Louvre: Influences of an Art Museum on Vistors, People, and Politics
"The Louvre, once the palace of kings, was now reorganized as a museum for the people, to be open [...] It
thus became a lucid symbol of the fall of the Old Regime and the rise of a new order" (192)
Built as a palace for the pomp of kings and queens of France, the Louvre has served to awe and inspire its visitors for centuries. The Louvre, now no less than one of the world's most famous art galleries, still continues to communicate majesty to its visitors, without the monarchial affliation. Yet in the Louvre's undeniable aesthetic appeal, both in its palatial architecture and near endless masterpieces of artwork, is intertwined with a vibrant, smart political advantage that has come to define not only citizen-centered political systems, such as democracy, but also the entire field of Art History. Indeed, with the Louvre's transformation between a palace for the select elite and a museum for the public, came a government who sought to empower its people in order to empower its nation. The Louvre's ideological usefulness to modern states lies in this transformation toward citizen-centered nationalism, which influences many of the dominant governments to this day.
Since art had only been used by and for the monarchial elite of a nation, its purpose was entirely wrapped up in supporting that monarchial tradition. The poignancy and majesty of masterpieces that adorned the walls of the Louvre served to affirm that the ruling class, as with their artwork, was of nobler stature than the common person. In this way, art was used to communicate the message that France's rulers were superior over the people that they ruled, just as Churchs typically used art to show the majesty of God.
When the French Revolution occurred, the people had an interesting task of redefining art's place in the nation. Just as art had been used as a political piece before the Revolution, so too was art going to embark on another political purpose. While the rebels of the French Revolution side-swept the traditional monarchial political system, effectively beheading King Louis XVI and his family, they maintained the empowering symbols of French aristocracy for the French people. In this simple transferance of symbolic representation, the French people were able to all partake in the inspiring awe of France's great artwork and artistic tradition. In fact, "in the museum, everyone was equal in principle, and if the uneducated could not use the cultural goods the museum proffered, they could (and still can) be awed by the sheer magnitude of the treasure" (193).
Coincidentally, the Louvre as a holding place for France's art remained ideal. Similarly to how easy it was to transfer who was being empowered from the artwork, so too the Louvre's architectural structure boded just as well a palace as an art museum (27). Moreover:
"the old building was well equipped for its new symbolic assignment. It was, after all, already full of sixteenth and seventeenth-centiry spaces originally designed to accommodate public ritual and ceremonial display. Its halls and galleries tended to develop along marked axes so that […] visitors were naturally drawn from room to room or down long vistas"
The interconnection between a palace serving kings and a museum serving the people creates an interesting juxtaposition when considering both arenas utilized the same space. Since the Louvre is laid out in a showy, albeit elegant, fashion, the once arrangement of art to satisfy the regality of kings also made for cogent, cohesive viewing by public visitors.
In fact, after the French Revolution, the experience of the art viewer changed as dramatically as the purpose of the building. No longer looking at a piece of art as separate from themselves, the art viewer felt connected with the sublimity of the artwork, rather than beneath the status of kings and fine art. Indeed:
"the ritual task of the Louvre visitor was to reenact that history of genius, re-live its progress step-by-step and, thus enlightened, know himself as a citizen of history's most civilized and advanced nation state" (27).
Thus, with the French Revolution's catalytic necessity of reimagining the point of art for the public interest, the process of viewing art as a collective human achievement would create the general attitude of Art Historians. Moreover, the experience of being part of the greatest endeavors that humanity has created only further perpetuated the individual empowerment that the French rebels were looking to give the people.
This notion of the common individual as part of the nobility of humankind became a standard mentality of representation that a particular nation was socially elite. In fact, the "embodiments of a new fom of cultural-historical wealth" was founded upon the Louvre's rather humanitarian transformation, and made old aristocractic political systems seem antiquated and counter-productive to modernization (28). This shift in the spirit of the time attitudes indeed progressed society toward a modernization in humanitarianism: a society that believes people have equal weight as a community, apart from social standing, as expressed in the nation's stance on public art museums.
From the streets of Paris, France, the Louvre was the "first [public place that] offered the civic ritual that other nations would emulate: It was also with the Louvre that public art museums became signs of politically virtuous states" (21). The interconnection of social freedom, of the people's right to view art as part of their own history; the artistic freedom of great masterpieces of art to be open for public viewing; and the political freedom of the government as separate from its rulers, whose first objective is to serve the people, is inherently tied to the effects of the French Revolution on the artistic world.
Freedom was certainly the buzz word in the late eighteenth century, and the Louvre can be seen as one of the initial places where personal and political freedom came to fruition. Moreover, the freedoms given to the French people from its art museums were soon spread to other countries, as "[t]hese institutions stand as monuments to the new bougeois state as it was emerging in the age of democractic revolutions" (21). In this regard, the de-privatization of art for the ruling elite became a symbol of democracy all over the world. With the idea of art as a representation for the best work that humanity can imagine and render, so too did this personal empowerment lend to democractic concepts of the individual's capability to make decisions regarding their political and personal systems, structures, and the like.
In the sense that the field of Art History was redefined, so too were the galleries in which art history was displayed, laid open to view. The Louvre, now one of the world's most popular art museums, is a symbol of national and intellectual treasure. Indeed:
"Art galleries signified social distinction precisely because they were seen as more than simple signs of wealth and power. Art was understood to be a source of valuable moral and spiritual experience. In this sense, it was cultural property, something to be shared by a whole community" (36).
While the Louvre is indeed a palace of immense size and sheer aesthetic, architectural delight, its contents, the artwork, is much more well-known than its building. The symbolic value of one's content, or internal, gifts as more important than the surface, or external, level, is a humanitarian value that is espoused in many countries and families to this day. Politically, the concept of inner significance translates to a new kind of political ideology: a political ideology that is focused on the character and content of its people, i.e. that which comprises a nation, just as masterpieces of artwork comprise the Louvre and its international reputation of prestige and human excellence.
Politically, prior to the French Revolution, most of the dominant countries in the world, Eastern and Western, were ruled through hereditary monarchy. The experience of a country turning its focus from its government to its people forced the French, among other nationalities, to reexamine the purpose of government and the role of its citizens. After the Revolution, France still had an Emperor, that being Napoleon, yet the well-being of the French people were still considered to be the responsibility of the French government. The role of art and the Louvre in this maintaining of the importance of the citizens of a country over its leadership is undeniable. In fact, "the museum was a powerful transformer, able to convert signs of luxury, status, or splendor into repositories of spiritual treasure-- the heritage and pride of the whole nation" (27). With the Louvre's transferance of art as a kind of gift to kings, to a gift of the people and for the people, the political arena of France and other modernized, Western countries would never be the same.
Coincidentally, not all countries wanted to be modernized in the way that France had witnessed. Great Britain, whose traditions were long-standing and absolute, typically regarded…