The Achilles heel of propagandist art is, well, the art part. Clever beings that they are, artists tend to produce content that exceeds the ideological agendas they ostensibly promote.
Perhaps it was always thus, and while propaganda is a somewhat anachronistic term for the arts of spectacle produced in the long and increasingly troubled reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), Georgia Cowart persuasively argues that the era's entertainments staged the complex interplay between the politics of centralised power and the "prerogatives of pleasure".
From the mid-17th-century court ballets that glorified, and indeed showcased, the dancing sovereign, to their parodist transmutations in the more public realm of the Parisian theatres, Cowart casts the artistic trajectory of the age as informed by, yet subtly sabotaging, the iconography of absolutist ideals.
Cowart's analysis is comprehensive and clearly presented. She reads the aesthetic of the 1650s as easily accommodating a "playful galanterie", and the court ballets of artists such as Isaac de Benserade and Jean-Baptiste Lully (principal composer as well as, at that time, principal dancer) as largely unmarked by the propaganda of sovereign supremacy.
The images of Louis XIV presented in the following decade, however, saw a tension between the king's association with noble pleasure and the king as the embodiment of omniscient glory and martial authority.
For instance, structured as a panorama of the arts, the influential Ballet des Muses (1666) positions Louis XIV at the helm of an empire of the arts, with the Muses reduced to mouthpieces for his imperialist ambitions. Yet the ballet also includes a lament for Orpheus (performed by Lully), which Cowart reads as at once affirming artistic achievement under the Sun King and expressing a "private subjectivity" contrasting with "the exigencies of royal propaganda".
Mythological appropriations thus serve multiple perspectives: Cowart further notes that mid-century writers associated with the Parisian salons employed the tropes of Parnassus, the Muses' abode, and of Cythera, the island of Venus, as subtle critiques of encroaching militarism.
Meanwhile, the comedie-ballets of Moliere and Lully targeted a Parisian audience composed of both the nobility and the bourgeoisie, and Cowart usefully examines their use of burlesque as parodying courtly models.
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670), for instance, turns the iconography of the Ballet des Muses (to which Moliere and Lully had contributed) inside out by subversively refashioning its farcical aspects. Whereas the bits of burlesque licence contained within the courtly original ultimately enhanced its imperialist bent, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme presents the arts as serving not the king but the nouveau-riche bourgeoisie.
Cowart also suggests that a libertine counterculture informed the aesthetic of the developing genre, reading the concluding fete of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as both a celebration of the public theatre audience as the model for a more egalitarian society and as a defence of the libertine theatre. While the work eventually found favour at court, Moliere's satire - not surprisingly - initially prompted only silence from the king.
Cowart details the ideological intricacies embedded within and across a wide range of performance modes, including carnival, commedia dell'arte, tragedie en musique and the opera-ballets of Andre Campra. The breadth of her scholarship is impressive and she intriguingly concludes by linking the festive, sensual ambience of painter Jean-Antoine Watteau's oeuvre (such as Pilgrimage to Cythera) to the opera-ballets and the Paris Opera itself. Transformed into a triumphant alternative to an absolutist, militant culture, the staging of pleasure in the performing as well as the visual arts had come a long way from its courtly antecedents.
Cowart's elegant prose and nuanced observations will appeal to a wide range of readers interested in cultural history and the arts.
The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle
By Georgia J. Cowart
University of Chicago Press
Published 12 December 2008