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The contemporary philosopher and art critic for The Nation, Arthur Danto, has stated that it’s nearly impossible to leave one’s mark upon culture as an art critic. If one looks at how few art critics are remembered, it’s difficult to disagree with this observation. Since the mid-eighteenth century, when art criticism became prevalent, there have been thousands of art critics, but only a handful of them are still known today. Among them, in the French tradition, we can count Diderot, Baudelaire, Gautier, the Goncourt brothers, Zola and Huysmans. But even these cases are difficult to judge from the point of view of art criticism, since all of these writers are known primarily for other accomplishments: Diderot for being the editor of the Encyclopédie and author of novellas, philosophical treatises and plays; Baudelaire for his poetry; Gautier, the Goncourt brothers, Zola and Huysmans for their novels. Would any of these critics be recognized today had they written only about art? In the case of Diderot I certainly think so, and to begin supporting this point, I’d like to consider here the importance of Diderot’s Salons to our contemporary appreciation of art and to the development of Romanticism, particularly as it pertains to what I call his stance of “passionate lucidity.”

Diderot’s Salons have much more than a purely historical value. They did, indeed, allow readers far removed from the Parisian art exhibits to appreciate new works of art. And they do, indeed, still tell us so much—and so entertainingly—about the artistic standards of the eighteenth-century. But they also accomplish more than that. They help us understand better the connection between aesthetics and art criticism—or, otherwise put, between abstract philosophical inquiries about the nature of art and beauty and specific value judgments about particular artists and paintings.

Aesthetics — a word derived from the Greek word aesthesis meaning “sense experience” — concerns itself with the study of art. Aesthetic philosophy seeks to understand the principles that underlie our value judgments: What is beauty? Is it objective in any way? How is aesthetic pleasure related to perception? What is an artist? What is called talent or genius? What makes something be art? Today we believe that such philosophical questions are also historical, and thus cannot be answered only in the abstract. Thus, aesthetic philosophy can benefit from art criticism and art history, which register the responses of a given era and the economic and social forces that helped shape and consecrate art. Art historians and art critics attempt to answer questions such as: What constitutes artistic value for a given period, group or set of artists? What perceptual and aesthetic problems were specific artists working on? Were they successful? By what standards? Who sponsored them and why? What do we think of them today?

Given that the two fields are complimentary and interdependent, it makes sense to combine aesthetics and art history or criticism; yet, surprisingly, in the modern period few critics do. Since the eighteenth-century, there appears to exist an invisible divide between art critics and aesthetic philosophers, such that, for example, in the work of Kant or Hegel the mention of specific artists is almost completely seeped in philosophical abstraction, while, conversely, the writing of art critics such as the Goncourt brothers, despite its exquisite style, learnedness and sensibility, has little philosophical resonance. True to the spirit of the Enlightenment, when the philosophes touched upon every subject that the human mind could grasp, Diderot is one of the few and most engaging modern writers to examine the question of artistic value from a dual perspective, that of philosopher and art critic. His Salons help us think about our own responses to art: particularly to the art of his times, since standards of value and what is considered art have changed beyond recognition since the eighteenth century.

As the title suggests, Diderot’s Salons were a collection of his art criticism of the official Parisian Salon exhibits. These reviews took the form of letters to close friends—particularly to his best friend, Friedrich Grimm, the editor of Correspondance littéraire between 1753 and 1776–and to far-away readers, most of whom could not make it to see the paintings in person. The Salons, in turn, were state-sponsored art shows first held in 1667, under Louis XIV’s reign, at Colbert’s initiative. These art exhibits were initially meant to showcase only the work of artists who were members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, but became accessible to all artists in 1791, upon the orders of the Revolutionary government. After 1699, the exhibits moved to the prestigious Salon Carré of the Louvre and after 1737, they were organized more frequently, either once or twice a year. Open to the public from the very beginning, the Salons offered a feast for the eyes. Dozens of beautiful paintings were displayed next to one another, covering the walls from eye-level to ceiling. In 1798 the evaluation of artwork and the prizes given at the Salon was placed in the hands of a committee of judges who were members of the Academy and selected by the government. Since the Academy was so important in determining the standards of value of French art for nearly three centuries, it’s also worth saying a few words about it.

Colbert founded the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1648 in response to pressure from painters who claimed that their occupation was not a trade or a craft, to be controlled only by the guilds. They considered art an intellectual endeavor that required rigorous academic training. Louis XIV developed the Académie using Italian academies, which had flourished during the Renaissance, as his model. Very soon, however, the French Academy set the standards for art in Europe. It adhered to a classical training, where art was taught according to a set of rules established by first drawing copies of Renaissance master drawings, then proceeding to drawing from casts and live models, and finally moving on to oil paintings. Regarding art as an intellectual endeavor that required a broad education, The Academy held lectures and courses on drawing, anatomy, geometry, mathematics and perspective.

During the eighteenth century, the standards of the Salon and the monopoly established by the Academy were disrupted. Popular painters like Chardin, who specialized in still-life, and Greuze, who specialized in portraits, helped shift the hierarchy of subjects and genres, which had privileged allegorical and history paintings. In so far as the Salons were associated with the stringent rules of the Academy, during the nineteenth-century they began to lose prestige. In hindsight, with the popularity of artists such as Manet, the Impressionists and the postimpressionists in mind, we can now look at Salon art— which is sometimes called pejoratively “l’art pompier” – and see it as excessively conservative and narrow in its criteria.

Diderot’s art criticism upheld the value of a kind of Salon art that asserted its uniqueness and independence from the strict standards of Academic painting. We might say that Diderot began a trend of art criticism that celebrated the modernity of art. The influential writings of Diderot, Baudelaire, Gautier, the Goncourts and Zola played an important role for their respective periods in what we can call, retrospectively, the modernization of art by placing increasing value on individuality, passion and creativity rather than on following, even if masterfully, a particular set of academic rules.

Diderot is arguably the most famous of these art critics. He reviewed the Paris Salons of 1759 through 1771, 1779 and 1781. Unlike the livrets distributed at the Salons, which were meant to be looked at during or shortly following the visit to the exhibit, Diderot’s reviews, published as private newsletters, were addressed to a broad, international audience. His readership included members of the royal houses from Russia, Poland, Sweden and other nations—individuals who, for the most part, had not seen the paintings and probably would never have the opportunity to do so. This geographical and temporal distance between readers and paintings compelled Diderot to write his reviews in a personable, engaging, even theatrical style that not only depicted art in vivid detail, but also peppered those descriptions with personal anecdotes and illustrations that made the paintings come to life before the readers’ eyes.

As is the case with most of Diderot’s writings, these reviews don’t fall neatly into any particular genre, straddling several domains. They’re simultaneously aesthetic philosophy; letters to a close friend and to far-away readers; art criticism and entertaining literature. Diderot’s ability to bring art to life for those who, for the most part, didn’t have the chance to see it, parallels his ability to stimulate feelings of love in a relationship (with his mistress, Sophie Volland) that is defined mostly by separation and distance. In both cases, art and love, Diderot cultivates aesthetic passion through a refined narrative imagination heightened by artistic sensibility and tempered by lucidity and knowledge.

Both Relative and Universal: Diderot’s Traité du beau

Diderot first broached the question of what is beauty in an article of the Encyclopédie that was published on January 21, 1752 entitled, appropriately enough, “Beauty.” He then edited and developed his arguments further in the Traité du beau, which was published twenty years later. This philosophical treatise considers the arguments about beauty presented by the British empiricists Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. What appeals to a materialist such as Diderot about their writings is the understanding of beauty as the product of an infinite number of repeated experiences. Like Diderot, Shaftesbury proposes a refined empiricism that applies the insights of inductive models of knowledge to age-old aesthetic problems, the most important of which is elucidating the nature of beauty. In broaching this subject, Shaftesbury himself relied upon Plotinus’ neoplatonic philosophy to reconcile empiricism with idealism, or, more specifically, the variety of sensory impressions with an everlasting, unified and universal idea of beauty. The beauty of art and of nature, Plotinus had claimed, reflects a higher, divine harmony. Like his precursor and inspiration Plato, the Renaissance philosopher climbs upon an idealist ladder that leads from physical sensation to pure form; from the particular to the universal; from the individual to the world soul, or what Plato had called the Good.

Shaftesbury is not an idealist like Plotinus. Nevertheless, he too sees the beauty of nature and of art as a reflection of the higher harmony and meaning of the cosmos. In appreciating beauty, Shaftesbury further suggests, we’re not simply passive beings that absorb sensory impressions, but rather creative individuals who exercise judgment and taste. The appreciation of beauty–at least according to the philosophical tradition that leads from Plato to Diderot–is therefore sensory but not merely physical. It engages our faculties and reveals the underlying harmony of the world.

Even assuming that this conception of beauty were true, an immediate question presents itself: how do we gain access to this higher realm; how do we discern the beautiful? Finding himself in agreement with Shaftesbury, Diderot maintains that the appreciation of beauty is instilled, first and foremost, by repeated observation. Thus like the empiricists, Diderot founds aesthetics—which means, as mentioned, “of sense experience”—appropriately enough upon perception. Nonetheless, it can be objected that observation in itself doesn’t give us any particular direction: seeing things repeatedly doesn’t even indicate that we necessarily like them, much less imply good taste. To address this objection, Diderot offers his own definition of beauty, one that combines Neoclassical standards with empiricist assumptions. Beauty, the philosopher states, is a harmony between the parts and the whole; or, phrased more in line with his materialist theory of knowledge, it’s the perception of the relation of unity between the parts and the whole. This understanding of beauty is broad enough to apply to a vast array of things: natural objects, art, feelings, human beings.

Yet, one could further object, if we all appreciate order and harmony in similar ways, what is one to make of the obvious variations in standards of beauty? Diderot is preoccupied with this problem. He raises the fundamental question, is beauty “something absolute or relative?” (Traité du beau, 81) Or, otherwise put, is there an unchangeable, eternal, essential beauty or is beauty like fashion, variable and dependent upon shifting tastes? (81) Ultimately, as Baudelaire would do several generations later, Diderot settles upon both. If beauty were eternal, there would be no way to explain changing criteria. If it were ephemeral, it would be a product of ignorance and, as he states, “throw the whole philosophical question into sheer scepticism” (81). A good way of explaining more tangibly the abstract claim that beauty is both particular and universal, Diderot implies, is by considering one’s judgments of concrete objects of beauty, such as paintings. Which is precisely what he does in the Salons.

Lucidity and Passion in Art

If Diderot’s Salons are such a pleasure to read hundreds of years later, it’s in part because of their conversational tone, inflections of humor and theatricality—all of the rhetorical and personal skills that season Diderot’s writing in general. The author illustrates his arguments about beauty with vivid descriptions of paintings, descriptions which are themselves peppered with unexpected but relevant personal anecdotes. In the Salon of 1767, for example, Diderot explains his attitude as a critic by comparing it to his attitude as a lover. In critiquing two little paintings which he happens to own, he wishes to convince readers that he can evaluate them with integrity despite the fact that he possesses and loves them. After describing the paintings, he focuses upon their minor flaws. Not because he considers these paintings important or the flaws serious, but because he wishes to make a more general point about the proper aesthetic stance. Even when a critic loves a work of art, Diderot suggests, he must see it from multiple perspectives, as completely and clearly as he can.

Art criticism, like philosophy, like love itself, depends upon cultivating a lucid passion. Passion, because without it it’s impossible to have the enthusiasm and sensibility necessary to appreciate a work of art. Lucidity, because without it it’s impossible to maintain that enthusiasm or to explain and defend one’s appreciation plausibly to others. Thus Diderot advises that “in art as in love, a happiness that’s founded only on illusion won’t last. Friends, follow my example. See your mistress as she is. See your statues, your paintings, your friends as they are. And if they enchanted you the first day, their charm will last” (568-9).

Appreciating a work of art, possessing it, gazing at it entails some measure of love for it, for its particular manifestation of beauty. Art criticism is therefore not objective. Yet, Diderot cautions, it also can’t be confused with arbitrary subjective preference. To maintain a balance between love and a critical attitude, the art critic or philosopher must be able to describe the work of art as if from an external perspective; to acknowledge both its strengths and its flaws; to see it as if from the point of view of those who have no attachment to it. One might be tempted to say that Diderot reflects here the Enlightenment dream of seeking objectivity in the realm of the subjective. For the ideal of having artistic taste be both subjective and objective defines, most notably, Kant’s Critique of Judgment.

Yet Diderot doesn’t follow the path of the subjective universal, which, in its simplest formulation, claims that one’s subjective taste in matters of beauty, if on the mark, should be everyone’s. When judgments of beauty are not shared, Kant suggests, that proves lack of taste rather than a variety of possibly valid judgments. Diderot’s aesthetics do not imply that those who disagree with his philosophical standards of beauty are necessarily wrong. He begins by arguing, like Kant, that, at root, taste is personal. Yet, unlike Kant, he doesn’t assume or impose similarity of aesthetic judgment. True to his simultaneously open-minded and opinionated conversational manner, the philosophe wishes to seduce readers into seeing his point of view. Artistic appreciation, like love, are all the more profound when experienced so personally that one accepts an object of beauty or affection in its entirety–qualities, flaws and all. Rather than being objective, this honest assessment of aesthetic value is touchingly personal: a form of knowledge of something (or someone) so acute that it becomes a form of intimacy.

I’m not off base in using the language of passionate love to describe the appreciation of art. Diderot himself peppers his philosophical argument with an anecdote about his life-long mistress and friend, Sophie Volland:

I remember a woman who doubted a bit the kindness of my eyes asking me to sketch her portrait which she didn’t have the courage to let me finish; she covered my mouth with her hands. And still, I was drawn to her… (568-9)

This example, like the argument it serves, is symptomatic of Diderot’s art criticism. Representing aesthetic taste not as something objective that all individuals do or should share, but as something idiosyncratic that can be nonetheless defended intelligibly and intelligently to others, characterizes Diderot’s attitude as philosopher, critic and lover. Aesthetic taste, the author suggests, is nothing more nor less than a lucid and passionate appreciation of beautiful things.

Diderot is nonetheless very forceful in his judgments. Taken aback by the vehemence with which he defends his artistic opinions, the Goncourt brothers would later claim that Diderot’s scathing remarks about Boucher and Fragonard and resounding praises of his favorites, Chardin and Greuze, should be taken with a grain of salt. They even insinuate that the philosophe is quite unfair to the artists he doesn’t like. No doubt that’s true. Yet if we keep in mind how Diderot has described the nature of aesthetic judgment, this charge glides off him. For, by his own standards—which make perfect sense even in our day–if a knowledgeable and sensitive critic can defend his judgments, which are themselves formulated with as much integrity and lucidity as he can muster, then he has done his job. In reading Diderot’s comments about Chardin and Greuze in particular, one gets the impression that his taste for these painters is personal—idiosyncratic even—but not arbitrary. In drawing such a tenuous distinction, I feel compelled to defend it.

The safest way to describe the difference between a subjective taste that is personal and one which is arbitrary is sociologically and more or less relativistically, the way Bourdieu and other Marxist critics do. Good taste occurs when one’s personal judgments are validated by people who themselves have authority and expertise in that domain: as, for example, when an artist one admires receives broader critical acclaim. Diderot’s judgments were confirmed in this sense by his contemporaries, as the highly sensuous Rococo style associated with Boucher began to decline and the more austere, Neoclassical style of Chardin and the attractively sentimental style of Greuze gained popularity.

But appealing to a collectively affirmed judgment is, in a way, a way of begging the question. It doesn’t explain why a group of people who are influential in the world of art come to value some works of art and not others. Despite the elegance and intricacy of his explanations, even Bourdieu eventually runs up against this fundamental problem: for saying that taste is nothing more than endowing something with economic or cultural capital still doesn’t explain why such a value is attributed to specific objects to begin with. In insisting upon an answer to this question, I agree with Diderot’s argument in the Traité du beau: namely, that declaring taste to be, at root, arbitrary means to “throw the whole philosophical question [of aesthetic value] into sheer scepticism.”

So what is good art during the eighteenth-century? A noble simplicity is how Winckelmann described Neoclassicism, or the kind of art that sought to recapture the elegance and beauty of Hellenistic sculpture and functioned as a foil and rival to the more decorative, gay and charming styles of Baroque and Rococo art. Diderot’s artistic tastes are similar to, but more eclectic than Winckelmann’s. He too sought to instill the value of simplicity and moral elevation in art. For this reason, he consistently criticized in the Salons François Boucher, who was the personal favorite of Mme de Pompadour and, through her friendship and patronage, became the chief court painter of Louis XV.

Boucher was perhaps the most famous eighteenth-century painter of feminine beauty and sensuality. Even Diderot could not resist the visual appeal of his work as he commented in the Salon of 1761, “Pastoral scenes and landscapes by Boucher. What colors! What variety! What wealth of objects and ideas!” (205) Yet, lest he should seem too complimentary, the critic added, “This man has everything except truth. There is no part of his compositions which, if separated from the others, doesn’t please; even the whole seduces you.” (205). Boucher’s work exhibits sumptuousness and harmony. Each part of his paintings reflects physical beauty and so does the whole. Yet, Diderot qualifies, “We ask ourselves: did we ever see shepherds dressed with such elegance and luxury?” (205)

What becomes clear as we read Diderot’s critiques of Boucher is the fact that the critic demands from art a harmony and believability that are not simply visual. While seeming to call for physical verisimilitude in saying that such well-dressed shepherds are improbable, Diderot in fact asks for something deeper: a kind of beauty and true-to-lifeness that elevates the imagination and emotions, rather than only exciting the senses. Which is why he reduces, perhaps a bit too harshly–as the Goncourts point out–Boucher’s entire artistic production to a series of visual fragments:

He is made to dazzle two kinds of people; his elegance, cuteness, romanesque chivalry, coquettishness, taste, ease, variety, daring, his made-up incarnations, his debauchery, should captivate the little artisans, little women, the young, the socialites, the host of people who don’t know true taste, truth, fair ideas, the severity of art; how would such people resist the licentiousness, the pomp, the pompons, the bosoms, the derrières, the epigram of Boucher? (205)

Diderot champions Chardin as a kind of antidote to Boucher and their equally famous pupil, Fragonard. Although Chardin was also trained in the Rococo tradition (by P.-J. Cazes and Noël-Nicolas Coypel), his work resembles much more the paintings of the Dutch masters of still-life. In the age of lavish paintings featuring the pleasures and refinements of the aristocracy, recognition was slow to come for Chardin’s more modest style and middle-class subjects. Later in life Chardin enjoyed a great measure of success and was even elected to the French Academy in 1728. Diderot can’t take credit for this consecration since by the time the critic praised the artist, Chardin was already famous. Nevertheless, Diderot crystallizes like no other art critic the appeal of Chardin’s art. He rightfully observes that in Chardin’s still life we perceive the glow of vitality and, more importantly for him, hints of spirituality that no representation of human beings in Boucher could evoke.

While Boucher offered a feast for the eyes, Chardin offers nourishment for the soul:

It’s always nature and truth; you feel like taking the bottles by their nozzles if you are thirsty; the fish and grapes whet the appetite and invite the hand… This Chardin is a smart man; he understands the theory behind his art; he paints in a way that fits him, and his paintings will be in demand one day. (197)

Diderot was, indeed, accurate in his prediction. Chardin’s art would be highly regarded not only by his contemporaries, but also by his followers, including Courbet and Manet, who would find inspiration in his paintings. Diderot begins his praises of his favorite painter by focusing on the visual resemblance between objects and their representation. Yet what he admires most about Chardin’s paintings is less tangible. He’s fascinated above all with the artist’s unique talent of giving an internal glow, an unspoken aura of mystery, to the most mundane objects: a wine bottle, a plate, a wooden table.

If Chardin animates objects with a hidden power akin to feeling, Greuze does the same for human subjects, especially sentimental and subtly suggestive depictions of young girls. Greuze first became known in the Salon of 1755 for his complex and spectacular painting, Father of the Family Reading the Bible. As Diderot repeatedly points out, his paintings titillate the senses and stimulate the imagination, enabling the viewer to reconstruct a whole story from a single scene while also delivering an edifying moral lesson that, as we tend to believe today, is rich with innuendo and ambiguity. In the Salon of 1765, Diderot gives Greuze glowing reviews:

Here’s your painter and mine; the first among us to give manners to art and to link events in a way that easily makes a novel. He’s a little vain, our painter, but his vanity is that of a child; it’s the inebriation of talent. (379-80)

What captures the critic’s attention most is Greuze’s painting of a young girl who bemoans the loss of her bird. Using Greuze’s symbolic images to create his own story about a girl who regrets the loss of her virginity, Diderot waxes ecstatic over this painting:

Lovely elegy! Beautiful poem! The pretty idyll that Gessner would make! It’s the vignette of a piece by this poet. Delectable painting, the most pleasant and perhaps the most interesting of the Salon. (381)

Although the critic describes L’Oiseau Morte in great detail, he focuses above all on the emotional appeal of the girl’s youth, beauty and sadness to an implicitly male viewer. A good painting, Diderot seems to suggest, is not one that puts pictures into words, thus conforming to Neoclassical principles, but one that touches viewers so deeply, both visually and emotionally, that they invent their own stories about it. A good painting is a novel, not just a scene, authored primarily by the viewers, not just the painter. It stirs the senses and sensibilities, refines the taste, stimulates creativity and elevates the mind. For these reasons, Diderot suggests, appreciating such beautiful art is not the consumption of visual images for pleasure but, to return to my initial characterization of his aesthetic stance, a form of passionate lucidity.

In saying that taste requires lucidity—which entails seeing a beautiful object clearly and from multiple perspectives as well as explaining one’s judgments compellingly to others—we see that one’s faculties and sensibilities have a lot to do with what we call art and our appreciation of it. The transmission of taste, Diderot indicates, is in part cognitive and in part rhetorical: it’s an emotive, not just aesthetic, sensitivity to beauty that can be expressed to a broader community in a way that can be appreciated by others. Not everyone has such a sensibility, and certainly not everyone has such powers of persuasion. But Diderot certainly did and this is part of why he succeeded in being a trend-setter of the artistic standards of his times. His Salons contributed to the rise of a style that, in its emphasis upon simplicity and moral elevation, revived classical standards while also foreshadowing, in its emphasis upon pathos and passion, the work of the Romantics. It would therefore not be an exaggeration to find in Diderot’s Salons the aesthetic blueprints for both Neoclassicism and Romanticism.

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com