Modern Public

The Modern Public and Photography

Baudelaire’s “The Salon of 1859” is comprised of four letters to Jean Morel, editor of the Revue Francaise. In the first letter, Baudelaire remarks on his dissatisfaction with the salon: “The thoughts suggested by the sight of this Salon are of so simple, so traditional, so classic an order, that a few pages will doubtless be sufficient to develop them.” The observation is used to frame a disclaimer: “Do not be surprised, then, if banality in the painter should have given rise to the commonplace in your writer” (225). Baudelaire characterizes the modern painter as a “spoiled child.” In his second letter, Baudelaire argues that the primary reason why the modern painter is spoiled is the modern public.

Baudelaire’s first outburst is toward the captioning practice of the painters of the Salon: “To seek to astonish by means which are alien to the art in question is the great standby of those who are not natural painters” (226). He enumerates several types of caption addressed to these paintings:

  • The Comic Title

  • The Sentimental Title

  • The Punning Title

  • The Philosophical Title

  • The False or Trick Title

To this, he adds descriptions of title formed by irreconcilable conflations and crusading titles which easily fall prey to caricature. Baudelaire’s conclusion is that all titles are folly: “Let us simply say that this is a false and sterile method of striking wonder” (227).

Baudelaire sees the practice of captioning artwork as the appeal to an “alien means,” a spoiled sort of laziness which replaces imagination with mere cleverness. His venom is also cast upon the natural painter— “The exclusive taste for the True (so noble a thing when it is limited to its proper applications) oppresses and stifles the taste for the Beautiful” (228). The desire of the artist to astonish the public has caused a perversion of art:

The people are not naturally artists; philosophers, perhaps, moralists, engineers, connoisseurs of instructive anecdotes, whatever you like but never spontaneously artists. They feel, or rather they judge, in stages, analytically. Other more fortunate people feel immediately, all at once, synthetically.

. . .

Now our public, which is singularly incapable of feeling the happiness of dreaming or marveling (a sign of its meanness of soul), wishes to be made to wonder by means of unworthy tricks, and its obedient artists bow to its taste; they try to strike, to surprise, to stupefy it by means of unworthy tricks, because they know that it is incapable of ecstasy in front of the natural devices of true art. (228)

After this acidic and aesthetically elitist passage, Baudelaire turns his attention to the “new industry” of photography, which contributes to the twin demons of artifice and naturalism which sicken the present state of art. The credo of the sophisticated which Baudelaire writes to refute is proposed:

“I believe in Nature, and I believe only in Nature (there are good reasons for that). I believe that Art is, and cannot be other than, the exact reproduction of Nature (a timid dissident sect would wish to exclude the more repellent objects of nature, such as skeletons or chamber-pots). Thus an industry that could give us a result identical to Nature would be the absolute of art.” A revengeful god has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. (228-229)

The final two lines are perhaps the most often quoted lines of Baudelaire regarding photography; this ignores the larger context involved. The frame Baudelaire erects around his argument against photography as art is not only against photography, but against popular art as a tool of rhetoric—against the excitation of false wonder in the masses.

Baudelaire’s method of first arguing against the “alien means” employed by painters points directly at the tension between linguistic and pictorial means of communication. Pictorial communication is thought to be a complex synthesis of reality transmitted through a privileged artist, who sees more clearly and completely the wonder of the “natural”— the “aesthetically real” is a perception denied to the common man. This form of the “real” cannot be transmitted through mechanical means alone—it requires an artist.