The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture.

Author:D'Souza, Aruna
Position:Book review
 
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Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 246 pp.; 49 color ills., 88 b/w. $45.00

Petra ten-Doesschate Chu's The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture seeks to replace the long-standing image of the artist as a heroic artiste engage with a more complicated picture of the man and his art, one in which strategies of self-presentation and self-promotion, of economic self-determination and political self-expression all find equal voice in a new understanding of avant-garde autonomy. A demotion of Courbet from hero to something less than heroic but perhaps more complicated would not be such a bad thing in and of itself, and surely Chu's book holds out the promise of a fascinating rereading of the artist and his work. Social art historians have long been troubled by Courbet's seemingly bifurcated oeuvre, in which a series of controversial, manifestolike, politically resonant works (After-Dinner at Ornans, The Stonebreakers, The Burial at Ornans, The Painter's Studio) exists alongside a journeyman's storeroom of landscapes, hunting scenes, graphic nudes, and still lifes. Faced with this problem, Chu argues that rather than ignore the more "commercial" side of Courbet's production or sweep it aside as the necessary evil that allowed him to take on large social questions in his "important" work, one must understand both aspects of his production as central to his larger project: namely, to stake out an autonomous position within a cultural field complicated by a disappearing system of patronage (an effect of the post-Revolutionary decline of church, state, and monarchy's former role as cultural arbiters) and an emerging art market driven by the desires of a bourgeois class of art collectors. In short, Courbet may well have exploited a market hungry for anodyne landscapes and soft-core nudes in order to finance his more radical Salon works, but he also exploited the controversy and celebrity generated by the Salon works to expand the market for his art. Most important, Chu contends that he did so by operating within--and manipulating--a newly emerging media culture in which a commercial press in competition for subscribers was happy to fan the flames of his celebrity. Courbet's significance lay in his ability to recognize and negotiate this new set of conditions:

He may well have been the first not merely to acknowledge but also to accept the complexity of the position of the modern artist--at once autonomous (free to create what he or she wants) and dependent on society for a living; simultaneously scornful of the public and craving publicite; both artistic genius, in the full Romantic sense of the term, and purveyor of commodities for the bourgeois home. (p. 2)

In her elaboration of Courbet's "exhibition and marketing strategy," Chu reasons that if the condition of the artist in the 1840s and 1850s was newly transformed by the explosion of print media, the position of the artist was also analogous to those literary writers who found themselves working as journalists for the commercial press, a fact that she explores over the course of six well-illustrated and lucidly written chapters. Like those writers, who included some of Courbet's closest literary allies, he too had to find a way to be "independent" or "autonomous" even as his very living depended on his participation in the marketplace (chapter 1); like those writers, he adopted strategies of self-promotion that depended on the creation of a public persona and on the public pronouncement of his artistic and political allegiances, which he effected through self-portraiture, on the one hand, and portraits of intellectuals, on the other (chapters 2 and 3); like those writers, he adopted a rhetoric marked by irony and ambiguity to avoid state censorship of his most radical works (chapter 4); like those writers, he addressed himself to a "bi-gendered" audience, one in which women were as likely as men to be reading one's book or viewing one's painting (chapter 5); and, like those writers, he refused to specialize in a particular genre or form, preferring instead to maximize his commercial value by mastering a variety of artistic idioms, often tailoring his approach to appeal to particular subsets of his audience (chapter 6).

Through this emphasis on Courbet's relation to the press and to the ideas of his circle of journalist-friends who gathered at the Brasserie Andler, Chu reorients the study of this artist around questions of language and rhetoric rather than popular imagery. As Ting Chang has remarked, this is no small feat, given the dominance in the Courbet bibliography of some of the most important writers of social art history, including Meyer Schapiro, T.J. Clark, Linda Nochlin, and Klaus Herding:

The long-accepted idea, dating to the nineteenth century, that Realism quarried vernacular imagery and popular culture for unmediated transfer on canvas stimulated the scholarly hunt for quotidian, often ephemeral, illustrations. The study of the political, cultural, and socioeconomic conditions that shaped artistic production as well as the examination of visual sources have been highly rewarding in Courbet studies, but these methods have nonetheless reached a point of diminishing returns. (1)

Leaving aside social art history, Chu's book begins with a brief but significant evocation of the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose Rules of Art elaborated an analytic theory of artistic and literary production that depended on the mapping of cultural fields in which individual participants chose from a...

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