The Paris Commune was in essence the first large scale experiment in socialist governance. On March 18th of 1871, radical workers and artisans organized in the National Guard decisively took control of the city as the regular French army fled. Days later, the Commune was elected, immediately declaring that workers could take over and run workshops and businesses, as well as abolishing the death penalty and military conscription, mandating the separation of church and state, and the beginnings of a social safety net and pensions. Both revolutionary and democratic, every day saw new ways of running the city advanced by ordinary laborers.
This included a wholly and radically different way of approaching the realm of art. On April 15th, artists, painters, sculptors and ornamentalists from around Paris – including Gustave Courbet, the well-known painter, and Eugène Pottier, later the author of the lyrics to "L'Internationale" – gathered to thrash out and propose what this approach might be.
The proposals were straightforward: artists' control of art, and art and culture as a right. Above all, they questioned why art was almost exclusively to be enjoyed by the state and the well-off. The Federation founded by these artists insisted that everyone had the right to live and work amidst beauty. Kristin Ross, author of Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, describes the significance of this:
This may seem like a small, even a “decorative,” demand. But it actually entails not only a complete reconfiguration of our relation to art, but to labor, social relations, nature. and the lived environment as well... It means art and beauty deprivatized, fully integrated into everyday life, and not hidden away in private salons or centralized into obscene nationalistic monumentality.
The text below is taken from the daily reports and journals of the Commune. It includes the manifesto of these artists. This is, to our knowledge, the first widely available English translation of the manifesto of the Paris Federation of Artists. Red Wedge publishes it here for the purposes of both rediscovering radical history and rethinking the role of art in everyday life. – The Editors
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Assembly of artists
Yesterday, at two o’clock, the meeting of artists brought about by Mr. Courbet with the permission of the Commune took place in the grand lecture hall of the School of Medicine. The hall was absolutely full up, and all the arts were amply represented. Among the painters we noticed Messrs Feyen-Perrin and Héreau; among the sculptors, Messrs Moulin and Delaplanche; cartooning sent Bertall; engraving, Mr. Michelin; and criticism Mr. Philippe Burty – many architects and ornamentalists. An assembly of more than four hundred persons.
Mr. Courbet presiding, assisted by Messrs Moulin and Pottier. The latter, first and foremost, read a report drawn up by a preparatory committee and edited by him. This very interesting document contained truly lofty considerations of the needs and the destinies of contemporary art.
Entrust to artists alone the management of their interests.
It was this idea that appeared to prevail in the spirit of the subcommittee’s report. It was a question of establishing a federation of Paris artists, comprising under that title all who exhibit their works to Paris.
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Federation of Paris artists
The artists of Paris, in adhering to the principles of the Communal Republic, have formed a federation.
This uniting of all the artistic intellects has as its bases:
“The free expansion of art, free from all governmental supervision and from all privileges.”
“Equality of rights among all the members of the federation.”
“The independence and dignity of every artist taken under the protection of all through the creation of a committee elected by the universal suffrage of artists.” This committee strengthened the bonds of solidarity and achieved unity of action.
Composition of the committee
The committee is composed of 47 members representing various faculties, namely:
- 16 painters;
- 10 sculptors;
- 5 architects;
- 6 engravers; and
- 10 members representing the decorative arts, incorrectly called the industrial arts.
They were appointed by the list system and by secret vote.
Citizens of both sexes who proved their position as artists – whether through the fame of their works, or through an exhibitor’s card, or through a written attestation from two sponsor artists – had the right to take part in the vote.
Committee members were elected for one year.
Upon the expiration of the mandate, fifteen members designated by a secret vote of the committee will remain in office over the following year; the other thirty-two members will be replaced.
The outgoing members may only be re-elected at the end of an interval of one year.
The right of recall may be exercised against a member who is not fulfilling their mandate. This recall may only be pronounced one month after the demand for it has been made, and – if voted on in general assembly – on a majority of two thirds of the voters.
This government of the world of the arts by the artists has as its mission:
- Preserving of the treasures of the past;
- Implementing and illuminating all the elements of the present; and
- Regenerating the future through education.
- Monuments, museums.
Monuments, from the artistic point of view, museums and Paris establishments containing galleries, collections, and libraries of works of art not belonging to private individuals, are entrusted to the keeping and the administrative supervision of the committee.
It will erect them, preserve them, and adjust them, and it will complete plans, inventories, indexes and catalogues.
It will place these at the disposal of the public in order to encourage studies and satisfy the curiosity of visitors.
It will note the state of preservation of buildings, indicate urgent repairs, and present the Commune with a frequent account of its works.
After examination of their capacity and inquiry into their morality, it will appoint administrators, a secretary, archivists and wardens, in order to assure the service needs of these establishments and for exhibitions, which will be spoken of later.
The committee will organize communal, national and international exhibitions taking place in Paris.
For national and international exhibitions not taking place in Paris, it will delegate a commission in charge of the interests of Parisian artists.
It will only admit works signed by their authors, original creations or translations from one art to another, such as engravings rendering paintings, etc.
It rejects absolutely all mercenary exhibitions that tend to substitute the name of the editor or the manufacturer for that of the real creator.
It has not been given awards.
Ordinary works commissioned by the Commune will be distributed among the artists that the votes of all the exhibitors will have designated.
Extraordinary works will be submitted to competition.
The committee will supervise the teaching of drawing and modeling in the communal primary and professional schools, in which the teachers are appointed through competition; it encourages the introduction of attractive, logical methods; it stamps models; and it designs the subjects among which a higher spirit is revealed, and the studies of which must be completed at the expense of the Commune.
It prompts and encourages the construction of vast halls for higher education, for conferences on the aesthetics, history, and philosophy of art.
It will create a publicity organ entitled: Officiel des arts.
Under the control and the responsibility of the committee, this journal will publish events concerning the world of the arts and useful information for artists.
It will publish accounts of the committee’s works, the minutes of its meetings, the budget of receipts and expenditures, and all the statistical works that bring light and prepare order.
The literary section, dedicated to essays on aesthetics, will be a neutral field open to all opinions and all systems.
Progressive, independent, dignified and sincere, Officiel des arts will be the most serious statement of our regeneration.
For all contentious disputes relating to the arts, the committee – upon the request of the interested parties (artists or others) – will appoint conciliating arbiters.
On issues of principle and general interest, the committee will form into an arbitral council, and its decisions will be inserted into Officiel des arts.
The committee invites all citizens to send it all proposals, projects, reports, and opinions having the progress of art, the moral or intellectual emancipation of artists, or the material improvement of their lot as a goal.
It will give an account of this to the Commune and lend its moral support and its collaboration to everything it judges feasible.
It calls public opinion to sanction all attempts at progress, giving these proposals the publicity of Officiel des arts.
Lastly, by the word, by the pen, by the pencil, through popular reproduction of masterpieces, and through intelligent and edifying images that can be spread in profusion and displayed in the town halls of the most humble villages in France, the committee will work towards our regeneration, the inauguration of communal wealth, the splendors of the future and the Universal Republic.
G. COURBET, MOULINET, STEPHEN MARTIN, ALEXANDRE JOUSSE, ROSZEZENCH, TRICHON, DALOU, JULES HÉREAU, C. CHABERT, H. DUBOIS, A. FALEYNIÈRE, EUGÈNE POTTIER, PERRIN, A. MOUILLIARD.
Translated from the French by Jeff Skinner.
The Federation of Artists was a radical group of artists, painters, sculptors and ornamentalists who came together in April of 1871 to reevaluate the role of art in the midst of the Paris Commune.