Art and Social Life by G. V. Plekhanov 1912
But let us leave the government “spheres.” Among the French writers of the Second Empire there were some who rejected the theory of art for art’s sake from anything but progressive considerations. Alexandre Dumas fils, for instance, declared categorically that the words “art for art’s sake” were devoid of meaning. His plays, Le fils naturel and Le Père prodigue were devoted to the furtherance of definite social aims. He considered it necessary to bolster up with his writings the “old society,” which, in his own words, was crumbling on all sides.
Reviewing, in 1857, the literary work of Alfred de Musset who had just died, Lamartine regretted that it had contained no expression of religious, social, political or patriotic beliefs (foi), and he rebuked the contemporary poets for ignoring sense in their infatuation for rhyme and rhythm. Lastly – to cite a literary figure of much smaller calibre – Maxime Ducamp, condemning the passion for form alone, exclaimed:
La forme est belle, soit! quand l’idee est au fond!
Qu’est ce donc qu’on beau front, qui n’a pas de cervelle? 
He also attacked the head of the romantic school in painting, saying: “Just as some writers have created art for art’s sake, Mr. Delacroix has invented colour for colour’s sake. With him, history and mankind are an excuse for combining well-chosen tints.” In the opinion of this same writer, the art-for-art’s sake school had definitely outlived its day. 
Lamartine and Maxime Ducamp can no more be suspected of destructive tendencies than Alexandre Dumas fils. They rejected the theory of art for art’s sake not because they wanted to replace the bourgeois order by a new social system, but because they wanted to bolster up the bourgeois relationships, which had been seriously shaken by the liberation movement of the proletariat. In this respect they differed from romanticists – and especially from the Parnassians and the early realists – only in that which disposed them to be far more conciliatory towards the bourgeois mode of life. They were conservative optimists where the others were conservative pessimists.
It follows convincingly from all this that the utilitarian view of art can just as well cohabit with a conservative, as with a revolutionary attitude of mind. The tendency to adopt this view necessarily presupposes only one condition: a lively and active interest in a specific social order or social ideal – no matter which; and it disappears when, for one reason or another, this interest evaporates.
We shall proceed to examine which of these two opposite views of art is more conducive to its progress.
Like all questions of social life and social thought, this question does not permit of an unconditional answer. Everything depends on the conditions of time and place. Remember Nicholas I and his servitors. They wanted to turn Pushkin, Ostrovsky and the other contemporary artists into ministers of morality, as it was understood by the Corps of Gendarmes. Let us assume for a moment that they had succeeded in their firm determination. What would have come of it? This is easily answered. The muses of the artists who had succumbed to their influence, having become state muses, would have betrayed the most evident signs of decadence, and would have diminished exceedingly in truthfulness, forcefulness and attractiveness.
Pushkin’s Slanderers of Russia cannot be classed among the best of his poetical creations. Ostrovsky’s Shouldering Another’s Troubles, graciously acknowledged by his majesty as a “useful lesson,” is not such a wonderful thing either. Yet in this play Ostrovsky made but a step or two towards the ideal which the Benkendorfs, Shirinsky-Shikhmatovs and similar believers in useful art were striving to realise.
Let us assume, further, that Théophile Gautier, Théodore de Banville, Leconte de Lisle, Baudelaire, the Goncourt brothers, Flaubert – in a word, the romanticists, the Parnassians and the early French realists – had reconciled themselves to their bourgeois environment and dedicated their muses to the service of the gentry who, in the words of de Banville, prized the five-franc piece above all else. What would have come of it?
This, again, is easily answered. The romanticists, the Parnassians and the early French realists would have sunk very low. Their productions would have become far less forceful, far less truthful and far less attractive.
Which is superior in artistic merit: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Augier’s Gendre de Monsieur Poirier? Surely, it is superfluous to ask. And the difference is not only in talent. Augier’s dramatic vulgarity, which was the very apotheosis of bourgeois moderation and conformity, necessarily called for different creative methods than those employed by Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers and the other realists who contemptuously turned their backs on this moderation and conformity. Lastly, there must have been a reason why one literary trend attracted far more talented men than the other.
What does this prove?
It proves a point which romanticists like Théophile Gautier would never agree with, namely, that the merit of an artistic work is determined in the final analysis by the weightiness of its content. Gautier not only maintained that poetry does not try to prove anything, but that it even does not try to say anything, and that the beauty of a poem is determined by its music, its rhythm. But this is a profound error. On the contrary, poetic and artistic works generally always say something, because they always express something. Of course, they have their own way of “saying” things. The artist expresses his idea in images; the publicist demonstrates his thought with the help of logical conclusions. And if a writer operates with logical conclusions instead of images, or if he invents images in order to demonstrate a definite theme, then he is not an artist but a publicist, even if he does not write essays or articles, but novels, stories or plays. All this is true. But it does not follow that ideas are of no importance in artistic productions. I go further and say that there is no such thing as an artistic production which is devoid of idea. Even productions whose authors lay store only on form and are not concerned for their content, nevertheless express some idea in one way or another. Gautier, who had no concern for the idea content of his poetical works, declared, as we know, that he was prepared to sacrifice his political rights as a French citizen for the pleasure of seeing a genuine Raphael or a beautiful woman in the nude. The one was closely connected with the other: his exclusive concern for form was a product of his social and political indifferentism. Productions whose authors lay store only on form always reflect a definite – and as I have already explained, a hopelessly negative – attitude of their authors to their social environment. And in this lies an idea common to all of them in general, and expressed in a different way by each in particular. But while there is no such thing as an artistic work which is entirely devoid of idea, not every idea can be expressed in an artistic work. This is excellently put by Ruskin when he says that a maiden may sing of her lost love, but a miser cannot sing of his lost money. And he rightly observes that the merit of an artistic work is determined by the loftiness of the sentiments it expresses. “Question with yourselves respecting any feeling that has taken strong possession of your mind. ‘Could this be sung by a master, and sung nobly, with a true melody and art?’ Then it is a right feeling. Could it not be sung at all, or only sung ludicrously? It is a base one.” This is true, and it cannot be otherwise. Art is a means of intellectual communication. And the loftier the sentiment expressed in an artistic work, the more effectively, other conditions being equal, can the work serve as such a means. Why cannot a miser sing of his lost money? Simply because, if he did sing of his loss, his song would not move anybody, that is, could not serve as a means of communication between himself and other people.
What about martial songs, I may be asked; does war, too, serve as a means of communication between man and man? My reply is that while martial poetry expresses hatred of the enemy, it at the same time extols the devoted courage of soldiers, their readiness to die for their country, their nation, etc. In so far as it expresses this readiness, it serves as a means of communication between man and man within confines (tribe, community, nation) whose extent is determined by the level of cultural development attained by mankind, or, more exactly, by the given section of mankind.
Turgenev, who had a strong dislike for preachers of the utilitarian view of art, once said that Venus of Milo is more indubitable than the principles of 1789. He was quite right. But what does it show? Certainly not what Turgenev wanted to show.
There are very many people in the world to whom the principles of 1789 are not only “dubitable,” but entirely unknown. Ask a Hottentot who has not been to a European school what he thinks of these principles, and you will find that he has never heard of them. But not only are the principles of 1789 unknown to the Hottentot; so is the Venus of Milo. And if he ever happened to see her, he would certainly “have his doubts” about her. He has his own ideal of feminine beauty, depictions of which are often to be met with in anthropological works under the name of the Hottentot Venus. The Venus of Milo is “indubitably” attractive only to a part of the white race. To this part of the race she really is more indubitable than the principles of 1789. But why? Solely because these principles express relationships that correspond only to a certain phase in the development of the white race – the time when the bourgeois order was establishing itself in its struggle against the feudal order  – whereas the Venus of Milo is an ideal of the female form which corresponds to many stages in this development. Many, but not all.
The Christians had their own ideal of the female exterior. It is to be seen on Byzantine icons. Everybody knows that the worshippers of these icons were very “dubious” of the Milo and all other Venuses. They called them she-devils and, wherever they could, destroyed them. Then came a time when the antique she-devils again became pleasing to people of the white race. The way to this was prepared by the liberation movement of the West European burghers – the movement, that is, which was most vividly reflected in the principles of 1789. Turgenev notwithstanding, therefore, we may say that Venus of Milo became the more “indubitable” in the new Europe, the more the European population became ripe for the proclamation of the principles of 1789. This is not a paradox; it is a sheer historical fact. The whole meaning of the history of art in the period of the Renaissance – regarded from the standpoint of the concept of beauty – is that the Christian-monastic ideal of the human exterior was gradually forced into the background by that mundane ideal which owed its origin to the liberation movement of the towns, and whose elaboration was facilitated by memories of the antique she-devils. Even Belinsky – who toward the end of his literary career quite rightly affirmed that “pure, abstract, unconditional, or as the philosophers say, absolute, art never existed anywhere” – was nevertheless prepared to admit that “the productions of the Italian school of painting of the 16th century in some degree approximated to the ideal of absolute art,” since they were the creations of an epoch in which “art was the chief interest exclusively of the most educated part of society.”  He pointed, in illustration, to “Raphael’s ‘Madonna’, that chef-d’oeuvre of 16th-century Italian painting,” that is, the so-called Sistine Madonna which is now in the Dresden Gallery. But the Italian schools of the 16th century were the culmination of a long process of struggle of the mundane ideal against the Christian-monastic. And however exclusive may have been the interest in art of the highly educated section of 16th-century society , it is indisputable that Raphael’s Madonnas are one of the most typical artistic expressions of the victory of the mundane ideal over the Christian-monastic. This may be said without any exaggeration even of those which Raphael painted when he was still under the influence of his teacher Perugino, and whose faces seemingly reflect purely religious sentiments. But behind their religious exterior one discerns such a vitality and such a healthy joy in purely mundane living, that they no longer have anything in common with the pious Virgin Marys of the Byzantine masters. 
The productions of the Italian 16th-century masters were no more creations of “absolute art” than were those of all the earlier masters, beginning with Cimabue and Duccio di Buoninsegna. Indeed, such art had never existed anywhere. And if Turgenev referred to the Venus of Milo as a product of such art, it was because he, like all idealists, had a mistaken notion of the actual course of man’s aesthetic development.
The ideal of beauty prevailing at any time in any society or class of society is rooted partly in the biological conditions of mankind’s development – which, incidentally, also produce distinctive racial features – and partly in the historical conditions in which the given society or class arose and exists. It therefore always has a very rich content that is not absolute, not unconditional, but quite specific. He who worships “pure beauty” does not thereby become independent of the biological and historical social conditions which determine his aesthetic taste; he only more or less consciously closes his eyes to these conditions. This, incidentally, was the case with romanticists like Théophile Gautier. I have already said that his exclusive interest in the form of poetical productions stood in close causal relation with his social and political indifferentism.
This indifferentism enhanced the merit of his poetic work to the extent that it saved him from succumbing to bourgeois vulgarity, to bourgeois moderation and conformity. But it detracted from its merit to the extent that it narrowed Gautier’s outlook and prevented him from absorbing the progressive ideas of his time. Let us turn again to the already familiar preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, with its almost childishly petulant attacks on the defenders of the utilitarian view of art. In this preface, Gautier exclaims:
“My God, how stupid it is, this supposed faculty of mankind for self-perfection of which our ears are tired of hearing! One might think that the human machine is capable of improvement, and that, by adjusting a wheel or rearranging a counterpoise, we can make it perform its functions more effectively.” 
To prove that this is not so, Gautier cites Marshal de Bassompierre, who drank the health of his guns in a bootful of wine. He observes that it would be just as difficult to perfect the marshal in the matter of drinking as it would be for the man of today to surpass, in the matter of eating, Milo of Crotona, who devoured a whole bull at one sitting.  These remarks, which are quite true in themselves, are eminently characteristic of the theory of art for art’s sake in the form in which it was professed by the consistent romanticists.
Who was it, one asks, that tired Gautier’s ears with the assertion that mankind is capable of self-perfection? The Socialists – more precisely, the Saint-Simonists, who had been very popular in France not long before Mademoiselle de Maupin appeared. It was against the Saint-Simonists that he directed the remarks, quite true in themselves, about the difficulty of excelling Marshal de Bassompierre in winebibbing and Milo of Crotona in gluttony. But these remarks, although quite true in themselves, are entirely inappropriate when directed against the Saint-Simonists. The self-perfection of mankind which they were referring to had nothing to do with enlarging the capacity of the stomach. What the Saint-Simonists had in mind was improvement of the social organisation in the interest of the most numerous section of the population, that is, the working people, the producing section. To call this aim stupid, and to ask whether it would have the effect of increasing man’s capacity to over-indulge in wine and meat, was to betray the very bourgeois narrow-mindedness which was such a thorn in the flesh to the young romanticists. What was the reason for this? How could the bourgeois narrow-mindedness have crept into the reflections of a writer who saw the whole meaning of his existence in combating it tooth and nail?
I have already answered this question several times, although in passing, and, as the Germans say, in another connection. I answered it by comparing the romanticists’ attitude of mind with that of David and his friends. I said that, although the romanticists revolted against bourgeois tastes and habits, they had no objection to the bourgeois social system. We must now examine this point more thoroughly.
Some of the romanticists – George Sand, for example, at the time of her intimacy with Pierre Leroux – were sympathetic to socialism. But they were exceptions. The general rule was that the romanticists, although they revolted against bourgeois vulgarity, had a deep dislike for socialist systems, which called for social reform. The romanticists wanted to change social moeurs without in any way changing the social system. This, needless to say, was quite impossible. Consequently, the romanticists’ revolt against the “bourgeois” had just as little practical consequence as the contempt of the Gottingen or Jena fuchses for the philistines. From the practical aspect, the romanticist revolt against the “bourgeois” was absolutely fruitless. But its practical fruitlessness had literary consequences of no little importance. It imparted to the romantic heroes that stilted and affected character which in the end led to the collapse of the school. Stilted and affected heroes cannot be considered a merit in an artistic work, and we must now therefore accompany the aforesaid good mark with a bad mark: while the artistic productions of the romanticists gained considerably from their authors’ revolt against the “bourgeois,” they lost no little from the fact that the revolt had no practical meaning.
The early French realists strove to eliminate the chief defect of romanticist productions, namely, the affected, stilted character of their heroes. There is not a trace of the romanticist affectedness and stiltedness in the novels of Flaubert (with the exception, perhaps, of Salambo and Les Contes). The early realists continued to revolt against the “bourgeois,” but did so in a different manner. They did not set up in contrast to the bourgeois vulgarians heroes who had no counterpart in reality, but rather sought to make the vulgarians the object of faithful artistic representation. Flaubert considered it his duty to be as objective in his attitude to the social environment he described as the natural scientist is in his attitude to nature. “One must treat people as one does the mastodon or the crocodile,” he said. “Why be vexed because some have horns and others jaws? Show them as they are, make stuffed models of them, put them into spirit jars. But don’t pass moral judgement on them. And who are you yourselves, you little toads?” And to the extent that Flaubert succeeded in being objective, to that extent the characters he drew in his works acquired the significance of “documents” the study of which is absolutely essential for all who engage in a scientific investigation of social psychology. Objectivity was a powerful feature of his method; but while he was objective in the process of artistic creation, Flaubert never ceased to be deeply subjective in his appraisal of contemporary social movements. With him, as with Théophile Gautier, harsh contempt for the “bourgeois” went hand in hand with a strong dislike for all who in one way or other militated against the bourgeois social relationships. With him, in fact, the dislike was even stronger. He was an inveterate opponent of universal suffrage, which he called a “disgrace to the human mind.” “Under universal suffrage,” he said in a letter to George Sand, “number outweighs mind, education, race, and even money, which is worth more than number (argent... vaut mieux que le nombre).” He says in another letter that universal suffrage is more stupid than the right of divine mercy. He conceived socialist society as “a great monster which would swallow up all individual action, all personality, all thought, which would direct everything and do everything.” We thus see that in his disapproval of democracy and socialism, this hater of the “bourgeois” was fully at one with the most narrow-minded ideologists of the bourgeoisie. And this same trait is to be observed in all his contemporaries who professed art for art’s sake. Baudelaire, having long forgotten his revolutionary Salut public, said in an essay on the life of Edgar Poe: “Among a people which has no aristocracy, the cult of the beautiful can only deteriorate, decline, and disappear.” He says in this same essay that there are only three worthy beings: “the priest, the soldier and the poet.” This is something more than conservatism; it is a definitely reactionary state of mind. Just as much a reactionary is Barbey d’Aurévilly. Speaking, in his book Les Poètes, of the poetic works of Laurent-Pichat, he says that he might have been a greater poet “if he had wished to trample upon atheism and democracy, those two dishonours (ces deux déshonneurs) of his thought.” 
Much water has flown under bridges since Théophile Gautier wrote his preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin. The Saint-Simonists, who supposedly tired his ears with talk about mankind’s faculty for self-perfection, had loudly proclaimed the necessity for social reform. But, like most utopian Socialists, they were resolute believers in peaceful social development, and were therefore no less resolute opponents of class struggle. Moreover, the utopian Socialists addressed themselves chiefly to the rich. They did not believe that the proletariat could act independently. But the events of 1848 showed that its independent action could be very formidable. After 1848, the question was no longer whether the rich would be willing to improve the lot of the poor, but, rather, who would gain the upper hand in the struggle between the rich and the poor? The relations between the classes of modern society had become greatly simplified. All the ideologists of the bourgeoisie now realised that the point at issue was whether it could succeed in holding the labouring masses in economic subjection. This realisation also penetrated to the minds of the advocates of art for the rich. One of the most remarkable of them in respect to his importance to science, Ernest Renan, demanded, in his Réforme intellectuelle et morale, a strong government “which would compel the good rustics to do our share of the work while we devoted ourselves to mental speculation” (“qui force de bons rustiques a faire notre part de travail pendant que nous speculons”). 
The fact that the bourgeois ideologists were now infinitely more cognisant of the import of the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat could not but exert a powerful influence on the nature of their “mental speculations.” Ecclesiastes put it excellently: “Surely oppression (of others) maketh a wise man mad.” Having discovered the secret of the struggle between their class and the proletariat, the bourgeois ideologists gradually lost the faculty for calm scientific investigation of social phenomena. And this greatly lowered the inherent value of their more or less scientific works. Whereas, formerly, bourgeois political economy was able to produce scientific giants like David Ricardo, now the tone among its exponents was set by such garrulous dwarfs as Frédéric Bastiat. Philosophy was increasingly invaded by idealist reaction, the essence of which was a conservative urge to reconcile the achievements of modern natural science with the old religious legends, or, to put it more accurately, to reconcile the chapel with the laboratory.  Nor did art escape the general fate. We shall see later to what utter absurdities some of the modern painters have been led under the influence of the present idealist reaction. For the present I shall say the following.
The conservative and, in part, even reactionary mentality of the early realists did not prevent them from making a thorough study of their environment and creating things of great artistic value. But there can be no doubt that it seriously narrowed their field of view. Turning their backs in hostility on the great liberation movement of their time, they excluded the most interesting specimens from the “mastodons” and “crocodiles” they observed, those which possessed the richest internal life. Their objective attitude to the environment they studied implied, in fact, a lack of sympathy with it. And, naturally, they could not sympathise with that which, owing to their conservatism, was alone accessible to their observation, namely, the “petty thoughts” and “petty passions” which bred in the “filthy slime” of commonplace middle-class existence. But this lack of sympathy with the objects they observed or imagined was bound pretty soon to lead, as it did lead, to a decline of interest. Naturalism, the first beginnings of which were laid by their splendid writings, soon landed, as Huysmans put it, “in a blind alley, in a blocked tunnel.” It was able, in Huysmans’ words, to make everything its theme, syphilis included.  But the modern working-class movement was beyond its scope. I have not forgotten, of course, that Zola wrote Germinal. But leaving aside the weak points of this novel, it must be remembered that, while Zola himself began, as he said, to incline towards socialism, his so-called experimental method was, and remained, ill-suited for a scientific study and description of great social movements. This method was intimately linked with the standpoint of that materialism which Marx called natural-scientific, and which fails to realise that the actions, inclinations, tastes and habits of mind of social man cannot be adequately explained by physiology or pathology, since they are determined by social relationships. Artists who remained faithful to this method could study and depict their “mastodons” and “crocodiles” as individuals, but not as members of a great whole. This Huysmans sensed when he said that naturalism had landed in a blind alley and had nothing left but to relate once more the love affair of the first chance wine-merchant with the first chance grocery woman.  Stories of such relationships could be of interest only if they shed light on some aspect of social relationships, as Russian realism did. But social interest was lacking in the French realists. The result was that, in the end, the relation of “the love affair of the first chance wine-merchant with the first chance grocery woman” became uninteresting, boring, even revolting. Huysmans himself in his first productions – in the novel, Les Soeurs Vatard for instance – had been a pure naturalist. But growing tired of depicting “the seven mortal sins” (his own words again), he abandoned naturalism, and, as the German saying goes, threw out the baby with the bath water. In A rebours – a strange novel, in places extremely tedious, but, because of its very defects, highly instructive – he depicted – or, better, as they used to say of old, created – in the person of Des Esseintes a sort of superman (a member of the degenerate aristocracy), whose whole manner of life was intended to represent a complete negation of the life of the “wine-merchant” and the “grocery woman.” The invention of such types was once more confirmation of Leconte de Lisle’s idea that where there is no real life it is the task of poetry to provide an ideal life. But the ideal life of Des Esseintes was so entirely bereft of human content that its creation offered no way out of the blind alley. So Huysmans betook himself to mysticism, which served as an “ideal” escape from a situation from which there was no “real” escape. This was perfectly natural in the given circumstances. But see what we get.
An artist who turns mystic does not ignore idea content; he only lends it a peculiar character. Mysticism is itself an idea, but an idea which is as obscure and formless as fog, and which is at mortal enmity with reason. The mystic is quite willing to say something and even prove something. But he tells of things that are “not of this world,” and he bases his proofs on a negation of common sense. Huysmans’ case again shows that there can be no artistic production without idea content. But when artists become blind to the major social trends of their time, the inherent value of the ideas they express in their works is seriously impaired. And their works inevitably suffer in consequence.
This fact is so important in the history of art and literature that we must thoroughly examine it from various angles. But before doing so, let us sum up the conclusions to which we have been led so far by our inquiry.
The belief in art for art’s sake arises and takes root wherever people engaged in art are hopelessly out of harmony with their social environment. This disharmony reflects favourably on artistic production to the extent that it helps the artists to rise above their environment. Such was the case with Pushkin in the period of Nicholas I. It was also the case with the romanticists, the Parnassians and the early realists in France. By multiplying examples, it might be shown that this has always been the case wherever such a disharmony existed. But while revolting against the vulgarity of their social environment, the romanticists, the Parnassians and the realists had no objection to the social relationships in which this vulgarity was rooted. On the contrary, although they cursed the “bourgeois,” they treasured the bourgeois system – first instinctively, then quite consciously. And the stronger the movement for liberation from the bourgeois system became in modern Europe, the more conscious was the attachment of the French believers in art for art’s sake to this system. And the more conscious their attachment to this system became, the less were they able to remain indifferent to the idea content of their productions. But because of their blindness to the new trend which aimed at the complete remaking of social life, their views were mistaken, narrow and one-sided, and detracted from the quality of the ideas they expressed in their works. The natural result was that French realism landed in a hopeless quandary, which engendered decadent proclivities and mystical tendencies in writers who had themselves at one time belonged to the realistic (naturalistic) school.
This conclusion will be submitted to detailed verification in the next article. It is now time to close. I shall only, before doing so, say another word or two about Pushkin.
When his poet abuses the “rabble,” we hear much anger in his words but no vulgarity, whatever Pisarev may have said on the point. The poet accuses the aristocratic crowd – precisely the aristocratic crowd, and not the real people who at that time were entirely outside the purview of Russian literature – of setting higher store on a cooking pot than on Apollo Belvedere. This only means that their narrow practical spirit is intolerable to him. Nothing more. His resolute refusal to instruct the crowd only testifies that in his opinion they were entirely beyond redemption. But in this opinion there is not the slightest tinge of reaction. That is where Pushkin is immensely superior to believers in art for art’s sake like Gautier. This superiority is conditional. Pushkin did not jeer at the Saint-Simonists. But he probably never heard of them. He was an honest and generous soul. But this honest and generous soul had absorbed certain class prejudices from childhood. Abolition of the exploitation of one class by another must have seemed to him an impracticable and even ridiculous utopia. If he had heard of any practical plans for its abolition, and especially if these plans had caused such a stir in Russia as the Saint-Simonian plans had in France, he probably would have campaigned against them in violent polemical articles and sarcastic epigrams. Some of his remarks in the article, ‘Thoughts on the Road’, concerning the superior position of the Russian peasant serf compared with that of the West European worker lead one to think that in this case Pushkin, who was a man of sagacity, might have argued almost as unintelligently as Gautier, who was infinitely less sagacious. He was saved from this possible weakness by Russia’s economic backwardness.
This is an old, but eternally new story. When a class lives by exploiting another class which is below it in the economic scale, and when it has attained full mastery in society, from then on its forward movement is a downward movement. Therein lies the explanation of the fact, which at a first glance seems incomprehensible and even incredible, that the ideology of the ruling classes in economically backward countries is often far superior to that of the ruling classes in advanced countries.
Russia, too, has now reached that level of economic development at which believers in the theory of art for art’s sake become conscious defenders of a social order based on the exploitation of one class by another. In our country too, therefore, a great deal of social-reactionary nonsense is now being uttered in support of the “absolute autonomy of art.” But this was not yet so in Pushkin’s time. And that was his supreme good fortune.