Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 11 a: In What Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts b - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3
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chapter 11 a: In What Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts b - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 3.
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This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
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In What Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Artsb
I believe it would be wasting my time and that of my readers, if I applied myself to showing how the general mediocrity of fortune, the lack of superfluity, the universal desire for well-being and the constant efforts made by each person to gain well-being for himself, make the taste for the useful predominate over the love of the beautiful in the heart of man. Democratic nations, where all these things are found, will therefore cultivate the arts that serve to make life comfortable in preference to those whose object is to embellish it; they will by habit prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will want the beautiful to be useful.c
But I intend to go further, and, after pointing out the first feature, to outline several others.
It happens ordinarily, in centuries of privilege, that the exercise of nearly all the arts becomes a privilege and that each profession is a world apart where no one is at liberty to enter. And, even when industry is free, the immobility natural to aristocratic nations makes all those who are occupied by the same art end up nevertheless forming a distinct class, always composed of the same families, all of whose members know each other and a class in which public opinion and corporate pride soon arise. In an industrial class of this type, each artisan has not only his fortune to make, but also his reputation to keep. It is not only his interest that regulates his behavior, or even that of the buyer, but that of the corps, and the interest of the corps is that each artisan produces masterpieces. So in aristocratic centuries, the aim of the arts is to make the best possible, and not the most rapid or the cheapest.d
When on the contrary each profession is open to all, when the crowd enters and leaves each constantly, and when its different members, because of their great number, become unknown, indifferent and nearly invisible to each other, the social bond is destroyed, and each worker, led back to himself, seeks only to earn the greatest amount of money possible at the least cost. There is nothing more than the will of the consumer to limit him. Now it happens that, at the same time, a corresponding revolution makes itself felt among the last.
In countries where wealth, like power, is concentrated in a few hands and remains there, the use of most of the wealth of this world belongs to always the same small number of individuals; necessity, opinion, the moderation of desires exclude all others.
Since this aristocratic class keeps itself immobile at the point of grandeur where it is placed, without narrowing or expanding, it always experiences the same needs and feels them in the same way. The men who compose it draw naturally from the superior and hereditary position that they occupy the taste for what is very well made and very lasting.
That gives a general turn to the ideas of the nation as regards the arts. It often happens, among these peoples, that the peasant himself prefers to do entirely without the objects that he covets than to acquire them imperfect.
So in aristocracies, workers labor only for a limited number of buyers, who are very difficult to satisfy. The gain that they expect depends principally on the perfection of their works.
This is no longer so when, all privileges being destroyed, ranks mingle and all men constantly go down and rise up the social scale.
You always find, within a democratic people [≠and particularly in the period when they finally come to be so ≠], a host of citizens whose patrimony divides and decreases. They have contracted, in better times, certain needs that they continue to have after the ability to satisfy them no longer exists, and they try restlessly to find if there is not some indirect means to provide for them.
On the other hand, you always see in democracies a very large number of men whose fortune grows, but whose desires grow very much faster than their fortune and who greedily eye the goods that their fortune promises them, before it delivers them. These men try to open in all directions shorter paths to these nearby enjoyments. The result of the combination of these two causes is that in democracies you always meet a multitude of citizens whose needs are beyond their resources and who would readily agree to being satisfied incompletely rather than renouncing entirely the object of their covetous desire.
The worker easily understands these passions because he shares them himself. In aristocracies, he tried to sell his products very expensively to a few; now he understands that there would be a more expedient means to become rich, it would be to sell his products inexpensively to all [<for he begins to discover that a small profit that is repeated every day would be preferable to a considerable gain that you can expect only rarely.>
That sets his mind on a new path. He no longer tries to make the best possible but at the lowest price.].
Now, there are only two ways to arrive at lowering the price of merchandise.
The first is to find better, shorter and more skillful means of producing it.e The second is to fabricate in greater quantity objects more or less similar, but of less value. Among democratic peoples, all the intellectual abilities of the worker are directed toward these two ends.
He tries hard to invent procedures that allow him to work, not only better, but faster and at less cost, and if he cannot manage to do so, to reduce the intrinsic qualities of the thing that he is making without making it entirely inappropriate to its intended use. When only the rich had watches, nearly all were excellent. Now hardly any are made that are not mediocre, but everyone has them. Thus, democracy not only tends to direct the human mind toward the useful arts, it leads artisans to make many imperfect things very rapidly, and leads the consumer to content himself with these things.
It isn’t that in democracies art is not capable, as needed, of producing marvels. That is revealed sometimes, when buyers arise who agree to pay for time and effort. In this struggle of all the industries, amid this immense competition and these innumerable trials, excellent workers are formed who get to the furthest limits of their profession. But the latter rarely have the opportunity to show what they know how to do; they carefully moderate their efforts. They stay within a skillful mediocrity that is self-assessing and that, able to go beyond the goal that it sets for itself, aims only for the goal that it attains. In aristocracies, in contrast, workers always do all that they know how to do, and, when they stop, it is because they are at the limit of their knowledge.
When I arrive in a country and I see the arts provide some admirable products, that teaches me nothing about the social state and political constitution of the country.f But if I notice that the products of the arts there are generally imperfect, in very great number and at a low price, I am sure that, among the people where this is occurring, privileges are becoming weak, and the classes are beginning to mingle and are soon going to blend.g
Artisans who live in democratic centuries not only seek to put their useful products in the reach of all citizens, they also try hard to give all their products shining qualities that the latter do not have.
In the confusion of all classes, each man hopes to be able to appear to be what he isn’t and devotes great efforts to succeeding in doing so. Democracy does not give birth to this sentiment, which is only too natural to the heart of man; but it applies it to material things. The hypocrisy of virtue exists in all times; that of luxury belongs more particularly to democratic centuries.
In order to satisfy these new needs of human vanity, there is no imposture to which the arts do not resort; industry sometimes goes so far in this direction that it ends by harming itself. The diamond has already been so perfectly imitated that it is easy to make a mistake. Once the art of producing false diamonds has been invented so that you can no longer distinguish false from true ones, both will probably be abandoned, and they will again become stones.
This leads me to talk about those arts that are called, par excellence, the fine arts.
I do not believe that the necessary effect of the democratic social state and democratic institutions is to decrease the number of men who cultivate the fine arts. [<I even think that their number increases with democracy>]; but these causes powerfully influence the manner in which they are cultivated. Since most of those who had already contracted the taste for the fine arts have become poor, and, on the other hand, many of those who are not yet rich have begun, by imitation, to conceive the taste for the fine arts, the quantity of consumers in general increases, and very rich and very refined consumers become more rare. Something analogous to what I already demonstrated when I talked about the useful arts then occurs in the fine arts. They multiply their works and reduce the merit of each one of them.
No longer able to aim at the great, you seek the elegant and the pretty; you tend less to reality than to appearance.
In aristocracies you do a few great paintings, and, in democratic countries, a multitude of small pictures. In the first, you raise bronze statues, and, in the second, you cast plaster statues.
When I arrived for the first time in New York by the part of the Atlantic Ocean called the East River, I was surprised to notice, along the river bank, at some distance from the city, a certain number of small palaces of white marble,h several of which were of a classical architecture; the next day, able to consider more closely the one that had particularly attracted my attention, I found that its walls were of white-washed brick and its columns of painted wood. It was the same for all the buildings that I had admired the day before.
The democratic social state and democratic institutions give as well, to all the imitative arts, certain particular tendencies that are easy to point out. [<I know that here I am going back to ideas that I have already had the occasion to explain in relation to poetry, but the fault is due less to me than to the subject that I am treating. I am talking about man and man is a simple being, whatever effort is made to split him up in order to know him better. It is always the same individual that you envisage in various lights. All that I can do is only to point out the result here, leaving to the memory of the reader the trouble of going back to the causes.>]j They often divert them from portraying the soul in order to attach them only to portraying the body; and they substitute the representation of movements and sensations for that of sentiments and ideas; in the place of the ideal, finally, they put the real.
I doubt that Raphael made as profound a study of the slightest mechanisms of the human body as the artists of today. He did not attribute the same importance as they to rigorous exactitude on this point, for he claimed to surpass nature. He wanted to make man something that was superior to man; he undertook to embellish beauty itself.
David and his students were, on the contrary, as good anatomists as painters. They represented marvelously well the models that they had before their eyes, but rarely did they imagine anything beyond; they followed nature exactly, while Raphael sought something better than nature. They left us an exact portrait of man, but the first gave us a glimpse of divinity in his works.
You can apply to the very choice of subject what I said about the manner of treating it.
The painters of the Renaissance usually looked above themselves, or far from their time, for great subjects that left a vast scope to their imagination. Our painters often lend their talent to reproducing exactly the details of the private life that they have constantly before their eyes, and on all sides they copy small objects that have only too many originals in nature.k
[b. ] “Among the fine arts I clearly see something to say only about architecture, sculpture, painting. As for music, dance ..., I see nothing” (in the rubish of chapter 5. Rubish, 1).
Tocqueville seems not to have appreciated the musical evenings that he attended in the United States. In his correspondence, he speaks of “caterwauling music” and “unbearable squealings.” Beaumont thought it good to delete these commentaries from his edition of Tocqueville’s complete works.
[c. ] What makes the taste for the useful predominate among democratic peoples./ [In the margin: Perhaps to philosophy. What makes the doctrine of the useful predominate. Utilitarians.]
This idea is necessary, but perhaps it has already been treated either under this title or under another. It must be treated separately. It is too important to be found only accidentally in my book. The preeminence granted in all things to the useful is in fact one of the principal and fertile characteristics of democratic centuries.
There are many things that make the taste for the useful predominate in these centuries: the middling level of fortunes, the lack of superfluity, the lack of imagination or rather the perpetual straining for the production of well-being. There is imagination in the ordinary sense of the word only in the upper and lower classes; the middle ones do not have it.
There are still many other causes. Look for them.
12 April 1838 (YTC, CVk, 1, p. 10).
[d. ] You find in aristocratic societies as well as in democracies men who cultivate the useful arts, and who even excel if not in all at least in several of them. It suffices to see a few of the engraved breast-plates that the warriors of the Middle Ages left for us, and the gothic churches that still seem to thrust into the sky from the heart of our cities, in order to understand that the armorers and the masons of those times were often skilled men.
But they did not bring to their works the same spirit as the artisans of today (Rubish, 1).
[e. ] “Democracy leads toward the useful arts not so much because it decreases the number of those who could have demands to make on the fine arts as because it takes away from the latter even the taste to seek the beautiful in the arts” (in rubish of the chapters on the arts,Rubish, 1).
[f. ] That the perfection of certain products of the arts is not a proof of civilization./
The Mexicans that Cortés conquered so easily had reached a high degree of perfection in the manufacture of cotton. Their fabrics and the colors with which they covered them were admirable, p. 64.
In India cotton fabrics and particularly muslins have always been made and are still made whose softness, brilliance, and toughness, Europeans, with all the perfection of their arts, are still not able to imitate, p. 61.
India, however, is still in a state of semi-barbarism.
The fact is that the perfection of an isolated art proves nothing, only that the people who cultivate it have emerged from the state of a hunting or pastoral people. In this state nothing can be perfected.
Another curious fact that Baines’ book provides me with is that the beautiful muslins of Dana were in all their splendor only while India had kings and an aristocracy. They have been in decline since, because of a lack of orders, p. 61 (Rubish, 1).
Edward Baines, History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (London: H. Fisher, R. Fisher and P. Jackson, 1835). Reprinted in New York by Augustus M. Kelly, 1966 (Reprints of Economics Classics).
[g. ] “So democracy draws a multitude of mediocre products from the arts, but these products are sufficient for the well-being of a multitude of our fellows, while more perfect works would serve only a small number” (in rubish of the chapters on the arts,Rubish, 1).
[h. ] “. . . an incredible multitude of country houses, as large as little boxes but as carefully worked . . . I was so struck by how comfortable these small houses had to be and by the good effect that they produced on the landscape, that I will try to obtain the design or the plan of one or two of the prettiest ones. Perhaps Émilie would make use of it for Nacqueville. I already know that they are not expensive.” (Extract of the letter from Tocqueville to his mother, of 26 April–19 May 1831, YTC, BIa2.) Pocket notebook 1 in fact contains the plan of one of these houses (YTC, BIIa, pp. 2–3).
[j. ] In the margin: “To delete if I put this piece before poetry.”
[k. ] They hasten [to (ed.)] depict battles before the dead are buried and they enjoy exposing to our view scenes that we witness every day.
I do not know when people will tire of comparing the democracy of our time with what bore the same name in antiquity. The differences between these two things reveal themselves at every turn. For me, I do not need to think about slavery or other reasons that lead me to regard the Greeks as very aristocratic nations despite some democratic institutions that are found in their midst. I agree not to open Aristotle to finish persuading me. It is enough for me to contemplate the statues that these peoples have left. I cannot believe that the man who made the Belvedere Apollo emerge from marble worked in a democracy.
[In the margin. Next to the last paragraph.] To delete. That I think raises useless objections (in the rubish of the chapter that follows, Rubish, 1).
For his part, Beaumont had written: “There exists, in the United States, a type of painting that prospers: these are portraits; it is not the love of art, it is self-love” (Marie, I, p. 254).