The Stone Breakers

The Stone Break­ers, by Gus­tave Courbet. 1849

One of my favorite painters is Gustave Courbet. And not just for his art. His bold, courageous personality, his refusal to accept the status quo, his ability to sometimes lead his fellow artists into greater versions of themselves, make this man from Ornans important beyond his work. He was, in some ways, an existentialist before the word was in use, and that clicks for me. That sings my own song.

“I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.”

The work above (The Stone Breakers) depicts something that all too many critics thought (at the time) was beneath the artist, literally and metaphorically. Something an artist should not concern himself or herself with. The blood and guts and sinew and muscle of life. So often, when it comes to artistic revolutions, a return to blood and guts, sinew and muscle is a necessary component. With poetry, it’s often a return to “natural speech”. With music, it’s often a casting off of layers and layers of beautiful notes called for by aristocratic patrons. And with art, it’s most often a return to real life, to nature in nature, to the everyday.

Of course, revolutions of this type can not work if the context is already there, if the everyday is already the norm. There is nothing essentially good about depictions of “the real”. There is nothing essentially good about depictions of the beautiful, the idealized, or the surreal. Context is everything. Difference is everything. Contrast, execution, commitment, diversity are among the best horsemen available for the fine arts.

If the poetic standard of the day is for folksy, direct, everyday speech, it won’t make for much of a revolution to give more of that. If the artistic standard of the day is a depiction of down and outers at their hard-scrabble best, then more of the same won’t constitute much in the way of exciting change. Musically, if we already are in the midst of a minimalist regime, or a “roots” imperium, more of the same won’t exactly set the barn on fire.

Courbet, of course, knew this. What he could not have known, however, was that his wonderful stone breakers would be blown up in WWII. Though, having lived through several wars and a revolution or two in his own nation of origin, he probably realized the fragility of what he did. He was, in fact, imprisoned in 1871 for his support of the Paris Commune and had to go into exile upon release. A stormy life. A strong record of it set in stone.

The Stone Breakers
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