“My friend,” wrote Diderot in 1765, “if we love truth more than the fine arts, let us pray God for some iconoclasts.”‘ In this oracular statement from one of the tutelary deities of the Enlightenment there is the germ of a major dilemma for the men of the French Revolution. First, they realized that France was a treasure house of Western art, and that any French government wishing to justify itself in the eyes of contemporaries or of posterity would have to respect the French artistic inheritance. Second, the men of the Revolution knew that painting, sculpture, and architecture, in the years before 1789, had been used as instruments of social control, as textbooks in morals and politics. Both the philosophes and the royal art ministers had agreed that the chief function of the arts was didactic: “The governors of men have always made use of painting and sculpture in order to inspire in their subjects the religious or political sentiments they desire them to hold.” Most of the art criticism of the late eighteenth century confirms this view, and variations upon this refrain were constantly repeated during the Revolution itself.
Here, then, is the painful dilemma of the revolutionaries: They had to demonstrate that the fine arts would not suffer under a revolutionary regime, but many of the social, political, and religious values expressed in the art of the pre-1789 era were, in revolutionary terms, “untrue,” and had to be destroyed. The revolutionaries were cultivated men; they were proud of their artistic heritage; they were confident that the visual arts were a school for both the illiterate and the literate, but they were also positive that the values of the ancien regime were false and had to be eradicated. If Diderot had been alive, they might well have replied to him, “We love the truth and the fine arts. What shall we do?”
Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)