits in his actual practice has always been worrying for his admirers. Without wanting to denigrate the achievement of either, they have not wanted the writing to stand as an implicit reproach to the art. Barrell’s reading of the Discourses, very much the centrepiece of the book, cuts through this problem by recognising their aesthetic as speculative and essentially political in character. Reynolds and the lecturers who followed him were developing theories of how painting might once again perform the public role it had performed in Greece and in the Italy of Raphael and Michelangelo. Immediate, practical examples were by definition scarce. The first priority was that the public sphere be reawakened. In Barrell’s words: ‘The structure of society was thought to have become too complex for individuals to be able to understand their relation to the public, and the centrifugal force of private interests and appetites was felt to be encouraging them not even to attempt to arrive at such an understanding. The task of the Discourses is thus not simply to define a public art and a republic of taste, but to show how such an art could be produced, and how, once produced, it could create such a republic, by membership of which a man of taste could come to understand the nature of his duties and his affiliation to the political commonwealth.’

In Barrell’s account these are texts about creation more than definition, about the possibilities of a future public order rather than the limitations of its present approximation. And as the apparent shape of the political future changed, so did Reynolds’s aesthetic. This began with the onset of political revolution in America and was solidified during subsequent events in France. The ideology of universal vision was appropriated by both sets of revolutionaries on behalf of those excluded from Reynolds’s ideal republic. The French, for their part, had never advanced in their theory beyond the Shaftesbury-style exemplum virtutis, but they were finding ways to make heroic political action a widely available opportunity. This was apparently enough to make even the ‘philosophical’ modification of that principle an untenable position. Thus, in the later lectures, the task of the arts becomes one of defining a customary community in which previously scorned peculiarities of time and locality would have an honoured place. The salvation of British art would no longer be found in its ceasing to be recognisably British, but in its demarcation of the uniquely balanced orders of British society away from the newly dangerous plane of the universal. Barrell’s reading here is original and powerfully persuasive.

The radical challenge, in the person of the Irish painter James Barry, had appeared within the Royal Academy as well. Barrell devotes a shorter but equally revelatory chapter to the lectures and other writings that led to the artist’s expulsion from that body in 1799. Despite that result and the antagonism between Barry and the academic hierarchy, Barrell stresses the continuity in his theory of the civic humanist tradition. It remained for Barry, he states, ‘an article of necessary, desperate faith’ that art could create a public out of individuals blinded and divided by their immediate interests. As a Catholic outsider in England, he was perhaps more aware of the boundaries and dynamics of actual communities, and he was no friend of the established order. Rejecting the division between ‘liberal’ and ‘mechanic’ – that is, between intellectual and practical knowledge – he refused to set limits on the complex perceptual abilities of ‘the rude and unlettered’. The ordinary actions of life, Barry observed, contained ‘an infinitude of experiences that is impossible to retrace’. His community was organic and functional, not an abstraction contained in the minds of an exclusive but passive body of citizens. The marks that useful activity inscribed on the body were the signs of its fitness to contribute to the common good, and these gave the painter his essential material. The ideal could never be distilled into one representative human body: it was a collective aggregate of many bodies made distinct by a necessary division of labour.

Barrell perceptively stresses here the religious assumptions that guided Barry’s reconstruction of the civic humanist model and its outcome in a grandly utopian notion of the artist’s function. He held before him always the vision of an integrated Christian society divided from itself by the Reformation. Lost with the unity of Catholicism was the rich visual imagery that had made manifest the shared beliefs of the community. Without that, the division of labour became indeed blinding and pernicious, allowing Reynolds to put forward empty abstraction as its salutary opposite. For Barry, only the history painter, whose practice combined conceptual and practical skills, remained able to supply a unifying vision; only he could once again make plain the grounds of social affiliation, what interests we share, what interests divide us. The democracy of his theory is that all classes of society equally await that revelation.

In this light, one understands dearly the intent behind the initial panel in his Adelphi murals painted for the Royal Society: Orpheus calling primitive, asocial men into a first community. And for those fully in touch with his thought, the fact that he undertook the enormous scheme largely at his own expense becomes all the more poignant. The messianic cast of Barry’s ideas can make them all too easily interpretable as self-deluding and self-aggrandising. By no means the least of Barrell’s achievements is restoring dignity to them and to Barry’s determinedly independent ambition. Point by point, the artist is seen responding to the contradictions engendered by Reynolds’s modification – and final abandonment – of civic humanist doctrine, bolstering his arguments with just and novel observations on the nature of society and the representation of ennobled human character, and single-handedly maintaining the urgency of that doctrine into the 1780s and 90s.

The idea that the artist would emerge as the supreme provider of social vision had, in fact, appeared in France during roughly the same period, but nowhere with the developed reasoning supplied by Barry. In the course of Barrell’s analysis of Fuseli’s theory, it becomes clear just how necessary Barry’s extremism was if the civic humanist ideal was to be maintained in undiluted form. Fuseli could hold to a stern doctrine of public duty for the artist only by producing simultaneously his own sceptical, historicist commentary on that doctrine. The result was a manifest split in his writing between two distinct voices. The second, critical voice provides a wise and adroit reflection on the irrevocable passing of the historical conditions that had made both the heroic ideal and an epic art possible. In the modern public sphere, freedom of individual, privatised opinion, argues this voice, is no more than a compensating substitute for the lost quality of life lived constantly and visibly in public. That life had been the glory of the Greek polis and the source of its excellence in art. Our art is condemned to a fallen state, with the imagination of the heroic kept alive at best as a visible and measurable absence within works of more limited ambition.

One feels a continual trepidation in paraphrasing Barrell’s elegant and coolly precise formulations. As one reads, his prose begins to fall into the complex cadences of 18th-century writing itself, a convergence no doubt intended and entirely appropriate to his project. The effect is engrossing for the attentive reader, but it should be said that there are certain standards for inclusion in Barrel’s public. He presupposes a familiarity with a formidable range of thinkers, both British and Continental, whose surnames flash by with little or, more often, no biographical comment. A few reference volumes to hand should fill the gaps for most readers, and that seems a small price of admission to a dialogue worthy of the period it addresses.

Some of the most acute and poised writing occurs in the pages on Fuseli, and, in some ways, these might have made a more satisfying conclusion to the book. The inclusion of Hazlitt’s name in the book’s title gives a somewhat misleading impression of his importance in the account as a whole. He is made to stand for the 19th-century transformation of Barry’s heroic public artist into the lonely genius, whose superiority required no social explanation or justification. In his eyes, the political republic and the republic of taste were finally and unequivocally sundered. There is an equally sharp break in Barrell’s text as he concludes with Hazlitt’s writings: his treatment of them is more summary and less animated by sympathy than the preceding chapters. There may be in this a recognition not only that the thread of the civic humanist tradition had been broken, but that Hazlitt did not possess the same standing in the debate over the public vocation of art. One thing that gives this book its extraordinary force is the fact that all of its central figures were visual artists of the highest order. A later, critical observer such as Hazlitt did not have the same things at stake and perhaps deserves a context of discussion other than this one. Reynolds, Barry, Fuseli, Blake in his way (as Barrell shows in another chapter), were gripped by the conviction that these questions were vitally important, however far it may have taken them from the immediate concerns of their practice as painters. We will not be true to the life of art in the 18th century if we cannot follow where they lead, if we cannot avoid cutting their language and thought down to our own smaller size. Barrell has shown the way and thus placed the issues of community and public at the heart of any adequate understanding of the art of the period and, by inescapable implication, of the art of any period, including our own. I have learned as much from this book as from any work of art history I know.