The French Revolution was like an explosion and a violent upheaval. Events like this often destroy many aspects of the past culture. The destructive experience of the revolution was not expected to give birth to durable creations but the Revolution of 1789 signifies an idea of fundamental change.
The French people had to confront the collapse of the whole social order. What is termed as the ancient regime, and from its rubbles and chaos they had to assemble a new order. This provided limitless possibilities of innovation to the revolutionaries.
Like the people of other regions, the Frenchmen did not have much of a political vocabulary before 1789 as politics centered at Versailles, the royal court. However, the elections to the Estates General brought the common man of the street into the national politics.
The lower section of the populace began participating in street marches and political insurrections. If affected not only the nature of politics but contributed to the sudden formation of a revolutionary language based on new political vocabulary. New words or phrases were coined to express popular demands.
Words like citizen rights, sovereignty, representation and patriotism received new meanings. Thousands of brochures, pamphlets, caricatures and cartoons, plays, newspaper articles came out explaining the new ideology.
State plays were enacted on political and revolutionary themes, folk songs were sung with changed meanings, popular fetes were organized and a revolutionary calendar was introduced in France. All these developments were contributing to the creation of new revolutionary culture.
Traditional centers of public sphere were adapting themselves according to the revolutionary atmosphere. New concepts of time and space came into being used on the principles of rationalism and naturalism.
The revolutionaries had provided a new division of time by preparing a revolutionary calendar in which a month was to consist of three weeks of ten days each, and a year divided into twelve months.
The remaining five days were declared patriotic days to include civil qualities like virtue, genius, labor, reward and opinion. Each day of the week was given a new name, which was dedicated to some aspect of rural life.
The names of the rulers and queens were swiftly removed from Paris streets and new names were given. Words like Le Roy or Le Roi (the king) were replaced by (the liberty). Even the pictures of king, queen and jack were replaced with revolutionary symbols. The new expressions and political vocabulary had eroded the sacred position of the king.
The ritual use of the language like swearing and oaths provided to the revolutionaries a means of reconstituting moral basis of the community. The formation of new political culture had its stamp on the French culture. Theatre, art and music came under strong revolutionary influence.
The coming of the Revolution influenced the journalistic press. The newspapers like Mercure, Brissot’s Patriote Francaise (French Patriots) and Barere’s Point do Tour (The Turning Point) provided direct message to the people and popularized the revolutionary ideology.
These papers demonstrated the role of political journalism of the future revolutionaries including intellectuals like Karl Marx. There was a sudden growth of readership and a revolutionary change in the content of newspaper. This contributed to the formation of public opinion.
In the sphere of drama, every crisis in the revolution had its commentary on civic state. Political themes were extensively borrowed. Stage plays became a source of political propaganda. Chenier’s Charles IX is said to have baptized the stage in the name of nation, law and constitution. It was the most popular play reflecting the spirit of revolution.
Art, too, was used in public festivals and in the visual pageantry of the large-scale spectacles. The decade of the Revolution produced thousands of printed images through allegorical compositions, political caricatures, portraits of leaders, letterheads, playing cards, children’s games, civil manuals and many other forms.
These images are called ephemera and these proved to be more effective means of drawing people into political debates. Art in this period acquired a strategic and explicitly political function. The revolutionaries had great faith in the power of images and art was used to perform the role of social and moral regenerator.
The imagery of the French Revolution was created through all these means. However, it is very difficult to say as to how much of these changes survived the Revolution. Perhaps very little of it accept its imagery and memory.
This was because the Revolution had completely rejected the old culture of ancient regime, while the new culture that was imposed from above was seen as a product of socio-political interests and charged up emotions of a few. Its survival became precarious.
The French society had reached a stage of disorder and sharp divide with the collapse of the old moral foundations. The new ruling class was unable to provide an alternative.
Yet those projects which were universal in scope, such as the metric system, secularism, legal code and democratic principles – they survived to a large extent.
The other two expressions of the 18th century – Enlightenment and no-classicism struggled with romanticism in the 19lh century but molded some of the styles and ideas of modern day arts.