Sunday, December 02, 2018

Lessons from the Dreyfus Affair

by Gregg Chadwick

Mirka Knaster on her blog posted a provocative entry today with the title "Appreciate the art but despise the artist?"  I agree with Mirka and post my thoughts below as a follow up to her post.
Zola's open letter "J'Accuse...!" 13 January 1898

Mirka, you pose an important question. While an undergrad at UCLA, I had classes with the noted art historians Albert Boime and David Kunzel. Boime's "Social History of Modern Art" and Kunzel's study of the history of fashion have prompted me to consider the social structures that exist around an artwork. Pulling a painting out of its time and pinning it alone in a case like a rare butterfly often leads to a limited understanding of an artwork. Degas' moral failings are problematic and are important to consider in the broader understanding of the man and the artist. 
The comparison between Degas and Emile Zola concerning the anti-Semitic campaign against Captain Dreyfus is revealing. Zola's powerful "J'accuse" shows that the case against Dreyfus had no merit. Many of Zola's artistic friends backed his stand with Dreyfus including Monet, Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, and Signac. But Degas, Renoir and Cézanne stood with the anti- Dreyfus crowd. Zola drew a line and severed his life long friendship with Cézanne. As Alan Chase writes in a letter to the New York Times,"Cézanne's anti-Dreyfus position did not diminish Zola's admiration for his painting. It did, however, diminish Cézanne's stature as a man and a onetime friend."
I can still appreciate the art that Degas created but I am troubled by his prejudice. Thomas Micchelli on Hyperallergic writes on Degas that,"As we belatedly come to recognize that social progress is halting at best, and it becomes harder to flatter ourselves on our own enlightenment, it also becomes harder to relegate Degas’ inhumanity to an artifact of a time when racism and bigotry were more acceptable." 
Alfred Dreyfus in his room on Devil's Island in 1898,
stereograph by F. Hamel collection Fritz Lachmund

The anti-Semitism in Zola and Degas' time was horrid and based on the dangerous thought that Jewish French citizens were somehow un-French. Zola helped free Dreyfus from prison but the anti-Semitism in French society remained, and as Donald Morrison notes, contributed to the discharge of more than 75,000 French citizens and refugees to Nazi death camps during WWII.
In our current Trumpian age when anti-Semitism is on the rise, the Dreyfus Affair is more than a cautionary tale from the past. Instead, it is a dire warning that the demonization of others can lead to brutal crimes against humanity. 
I'll let Donald Morrison have the final word. In the Financial Times he wrote, "Therein lies the Dreyfus Affair’s true lesson. Too often these days, panicked governments are undermining citizens’ rights and freedoms in the name of battling crime or terrorism. But reading these accounts of France in a similarly anxious age reminds us that a nation once twisted itself in knots over the fate of an obscure Jewish captain – and ultimately chose justice. Thus Dreyfus, the unlikely hero, and France, the faltering beacon, have shown what is possible when people remain true to their values."
More at: Artistes-lAffaire-Dreyfus-1898-1908 and l'Affaire Dreyfus

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