Baudelaire on the Political and Humanitarian Power of Art: An Open Letter to Those in Power and of Privilege
“Art is an infinitely precious possession, a refreshing and warming drink that restores the stomach and the mind to the natural balance of the ideal.”
By Maria Popova
A generation before Walt Whitman wrote about why the humanities are essential to democracy, the great French poet, essayist, and critic Charles Baudelaire (April 9, 1821–August 31, 1867) made what remains the most elegant and increasingly timely case for why those in power and those of privilege should use their resources to support art and embrace it as an invaluable political and humanitarian tool.
In “The Salon of 1846” — the sequel to “The Salon of 1845,” the critical debut that launched 24-year-old Baudelaire’s career as an art reviewer — there appeared a piece titled “To the Bourgeois,” later included in the indispensable 1972 Penguin anthology Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature (public library). Baudelaire, whose father was a civil servant and self-taught artist, issued what was essentially an open letter to the ruling class — he defined the bourgeois as “king, law-giver or merchant” — urging the privileged and the powerful to acknowledge and advance the project of art as essential to a healthy society.
Baudelaire begins with a clear awareness of the power of flattery in persuasion:
You are the majority, in number and intelligence; therefore you are power; and power is justice.
Some of you are “learned”; others are the “haves.” A glorious day will dawn when the learned will be “haves,” and the “haves” will be learned. Then your power will be complete and nobody will challenge it.
Until such time as this supreme harmony is ours, it is just that the mere “haves” should aspire to become learned; for knowledge is a form of enjoyment no less than ownership.
The governance of the state is yours, and that is as it should be, because you have the power. But you must also be capable of feeling beauty, for just as not one of you today has the right to forgo power, equally not one of you has the right to forgo poetry. You can live three days without bread; without poetry, never; and those of you that maintain the contrary are mistaken; they do not know themselves.
Enjoyment is a science, and the exercise of the five senses demands a special initiation that can be achieved only by willingness to learn and by need.
And you need art, make no mistake.
Art is an infinitely precious possession, a refreshing and warming drink that restores the stomach and the mind to the natural balance of the ideal.
Aware that lofty ideals may remain an unpersuasive abstraction, Baudelaire appeals to the self-serving tendencies of the powerful, pointing out art’s concrete usefulness in their daily lives and casting it is a domain of knowledge and experience that is rightfully theirs. Enlisting a sort of reverse psychology, he tickles the power-hungry impulses of the bourgeois and rallies them to reclaim art from the “monopoly” of the artists in order to reap its benefits in their own lives:
A keener desire, a more active reverie, will at such moments prove a relaxation from your daily strivings. But the monopolists have tried to keep you away from the fruits of knowledge, because knowledge is their counter and their shop, to be guarded jealously. If they had denied you the power of creating works of art or of understanding the techniques used in their creation, they would have been proclaiming a truth that you would not have taken offense at, because public business and trade absorb three quarters of your day. As for the leisure hours, they must therefore be used for enjoyment and pleasure.
But the monopolists have decreed that you shall not have the right to enjoyment, because you lack the technical knowledge of the arts, although possessing that of the law and business.
Yet it is only right, if two thirds of your time is taken up by techniques, that the other third should belong to feeling, and it is by feeling alone that you are to understand art; — and that is how the balance of your spiritual forces will be built up… Just as you have extended men’s rights and benefits in your political life, so you have stablished in the arts a greater and more abundant communion.
Having appealed to how art will serve them, he ends by appealing to their altruism in how they can serve art:
You are the natural friends of the arts, because some of you are rich and the others learned.
Having given society your knowledge, your industry, your work, your money, you demand payment in the form of bodily, intellectual and imaginative enjoyment. If you recover the quantity of enjoyment necessary to restore the balance of all parts of your being, you will be well filled, happy and kindly, just as society will be well filled, happy and kindly when it has found its general and absolute equilibrium.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly excellent Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature with Ursula K. Le Guin on power, freedom, and how literature expands our scope of the possible and Alain de Botton on the seven psychological functions of art.