Interpreting Courbet

To be blunt about it, Marxist art criticism, like Marxist criticism of the other arts, makes interpretations which point out class conflict, while what we might call bourgeois criticism points out issues of individuality. This is certainly true in the case of Gustave Courbet, a leading French artist in the period that preceded the Impressionist deluge. It is worth considering the two opposing camps of criticism if for no other reason than that viewers of the paintings are still liable to turn toward a class interpretation as the most obvious one even though Marxism has passed out of style, which perhaps shows the individualism is still a theme difficult to grasp as an idea even as it is countered by more fractionating movements such as those represented by Modern and Postmodern art.


T. J. Clark, a noted Marxist critic of the generation that precedes this one, has a few key passages in which he reflects on two of Courbet’s paintings, “The Stonecutters” and “The Peasants Returning From the Fair”. Clark claims that the posture of the stonecutter and the stiffness of the peasants demonstrate their alienation, which is a favorite neo-Marxist category for criticizing even an affluent non-socialist society, since both well and poorly paid persons have been severed from their identities by their relations to the means of production. The individual finds himself a powerless, uncreative, time serving, wage slave, even if he cannot put his finger on the source of his profound dissatisfaction with his condition.  Courbet's realism does speak of alienation, all right, but not in the immediate representative sense that preoccupies Clark's version of Marxist criticism.

Clark is more true to Marx's empiricism than to Gramsci's awareness of the conceptual nature of social structure. Clark wants to see the peasants act in an alienated fashion, and so forces conclusions not warranted by what is on the canvas. The stonecutter Courbet portrays is indeed crouched over, but that may be the way a stonecutter works, and if he is stiff, it may be because he does not do much stone cutting any more. His tools and metal basket seem new and not archaic, and his clothes seem clean and unworn, and he is well-shod.

Clark observes that the folds of cloth on his body conceal his physical form rather than reveal it, which may testify not to alienation but to the fact that the stonecutter dresses well enough to accomplish with his clothes what clothes do for other social classes. Clothes give him dignity rather than put him in his place. Indeed, seeing a stonecutter as being out of place may testify more to the apparent anachronism of the work than to his dissatisfaction with what Clark presumes to be the misery of his lot. There is no direct representation of this misery.

The misery that we can infer but not directly see in Courbet's portrait of the stonecutter is not a matter of history; it is a part of the history of painting in that it is the manipulation of a stereotype about what a pastoral picture is supposed to be about. The stonecutter is an archaic representation, the portrait of a kind of social role that ties craftsmanship to nature, and so is becoming increasingly obsolete in an urban environment. The stonecutter, like the peasant, is a subject characteristic of the Romantic Era because these subjects serve the anthropological and historical interest of the period in reviving a sense of the way things were before industry and the city had begun to encroach. They are part of a sense of looking at the archaic while it still exists. Wordsworth portrays the leech gatherer much as Courbet portrays the stonecutter. He is also a stolid, silent figure, focussed on his business, and by implication, oblivious to the larger currents of history.

Conventionalized subjects, even if they are conventions about the down and out, do not in themselves convey an interpretation that is critical of the society in which such roles are found. The stonecutter and the leech gatherer can be seen as commentaries on the disparity between personal and historical time, or some such Romantic theme. William Blake, whose neo-pastoral presentations of the children of London are indeed critical of the society in which he lives, provides images which transform the stereotype of the naive child in a critical fashion and develops a language whose Biblical qualities instruct the reader to understand his poems about material conditions and previously unsanctified feelings as a transformation of Christian myth into what seems to him an even more comprehensive myth.

The stonecutter is a stereotypical motif that allows Courbet's painting to be read differently than as about the exploitation of the worker. The painting is a commentary on class changes in France rather than as a commentary on the work conditions of a stonecutter. The stonecutter is a figure who belongs in another setting than the one found for him. His clothes belie the archaic stereotype of the poor and miserable rural worker, and suggests, instead, an idea of the prosperous craftsman (who, it can be argued, will also be destroyed by industrialism, but not on the evidence of this picture). Thomas Hardy continues the development of this particular stereotypical figure by making Jude, who is also a stonecutter, and therefore obscure to himself and to the world, more the artist, and even more solitary, than Courbet's stonecutters. The evolution of the stereotype suggests that these anachronistic figures form the basis for a new consciousness that is independent of the hustle and bustle of Victorian and industrial society.


The same point about the need to go beyond social facts into the stereotype that is being portrayed can be made about the figures presented in “The Peasants Returning From the Fair”. The immediate material evidence does show the peasants as stiff, and a little silly, one walking a pig on a leash. But look at other material facts. The peasants are not in peasant dress, but in a stylized, rather elegant dressed up version of peasant clothes. They are returning from a place where they showed themselves off as well as their pig. The fair had been something of a civic occasion, and may show the breakdown of old class barriers as prosperous people of peasant backgrounds are more and more caught up in national life. They are witness to their own passing away, caught in a transmutation. If one is in search of a Marxist interpretation, the painting can be seen as a socialist realist tribute to the adaptable wisdom of the peasant as he adjusts to his new well-being.

The way peasants look when they go to a fair gives historical evidence about what it is like to be a peasant at that time, while the alteration in the peasant stereotype that such evidence suggests is a remark about the fluidity of class structure in France. The painting is a new version of a genre painting, akin to but different from earlier paintings that used peasant figures, and so suggests that the separation of the city and the country is not as great as it had been. Peasants flourish in both places and go back and forth between them.

On a cultural level, “The Peasants Returning From the Fair” suggests that genre painting is about the present and the near rather than the remote and removed, and so redefines what is thought of as the past into an event of the present, which is the kind of rereading of history as something happening right now that was characteristic of the age. But not too much should be made of the painting in itself acting as a symbol because Courbet's paintings do not refer to themselves as much as to their subjects, and so do not invest themselves in the development or redefinition of the conventions of the culture as a whole.

There are other issues which being freed from the Marxist perspective allows us to appreciate. Marxist criticism tends to see themes other than those of class exploitation as the result of the displacement of a culture's attention to essentially irrelevant matters by the categorical definition of these inessential activities as not needing any justification beyond themselves, which is to say, by the real world of class. Marx identified religion as one institution that was a cultural displacement. It devised its own vocabulary and its own experiences as constituting a world of its own which supplied its self-contained definition of itself as the be all and end all of life so that it becomes difficult to even conceive of a world outside religious parameters. Nationalism also serves this function, and according to Herbert Marcuse, so does sex, which becomes a way of people to think about something else than the real conditions of their lives, even though there are paradoxes in suggesting that sex is not a real condition of people’s lives.

There is another way to think about displacements. They are areas of life in which the ordinary is turned heroic, where every person, or just about every person, can struggle successfully to become a hero. Sports do not simply function as a way for totalitarian governments to turn the attention of their populace away from their problems by worrying instead about fractions of seconds in the self-justifying activity of sports, but is a way where any number of people can achieve little victories in their minor participations, and some few working class and poverty class people can achieve major victories that are meaningful to their compatriots, and where spectators, as fans, can measure out their own lives in the success and failure and heroisms of the teams they root for.

The same is true of sexual conquest or building a career or religious salvation. These are triumphs (including some occasional failures) that makes all of us into potential heros within our own lives and so heroism is not reserved for the gods or for aristocrats. This is one way to gloss Hegel's view of the significance of Jesus: Every individual had become important because everyone could fight for salvation and each one of those fights was important to God.

Another kind of heroism for the common man is the creation of family life, even if this strikes the Marxist critic as wrongheaded since the bourgeois family seems the antithesis of heroism in its quest for order and stability and the reduction of risk. But that is also a kind of heroism, and that is the story which Courbet relates. The peasant in France is not just an anachronism. The peasant is able to adapt to the modern world by only gradually dropping the cultural trappings of the past while sustaining a continuing self-interest in the economic well being of his family that reaches back to much earlier days of capitalism and continues into the present. The peasant is a kind of entrepreneur whose farm is not so much a business as a self-sufficient way of life whose autonomy must be protected by negotiations with whatever the powers that be at any given time: a lord, a landlord, a market, a city, a banker. The loyalty of the peasant is to neither his nation or his creditor or even his class. It is to the patrimony given over to the next generation of the family.

This kind of heroism is displayed in “The Peasants Returning From the Fair”, even if it is a petty bourgeois heroism that a contemporary Marxist might find unattractive. The family is composed as a set piece, which emphasizes their interdependence. They dress in a way that is a bit archaic but thereby suggests that it is freely chosen, a protest against being fully modern, since the clothes are new and clean dress-up clothes. And they surround their vehicle, their cart, on its way down a long road, as if to suggest that they move at their own pace through time, choosing when to move forward and when not to. If anything, this picture is a tribute of the sort that one might expect from the French Conservatives, who wish to think of the peasantry, and not Paris, as the backbone of the nation. But it is an image available for any contemporary French artist, regardless of political persuasion, and for any critic, who has eyes to see.