DuBos, Abbe Jean Baptiste (1670–1742)
DUBOS, ABBE JEAN BAPTISTE
With his Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture, Abbe Jean Baptiste DuBos—diplomat, man of letters, member of the Académie française —had an essential influence on the aesthetic thought of the Enlightenment.
Réflexions critiques, published for the first time in 1719 and re-edited several times, is one of the founding texts of the new "aesthetics" that came into its own in the eighteenth century. DuBos defends a sense-based theory of aesthetic feeling that is set in motion by poetry, painting, and music. In his Réflexions, DuBos's successors saw, on the one hand, an aesthetic that stressed the effects of artworks on spectators and that favored the highly emotional or moving dimension of the aesthetic response to art, and, on the other hand, an attempt to base aesthetic judgment on nonrational bases—what DuBos called the "sixth sense" feeling, or the "heart." His strictly emotionalist interpretation of the "paradox" of negative feelings—which has it that the more we are afflicted by the artistic representation the more pleasure we derive from it—captured the attention of all eighteenth-century theorists of tragic emotion.
The method of the Réflexions aims for the "experimental," that is, it is founded on the observation of psychological, social, environmental (climatiques ), and historical causes. In this respect, his empiricism is tinged with eclecticism, while with regard to the analysis of the mind and emotions, he belongs more strictly to the philosophical vein stemming from John Locke. In view of its subject, this work can be interpreted in somewhat anachronistic terms as a metacriticism ; as a philosophical endeavor aimed at revealing the general principles of literary and artistic criticism. A certain theoretical distance from DuBos's aesthetic thought (the coherence of which is not always obvious at first glance) helps us to see that it tries to articulate three specific issues: the analysis of the emotional response to an artwork, the theory of aesthetic judgment, and the causes of the historical variations of genius.
1) The only aim of poetry and painting is to please and to arouse feeling by the imitation of subjects that are themselves moving. Art fills a specific need: that of the mind to be kept occupied in order to avoid tedium. The "artificial" passions art stirs have thus the emotional power of ordinary passions, without having their grievous consequences. DuBos proposes that the pleasure we derive from passions (even negative ones) comes uniquely from the emotional energy and intensity inherent in them, not from the reflective consciousness that we ourselves are not at risk or from the mere enjoyment of artistic imitation. After analyzing the nature and causes of viewers' aesthetic pleasures, DuBos explores the various means of producing these pleasures by examining the powers of artistic imitation and by comparing the relative force of different artistic forms and, within these forms, the different artistic genres. Thus, tragedy is superior to comedy, for example, just as painting (which uses "natural signs") touches us more directly than poetry (which uses the "artificial signs" of language). However, at the end of the day, absolute aesthetic primacy goes to staged tragedy, which articulates a succession of "paintings" or scenes in time and takes gradual control of our emotions.
2) Aesthetic sentiment also possesses an evaluative dimension; it functions as a principle of judgment concerning artistic and literary works; DuBos demonstrates, against the pretensions of a normative and professional criticism, that only the sentiments of the public, which become more and more assured as time goes by, can reliably decide the real merit of artworks.
3) All this analysis of emotional and evaluative modalities of the artistic experience are part of what could be called a "scientific" criticism that aims to reflect on the diverse historical "causes" (both physical and moral) that explain the variations in the production and reception of artistic and literary works; DuBos develops a theory of genius, the manifestations of which are essentially submitted to so-called "climatic" (including physical and environmental) conditions, while simultaneously founding a vein of historical criticism supported by a cyclical conception of history. Together these three elements sketch out an aesthetic theory that is clearly antirationalist, for which neither individual aesthetic responses, nor the evaluation and acknowledgment of a work's merit, nor the mechanisms of artistic and literary production, are subjected to the constraints of rules and normative prescriptions. DuBos thus holds an original place in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes : he refutes the rationalist pretensions of the "Modernes " while shifting the debate to the analysis of the feelings.
works by abbe jean baptiste dubos
Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture (1719). Paris: École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1993.
works about abbe jean baptiste dubos
Becq, Annie. Genèse de l'esthétique française: de la raison classique à l'imagination créatrice, 1680–1814. 2nd ed. Paris: Albin Michel, 1994.
Dumouchel, Daniel. "Le problème de Dubos et l'affect compatissant: l'esthétique du 18e siècle à l'épreuve du paradoxe tragique." In De la sympathie sous l'Ancien Régime: discours, savoirs, sociétés, edited by T. Belleguic and E. Van den Schueren. Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval, 2005.
Lombard, Alfred. L'Abbé Du Bos, un initiateur de la pensée moderne. Paris, 1913.
Saisselin, Remy G. "Ut Pictura Poesis: Du Bos to Diderot." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (20) (2) 1960.
Daniel Dumouchel (2005)