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PLEASURE WARS by Peter Gay

PLEASURE WARS

The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud

By Peter Gay

Pub Date: Jan. 19th, 1998
ISBN: 0-393-04570-6
Publisher: Norton

 The fifth and concluding volume in Gay's reexamination of the 19th-century middle classes, this one focusing--with the author's customary grace and intelligence--on their attitudes toward the arts. The taste of the Victorian bourgeoisie is frequently disdained as conventional and sentimental, their involvement in activities like collecting paintings and attending concerts dismissed as efforts to enhance their status. Gay, emeritus professor of history at Yale, amply demonstrates that this is a gross oversimplification. ``Avant gardes could not have made their way without massive bourgeois patronage,'' he reminds us, profiling pioneering collectors like Russian merchant and Matisse patron Sergei Schukin, and French customs clerk Victor Chocquet, who championed CÇzanne. In chapters on the development of local symphonies, the rise of criticism as a profession, the differing blends of private enterprise and aristocratic patronage that financed arts institutions in various European and American cities, Gay does not deny that status-seeking played a part, nor that some bourgeois liked safe, insipid art. He simply wants his readers to recognize ``the rich diversity of bourgeois experience in the pleasure wars roiling the Victorian and post-Victorian arts,'' just as he asked them to reconsider the clichÇ of all Victorians as sexually repressed in The Education of the Senses (1984), this series' first volume. Like its predecessors, Pleasure Wars is plausibly arranged rather than coherently organized, and Gay has a habit of announcing some obvious points as if they were revolutionary insights. But he is never less than readable, and he astutely weaves individual stories into a rich, complex tapestry. Sensitively depicting his 19th-century burghers grappling with the increasingly democratic nature of culture--and its funding--he reminds us that these issues are still contentious today. An appealing close to an unfailingly stimulating series that has more than fulfilled Gay's professed aim: ``to rise above melodrama to the far subtler drama that is history.''