Both the ancien régime and the Revolution are now being explored more intensively by scholars as cultural entities, since both regimes employed specific visual and theatrical rhetoric to sustain their legitimacy and their politics. Well aware of such approaches by historians, Mark Ledbury’s very interdisciplinary essay draws on his own investigation of the complexities of genre in the period, and his researches on Greuze and David. It explores some precise examples, in theatre and painting, of the processes of “idealization” (the use of the stage and canvas to project fantasies of society as reportage of preexisting fact), and of “desacralization” (the eroding of the sacredness of institutions vital to the ancien régime). It also explores how various genres of painting and drama in the1760s, 1770s, and 1780s might be understood as reflecting of the confusions, contests, and tensions of the late ancien régime. Nevertheless, the interpretation of artistic productions cannot be limited simply to broader cultural influences, and the essay also argues for the importance of identifying the aesthetic processes at work in paintings and dramas of the era. Their forms coopt popular culture as well as rework elite culture, and we are encouraged to see the political significance of these aesthetic processes. In this approach we see why the conceptualizing of the “public sphere” is so vital to the “cultural explanation” of the Revolution.
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