Art and the people

Elisée Reclus

From: Ishill, Joseph. (1927). Élisée and Élie Reclus: In Memoriam. Compiled, ed. and printed by Joseph Ishill. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Oriole Press.

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The closing of the Salon, one of my friends, an amateur connoisseur of beautiful things, came to me quite desolate. He had been ill and had taken a journey away from Paris. Now he returned too late for the Exhibition and so he lamented not having been able to see these multitudes of marbles and paintings which special reviews kept him conversant with.

     The dear comrade may reassure himself. A walk upon forest-paths, on fallen leaves, or one moment of repose upon the brink of a pure fountain-if he can find one still fifteen or twenty leagues from the boulevard-will console him for having missed his visit to the habitual museum where there is shut up every year temporarily that which is called the "belles arts".

     Certainly I do not want to decry the fine arts. In my childhood I have always admired the wonders of the fairs, the beautiful rope-dancers, the jugglers around whom whirled plates, the tricksters who broke watches and changed them into bouquets of flowers. At the Salon I continue to admire in all naivete like a very ninny. There also do I see the artist prestidigitators who manipulate and mix colours with an incomparable dexterity, who blend in a thousand ways lights and shadows in a hash which is entirely unexpected and who succeed in making a stunning light spring up from the darkest depths. All this seems to be very fine, or rather surprising, and I applaud the virtuosi of the pencil in all sincerity.

     Nevertheless, I am not at all satisfied. Is it this indeed which is true art? Do I find therein the consolation of sorrows, the respites from the weariness of daily life and profound woes which accompany us for all our lives ? Can all these paintings, sculptures, engraved or embroidered objects make me forget the sordid misery outside and the presence of the armed policeman who,-yonder, near the door, or in the room itself, can crash his weapon upon a peaceful citizen and fracture his skull? No, all this multi-coloured art that accumulates its incongruous products in rooms lent by the State can only be a false and lying art, for it is not the work of a free people.

     The essential thing is missing in the majority of those who paint in order to give us one or several square yards of wall decoration: they have not the natural and joyous elan which proud independence confers. In all this medley, how many objects testify to moral servitude, decadence, vanity, fawning. The portraits and statues of pseudo-great men swarm there as well as scenes of vice, and a thousand filthy things that it would have been simpler to leave in the dirt. All truly beautiful work becomes profaned by the contact with these hideous machinations.

     Ah, if the painters and sculptors were free, there would be no need for them to shut themselves up in Salons. They would have but to reconstruct our cities, first demolishing these ignoble cubes of stone where human beings are piled up, rich and poor, the beggar and the pompous millionaire, starvelings and satiated, victims and hangmen. They would burn all the old barracks of the times of misery in an immense fire of joy, and I imagine that in the museums of works to be preserved, they would not leave very much of the pretended artistic work of our time.

     Even in our days of jealous monopoly, of strictly private properties, and of the uttermost division of labour, there are occasions of public enthusiasm when one sees really beautiful works born from a movement of popular elan. Such holidays as the world of functionaries is not of a mind to determine, are celebrated with such a marvelous gaiety, with so touching a cordiality that one remains forever ravished. Such improvised harmony, such a dramatic scene representing a gush of fraternity leaves ineffaceable memories, whilst the recollection of the most pompous ceremonies hardly affects other than the vanity of the mayors which are decorated and the pump makers who receive their drink money.

     Men of good, but feeble, will seek to reconcile the irreconcilable without touching upon the causes of discord. They want art to remain sincere while it is, with the artist, tied up with the necessities of the means of subsistence. No, the "beautiful" and the useful cannot become reconciled whilst men are not united among themselves. Society being divided into enemy classes, art has become, of necessity, false, since it participates in the hostile interests and passions. With the rich it is changed into ostentation. With the poor it can be nothing but imitation and still-life deception. Money, with which the artist is obliged to preoccupy himself above all, vitiates through and through that which remains of art in both; sincerity, naivete, must held, in their works, to skill and the "magic" of savoir-faire. Neither governmental protection nor education in art, neither museums morning or evening, neither concourse nor judges can change anything of this. And want? How can a people become artist when the sufferings of hunger and unnatural illness render it ugly?

     "The beginning of art", says Ruskin, "consists in making the people beautiful. There doubtlessly has been an art in lands where the people were not all beautiful, or even where their lips were thick and their skins black-because the sun had shone upon them-but never in a country where cheeks were made pallid by miserable labour and mortal shadow, and where the lips of youth, instead of being full of blood, were made thin by famine or deformed by poison."

     "Art is life", said ken Baffier, the workingman sculptor who has put so much passion and joy in chiseling out of the marble the noble and pure figure of his mother, the peasant woman and those of the valiant workers, prudent gardeners. Art is life. As soon as labour impassions, as soon as it gives joy, the toiler becomes an artist. He desires to embellish his work, give it a trait of endurance and of universality through the admiration of all. If one should make nothing but Pins, Diderot tell us, it is necessary that he should love his trade. The peasant loves one to come from afar to contemplate the straight furrow and the even ridge that he has made his oxen trace with his sturdy hands. The muleteer glories in being able to correctly gauge the equilibrium of the animal's load, to ornament it beautifully with shimmering pompons, unless want has brutalized him and deprived him of his initiative. Every worker seeks to give himself a tool that should not only be perfect for work, but that should at the same time be agreeable to the eyes. He himself chooses the wood or the metal; he mounts it and adjusts the ornaments and decorations and designs. Even those workers whose work disappears immediately after having been accomplished-reapers, harvestmen and vintagers are. no less artists in their way of handling their tools in getting through with their work. After years they recount their prowess of rapidity and endurance in the immense effort. Every trade has its heroes-even in that little village life, constituting within itself alone a complete world, and every one of these heroes finds poets who perpetuate his renown, especially during the long winter evenings when the dancing flames and sudden lights from the embers oscillate forms, now bringing them together, now separating them, giving to all things the impression of mystery and of intimacy. These humble hearths of primitive art,-it is there that our epopees and our architecture are born. And as long as it will remain in these serene places for happy labour, we have good work. The future perhaps will issue from this primal cell.

     It is not only the restoration and embellishment of our cities that we expect from the man who becomes artist. Because he will be free, we also count upon him to renew the beauty of the fields, in adapting all his works to their proper milieu in nature, in such a way that there should be born between earth and man a harmony kind to the eye and comforting to the spirit. Even great buildings can be of admirable beauty when the architects understand the character of the environing site, and when the work of man harmonizes with the geological work of the centuries in a harmonious ensemble.

     But there are peaks which the raising of any monument would profane, and one has a feeling of real disgust when insolent architects, paid by obscene innkeepers, build enormous caravanseries, erect rectangular blocks, on which are hewed out a thousand squares of symmetrical windows, and which bristle with a hundred smoking chimneys, the entire thing in the face of superb summits of granite, fields of immaculate snow, rivers of blue ice serpenting in the valleys of the mountain. This is how man has dishonored many a great Swiss landscape and many a landscape in other countries as well. The lover who takes pleasure in the mystery of nature dies those places he most admires. He withdraws with repugnance from the crowd of boobies and brawlers who rush to scale the rocks of Zermatt and he retries seeking some spot which fashion has not yet sullied.

     The earth is infinitely beautiful, but for us to associate ourselves to its beauty, to glorify it by a respectful art, there is no ocher means but that of becoming free, of instituting the decisive revolution against money and of ennobling the class-struggle by abolishing the classes themselves.


     "One always ends by discovering some spot in the sun, some fault in the ideal, some meanness in the great reformer, some knavery in the Messiah. One discovers an entirely little thing, something merely altogether petty.... Only this entirely small thing is just what one cannot pardon.

     I love the name of the Bitter-Sweet, for it makes me dream. It is this, it is that. I love the Bitter-Sweet, for it reminds me of this, it reminds me of that. I love the Bitter-Sweet, it tells me of beautiful things and I clearly recollect the visions that it evokes. For this fewer is both one thing and another."