November 9, 2014
Last week I watched an old BBC documentary about Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting “The Death of Marat.” (Since this puts us in late 18th century France, it will help if you silently pronounce David as Dah-VEED and Marat as Mah-RAH throughout the rest of this blog.) Simon Schama was prattling on about how Marat was whipping up enthusiasm not only against the royals but also a growing number of counter-revolutionaries. You have to be literate in the battle between Jacobins and Girondists to follow this story in its details and if you are like me you have trouble telling the difference between a radical revolutionary and a white-collared hummingbird. Let’s just say that as the Jacobins held power during a brief interval during the 1790s, being thought moderate was not a particularly laudable (or for that matter, healthy) form of repute. Those advocating moderation were likely to lose their heads. Marat had been something of a hero among the radicals, hiding out in the sewers of Paris in order to escape the authorities during the waning years of the monarchy. When the Jacobins came to power he became one of the most vociferous in calling for purity of revolutionary zeal. Schama, who has argued that violence was inherent in the very origins of the French Revolution, agrees with many others who now regard Marat as the very paradigm of irresponsible radicalism.
But I digress. The film was about this painting by David, which Schama regards as a masterpiece despite his (Schama’s, that is) revulsion at its message. David, who was (I learned) right in there with Marat, Robespierre and the other white-collared hummingbirds, painted it to memorialize Marat after his assassination by one Charlotte Courday. “The Death of Marat” was, if we believe Schama, a singular example of art’s ability to galvanize public opinion and motivate action. You probably know this painting even if you don’t have any recollection of David or Marat. Marat had been stabbed in his bath and is depicted holding an apparently fictionalized note from Courday in which she pleads for his assistance. Schama’s film made me recall another even older art documentary where Robert Hughes prattled on about the way that art could mobilize the emotions, but not in any particularly justifiable direction. The same tropes were used by fascists and communists in the 1930s with opposite messages but equally effective results.
But the French Revolution hit me because it is, after all, the granddaddy of all social movements. And if you are at all active in the food world these days, you are consistently being hit over the head by the putatively rising “food movement.” This is, I think, what lots of people would presume that food ethics is predominantly about. I hasten to add that I didn’t get up on a chilly November morning to diss the activism of my friends and comments, but maybe “The Death of Marat” helps me make some sense of that little chill that runs up and down my spine when someone starts talking about how to promote the food movement.
Or maybe it’s something less noble. Maybe it’s the way that the phrase “food movement” seems to spontaneously evoke an association with my bowels. I’m fearful that when someone starts trying to enroll me in the food movement, I’ll lose my head and end up shat out into the toilet.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University