A Brief History of the Masses: Three Revolutions

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Stefan Jonsson uses three monumental works of art to build a provocative history of popular revolt: Jacques-Louis David's The Tennis Court Oath (1791), James Ensor's Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888), and Alfredo Jaar's They Loved It So Much, the Revolution (1989). Addressing, respectively, the French Revolution of 1789, Belgium's proletarian messianism in the 1880s, and the worldwide rebellions and revolutions of 1968, these canonical images not only depict an alternative view of history but offer a new understanding of the relationship between art and politics and the revolutionary nature of true democracy.

Drawing on examples from literature, politics, philosophy, and other works of art, Jonsson carefully constructs his portrait, revealing surprising parallels between the political representation of "the people" in government and their aesthetic representation in painting. Both essentially "frame" the people, Jonsson argues, defining them as elites or masses, responsible citizens or angry mobs. Yet in the aesthetic fantasies of David, Ensor, and Jaar, Jonsson finds a different understanding of democracy-one in which human collectives break the frame and enter the picture.

Connecting the achievements and failures of past revolutions to current political issues, Jonsson then situates our present moment in a long historical drama of popular unrest, making his book both a cultural history and a contemporary discussion about the fate of democracy in our globalized world.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews


A compact yet comprehensive survey... Jonsson's globally wide-ranging and rich discussion raises important questions.


A compact yet comprehensive survey... Jonsson's globally wide-ranging and rich discussion raises important questions.

Michael Hardt

"From his detailed analyses of three monumental works of art, Stefan Jonsson constructs an erudite and elegant meditation on the developments of modern European art and literature, out of which emerges, throughout the course of the book, an intriguing and illuminating view of the possibilities of revolution and democracy that remain for us today.

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Stefan Jonsson is a writer and critic based in Stockholm, Sweden. He is associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Linköping and has been a fellow at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and visiting professor at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations1789: Jacques-Louis David, The Tennis Court Oath 1. Seizing the Floor2. The Shadow of Democracy3. The Number of People4. The Swinish Multitude5. Social Depths6. The Hydra7. Marianne8. Les Misérables9. The Barricade10. Making Monkey11. Smokescreens12. Mass Grave889: James Ensor, Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889 13. The Crucified14. The Belgian's Glory15. Divorce16. Hallucinations17. Society Degree Zero18. The Nigger19. The Modern Breakthrough20. Songs of the Fool21. Homo Sacer1989: Alfredo Jaar, They Loved It So Much, the Revolution 22. The Beloved23. The Backside of the State24. The Empty Throne25. Political Violence26. With Nails of Gold27. Of Men and Beasts28. Desperados29. Autoimmunity30. Saints31. Complaints32. The Baggage of the Barbarians33. DepartureAfterwordNotesIndex

Columbia University Press

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