Diderot, Rousseau, and the politics of the arts in the Enlightenment,  | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Diderot, Rousseau, and the politics of the arts in the Enlightenment, 

Diderot, Rousseau, and the politics of the arts in the Enlightenment, 
Gerardo Tocchini

Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, England, 2023
Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment
432 pp., illus. 29 b/w. Paper, $99.00
ISBN: 978-1-80207-061-3.

Reviewed by: 
Giovanna Costantini
March 2024

Gerardo Tocchini’s Diderot, Rousseau and the Politics of the Arts in the Enlightenment is a recent contribution by the Voltaire Foundation of the University of Oxford to a rising field of interdisciplinary scholarship that focuses on the integral importance of the arts to evolving concepts of civil governance forged over the course of the Enlightenment. Aimed at redressing increased theoretical and formalist emphasis in art historical discourse that arose during the nineteenth century, Tocchini’s project investigates eighteenth-century artistic expression in France through the writings of its philosophe-literati for evidence of veiled and often not-so-veiled political commentary. Anchored by Denis Diderot’s writings on the arts, especially entries for the Encyclopédie that he edited with Jean-Baptiste D’Alembert between 1713-1759 and his Salons, critiques of the biennial art exhibitions presented by the French Académie royale de l’art et de sculpture, the book sets out to reposition Diderot’s writings in areas of theatre, opera, literature, and fine art within the sociological and political context of their creation.  Moreover, it strives to document artistic production and its criticism in ways that evidence the Enlightenment’s “great cultural revolution,” the historic rupture that marks the demise of the ancien régime’s command of the arts and the collapse of the “immutable order” of French absolutism as represented in its artistic norms. The author supports this argument principally through a trenchant analysis of Diderot’s intellectual output, his connections to Rousseau’s political writings, and his involvement with the writings of other eminent philosophers that include Voltaire and Louis Sebastien Mercier.

Tocchini argues for Diderot’s and Rousseau’s political agency in the erosion of the Academy’s hierarchic orders, interlocked systems of royal and aristocratic patronage, aggrandizing performances, ceremonial ostentation, and heavily encoded displays of authority through works for the stage, literature, and the fine arts. “In this context that was developing tumultuously,” he observes, “Diderot intervened with a proposal for a radical redefinition of the artist’s mission, imagining for him a form of apostleship that was identical to that of the ‘citizen’ man of letters: he was to teach the public the new civic, secular morality. Like the writer, the artist had to be an all-round intellectual and also a politician.  For both, the objectives were the same.”

The text is divided into three sections. The first considers the beginnings of musical opera, stage theatre and the classical and modern novel at mid-century, characterized by an opposition between French and Italian musical traditions that include lyric opera, French tragedy in the manner of Lully, and the Comédie-italienne, identified with opera buffa, commedia dell’arte and farce. It takes note of the eventual opening out of French opera through new types of theatre encountered in public squares, but also of the hierarchy of genres and styles, the formal sterility and paralysis that shackled creative freedom and poetic expression to pompous over refinement.  In this section Diderot’s reflections on theatre present various points of contact with Rousseau’s First and Second Discours of 1749 and 1755 in which social development, including that of the arts, is seen as corrosive to civic virtue and moral character, with his Lettre à d’Alembert of 1759 asserting the theatre’s tendency to weaken the political life of the community. Tocchini’s account here of Mercier’s Du théatre as an attack on privilege and class structure is forceful in its defense of the drame or popular theatre as a means of re-establishing the natural equality of man and the universality of the human condition.

The second section captioned “The space for criticism or ‘subverters’ of the artistic culture of the ancien régime” explores Diderot’s Salons, critiques of the Academy’s biennial exhibitions of art that were open to the public and presented in the Salon carré of the Louvre. Attracting over 700 visitors a day over five to six weeks, Mercier noted that persons were packed so tightly in the gallery that they could hardly breathe. Tocchini quotes liberally from Diderot’s extensive body of Salon criticism, long considered the high point of informed and independent opinion on art of the period. During the 1760s and 1770s, these critiques were issued as handwritten, clandestine gazettes (Nouvelles à la main) for Melchior Grimm’s Corréspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, a covert newsletter privately circulated among royal and aristocratic subscribers.  Its recipients numbered no more than sixteen names however, comprised mostly of princes and crowned heads of northern European states. Unpublished until1795, over a decade after Diderot’s death, their existence points to the confrontation occurring in the minds of the public between what Tocchini characterizes as academic despotism and ‘lived politics.’

In the third section, titled “In the infernal workshop of the salons of painting,” Tocchini considers genre artists positioned at the lower end of officially sanctioned artistic value, the celebrated still life painter Jean Siméon Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Greuze a master of domestic, moralizing tableaux de famille. Diderot, he emphasizes consigned the heavily Rococo artist Francois Boucher, Madame de Pomadour’s favorite, to the depths of privileged decadence, immorality, and superfluity. Eschewing grandiloquent allegory, he commends Chardin and Greuze for their technical virtuosity and ethical propriety or honnêtété, with the aim of reorienting the artist’s purpose towards philosophical instruction in ways that could inform the core of artistic content away from embellishment and symbolic mystification towards greater truth.

For research that relies on precise chronological coordinates, limitations yet confound studies of the era. This owes to the type of evidence cited, by and large hand-written papers of limited, exclusive, frequently foreign distribution, many printed with false dates to evade censorship. Declared dangerous to morality and religion, printed works were subject to condemnation and publicly burned. This was true of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques of 1734 which forced Voltaire to flee Paris for a decade, after which he was banished to Geneva in 1752 for satirizing the mathematician Pierre Louis Maupertuis. All of Diderot’s initial books were published anonymously, with his Pensées philosophiques publicly burned in 1746 and not published until 1770. In 1749 he spent three months in the royal prison at Vincennes for metaphysical reflections contained in La Rêve D’Alembert and Le Neveu de Rameau.  A decade later Helvétius’s De l’Esprit was ordered burned.  In the same year the royal privilège to publish the Encyclopédie was revoked forcing publication of its final ten volumes in Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 1765. Thus, at the height of the Enlightenment, many of the most important works cited in support of subversive tendencies were deemed seditious and published outside of France with others not appearing in print in France until decades later. The Encyclopédie project begun in 1751 for example, was not completed until 1772; while Diderot’s Salons were not issued in print until 1798, over a decade after his death.

Thus, the discursive texture of Tocchini’s narrative tends to interweave reflections and recollections articulated over time, in some cases conveyed through allusions to both earlier notes and later publications whose ideas waft through the century as winds of change, more in keeping with the nuanced tenor of the era than an indexical method.  Widely inclusive of both primary and secondary sources, it is documented with expansive footnotes, bibliography, index, and illustrations.

This work defends the critical role of art in the creation of a civil society through questions first posed by Thomas Crow in Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris, a subject subsequently interrogated by authors such as Colin B. Bailey, Perrin Stein, Charlotte Guichard, and Dena Goodman. Recent studies by Rochelle Ziskin, Antoine Lilti, and Maurice Harmon that investigate sociability networks, the role of amateurs, private collections, international relations, and interconnections among the various arts, audiences, politics, and Enlightenment culture remain current. This study provides an insightful contribution to the field, one that tackles the proposition that a new urban culture that emerged during the Enlightenment could be influenced through the arts in ways conducive to a good society—more egalitarian, inventive, moral, and secular than one confined to the dictates of church and king. These questions inform a social history of art in which humanistic values inscribed in art are deemed foundational to principles of democratic self-governance that extend to contemporaneity.