Art and Social Life by G. V. Plekhanov 1912

Art and social life [1][2]


The relation of art to social life is a question that has always figured largely in all literatures that have reached a definite stage of development. Most often, the question has been answered in one of two directly opposite senses.

Some say: man is not made for the sabbath, but the sabbath for man; society is not made for the artist, but the artist for society. The function of art is to assist the development of man’s consciousness, to improve the social system.

Others emphatically reject this view. In their opinion, art is an aim in itself; to, convert it into a means of achieving any extraneous aim, even the most noble, is to lower the dignity of a work of art.

The first of these two views was vividly reflected in our progressive literature of the sixties. To say nothing of Pisarev, whose extreme one-sidedness almost turned it into a caricature, [3] one might mention Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov as the most thorough-going advocates of this view in the critical literature of the time. Chernyshevsky wrote in one of his earliest critical articles:

“The idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ is as strange in our times as ‘wealth for wealth’s sake’, ‘science for science’s sake’, and so forth. All human activities must serve mankind if they are not to remain useless and idle occupations. Wealth exists in order that man may benefit by it; science exists in order to be man’s guide; art, too, must serve some useful purpose and not fruitless pleasure.” In Chernyshevsky’s opinion, the value of the arts, and especially of “the most serious of them,” poetry, is determined by the sum of knowledge they disseminate in society. He says: “Art, or it would be better to say poetry (only poetry, for the other arts do very little in this respect), spreads among the mass of the reading public an enormous amount of knowledge and, what is still more important, familiarises them with the concepts worked out by science – such is poetry’s great purpose in life.” [4] The same idea is expressed in his celebrated dissertation, The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality. According to its 17th thesis, art not only reproduces life but explains it: its productions very often “have the purpose of pronouncing judgement on the phenomena of life.”

In the opinion of Chernyshevsky and his disciple, Dobrolyubov, the function of art was, indeed, to reproduce life and to pass judgement on its phenomena. [5] And this was not only the opinion of literary critics and theoreticians of art. It was not fortuitous that Nekrasov called his muse the muse of “vengeance and grief.” In one of his poems the Citizen says to the Poet:

Thou poet by the heavens blessed,
Their chosen herald! It is wrong
That the deprived and dispossessed
Are deaf to your inspired song.

Believe, men have not fallen wholly,
God lives yet in the heart of each
And still, though painfully and slowly,
The voice of faith their souls may reach.

Be thou a citizen, serve art.
And for thy fellow-beings live,
To them, to them thy loving heart
And all thy inspiration give. [6]

In these words the Citizen Nekrasov sets forth his own understanding of the function of art. It was in exactly the same way that the function of art was understood at that time by the most outstanding representatives of the plastic arts – painting, for example. Perov and Kramskoi, like Nekrasov, strove to be “citizens” in serving art; their works, like his, passed “judgements on the phenomena of life.” [7]

The opposite view of the function of creative art had a powerful defender in Pushkin, the Pushkin of the time of Nicholas I. Everybody, of course, is familiar with such of his poems as The Rabble and To the Poet. The people plead with the poet to compose songs that would improve social morals, but meet with a contemptuous, one might say rude, rebuff:

Begone, ye pharisees! What cares
The peaceful poet for your fate?
Go, boldly steep yourselves in sin:
With you the lyre will bear no weight.

Upon your deeds I turn my back.
The whip, the dungeon and the rack
Till now you suffered as the price
For your stupidity and vice
And, servile madmen, ever shall!

Pushkin set forth his view of the mission of the poet in the much-quoted words:

No, not for worldly agitation,
Nor worldly greed, nor worldly strife,
But for sweet song, for inspiration,
For prayer the poet comes to life. [8]

Here the so-called theory of art for art’s sake is formulated in the most striking manner. It was not without reason that Pushkin was cited so readily and so often by the opponents of the literary movement of the sixties [9].

Which of these two directly opposite views of the function of art is to be considered correct?

In undertaking to answer this question, it must first be observed that it is badly formulated. Like all questions of a similar nature, it cannot be approached from the standpoint of “duty.” If the artists of a given country at one period shun “worldly agitation and strife,” and, at another, long for strife and the agitation that necessarily goes with it, this is not because somebody prescribes for them different “duties” at different periods, but because in certain social conditions they are dominated by one attitude of mind, and by another attitude of mind in other social conditions. Hence, if we are to approach the subject correctly, we must look at it not from the standpoint of what ought to be, but of what actually is and has been. We shall therefore formulate the question as follows:

What are the most important social conditions in which artists and people keenly interested in art conceive and become possessed by the belief in art for art’s sake?

As we approach the answer to this question, it will not be difficult to answer another, one closely connected with it and no less interesting, namely:

What are the most important social conditions in which artists and people keenly interested in art conceive and become possessed by the so-called utilitarian view of art, that is, the tendency to attach to artistic productions the significance of “judgements on the phenomena of life"?

The first of these two questions impels us once again to recall Pushkin.

There was a time when he did not believe in the theory of art for art’s sake. There was a time when he did not avoid strife, in fact, was eager for it. This was in the period of Alexander I. At that time he did not think that the “people” should be content with the whip, dungeon and rack. On the contrary, in the ode called Freedom, he exclaimed with indignation:

Unhappy nation! Everywhere
Men suffer under whips and chains,
And over all injustice reigns,
And haughty peers abuse their power
And sombre prejudice prevails.

But then his attitude of mind radically changed. In the days of Nicholas I he espoused the theory of art for art’s sake. What was the reason for this fundamental change of attitude?

The reign of Nicholas I opened with the catastrophe of December 14 [10], which was to exert an immense influence both on the subsequent development of our “society” and on the fate of Pushkin personally. With the suppression of the “Decembrists,” the most educated and advanced representatives of the “society” of that time passed from the scene. This could not but considerably lower its moral and intellectual level. “Young as I was,” Herzen says, “I remember how markedly high society declined and became more sordid and servile with the ascension of Nicholas to the throne. The independence of the aristocracy and the dashing spirit of the Guards characteristic of Alexander’s time – all this disappeared in 1826.” It was distressing for a sensitive and intelligent person to live in such a society. “Deadness and silence all around,” Herzen wrote in another article: “All were submissive, inhuman and hopeless, and moreover extremely shallow, stupid and petty. He who sought for sympathy encountered a look of fright or the forbidding stare of the lackey; he was shunned or insulted.” In Pushkin’s letters of the time when his poems The Rabble and To the Poet were written, we find him constantly complaining of the tedium and shallowness of both our capitals. [11] But it was not only from the shallowness of the society around him that he suffered. His relations with the “ruling spheres” were also a source of grievous vexation.

According to the touching and very widespread legend, in 1826 Nicholas I graciously “forgave” Pushkin the political “errors of his youth,” and even became his magnanimous patron. But this is far from the truth. Nicholas and his right-hand man in affairs of this kind, Chief of Police Benkendorf, “forgave” Pushkin nothing, and their “patronage” took the form of a long series of intolerable humiliations. Benkendorf reported to Nicholas in 1827: “After his interview with me, Pushkin spoke enthusiastically of Your Majesty in the English Club, and compelled his fellow diners to drink Your Majesty’s health. He is a regular ne’er-do-well, but if we succeed in directing his pen and his tongue, it will be a good thing.” The last words in this quotation reveal the secret of the “patronage” accorded to Pushkin. They wanted to make him a minstrel of the existing order of things. Nicholas I and Benkendorf had made it their aim to direct Pushkin’s unruly muse into the channels of official morality. When, after Pushkin’s death, Field Marshal Paskevich wrote to Nicholas: “I am sorry for Pushkin as a writer,” the latter replied: “I fully share your opinion, but in all fairness it may be said that in him one mourns the future, not the past.” [12] This means that the never-to-be-forgotten emperor prized the dead poet not for the great things he had written in his short lifetime, but for what he might have written under proper police supervision and guidance. Nicholas had expected him to write “patriotic” works like Kukolnik’s play The Hand of the All-Highest Saved Our Fatherland. Even so unworldly a poet as V. A. Zhukovsky, who was withal a very good courtier, tried to make him listen to reason and inspire him with respect for conventional morals. In a letter to him dated April 12, 1826, he wrote: “Our adolescents (that is, all the ripening generation), poorly educated as they are, and therefore with nothing to buttress them in life, have become acquainted with your unruly thoughts clothed in the charm of poetry; you have already done much harm, incurable harm. This should cause you to tremble. Talent is nothing. The chief thing is moral grandeur...” [13] You will agree that, being in such a situation, wearing the chains of such tutelage, and having to listen to such instruction, it is quite excusable that he conceived a hatred for “moral grandeur,” came to loathe the “benefits” which art might confer, and cried to his counsellors and patrons:

Begone, ye pharisees! What cares
The peaceful poet for your fate?

In other words, being in such a situation, it was quite natural that Pushkin became a believer in art for art’s sake and said to the Poet, in his own person:

You are a king, alone and free to go
Wherever your unfettered mind may lead,
Perfecting, fostering the children of your muse,
Demanding no reward for noble deed. [14]

Pisarev would have taken issue with me and said that Pushkin the poet addressed these vehement words not to his patrons, but to the “people.” But the real people never came within the purview of the writers of that time. With Pushkin, the word “people” had the same meaning as the word which is often to be found in his poems: “crowd.” And this latter word, of course, does not refer to the labouring masses. In his Gypsies Pushkin describes the inhabitants of the stifling cities as follows:

Of love ashamed, of thought afraid,
Foul prejudices rule their brains.
Their liberty they gladly trade
For money to procure them chains.

It is hard to believe that this description refers, say, to the urban artisans.

If all this is true, then the following conclusion suggests itself:

The belief in art for art’s sake arises wherever the artist is at odds with his social environment.

It might be said, of course, that the example of Pushkin is not sufficient to justify such a conclusion. I will not controvert or gainsay this. I will give other examples, this time borrowed from the history of French literature, that is, the literature of a country whose intellectual trends – at least down to the middle of the last century – met with the broadest sympathy throughout the European continent.

Pushkin’s contemporaries, the French romanticists, were also, with few exceptions, ardent believers in art for art’s sake. Perhaps the most consistent of them, Théophile Gautier, abused the defenders of the utilitarian view of art in the following terms:

“No, you fools, no, you goitrous cretins, a book cannot be turned into gelatine soup, nor a novel into a pair of seamless boots... By the intestines of all the Popes, future, past and present: No, and a thousand times no!... I am one of those who consider the superfluous essential; my love of things and people is in inverse proportion to the services they may render.” [15]

In a biographical note on Baudelaire, this same Gautier highly praised the author of the Fleurs du mal for having upheld “the absolute autonomy of art and for not admitting that poetry had any aim but itself, or any mission but to excite in the soul of the reader the sensation of beauty, in the absolute sense of the term” (“l’autonomie absolue de l’art et qu’il n’admettait pas que la poésie eût d’autre but qu’elle même et d’autre mission à remplir que d’exciter dans l’âme du lecteur la sensation du beau; dans le sens absolu du terme”).

How little the “idea of beauty” could associate in Gautier’s mind with social and political ideas, may be seen from the following statement of his:

“I would very gladly (très joyeusement) renounce my rights as a Frenchman and citizen for the sake of seeing a genuine Raphael or a beautiful woman in the nude.”

That, surely, is the limit. Yet all the Parnassians (les parnassiens) [16] would probably have agreed with Gautier, though some of them may have had certain reservations concerning the too paradoxical form in which he, especially in his youth, expressed the demand for the “absolute autonomy of art.”

What was the reason for this attitude of mind of the French romanticists and Parnassians? Were they also at odds with their social environment?

In an article Théophile Gautier wrote in 1857 on the revival by the Théâtre Français of Alfred de Vigny’s play Chatterton, he recalled its first performance on February 12, 1835. This is what he said:

“The parterre before which Chatterton declaimed was filled with pallid, long-haired youths, who firmly believed that there was no dignified occupation save writing poems or painting pictures... and who looked on the ‘bourgeois’ with a contempt hardly equalled by that which the fuchses [17] of Heidelberg and Jena entertain for the philistine.” [18]

Who were these contemptible “bourgeois"?

“They included,” Gautier says, “nearly everybody – bankers, brokers, lawyers, merchants, shopkeepers, etc. – in a word, everyone who did not belong to the mystical cénacle [that is, the romanticist circle. – G.P.] and who earned their living by prosaic occupations.” [19]

And here is further evidence. In a comment to one of his Odes funambulesques, Theodore de Banville admits that he too had been afflicted with this hatred of the “bourgeois.” And he too explains who was meant by the term. In the language of the romanticists, the word “bourgeois” meant “a man whose only god was the five-franc piece, who had no ideal but saving his own skin, and who, in poetry, loved sentimental romance, and in the plastic arts, lithography.” [20]

Recalling this, de Banville begs his reader not to be surprised that his Odes funambulesques – which, mark, appeared towards the very end of the romantic period – treated people as unmitigated scoundrels only because they led a bourgeois mode of life and did not worship romantic geniuses.

These illustrations are fairly convincing evidence that the romanticists really were at odds with their bourgeois social environment. True, there was nothing dangerous in this to the bourgeois social relationships. The romanticist circles consisted of young bourgeois who had no objection to these relationships, but were revolted by the sordidness, the tedium and the vulgarity of bourgeois existence. The new art with which they were so strongly infatuated was for them a refuge from this sordidness, tedium and vulgarity. In the latter years of the Restoration [21] and in the first half of the reign of Louis Philippe, that is, in the best period of romanticism, it was the more difficult for the French youth to accustom themselves to the sordid, prosaic and tedious life of the bourgeoisie, as not long before that France had lived through the terrible storms of the Great Revolution and the Napoleonic era, which had deeply stirred all human passions. [22] When the bourgeoisie assumed the predominant position in society, and when its life was no longer warmed by the fire of the struggle for liberty, nothing was left for the new art but to idealise negation of the bourgeois mode of life. Romantic art was indeed such an idealisation. The romanticists strove to express their negation of bourgeois “moderation and conformity” not only in their artistic works, but even in their own external appearance. We have already heard from Gautier that the young men who filled the parterre at the first performance of Chatterton wore long hair. Who has not heard of Gautier’s own red waistcoat, which made “decent people” shiver with horror? For the young romanticists, fantastic costume, like long hair, was a means of drawing a line between themselves and the detested bourgeois. The pale face was a similar means: it was, so to speak, a protest against bourgeois satiety.

Gautier says: “In those days it was the prevailing fashion in the romantic school to have as pallid a complexion as possible, even greenish, almost cadaverous. This lent a man a fateful, Byronic appearance, testified that he was devoured by passions and remorse. It made him look interesting in the eyes of women.” [23] Gautier also tells us that the romanticists found it hard to forgive Victor Hugo his respectable appearance, and in private conversation often deplored this weakness of the great poet, “which made him kin with mankind, and even with the bourgeoisie.” [24] It should be observed, in general, that the effort to assume a definite outward appearance always reflects the social relationships of the given period. An interesting sociological inquiry could be written on this theme.

This being the attitude of the young romanticists to the bourgeoisie, it was only natural that they were revolted by the idea of “useful art.” In their eyes, to make art useful was tantamount to making it serve the bourgeoisie whom they despised so profoundly. This explains Gautier’s vehement sallies against the preachers of useful art, which I have just cited, whom he calls “fools, goitrous cretins” and so on. It also explains the paradox that in his eyes the value of persons and things is in inverse proportion to the service they render. Essentially, all these sallies and paradoxes are a complete counterpart of Pushkin’s:

Begone, ye pharisees! What cares
The peaceful poet for your fate?

The Parnassians, and the early French realists (the Goncourt brothers, Flaubert, etc.) likewise entertained an infinite contempt for the bourgeois society around them. They, too, were untiring in their abuse of the detested “bourgeois.” If they printed their writings, it was not, they averred, for the benefit of the general reading public, but for a chosen few, “pour les amis inconnus” [25], as Flaubert puts it in one of his letters. They maintained that only a writer who was devoid of serious talent could find favour with a wide circle of readers. Leconte de Lisle held that the popularity of a writer was proof of his intellectual inferiority (signe d’infériorité intellectuelle). It need scarcely be added that the Parnassians, like the romanticists, were staunch believers in the theory of art for art’s sake.

Many similar examples might be given. But it is quite unnecessary. It is already sufficiently clear that the belief in art for art’s sake naturally arises among artists wherever they are at odds with the society around them. But it would not be amiss to define this disharmony more precisely.

At the close of the 18th century, in the period immediately preceding the Great Revolution, the progressive artists of France were likewise at odds with the prevailing “society” of the time. David and his friends were foes of the “old order.” And this disharmony was of course hopeless, because reconciliation between them and the old order was quite impossible. More, the disharmony between David and his friends and the old order was incomparably deeper than the disharmony between the romanticists and bourgeois society: whereas David and his friends desired the abolition of the old order, Théophile Gautier and his colleagues, as I have repeatedly said, had no objection to the bourgeois social relationships; all they wanted was that the bourgeois system should cease producing vulgar bourgeois habits. [26]

But in revolting against the old order, David and his friends were well aware that behind them marched the serried columns of the third estate, which was soon, in the well-known words of Abbé Sieyès, to become everything. With them, consequently, the feeling of disharmony with the prevailing order was supplemented by a feeling of sympathy with the new society which had matured within the womb of the old and was preparing to replace it. But with the romanticists and the Parnassians we find nothing of the kind: they neither expected nor desired a change in the social system of the France of their time. That is why their disharmony with the society around them was quite hopeless. [27] Nor did our Pushkin expect any change in the Russia of his time. And in the period of Nicholas, moreover, it is probable that he no longer wished for any change. That is why his view of social life was similarly tinged with pessimism.

Now, I think, I can amplify my former conclusion and say:

The belief in art for art’s sake arises when artists and people keenly interested in art are hopelessly at odds with their social environment.

But this is not the whole matter. The example of our “men of the sixties,” who firmly believed in the early triumph of reason, and that of David and his friends, who held this belief no less firmly, show that the so-called utilitarian view of art, that is, the tendency to impart to its productions the significance of judgements on the phenomena of life, and the joyful eagerness, which always accompanies it, to take part in social strife, arises and spreads wherever there is mutual sympathy between a considerable section of society and people who have a more or less active interest in creative art.

How far this is true, is definitely shown by the following fact.

When the refreshing storm of the February Revolution of 1848 broke, many of the French artists who had believed in the theory of art for art’s sake emphatically rejected it. Even Baudelaire, who was subsequently cited by Gautier as the model example of an artist who believed staunchly that art must be absolutely autonomous, began at once to put out a revolutionary journal, Le salut public. True, its publication was soon discontinued, but as late as 1852 Baudelaire, in his foreword to Pierre Dupont’s Chansons, called the theory of art for art’s sake infantile (puérile), and declared that art must have a social purpose. Only the triumph of the counter-revolution induced Baudelaire and artists of a similar trend of mind to revert once and for all to the “infantile” theory of art for art’s sake. One of the future luminaries of “Parnassus,” Leconte de Lisle, brought out the psychological significance of this reversion very distinctly in the preface to his Poèmes antiques, the first edition of which appeared in 1852. He said that poetry would no longer stimulate heroic actions or inculcate social virtues, because now, as in all periods of literary decadence, its sacred language could express only petty personal emotions (mesquines impressions personnelles) and was no longer capable of instructing (n’est plus apte à enseigner l’homme). [28] Addressing the poets, Leconte de Lisle said that the human race, whose teachers they had once been, had now outgrown them. [29] Now, in the words of the future Parnassian, the task of poetry was “to give an ideal life” to those who had no “real life” (donner la vie idéale a celui qui n’a pas la vie réelle). [30] These profound words disclose the whole psychological secret of the belief in art for art’s sake. We shall have many an occasion to revert to Leconte de Lisle’s preface from which I have just quoted.

To conclude with this side of the question, I would say in addition, that political authority always prefers the utilitarian view of art, to the extent, of course, that it pays any attention to art at all. And this is understandable: it is to its interest to harness all ideologies to the service of the cause which it serves itself. And since political authority, although sometimes revolutionary, is most often conservative and even reactionary, it would clearly be wrong to think that the utilitarian view of art is shared principally by revolutionaries, or by people of advanced mind generally. The history of Russian literature shows very clearly that it has not been shunned even by our “protectors.” Here are some examples. The first three parts of V. T. Narezhny’s novel, A Russian Gil Blas, or the Adventures of Count Gavrila Simonovich Chistyakov, were published in 1814. The book was at once banned at the instance of the Minister of Public Education, Count Razumovsky, who took the occasion to express the following opinion on the relation of literature to life:

“All too often authors of novels, although apparently campaigning against vice, paint it in such colours or describe it in such detail as to lure young people into vices which it would have been better not to mention at all. Whatever the literary merit of a novel may be, its publication can be sanctioned only when it has a truly moral purpose.”

As we see, Razumovsky believed that art cannot be an aim in itself.

Art was regarded in exactly the same way by those servitors of Nicholas I who, by virtue of their official position, were obliged to have some opinion on the subject. You will remember that Benkendorf tried to direct Pushkin into the path of virtue. Nor was Ostrovsky denied the solicitous attention of authority. When, in March 1850, his comedy The Bankrupt was published and certain enlightened lovers of literature – and trade – expressed the fear that it might offend the merchant class, the then Minister of Public Education (Count Shirinsky-Shikhmatov) ordered the guardian of the Moscow Educational Area to invite the young dramatist to come and see him, and “make him understand that the noble and useful purpose of talent consists not only in the lively depiction of what is ludicrous or evil, but in justly condemning it; not only in caricature, but in inculcating lofty moral sentiments; consequently, in offsetting vice with virtue, the ridiculous and criminal with thoughts and actions that elevate the soul; lastly, in strengthening the faith, which is so important to social and private life, that evil deeds meet with fitting retribution already here on earth.”

Tsar Nicholas I himself looked upon art chiefly from the “moral” standpoint. As we know, he shared Benkendorf’s opinion that it would be a good thing to tame Pushkin. He said of Ostrovsky’s play, Shouldering Another’s Troubles, written at the time when Ostrovsky had fallen under the influence of the Slavophiles [31] and was fond of saying at convivial banquets that, with the help of some of his friends, he would “undo all the work” of Peter [32] – of this play, which in a certain sense was distinctly didactic, Nicholas I said with praise: “Ce n’est pas une pièce, c’est une leçon.” [33] Not to multiply examples, I shall confine myself to the two following facts. When N. Polevoi’s Moskovsky Telegraf [34] printed an unfavourable review of Kukolnik’s “patriotic” play, The Hand of the All-Highest Saved Our Fatherland, the journal became anathema in the eyes of Nicholas’s ministers and was banned. But when Polevoi himself wrote patriotic plays – Grandad of the Russian Navy and Igolkin the Merchant – the tsar, Polevoi’s brother relates, was delighted with his dramatic talent. “The author is unusually gifted,” he said. “He should write, write and write. Yes write (he smiled), not publish magazines.” [35]

And don’t think the Russian rulers were an exception in this respect. No, so typical an exponent of absolutism as Louis XIV of France was no less firmly convinced that art could not be an aim in itself, but must be an instrument of moral education. And all the literature and all the art of the celebrated era of Louis XIV was permeated through and through with this conviction. Napoleon I would similarly have looked upon the theory of art for art’s sake as a pernicious invention of loathsome “ideologists.” He, too, wanted literature and art to serve moral purposes. And in this he largely succeeded, as witnessed for example by the fact that most of the pictures in the periodical exhibitions (Salons) of the time were devoted to the warlike feats of the Consulate and the Empire. His little nephew, Napoleon III, followed in his footsteps, though with far less success. He, too, tried to make art and literature serve what he called morality. In November 1852, Professor Laprade of Lyons scathingly ridiculed this Bonapartist penchant for didactic art in a satire called Les muses d’Etat. He predicted that the time would soon come when the state muses would place human reason under military discipline; then order would reign and not a single writer would dare to express the slightest dissatisfaction.

Il faut être content, s’il pleut, s’il fait soleil,
S’il fait chaud, s’il fait froid: “Ayez le teint vermeil,
Je déteste les gens maigres, à face pâle;
Celui qui ne rit pas mérite qu’on l’empale,” etc. [36]

I shall remark in passing that for this witty satire Laprade was deprived of his professorial post. The government of Napoleon III could not tolerate jibes at the “state muses.”