Art as politics - honours and republicanism

The current Daumier exhibition shines an uncomfortable light on today's art and our honours system. Questioning our political establishment may not win gongs but it is sorely needed.

Jeremy Fox
14 January 2014

Honoré Daumier's 'Don Quichotte et la mule morte". Flickr/Mark Turner

Anyone who has visited the Royal Academy’s Daumier exhibition, Visions of Paris, expecting to see views of fine buildings and picturesque plazas will have been sorely disappointed. The title is misleading because the focus of Daumier’s penetrating gaze was not urban landscape but people, and the social and political milieu of his time. Paris barely appears at all. Instead, what arrests the attention from the very first works on display is the force of the artist’s political commitment: on one hand his mockery of the rich and powerful, at its best in the caricature of King Louis-Philippe as Gargantua and his grotesque maquettes of monarchist politicians; and on the other his sensitive depictions of the poor and working classes. Daumier was an uncompromising republican, a quiet but acerbic revolutionary conscious at once of the extremes of inequality prevalent in nineteenth century France, and of the humanity of the common people. He belonged to and in many ways exemplified the Romantic revolution, one of whose characteristics was a recognition that “ordinary” individuals were as worthy of study and respect as the aristocrats and idealised religious figures that had largely dominated pictorial art of previous periods.

What struck me at the Daumier exhibition as forcefully as the creative and intellectual vigour of this remarkable artist was the applicability of much of his social and political satire to the UK’s present circumstances. Just as in the France of Louis-Philippe, we too have:

- an upper class with a heredity monarch at its head supported by obsequious politicians and a servile, gossip-driven media;

- extremes of inequality that have not ceased to grow since Thatcher and her successors enthusiastically chose to deliver the country to the international market.

Daumier was not alone, of course, in using his art for social and political purposes. Artists and thinkers at the barricades were a familiar sight in the nineteenth century: Shelley’s writings were considered seditious; Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables evoked the life of the underprivileged as did Zola’s LAssommoir and Germinal; Marx gave his name to revolution with pamphlets and newspaper articles as well his longer works; Proudhon in What is Property? answered his own question by concluding that “property is theft”; Dickens honed in on numerous contemporary ills including England’s sclerotic legal system, widespread social deprivation, capitalist corruption and so on; a little later Kropotkin was working on an anarchist proposal for the administration of economic life. Daumier himself earned a spell in jail for pillorying the monarchy. All these were or became opinion shapers who, by their very choice of subject matter, succeeded in engaging their contemporaries and steering them into an uncomfortable contemplation of injustice and poverty.

A long article about the housing crisis by James Meek in the London Review of Books (9 January 2014) suggests why we could do with a few such figures now. Meek opens his piece by introducing the reader to a sixty-year-old retired woman who, having lived for forty years in the same two-bedroom council flat where her husband died is now being forced to contemplate self-eviction because of the government’s notorious “bedroom tax”.  Scheduled to lose part of her housing benefit, she must choose between eating and moving to an affordable one-bedroom. She lives in Tower Hamlets where “ten thousand are waiting for a one-bedroom flat… five hundred of whom have been waiting for 12 years or more.” Although such a person cannot be said to own her two-bedroom in the capitalist sense, by almost every other definition she has  surely acquired possession of it. The walls will be decorated to her colours, the shelves and cupboards stocked with what is hers, the furniture, rugs and curtains moulded to her taste and that of her late partner; from the window the view will be familiar to her; those who live nearby are her neighbours; local shopkeepers know her by name. Her emotions, her memories, her sense of self are invested in the modest apartment from which George Osborne now desires to evict her.

John Ruskin - another nineteenth century free-thinker - described the process:

“Whether we force a man’s property from him by pinching his stomach, or pinching his fingers, makes some difference anatomically - morally none whatsoever: we use a form of torture of some sort in order to make him give up his property; we use, indeed, the man’s own anxieties, instead of the rack; and his immediate peril of starvation, instead of the pistol at his head.” [1]

In the same issue of the LRB, playwright Alan Bennett finds similarities between George Osborne’s rhetoric about the poor and statements “voiced in the 17th century and thereafter.” Perhaps Bennett was thinking of that great enlightenment theoretician John Locke who asserted “Tis not to be expected, that a Man, who drudges on, all his life, in a Laborious Trade, should be more knowing... than a pack horse”[2]; or maybe that icon of illiberal Tory fundamentalism Edmund Burke who thought it was at once “mad” and “blasphemous” to believe that the “competencies of government” included “supplying to the poor those necessaries which it has pleased the Divine Providence for a while to withhold from them”.[3]

During my visit to the Daumier exhibition, I remarked to a companion that at a time when we seem to me mired in the same kind of inequities of which Daumier was so obviously conscious it was a pity we did not have artists like him  - true republicans prepared to challenge both the monarchy and our tired political system. To my surprise I heard around me several murmurs of agreement and none of dissent. Later, I wondered if my off-the-cuff criticism stood up to scrutiny. Certainly we have artists of the other kind - those admired (and handsomely paid) for putting tiny birds on sticks, encrusting skulls with diamonds, and exhibiting nothing - a phenomenon on which I wrote a spoof years before the none event at the Hayward Gallery in London.

But do we have political rebels amongst our artistic luminaries? Any who find in the lives of our people - of the world’s peoples - the lifeblood of their art?

Sculptor Anthony Gormley figures on the 2014 list of those receiving a high-level gong - an accolade of which he apparently approves because gongs “now … also go to people that have opened people’s minds…” Well perhaps some folk have had their minds opened by Sir Anthony though I find it hard to imagine to what purpose.

Of one thing we can be sure, given Daumier’s jaundiced representations of royalty, there wouldn’t have been much enthusiasm in Louis-Philippe’s palace for giving him a gong of any kind. Whoever has stood before Daumier’s piquant caricatures, his stark evocations of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, his poignant depictions of the Parisian “lower” classes might, however, conclude that the greatest artists don’t need them. Some of us might also wonder if a decoration conferred on a creative artist by an unelected head of state on the recommendation of a politician might even be considered a bit demeaning, less a mark of honour than one of failure. Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene, JB Priestley - artists who one might consider to be at least as important as Gormley - figure among those who turned down their gongs. Perhaps they didn’t want to belong to a club that included people exalted for their allegiance to political parties or for their dedication to personal enrichment, or who pay a lower tax rate than their cleaners, or who have earned a spell in one of her majesty’s hostelries for criminals. Or did they simply recoil from the embrace of an establishment that many in this country learn by dint of experience to despise?

Doubtless all the names on the News Years Honours list are worthy people; but the list itself, especially at the most elevated levels, is dishonoured by those who have found their way onto it less by the nobleness of their deeds than by the size of their wallet and the quality of their address book. For every of one those before whom commoners are expected to genuflect, there will be thousands - tens of thousands - whose service to others and to their nation goes unremarked: the toilers who pass under the radar of the better-off but on whose labour we and the city depend, the brick-layers and carpenters, street-cleaners, shop-assistants, bin men, plumbers, electricians, nurses, fire-fighters, social workers, small entrepreneurs...

As George Eliot memorably reminds us in the concluding lines of Middlemarch:

“ ... the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”


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[1] The Work of Iron, 1858

[2] Essay Concerning Human Understanding

[3] Quoted in Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism - A Counter-History, London 2011, p. 37

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