Political Vision: Aesthetics and Politics in the Salons of Les XX (1884-1893)

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This study examines the intersection between art and politics in the salons of Les XX, a group of some twenty, mostly Belgian, artists organizing international exhibitions of art in Brussels, Belgium between 1884 and 1893. The fact that Les XX derived a significant base of support from some of the most prominent members of the Belgian Socialist Party, the Parti Ouvrier belge (POB) is well established in the literature. The implications of this relationship with respect to how it shaped the artistic program of these salons is less precisely understood. A seeming paradox complicates an easy understanding of the radical political dimension to these salons: as the POB attempted to consolidate and collectivize the working classes through the 1880s in Belgium, Les XX gradually turned away from a style of social realism - a style of art focused on the real life conditions of the working classes - to embrace what it considered "modern" art, a style focused instead on the novel form and expressive autonomy of its creator. The goal of this study is to understand how this turn among Les XX related to the radical politics of the period. It is important to acknowledge that the Belgian socialist movement embraced a very specific notion of revolution, one in which the abolition of a capitalist system might be achieved through the electoral process and the subsequent establishment of a socialist state. Through an examination of the art of these salons, sociological and physiological texts of the period, as well as evidence assembled from the writings of the various socialist supporters of Les XX, and L'Art moderne, the latter the primary literary organ for the group, this study suggests that justifying such a shift in style as radical, and informing the debates over this shift that would ensue, was a body of ideas focused on the affective experience of art. The break with social realism occurred because it was believed too directly derived from real, social conditions to change the perceptions of its viewer.

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  • 06/27/2018
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