A Brief History of the Masses

A Brief History of the Masses: Three Revolutions

Stefan Jonsson
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/jons14526
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  • Book Info
    A Brief History of the Masses
    Book Description:

    Stefan Jonsson uses three monumental works of art to build a provocative history of popular revolt: Jacques-Louis David's The Tennis Court Oath (1791), James Ensor's Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888), and Alfredo Jaar's They Loved It So Much, the Revolution (1989). Addressing, respectively, the French Revolution of 1789, Belgium's proletarian messianism in the 1880s, and the worldwide rebellions and revolutions of 1968, these canonical images not only depict an alternative view of history but offer a new understanding of the relationship between art and politics and the revolutionary nature of true democracy.

    Drawing on examples from literature, politics, philosophy, and other works of art, Jonsson carefully constructs his portrait, revealing surprising parallels between the political representation of "the people" in government and their aesthetic representation in painting. Both essentially "frame" the people, Jonsson argues, defining them as elites or masses, responsible citizens or angry mobs. Yet in the aesthetic fantasies of David, Ensor, and Jaar, Jonsson finds a different understanding of democracy-one in which human collectives break the frame and enter the picture.

    Connecting the achievements and failures of past revolutions to current political issues, Jonsson then situates our present moment in a long historical drama of popular unrest, making his book both a cultural history and a contemporary discussion about the fate of democracy in our globalized world.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51792-8
    Subjects: Art & Art History, History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1789:: Jacques-Louis David, The Tennis Court Oath
    • [ 1 ] Seizing the Floor
      (pp. 5-6)

      They are many. Move closer! Let’s join the crowd. People are lining up, pressing together, spreading out, piling themselves on top of one another, their bodies suggesting sheer quantity. The ones at the top, waving and cheering through the large windows high on the walls, extend the assembly beyond the depicted hall and pull it toward the open. Who could tell where this human aggregation begins or ends? The National Assembly of France rises over the edges of the image and floods the field of vision (see figure 1.1).

      The centrifugal force that expands the assembly outward is countered by...

    • [ 2 ] The Shadow of Democracy
      (pp. 7-8)

      Representations of popular sovereignty were already at the outset accompanied by a shadow. We sense it in David as well—in the unruly and swarming character of his painting. From the French Revolution onward the treasured will of the people has gone hand in hand with the wicked rule of the mob. At the very moment when the people makes its glorious entry, the stage of history is also crowded by its darker double, the threatening mass.

      Artists, writers, social theorists, and politicians have often quarreled about how to distinguish the one from the other. Where some have listened to...

    • [ 3 ] The Number of People
      (pp. 9-13)

      The British historian E. P. Thompson opens his classic work The Making of the English Working Class by discussing the founding document of the London Corresponding Society from 1792. Behind this society were “Tradesmen, Shopkeepers, and Mechanics,” who wished to promote parliamentary reforms that would extend voting rights to the common people. Thompson quotes the first of the leading rules that Thomas Hardy, secretary of the society, and a shoemaker by profession, set down in print: “That the number of our Members be unlimited.”²

      Today, such a rule appears as an empty statute: not so in England of 1792. As...

    • [ 4 ] The Swinish Multitude
      (pp. 14-17)

      Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was published in November 1790 and immediately stirred controversy. In England, an intense debate broke out over Burke’s verdict against France’s newly won freedom, and prominent writers like Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft took pen in hand to repudiate his pamphlet.

      Burke’s accomplishment, if that is what it is, was to link together the idea of a social order founded on numeric might with the fear of social chaos and violence.

      The revolution tore apart the social fabric by violating its sacred institutions: king, church, and property. According to Burke, these institutions...

    • [ 5 ] Social Depths
      (pp. 18-20)

      Masses don’t write memoirs. Who stormed the Bastille? What made them act? What did they think? Who are “the masses”? Those who are indicated by that word, or are concealed behind it, have left few declarations behind. Little documentary evidence testifies to their motives. By excavating the archives, historians have still managed to catch a glimpse of the anonymous agents of the revolution, and they have identified some of the men and women who were part of the revolutionary crowds. By studying court proceedings, police records, and documents from other authorities that concerned themselves with the lower classes, historians have...

    • [ 6 ] The Hydra
      (pp. 21-25)

      In Jacques-Louis David’s image of the revolution, the figures are ordered along a horizontal axis that stretches from one edge of the canvas to the other. Let’s call it the axis of equality. No one rises above the rest—no one except for Bailly, the chair of the Assembly, who dictates the oath. By pressing as many people as possible into the visual plane, David suggests that the emerging democratic system is based on numeric might. By rendering the precise moment when everybody’s attention is turned toward Bailly, the artist furthermore transforms the multitude of heads and figures into one...

    • [ 7 ] Marianne
      (pp. 26-32)

      The summer of revolution is short. Few writers and artists have had time to step out of their studies or studios to participate as society is celebrating its unity and claiming that unity as a portent of a coming age of justice. Those who have managed to record their impressions of such events are even fewer. Long before their time-demanding work is completed, the revolutionary momentum has stalled, and power has again congealed in new molds.

      People who at young age have experienced the spontaneous outburst of the popular will have often reported that the trembling stays with them forever....

    • [ 8 ] Les Misérables
      (pp. 33-41)

      Yes, the summer of revolution is short, and it gradually shifts into the fall of restoration. During the first half of the nineteenth century, David’s horizontal representation of the French people as a community of equals will turn into its opposite as French culture becomes saturated with narratives and images that depict the social world as a firm hierarchy in which the classes are layered on top of one another. As the palaces rise above the apartment buildings, as the apartment buildings rise above the workshops, as the workshops rise above the streets and squares of the city, and as...

    • [ 9 ] The Barricade
      (pp. 42-51)

      The seeds from which the new hierarchies grow are sowed already at the outset of the revolution. In his 1789 pamphlet What Is the Third Estate?, Emmanuel Sieyès claims that the people as a whole is represented by the third estate. The third estate, in its turn, is represented by the bourgeoisie, Sieyès argues, for this group demonstrates greater political and administrative skill than any other. Since the bourgeoisie makes common cause with the whole people in the struggle against monarchy and feudal privileges, it appears as the universal class of France.

      No sooner had the democratic idea been formulated,...

    • [ 10 ] Making Monkey
      (pp. 52-56)

      The barricade in Saint-Antoine is also mentioned in Gustave Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale (Sentimental Education) from 1869. Victor Hugo’s high-pitched symbolism appears a bit pathetic when compared to Flaubert’s sober description of the stronghold. Flaubert makes us see nothing, not even the barricade—the commotion has stirred up too much dust. But the rifle shots from the army’s final clearing operations in Saint-Antoine resound all the more clearly in his text.

      Flaubert’s narrative lacks the dramatic nerve that characterizes other accounts of the violence of 1848. Whereas other writers and observers report having seen the wheels of history rolling down the...

    • [ 11 ] Smokescreens
      (pp. 57-60)

      In a debate in the National Assembly in 1850, Adolphe Thiers explained why it was necessary to restrict voting rights. He sharply distinquished between the people and the masses. “It is the masses [la multitude], not the people [le peuple], that we want to exclude; it is that disorganized mass [cette multitude confuse], that mass of vagabonds that one cannot locate anywhere, that could not create a substantial shelter for their family: it is that mass that the law intends to banish.”⁸³

      According to Thiers, a person’s rights as a citizen depends on whether that person has residency and a...

    • [ 12 ] Mass Grave
      (pp. 61-64)

      Ernest Meissonier’s painting The Barricade was made once the gun smoke had cleared out (figure 12.1). As a captain of artillery in the National Guard, Meissonier belonged to the troops that conquered the barricade in rue de la Mortellerie in June 1848: “I saw the defenders shot down, hurled out of windows, the ground strewn with corpses, the earth red with blood it had not yet drunk. ‘Were all these men guilty?’ said Marrast to the officer in command. . . . ‘I can assure you, M. le Maire, that not more than a quarter of them were innocent.’ ”⁸⁶...

  5. 1889:: James Ensor, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889
    • [ 13 ] The Crucified
      (pp. 69-71)

      “I want to be mad, I want to be mad,” wrote August Strindberg to Friedrich Nietzsche on New Year’s Day 1889. A few days earlier, Strindberg had received a puzzling letter signed “Nietzsche Caesar.” The letter made him sad and worried, because it confirmed his suspicion that the German philosopher was losing his mind. Strindberg made an effort to reach out to his comrade one last time, hailing him in the Epicurean idiom of immoderation and intoxication that the ancients had cherished as a path to higher wisdom. Let us revel, Strindberg exclaimed, in “the joy of insanity.”¹

      Nietzsche’s reply...

    • [ 14 ] The Belgian’s Glory
      (pp. 72-73)

      Strindberg must have encountered Ensor’s work in the special issues that the French journal La Plume devoted to the painter in 1898.⁷ On the initiative of Eugène Demolder, a close friend of the artist, all the major figures of the Belgian avant-garde paid tribute to Ensor’s genius. The contributors signposted three features of Ensor’s work: his treatment of light; his depiction of crowds; and the mad nature of his images, a visual outrage they explained by linking it to the wacky character of the artist himself.

      These three features were ingrained in European culture of the period. In the 1880s,...

    • [ 15 ] Divorce
      (pp. 74-77)

      Among the insurgent workers of June 1848 there was a man called Boissy. He called on his comrades to separate themselves from society: “Leave, leave this society for which you do everything and which does nothing for you, this society where those who do everything have nothing and those who do nothing have everything.”⁸ The 1848 revolutions are often described as the breakthrough of the organized labor movement in Europe. The corpses strewn on the Paris barricades made Emmanuel Sieyès’s conviction of the third estate as a universal class of equals look like a bad joke. From within the third...

    • [ 16 ] Hallucinations
      (pp. 78-83)

      A year after the fall of the Commune, in 1872, a young physician named Gustave Le Bon published a book called La Vie: Physiologie humaine appliqué à l’hygiène et à la médicine (Life: Human physiology and its application to hygiene and medicine). Le Bon thus launched a career as a writer that would turn him into one of the most influential public intellectuals of France. The arid, scientific ring of the title masks a content of enormous pretensions. Not only is La Vie a physician’s attempt to diagnose society, it also seeks to cure a disease afflicting the political body...

    • [ 17 ] Society Degree Zero
      (pp. 84-95)

      Mass psychology is the most doctrinaire version of a view of society that has taught us to perceive human collectives as crowds or masses. It has taught us to analyze theses masses as unified blocks, ruled by emotions and acting impulsively. It has made us understand these unified and impulsively acting masses as disorderly and dangerous. And so it has convinced us that masses are a species to be held under surveillance and in confinement.

      Mass psychology has also trained us in the art of interpreting visual representations of human crowds. The analytical tools that art historians and critics use...

    • [ 18 ] The Nigger
      (pp. 96-100)

      The great symbolic event of the Paris Commune was the felling of the Vendôme Column on May 16, 1871. Forty-three meters tall, the column was erected by Napoleon to commemorate his triumphs in battle against his European rivals. According to the decree of the Commune, it was to be demolished because it commemorated warfare rather than universal solidarity; its very existence was thus “an assault on one of the three great principles of the republic—fraternity.” It is easy to imagine the destruction of the column also as the revenge of a subjugated people, now shaking off the yoke of...

    • [ 19 ] The Modern Breakthrough
      (pp. 101-106)

      The best book on James Ensor is still the one published by his friend Emile Verhaeren in 1908. Verhaeren remarks that Ensor was often accused of inaugurating “a sort of Commune with his art and . . . inscrib[ing] his aesthetic doctrine in the folds of a red banner.”⁶⁵ It is well known that Ensor’s intellectual friends and acquaintances were socialists and anarchists, a few of them even veterans of the Commune, like the geographer Elisée Reclus. But it is difficult to prove any direct influence of their ideas on Ensor’s life and work. He was an eccentric, a restless...

    • Color insert
      (pp. None)
    • [ 20 ] Songs of the Fool
      (pp. 107-109)

      James Ensor’s originality has commonly been explained as the positive side effect of the artist’s neurotic constitution.⁷⁹ “Ensor was looked upon as an idiot,” says Mabille de Poncheville.⁸⁰

      But be it not forgotten that we are here talking about the 1880s, a period in which the discipline of mass psychology and the culture of the bourgeoisie diagnosed the majority of the people as potentially insane. The idiot was a political figure, charged with insurrectionary capacities, while madness was seen as a force that rose from the lower depths of society. Christ’s Entry should therefore be understood not only as an...

    • [ 21 ] Homo Sacer
      (pp. 110-118)

      But—for Christ’s sake! Why read Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 as a political image? What about the religious message? Isn’t it explicit enough? The powerful presence of Christ at the very center of the picture must surely be seen as an affirmation of the Christian message over against worldly matters and political struggles.

      A glance at Ensor’s cultural environment shows that matters are more complex. In 1886, the socialist Alfred Defuisseaux published a booklet called Catechism of the People. He used the format of the widely disseminated Lutheran catechism, usually the only book to be found in lower-class...

  6. 1989:: Alfredo Jaar, They Loved It So Much, the Revolution
    • [ 22 ] The Beloved
      (pp. 123-126)

      So can we see the revolution? Who knows what mental images developed inside the visitors to the galleries as they circled Alfredo Jaar’s installation They Loved It So Much, the Revolution (Ils l’ont tant aimée, la révolution, figures 22.1–22.3).¹ Some of the photographs had been shown before, others were unknown. The images railed against the title of the installation. They did not arouse feelings of love or joy but of violence and fury, oppression and riot. The pictures displayed protest marches, riot police, demonstrators on the run, violent gestures, batons smashing down. The execution of the installation—photographs displayed...

    • [ 23 ] The Backside of State
      (pp. 127-129)

      “The revolution devours its children,” says Georges Jacques Danton, the hero of the people, before he is led to the guillotine.⁴ His observation is remembered for its insight into the malevolent dynamic of the revolution. The transformation of society assumes such energy that it trundles on of its own momentum. This energy is always depicted as coming from below (“bursts up from the infinite deep,” as Carlyle put it). It stems from the pent-up fury of the masses against all who have a better station in life. When they pick up the scent of justice, they will not rest until...

    • [ 24 ] The Empty Throne
      (pp. 130-133)

      The revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe have one thing in common with the Paris Commune of 1871: we have no visual representations that capture the historical tension and drama of the events.¹³ There are, of course, countless television images and press photographs, but none of these documents comes close to the core of the revolution. Compare this with the revolt in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square the same year! Here, we have a series of images that seems to say it all: the solitary student standing in the way of a column of tanks. But for Eastern Europe, there is no...

    • [ 25 ] Political Violence
      (pp. 134-140)

      In the introduction to her book On Revolution, Hannah Arendt poses an uncomfortable question concerning the origin of politics. Does politics originate in words, in debate? Or in violence, in the naked struggle for power?¹⁸

      In the beginning was the Word, writes John the Evangelist, thus summoning up the idea of how Man brought order to his world by naming the things in it and reasoning with his fellows. Politics begins when people come together in gatherings or councils to make decisions on issues of common concern.

      In the beginning was Violence, other myths would have it. Cain beat Abel...

    • [ 26 ] With Nails of Gold
      (pp. 141-154)

      Alfredo Jaar once confessed that he never wanted to become an artist, but an architect or a film director.²⁵ He constructs rooms and environments rather than visual artworks in the usual sense. It is true that the photographic image is always a strong element in his work, but he uses it as a raw material that then undergoes refinement. Jaar cuts, edits, mounts, and dramatizes his images to allow the viewer to experience the exhibition in a cinematographic way. Once finished, the installation contains only oblique allusions to the photographic original.

      In the mid-1990s, Alfredo Jaar executed a series of...

    • [ 27 ] Of Men and Beasts
      (pp. 155-157)

      Ever since the turbulent days of 1989, all of the major problems of our times have appeared to revolve around boundaries. These boundaries might be territorial: Israel’s security wall against the Palestinians, the American fence that keeps out the Mexicans, the frontiers of the European Union against refugees. Then there are the boundaries between civilizations and religions postulated by political scientists and security experts. Then we have the boundaries of the currency unions and customs unions and the barriers to investment debated by economists. And we have the cultural, ethnic, and sexual boundaries investigated by scholars in the social sciences...

    • [ 28 ] Desperados
      (pp. 158-161)

      When the nineteenth-century French bourgeois took a disdainful peek into the alleys and spoke of the masses—“la foule,” “les voyous,” “la canaille,” “la populace,” “la multitude,” “la masse”—he was probably referring to those that later sociologists would divide into four categories, albeit categories that tend to overlap. First, we had the criminal and dangerous elements of the lower classes, les classes dangereuses. Second, there were the vagrant and homeless populations without proof of residence, often because they had recently arrived in the capital in search of work. The third group was the poor, suffering destitution and poverty if...

    • [ 29 ] Autoimmunity
      (pp. 162-166)

      Let us adopt the refugee as a guide to our society, proposes Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.⁴⁶ If we follow her closely—through the catastrophe of AIDS, droughts, floods, and the new wars, past the surveillance apparatus of the EU, on through the racist propaganda of the Western media, into the interrogation rooms of the airports, to the detention centers at Fuerteventura and Sangette, and beyond—we get an inkling of a future that is worse than we feared.

      Agamben’s social theory attempts to explain why democracies in the West are becoming increasingly merciless in their border controls and in the...

    • [ 30 ] Saints
      (pp. 167-169)

      For some years, Giorgio Agamben has been working on the multiple volumes of his work Homo Sacer—“Holy Man.” The term is borrowed from early Roman law, where homo sacer is the perpetrator of a severe crime who has been cast out of the community. The criminal is abandoned to the whim of the gods, hence the attribution of “holy.” Society may not punish or sacrifice him, since his punishment is complete in his expulsion. But neither can society punish the man who kills him, for he does not enjoy the protection of the law. Most early legal systems have...

    • [ 31 ] Complaints
      (pp. 170-176)

      In 1788 there was famine and unrest in France, and state finances were in massive deficit. Taxes had to be raised, laws had to be changed, and the king’s subjects had to be appeased. To gain support for his measures, Louis XVI summoned the three estates for talks—the nobility, the priesthood, and the third estate, the bourgeoisie. Such “parliaments” were only held under exceptional circumstances—the king ruled with absolute power—and had most recently taken place in 1614.

      The delegates arriving at Versailles in May 1789 brought with them no fewer than forty thousand cahiers de doléances in...

    • [ 32 ] The Baggage of the Barbarians
      (pp. 177-181)

      History is written by the vanquishers. The vanquished ones give their testimony or atone for their political sins. Daniel Cohn-Bendit was one of the 142 students who on March 22, 1968, occupied the administration building at the University of Nanterre in Paris. The immediate reason for their action was the arrest by police of six students who were active in the antiimperialist movement. Nobody suspected that their protest would stoke to a nationwide revolt that shook the French state to the core. Cohn-Bendit became one of the most adept spokesmen of the rebellion of the Left. On May 20, 1968,...

    • [ 33 ] Departure
      (pp. 182-190)

      In 1990, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière published an unusual travelogue. Short Voyages to the Land of the People was his title; Courts voyages au pays du peuple.

      So where is this land? Not on some remote island or in exotic regions, Rancière says. “Just across the straits, away from the river, off the beaten path, at the end of the subway line, there lives another people (unless it is, quite simply, the people).”⁸²

      In his book, Rancière introduces us to a motley group of individuals. Famous poets like William Wordsworth, Georg Büchner, and Rainer Maria Rilke rub shoulders unexpectedly...

  7. Afterword
    (pp. 191-196)
    S.J. Stockholm

    A Brief History of the Masses is part of a larger study devoted to the idea and image of “the masses” in European culture. From the French Revolution until our present day, politicians, social scientists, intellectuals, artists, and people in general have conjured up the specter of the masses when discussing art, culture, political events, or the future of civilization. In times of social unrest, the upper classes have feared the masses, approaching them as a hostile power or as a force of destruction.

    But, as I seek to show in this book, the masses have never existed. The same...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 197-220)
  9. Index
    (pp. 221-234)