Crow and Bryson: Class and its Role in Semiotic Systems

Unlike Bryson, who positions the debate over artistic practice in questions over semiotics and legibility, Thomas Crow, in Painters and Public Life, views social conflicts as underlying the major artistic trends and issues in eighteenth century French painting. I found Crow's account to be a useful counterpoint to Bryson's; the class-based analysis of art helped to point out many elements that Bryson had overlooked in his argument. To me, Bryson's understanding of semiotics and culture was relatively 'unitary', and therefore his discussion of art allowed for either symbolic systems that were part of the overarching narratives or the absence of any symbolism whatsoever, creating a 'discursive vacuum'. In contrast, Crow allows for subversive 'alternative' class-based cultures to emerge. Thus, works of art that Bryson had seen as lacking narrative or semiotic value can be invested with such values by applying Crow. This sort of analysis can be done in the case of Watteau. While Bryson viewed Watteau's art as bereft of symbolism, Crow took up the alternative viewpoint. In Crow's mind, Watteau may not apply the same symbolic system as the centralizing monarchy, but that does not signify that his works do not have any semiotic value. Instead, they employ a subversive 'aristocratic' system of signs which is appropriated from 'low culture' such as the 'Italian' commedia. Crow provides an interesting contrast to Bryson's understanding of art, and his perspective allowed me to consider potential weaknesses in Bryson's argument.

Bryson largely ignores class issues, instead choosing to focus on the centralizing monarchy and the discursive culture that springs from absolutism. Against this, he posits an alternative which subverts the monarchy; however, it doesn't have it's own semiotic system and is notable for the absence of semiotic information. Textual or discursive painting often serves the needs of the powerful, whether the 'powerful' group is a monarchy, the church, or another group. History painting serves this purpose by creating a unified symbolic language of power; however, genre painting does not reach this point. This conception is visible in Bryson's analysis of the bias towards history painting in the royal Academy, an institution which reflects and parallels the bureaucratic centralization of the monarchy. "Though textual, genre-painting does not transmit its narrative messages in any order of priority: its humility of content is matched by a democracy of messages all on the same level… Genre does not understand language as a form of power over the image… The centralizing power of the text is defended because it precisely corresponds to the power of the Académie over the community of painters" (Bryson 33). In his argument, Bryson posits a discursive 'history' painting' against a 'genre painting' which lacks the narrative focus of the centralized history painting which the Academy invariably accorded a greater value. This dichotomy continues to be important throughout Bryson's analysis.

Unlike Bryson, Crow situates the conflicts over art primarily in terms of class and its cultural or material manifestations. Questions of how art was accessed and patronized by various elites and the 'masses', which do not figure much in Bryson's account, are therefore very important for Crow. Crow centers his narrative around the Salon exhibitions, in which art was received and analyzed by different members of society. By validating different artists and styles of art, individuals and groups such as the royally sponsored academicians, middle-class pamphleteers, and aristocrats could put forth art that paralleled and supported their own lifestyle and set of values. By strengthening the case of 'their' art before the public in the Salon, groups could likewise stake a claim for their legitimacy. "The role of the new public space in the history of eighteenth-century French painting will be bound up with a struggle over representation, over language and symbols and who had the right to use them. The issue was never whether that problematic entity, the public, should be consulted in artistic matters, but who could be legitimately included in it, who spoke for its interests, and which or how many of the contending directions in artistic practice could claim its support" (Crow 5). Works of art are notable for their cultural role, and thus the ideology and cultural practices of a particular class must be considered when looking at and understanding a painting that is representative of that class.

These authors' discussions on Watteau seemed to show the conflicts in their approaches most clearly; for me, the distinctions made by Crow and Bryson in their respective analyses helped to point problems that might not have been considered if I only had access to Bryson's account. Bryson sees Watteau's oeuvre as consisting of paintings which are a 'semantic vacuum'; as they have no semiotic or narrative value, the audience has free reign to interpret the work, and can draw on a variety of sources, such as Watteau's illness, to create a story. "Excess of Watteau writing is itself an interesting phenomenon, and one with more direct bearing on Watteau's painting than one might think. Ultimately it is the natural reaction to an effect quite central to Watteau's enterprise, which one might call the 'semantic vacuum'" (Bryson 65). Thus, for Bryson, Watteau's art, as it is bereft of the semiotic system that was evident in academic works such as LeBrun's, has no real semiotic value at all. In his mind, it is this 'emptiness which is the characteristic and strength of Watteau's painting.

The firsthand account of Caylus seems to lend strength to Bryson's argument. In his discussion, he notes that the work of Watteau is not well-suited to discursive painting and that his strengths lie in the 'accidental' qualities of his work. The skill of draughtsmanship, considered so vital to 'discursive' painting, was seen as poorly developed in Watteau. He criticizes Watteau's overt attempt at allegory, a composition of the Four Seasons, for this deficit. "A particular result of this deficiency of draughtsmanship was an inability to paint or to compose anything in the heroic or allegorical vein, or to render the human figure on a large scale. The Four Seasons that he painted for the dining-room of M. Crozat are a proof of this assertion. The figures here are almost half life-size, and though they were executed after sketches by M. de la Fosse, they display so much mannerism and aridity that one can find nothing to say in their favor" (Harrison 360). However, though it is tempting to take this assertion at face value, it is important to keep Caylus' audience in mind. The original reading of the text was before the Academy; as such, the ideals of painting would hew close to a particular, 'official' understanding of history and genre painting. As such, Caylus' account would necessarily support such an interpretation.

Crow grounds Watteau's painting in an alternative narrative; for him, Watteau's art represents the aristocracy's subversion of 'official' forms of culture, ranging from the theater to the Academy itself. First, he outlines the aristocrats' embrace of street culture and their subversion of the controls of the centralizing monarchy. Aristocratic society readily took up the 'Italian' street theater that was a popular competitor for the official theaters of the state. The Comédie italienne, once supported by the king, had been banished from the court; however, the performers were able to join street troupes, and thus the traditions of these groups lived on in low culture. Unlike the controlled classicist culture of the court, which denied sensuality, these performances stressed sensuality and were often vulgar in tone. "Street theater was quickly embraced by the aristocratic classes and provided competition for the official state theaters, despite attempts by the monarchy to undermine street theater through restrictions. "The popularity among the affluent of a theater where 'all was permitted' was sufficient to threaten the solvency, even the survival, of the legitimate theaters" (Crow 52). More significantly, the elite even appropriated the performance of street theater through staging parades on balconies and performing in comedies as a hobby; such performances eventually took a life of their own, eventually becoming an 'aristocratic' form of expression. "Around 1710, amateur versions of Italian-style comedy became a favourite, not to say obsessive, pastime among the Parisian aristocracy, both in the city and more importantly in country pleasure parks outside it. And it was not the plays once staged by Italians at court or even the principal productions of the fair that fascinated elite enthusiasts; it was the knockabout farce of the parades that provided the model and texts for these private performances" (Crow 53). The nobility had begun to distance itself from the court politically, and found in the culture of street theater a way to assert its independence in a cultural sphere. This emerging aristocratic 'text', based on the bawdy and sensual 'Italian' street theater, would provide the basis for Watteau's oeuvre.

When the background of this subversive aristocratic culture is understood, Bryson's interpretation of Watteau's art as discursively empty loses much of its power. "Once we take account of this kind of behavior and its penetration into elite sociability, it becomes difficult to see Watteau's fête galante as a purely personal theater, a fantastic transformation of prosaic experience" (Crow 56). Rather than being 'empty' images on which the audience can transcribe the mythical artist, Watteau's paintings take up the language and text of the aristocracy, which, while marginalized by official bodies, nonetheless exists as a discursive entity. Many of his paintings are replete with symbols of the sexuality of the comedy and parade; motifs such as bagpipes and monkeys as well as 'Italian' characters such as Columbine and Pierrot make frequent appearances, and the treatment of paint also underlies the themes of sensuality. Works such as Fêtes vénitiennes could create a scene which was as allegorical as the paintings of an academic like LeBrun. "Watteau can allude to the erotic obsessiveness which was an inescapable part of his subject… This dispersed collection of signs functions to a significant degree independently of the 'scene' before us. Its allegories guarantee its status as fiction, as a work of and for the imagination" (Crow 63). As the aristocracy subverted the monarchy, the art of Watteau served to subvert the 'universal' discourse and symbolic systems of academic art by providing an alternative discourse based in 'feminine' virtues of sensuality rather than the 'masculine' virtues of war.

I found Crow's account revealing in its assessments; as it tackled the question of art from a different, and revealing perspective. Questions which Bryson didn't really touch on were put forward, and, because of this, different information was put forward. I found much of this background information to be pertinent to the interpretation of the pieces in question, and thus it helped me to use both texts to understand the questions at hand. I found this particularly useful in the case of Watteau. As Bryson's and Crow's arguments examined Watteau's artwork with different frameworks in mind, the conclusions they drew were dramatically different; Bryson, by ignoring the tradition of street theatre and its appropriation, does not allow for an alternative semantic text.