Art and Social Life by G. V. Plekhanov 1912


I have already said that there is no such thing as a work of art which is entirely devoid of ideas. And I added that not every idea can serve as the foundation of a work of art. An artist can be really inspired only by what is capable of facilitating intercourse among men. The possible limits of such intercourse are not determined by the artist, but by the level of culture attained by the social entity to which he belongs. But in a society divided into classes, they are also determined by the mutual relations of these classes and, moreover, by the phase of development in which each of them happens to be at the time. When the bourgeoisie was still striving to throw off the aegis of the lay and clerical aristocracy, that is, when it was itself a revolutionary class, it was the leader of all the working masses, and together with them constituted a single “third” estate. And at that time the foremost ideologists of the bourgeoisie were also the foremost ideologists of “the whole nation, with the exception of the privileged.” In other words, at that time the limits of that intercourse of which artistic production that adhered to the bourgeois standpoint served as the medium, were relatively very wide. But when the interests of the bourgeoisie ceased to be the interests of all the labouring masses, and especially when they came into conflict with the interests of the proletariat, then the limits of this intercourse considerably contracted. If Ruskin said that a miser cannot sing of his lost money, now a time has come when the mental attitude of the bourgeoisie begins to approximate to that of a miser mourning over his treasure. The only difference is that the miser mourns over something already lost, while the bourgeoisie loses its equanimity at the thought of the loss that menaces it in the future. “Oppression (of others) maketh a wise man mad,” I would say in the words of Ecclesiastes. And a wise man (even a wise man!) may be affected in the same pernicious way by the fear that he may lose the possibility of oppressing others. The ideology of a ruling class loses its inherent value as that class ripens for doom. The art engendered by its emotional experience falls into decay. The purpose of this article is to supplement what was said in the previous article with an examination of some of the most vivid symptoms of the present decay of bourgeois art.

We have seen the reason for the mystical trend in contemporary French literature. It is due to the realisation of the impossibility of form without content, that is, without idea, coupled with an inability to rise to an understanding of the great emancipatory ideas of our time. This realisation and this inability have led to many other consequences which, no less than mysticism, lower the inherent value of artistic productions.

Mysticism is implacably hostile to reason. But it is not only he who succumbs to mysticism that is at enmity with reason; so is he who, from one cause or another and in one way or another, defends a false idea. And when a false idea is made the basis of an artistic work, it imparts to it inherent contradictions that inevitably detract from its aesthetic merit.

I have already had occasion to refer to Knut Hamsun’s play, The Gate of the Kingdom, as an example of an artistic work that suffers from the falsity of its basic idea. [50]

The reader will forgive me if I refer to it again.

The hero of this play is Ivar Kareno, a young writer who, if not talented, is at any rate preposterously self-conceited. He calls himself a man “whose thoughts are as free as a bird.” And what does this thinker who is as free as a bird write about? About “resistance,” and about “hate.” And who, in his opinion, must be resisted, and who hated? It is the proletariat, he advises, that must be resisted, and the proletariat that must be hated. This, surely, is a hero of the very latest type. So far we have met very few – not to say none at all – of his kind in literature. But a man who preaches resistance to the proletariat is a most unquestionable ideologist of the bourgeoisie. The ideologist of the bourgeoisie named Ivar Kareno seems in his own eyes and in those of his creator, Knut Hamsun, a revolutionary of the first order. We have learned from the example of the early French romanticists that there are “revolutionary” attitudes of mind whose chief distinguishing feature is conservatism. Théophile Gautier hated the “bourgeois,” yet he fulminated against people who affirmed that the time had come to abolish the bourgeois social relationships. Ivar Kareno, evidently, is a spiritual descendant of the famous French romanticist. But the descendant goes much further than his ancestor. He is consciously hostile to that for which his ancestor felt only an instinctive dislike. [51]

If the romanticists were conservatives, Ivar Kareno is a reactionary of the purest water. And, moreover, a utopian of the type of Shchedrin’s wild landlord. [52] He wants to exterminate the proletariat, just as the latter wanted to exterminate the muzhik. This utopianism is carried to the most comical extremes. And, generally speaking, all Ivar Kareno’s thoughts that are “as free as a bird” go to the height of absurdity. To him, the proletariat is a class which exploits other classes of society. This is the most erroneous of all Kareno’s free-as-a-bird thoughts. And the misfortune is that Knut Hamsun apparently shares this erroneous thought of his hero. His Ivar Kareno suffers so many misadventures precisely because he hates the proletariat and “resists” it. It is because of this that he is unable to obtain a professorial chair, or even publish his book. In brief, he incurs the persecution of the bourgeois among whom he lives and acts. But in what part of the world, in what utopia, is there a bourgeoisie which exacts such inexorable vengeance for “resistance” to the proletariat? There never has been such a bourgeoisie, and never will be. Knut Hamsun based his play on an idea which is in irreconcilable contradiction to reality. And this has vitiated the play to such an extent that it evokes laughter precisely in those places where the author intended the action to be tragic.

Knut Hamsun is highly talented. But no talent can convert into truth that which is its very opposite. The grave defects of his play are a natural consequence of the utter unsoundness of its basic idea. And its unsoundness springs from the author’s inability to understand the struggle of classes in present-day society of which his play is a literary echo.

Knut Hamsun is not a Frenchman. But this makes no difference. The Communist Manifesto had pointed out very aptly that in civilised countries, owing to the development of capitalism, “national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.” [53] True, Hamsun was born and brought up in a West European country that is far from being one of the most developed economically. This, of course, explains why his conception of the position of the embattled proletariat in contemporary society is so childishly naive. But the economic backwardness of his country has not prevented him from conceiving that antipathy for the working class and that sympathy for the struggle against it which arise naturally among the bourgeois intellectuals of the more advanced countries. Ivar Kareno is only a variety of the Nietzschean type. And what is Nietzscheanism? It is a new edition, revised and supplemented in response to the demands of modern capitalism, of that already familiar hostility to the “bourgeois” which cohabits in such perfect harmony with an unshakable sympathy for the bourgeois system. We could easily substitute for the example of Hamsun one borrowed from contemporary French literature.

Undoubtedly, one of the most talented and – what is even more important in this case – one of the most thoughtful dramatists of present-day France is François de Curel. And of his dramas, the one that without the slightest hesitation may be considered the most worthy of note is the five act play, Le repas du lion, which as far as I know has received little notice from Russian critics. The chief character of this play is Jean de Sancy. Under the influence of certain exceptional circumstances of his childhood, he is carried away at one time by Christian socialism, but later violently rejects it and becomes an eloquent advocate of large-scale capitalist production. In the third scene of the fourth act, he delivers a long harangue to the workers in which he seeks to persuade them that “egotism which engages in production (l’égoisme qui produit) is for the labouring multitude what charity is for the poor.” And as his auditors voice their disagreement with this view, he gets more and more excited and tries to explain the role of the capitalist and his workers in modern industry with the help of a graphic and picturesque comparison.

“They say,” he thunders, “that a horde of jackals follow the lion in the desert to enjoy the remains of his prey. Too weak to attack a buffalo, too slow to run down a gazelle, all their hope is fastened on the claws of the king of the desert. You hear – on his claws! When twilight falls he leaves his den and runs, roaring with hunger, to seek his prey. Here it is! He makes a mighty bound, a fierce battle ensues, a mortal struggle, and the earth is covered with blood, which is not always the blood of the victim. Then the regal feast, which the jackals watch with attention and respect. When the lion is satiated, it is the turn of the jackals to dine. Do you think they would have more to eat if the lion divided his prey equally with each of them, leaving only a small portion for himself? Not at all! Such a kind-hearted lion would cease to be a lion; he would hardly be fit for the role of a blind man’s dog. At the first groan of his prey, he would refrain from killing it and begin licking its wounds instead. A lion is good only as a savage beast, ravenous for prey, eager only to kill and shed blood. When such a lion roars, the jackals lick their chops in expectation.”

Clear as this parable is, the eloquent orator explains its moral in the following, much briefer, but equally expressive words: “The employer opens up the nourishing springs whose spray falls upon the workers.”

I know that an artist cannot be held responsible for the statements of his heroes. But very often he in one way or another indicates his own attitude to these statements, and we are thus able to judge what his own views are. The whole subsequent course of Le repas du lion shows that Curel himself considers that Jean de Sancy is perfectly right in comparing the employer to a lion, and the workers to jackals. It is quite evident that he might with full conviction repeat the words of his hero: “I believe in the lion. I bow before the rights which his claws give him.” He himself is prepared to regard the workers as jackals who feed on the leavings of what the capitalist secures by his labour. To him, as to Jean de Sancy, the struggle of the workers against the capitalist is a struggle of envious jackals against a mighty lion. This comparison is, in fact, the fundamental idea of his play, with which the fate of his principal character is linked. But there is not an atom of truth in this idea. It misrepresents the true character of the social relationships of contemporary society far more that did the economic sophistries of Bastiat and all his numerous followers, up to and including Böhm-Bawerk. The jackals do absolutely nothing to secure the lion’s food, part of which goes to satisfy their own hunger. But who will venture to say that the workers employed in any given factory contribute nothing to the creation of its product? It is by their labour, obviously, that it is created, all economic sophistries notwithstanding. True, the employer participates in the process of production as its organiser. And as an organiser, he is himself a worker. But, again, everybody knows that the salary of a factory manager is one thing, and the entrepreneur profit of the factory-owner quite another. Deducting the salary from the profit, we get a balance which goes to the share of capital as such. The whole question is, why does capital get this balance? And to this question there is not even a hint of an answer in the eloquent disquisitions of Jean de Sancy – who, incidentally, does not even suspect that his own income as a big shareholder in the business would not have been justified even if his absolutely false comparison of the entrepreneur to a lion, and the workers to jackals, had been correct: he himself does absolutely nothing for the business and is content with receiving a big income from it annually. And if anybody resembles a jackal who feeds on what is obtained by the effort of others, it is the shareholder, whose work consists solely in looking after his shares, and also the ideologist of the bourgeois system, who does not participate in production himself, but lives on what is left over from the luxurious: banquet of capital. With all his talent, de Curel, unfortunately, himself belongs to this category of ideologists. In the struggle of the wage-workers against the capitalists, he unreservedly takes the side of the latter and gives an absolutely false picture of their real attitude toward those whom they exploit.

And what is Bourget’s play, La barricade, but the appeal of a well-known and, undoubtedly, also talented artist to the bourgeoisie, urging all the members of this class to unite against the proletariat? Bourgeois art is becoming belligerent. Its exponents can no longer say of themselves that they were not born for “agitation and strife.” No, they are eager for strife, and do not shun the agitation that goes with it. But what is it waged for – this strife in which they are anxious to take part? Alas, for the sake of self-interest. Not, it is true, for their own personal self-interest – it would be strange to affirm that men like de Curel or Bourget defend capitalism in the hope of personal enrichment. The self-interest which “agitates” them, and for which they are eager to engage in “strife,” is the self-interest of a whole class. But it is none the less self-interest. And if this is so, just see what we get.

Why did the romanticists despise the “bourgeois” of their time? We already know why: because the “bourgeois,” in the words of Théodore de Banville, prized the five-franc piece above all else. And what do artists like de Curel, Bourget and Hamsun defend in their writings? Those social relationships which are a plentiful source of five-franc pieces for the bourgeoisie. How remote these artists are from the romanticism of the good old days! And what has made them so remote from it? Nothing but the inadvertible march of social development. The acuter the inherent contradictions of the capitalist mode of production became, the harder it was for artists who remained faithful to the bourgeois manner of thought to cling to the theory of art for art’s sake – and to live, as the French term has it, shut up in an ivory tower (tour d’ivoire).

There is not, I think, a single country in the modern civilised world where the bourgeois youth is not sympathetic to the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, perhaps, despised his “sleepy” (schläfrigen) contemporaries even more than Théophile Gautier despised the “bourgeois” of his time. But what, in Nietzsche’s eyes, was wrong with his “sleepy” contemporaries? What was their principal defect, the source of all the others? It was that they could not think, feel and – chiefly – act as befits people who hold the predominant position in society. In the present historical conditions, this is tantamount to the reproach that they did not display sufficient energy and consistency in defending the bourgeois order against the revolutionary attacks of the proletariat. Witness the anger with which Nietzsche spoke of the Socialists. But, again, see what we get.

If Pushkin and the romanticists of his time rebuked the “crowd” for setting too much store on the cooking pot, the inspirers of the present neo-romanticists rebuke the “crowd” for being too sluggish in defending it, that is, in not setting sufficient store on it. Yet the neo-romanticists also proclaim, like the romanticists of the good old days, the absolute autonomy of art. But can one seriously call art autonomous when it consciously sets itself the aim of defending the existing social relationships? Of course not. Such art is undoubtedly utilitarian. And if its exponents despise creative work that is guided by utilitarian considerations, this is simply a misunderstanding. And indeed – leaving aside considerations of personal benefit, which can never be paramount in the eyes of a man who is genuinely devoted to art – to them only such considerations are intolerable as envisage the benefit of the exploited majority. As to the benefit of the exploiting minority, for them it is a supreme law. Thus the attitude, say, of Knut Hamsun or François de Curel to the utilitarian principle in art is actually the very opposite of that of Théophile Gautier or Flaubert, although neither of the latter, as we know, were devoid of conservative prejudices either. But since the time of Gautier and Flaubert, these prejudices, owing to the greater acuteness of the social contradictions, have become so strongly developed in artists who hold to the bourgeois standpoint that it is now incomparably more difficult for them to adhere consistently to the theory of art for art’s sake. Of course, it would be a great mistake to imagine that none of them nowadays adheres to this theory consistently. But, as we shall soon see, this consistency is now maintained at a very heavy cost.

The neo-romanticists – also under the influence of Nietzsche – fondly imagine that they stand “beyond good and evil.” But what does standing beyond good and evil mean? It means doing a great historical work which cannot be judged within the framework of the existing concepts of good and evil, those springing from the existing social order. The French revolutionaries of 1793, in their struggle against reaction, undoubtedly did stand beyond good and evil, that is, their activities were in contradiction to the concepts of good and evil which had sprung from the old and moribund order. Such a contradiction, in which there is always a great deal of tragedy, can only be justified on the ground that the activities of revolutionaries who are temporarily compelled to stand beyond good and evil have the result that evil retreats before good in social life. In order to take the Bastille, its defenders had to be fought. And whoever wages such a fight must inevitably for the time being take his stand beyond good and evil. And to the extent that the capture of the Bastille curbed the tyranny which could send people to prison “at its good pleasure” (“parce que tel est notre bon plaisir” [54] – the well-known expression of the French absolute monarchs), to that extent it compelled evil to retreat before good in the social life of France, thereby justifying the stand beyond good and evil temporarily assumed by those who were fighting tyranny. But such a justification cannot be found for all who take their stand beyond good and evil. Ivar Kareno, for example, would probably not hesitate for a moment to go beyond good and evil for the sake of realising his thoughts that are “as free as a bird.” But, as we know, his thoughts amount, in sum, to waging an implacable struggle against the emancipation movement of the proletariat. For him, therefore, going beyond good and evil would mean not being deterred in this struggle even by the few rights which the working class has succeeded in winning in bourgeois society. And if his struggle were successful, its effect would be not to diminish, but to increase the evil in social life. In his case, therefore, going beyond good and evil could not be justified, as it generally is when it is done for the furtherance of reactionary aims. It may be argued in objection that although Ivar Kareno could find no justification from the standpoint of the proletariat, he certainly would find justification from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie. I fully agree. But the standpoint of the bourgeoisie is in this case the standpoint of a privileged minority which is anxious to perpetuate its privileges. The standpoint of the proletariat, on the other hand, is that of a majority which demands the abolition of all privileges. Hence, to say that the activity of a particular person is justifiable from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, is to say that it is condemnable from the standpoint of all people who are not inclined to defend the interests of exploiters. And that is all I need, for the inevitable march of economic development is my guarantee that the number of such people will most certainly grow larger and larger.

Hating the “sleepers” from the bottom of their hearts, the neo-romanticists want movement. But the movement they desire is a protective movement, the very opposite of the emancipation movement of our time. This is the whole secret of their psychology. It is also the secret of the fact that even the most talented of them cannot produce the significant works they would have produced if their social sympathies ran in a different direction, and if their attitude of mind were different. We have already seen how erroneous is the idea on which de Curel based his play, Le repas du lion. And a false idea is bound to injure an artistic work, since it gives a false twist to the psychology of its characters. It would not be difficult to demonstrate how much falsity there is in the psychology of the principal hero of this play, Jean de Sancy. But this would compel me to make a much longer digression than the plan of my article warrants. I shall take another example which will permit me to be more brief.

The basic idea of the play La barricade is that everyone must participate in the modern class struggle on the side of his own class. But whom does Bourget consider the “most likeable figure” in his play? An old worker named Gaucherond [55], who sides not with the workers, but with the employer. The behaviour of this worker fundamentally contradicts the basic idea of the play, and he may seem likeable only to those who are absolutely blinded by sympathy for the bourgeoisie. The sentiment which guides Gaucherond is that of a slave who reveres his chains. And we already know from the time of Count Alexei Tolstoi that it is hard to evoke sympathy for the devotion of a slave in anyone who has not been educated in the spirit of slavery. Remember Vasily Shibanov, who so wonderfully preserved his “slavish fidelity.” [56] Despite terrible torture, he died a hero:

Tsar, for ever the same is his word:
He does naught but sing the praise of his lord.

But this slavish heroism has but little appeal for the modern reader, who probably cannot even conceive how it is possible for a “vocal tool” [57] to display such devoted loyalty to his owner. Yet old Gaucherond in Bourget’s play is a sort of Vasily Shibanov transformed from a serf into a modern proletarian. One must be purblind indeed to call him the “most likeable figure” in the play. And one thing is certain at any rate: if Gaucherond really is likeable, then it shows that, despite Bourget, each of us must side not with the class to which he belongs, but with that whose cause he considers more just.

Bourget’s creation contradicts his own idea. And this is for the same reason that a wise man who oppresses others becomes mad. When a talented artist is inspired by a wrong idea, he spoils his own production. And the modern artist cannot be inspired by a right idea if he is anxious to defend the bourgeoisie in its struggle against the proletariat.

I have said that it is incomparably harder than formerly for an artist who holds to the bourgeois standpoint to adhere consistently to the theory of art for art’s sake. This, incidentally, is admitted by Bourget himself, He even puts it far more emphatically. “The role of an indifferent chronicler,” he says, “is impossible for a thinking mind and a sensitive heart when it is a case of those terrible internecine wars on which, it sometimes seems, the whole future of one’s country and of civilisation depends.” [58] But here it is appropriate to make a reservation. It is indeed true that a man with a thinking mind and a responsive heart cannot remain an indifferent observer of the civil war going on in modern society. If his field of vision is narrowed by bourgeois prejudices, he will be on one side of the “barricade”; if he is not infected with these prejudices, he will be on the other. That is true. But not all the children of the bourgeoisie – or of any other class, of course – possess thinking minds. And those who do think, do not always have responsive hearts. For them, it is easy even now to remain consistent believers in the theory of art for art’s sake. It eminently accords with indifference to social – and even narrow class – interests. And the bourgeois social system is perhaps more capable than any other of engendering such indifference. When whole generations are educated in the celebrated principle of each for himself and the devil take the hindmost, the appearance of egotists who think only of themselves and are interested only in themselves, is very natural. And we do, in fact, find that such egotists are more frequently to be met with among the present-day bourgeoisie than perhaps at any other time. On this point we have the very valuable testimony of one of its most prominent ideologists: Maurice Barrès.

“Our morality, our religion, our national sentiment have all gone to pieces,” he says. “No rules of life can be borrowed from them. And until such time as our teachers establish authentic truths, there is naught we can do but cling to the only reality, our ego.” [59]

When in the eyes of a man all has “fallen to pieces” save his own ego, then there is nothing to prevent him from acting as a calm chronicler of the great war raging in the bosom of modern society. But, no! Even then there is something to prevent him doing so. This something will be precisely that lack of all social interest which is vividly described in the lines of Barrès I have quoted. Why should a man act as a chronicler of the social struggle when he has not the slightest interest either in the struggle, or in society? He will be irresistibly bored by everything connected with the struggle. And if he is an artist, he will not even hint at it in his works. In them, too, he will be concerned with the “only reality” – his ego. And as his ego may nevertheless be bored when it has no company but itself, he will invent for it a fantastic, transcendental world, a world standing high above the earth and all earthly “questions.” And that is what many present-day artists do. I am not labelling them. They say so themselves. Here, for example, is what our countrywoman, Mrs. Zinaida Hippius, says:

“I consider that a natural and most essential need of human nature is prayer. Everyone most certainly prays or strives to pray – whether he is conscious of it or not, whatever the form his praying may take, and to whatever god it may be addressed. The form depends on the abilities and inclinations of each. Poesy in general, and versifying – verbal music – in particular, is only one of the forms prayer takes in our hearts.” [60]

This identification of “verbal music” with prayer is of course utterly untenable. There have been very long periods in the history of poetry when it bore no relation whatever to prayer. But there is no necessity to argue this point. It is only important for me here to acquaint the reader with Mrs. Hippius’s terminology, for unless he is acquainted with it, he might be rather perplexed on reading the following passages, which are important for us in substance.

Mrs. Hippius continues: “Are we to blame that every ego has now become separate, lonely and isolated from every other ego, and therefore incomprehensible and unnecessary to it? We all of us passionately need, understand and prize our prayer, our verse – the reflection of an instantaneous fullness of the heart. But to another, whose cherished ego is different, my prayer is incomprehensible and alien. The consciousness of loneliness isolates people from one another still more, makes them separate, compels them to lock their hearts. We are ashamed of our prayers, and knowing that all the same we shall not merge in them with anyone, we say them, compose them, in a whisper, to ourselves, in hints that are clear only to ourselves.” [61]

When individualism is carried to such an extreme, then, indeed, as Mrs. Hippius quite rightly says, there is no longer any “possibility of communication through prayer [that is, poetry – G. P.], of community in prayerful [that is, poetical – G. P.] impulse.” But this cannot but reflect detrimentally on poetry and art in general, which is one of the media through which people communicate with one another. It was aptly observed by the biblical Jehovah that it is not good that man should be alone. And this is eminently corroborated by the example of Mrs. Hippius herself. In one of her poems, we read:

‘Tis a merciless road I must plod.
On and on unto death it will roll.
But I love myself as my God,
And that love, it will save my soul.

We may well doubt that. Who “loves himself as God"? A boundless egotist. And a boundless egotist is scarcely capable of saving anyone’s soul.

But the point is not whether the souls of Mrs. Hippius and of all who, like her, “love themselves as God” will be saved or not. The point is that poets who love themselves as God can have no interest in what is going on in the society around them. Their ambitions must of necessity be extremely vague. In her poem, A Song, Mrs. Hippius “sings”:

Alas, in the madness of sorrow I perish,
I perish,

’Tis a dream of I know not what that I cherish,
I cherish,

This desire has arisen I know not where from,
Where from,

Yet my heart still yearns for a miracle to come,
To come.

Oh that there might befall which never can be,
Never can be!

The cold, pallid skies promise wonders to me,
To me,

Yet I mourn without tears for the broken word,
The broken word.

Give me that which in this world is not,
Is not, O Lord!

This puts it quite neatly. A person who “loves himself as God,” and has lost all capacity of communication with other people, has nothing left but to “yearn for a miracle” and to long for that “which in this world is not” – for what is in this world cannot interest him. Sergeyev-Tsensky’s Lieutenant Babayev [62] says that “art is a product of anaemia.” This philosophising son of Mars is seriously mistaken if he believes that all art is a product of anaemia. But it cannot be denied that it is anaemia that produces the art which yearns for what “in this world is not.” This art is characteristic of the decay of a whole system of social relationships, and is therefore quite aptly called decadent art.

True, the system of social relationships of whose decay this art is characteristic, that is, the system of capitalist relations of production, is still far from having decayed in our own country. [63] In Russia, capitalism has not yet completely gained the upper hand over the old order. But since the time of Peter I Russian literature has been very strongly influenced by West European literatures. Not infrequently, therefore, it is invaded by trends which fully correspond to the West European social relationships and much less to the relatively backward relationships of Russia. There was a time when some of our aristocrats had an infatuation for the doctrines of the Encyclopaedists, [64] which corresponded to one of the last phases in the struggle of the third estate against the aristocracy in France. Now a time has come when many of our “intellectuals” conceive an infatuation for social, philosophical and aesthetic doctrines which correspond to the era of decay of the West European bourgeoisie. This infatuation anticipates the course of our own social development in the same way as it was anticipated by the infatuation of 18th-century people for the theory of the Encyclopaedists. [65]

But if the appearance of Russian decadence cannot be adequately explained, so to speak, by domestic causes, this fact in no way alters its nature. Introduced into our country from the West, it does not cease to be what it was at home, namely, a product of the “anaemia” that accompanies the decay of the class now predominant in Western Europe.

Mrs. Hippius will probably say that I quite arbitrarily ascribe to her a complete indifference to social questions. But, in the first place, I ascribe nothing to her; I cite her own lyrical effusions, and only define their significance. Whether I have understood these effusions rightly or not, I leave it to the reader to judge. In the second place, I am aware of course that nowadays Mrs. Hippius is not averse to discoursing even on the social movement. The book, for instance, which she wrote in collaboration with Mr. Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Mr. Dmitry Filosofov and published in Germany in 1908, might serve as convincing evidence of her interest in the Russian social movement. But one has only to read the introduction to the book to see how extreme is the yearning of its authors for “they know not what.” It says that Europe is familiar with the deeds of the Russian revolution, but not with its soul. And in order, presumably, to acquaint Europe with the soul of the Russian revolution, the authors tell the Europeans the following: “We resemble you as the left hand resembles the right... We are equal with you, but only in the reverse sense... Kant would have said that our soul lies in the transcendental, and yours in the phenomenal. Nietzsche would have said that you are ruled by Apollo, and we by Dionysus; your genius consists in moderation, ours in impulsiveness. You are able to check yourselves in time; if you come up against a wall, you stop or go round it; we, however, dash our heads against it (wir rennen uns aber die Köpfe ein). It is not easy for us to get going, but once we have, we cannot stop. We do not walk, we run. We do not run, we fly. We do not fly, we plunge downwards. You are fond of the golden mean; we are fond of extremes. You are just; for us there are no laws. You are able to retain your equanimity; we are always striving to lose it. You possess the kingdom of the present; we seek the kingdom of the future. You, in the final analysis, always place government authority higher than the liberties you may secure. We, on the other hand, remain rebels and anarchists even when fettered in the chains of slavery. Reason and emotion lead us to the extreme limit of negation, yet, despite this, deep down at the bottom of our being and will, we remain mystics.” [66]

The Europeans further learn that the Russian revolution is as absolute as the form of government against which it is directed, and that if its conscious empirical aim is socialism, its unconscious mystical aim is anarchy. [67] In conclusion, the authors declare that they are addressing themselves not to the European bourgeoisie, but – to whom, reader? To the proletariat, you think? You are mistaken. “Only to individual minds of the universal culture, to people who share Nietzsche’s view that the state is the coldest of cold monsters,” etc. [68]

I have not cited these passages for polemical reasons. Generally, I am not here indulging in polemics, but only trying to characterise and explain certain mental attitudes of certain social strata. The quotations I have just given are, I hope, sufficient to show that Mrs. Hippius, now that she has (at last!) become interested in social questions, still remains exactly as she appeared to us in the poems cited above, namely, an extreme individualist of the decadent type who yearns for a “miracle” only because she has no serious attitude to real social life. The reader has not forgotten Leconte de Lisle’s idea that poetry now provides an ideal life for those who no longer have a real life. And when a man ceases to have any spiritual intercourse with the people around him, his ideal life loses all connection with the earth. His imagination then carries him to heaven, he becomes a mystic. Thoroughly permeated with mysticism, Mrs. Hippius’s interest in social questions is absolutely fruitless. [69] But she and her collaborators are quite mistaken in thinking that the yearning for a “miracle” and the “mystical” negation of “politics” “as a science” are a feature peculiar to the Russian decadents. [70] The “sober” West, before “inebriate” Russia, produced people who revolt against reason in the name of an irrational aspirations. Przybyszewski’s Eric Falk abuses the Social-Democrats and “drawing-room anarchists like John Henry Mackay” solely because, as he claims, they put too much faith in reason.

“They all,” declares this non-Russian decadent, “preach peaceful revolution, the changing of the broken wheel while the cart is in motion. Their whole dogmatic structure is idiotically stupid just because it is so logical, for it is based on almighty reason. But up to now everything has taken place not by virtue of reason, but of foolishness, of meaningless chance.”

Falk’s reference to “foolishness” and “meaningless chance” is exactly of the same nature as the yearning for a “miracle” which permeates the German book of Mrs. Hippius and Messrs. Merezhkovsky and Filosofov. It is one and the same thought posing under different names. It owes its origin to the extreme subjectivity of a large section of the present-day bourgeois intellectuals. When a man believes that his own ego is the “only reality,” he cannot admit the existence of an objective, “rational,” that is, logical connection between his ego and the outer world around him. To him the outer world must be either entirely unreal, or only partly real, only to the extent that its existence rests upon the only true reality, that is, his ego. If such a man is fond of philosophical cogitation, he will say that, in creating the outer world, our ego imparts to it at least some modicum of its own rationality; a philosopher cannot completely revolt against reason even when he restricts its rights from one or other motive-in the interest of religion, for example. [71] If a man who believes that the only reality is his own ego is not given to philosophical cogitation, he does not bother his head as to how his ego creates the outer world. In that case he will not be inclined to presume even a modicum of reason – that is, of law – in the outer world. On the contrary, the world will seem to him a realm of “meaningless chance.” And if it should occur to him to sympathise with any great social movement, he, like Falk, will certainly say that its success can be ensured not by the natural march of social development, but only by human “foolishness,” or – which is one and the same thing – by “meaningless” historical “chance.” But as I have already said, the mystical view of the Russian emancipation movement held by Hippius and her two like-thinkers in no way differs, essentially, from Falk’s view that the causes of great historical events are “meaningless.” Although anxious to stagger Europe with the unparalleled immensity of the freedom-loving ambitions of the Russians, the authors of the German book I have referred to are decadents of the purest water, who are capable of feeling sympathy only with that “which never can be, never can be” – in other words, are incapable of feeling sympathy with anything which occurs in reality. Their mystical anarchism, therefore, does not weaken the validity of the conclusions I drew from Mrs. Hippius’s lyrical effusions.

Since I have touched upon this point, I shall express my thought without reservation. The events of 1905 – 06 produced just as strong an impression on the Russian decadents as the events of 1848 – 49 did on the French romanticists. They awoke in them an interest in social life. But this interest was even less suited to the temperament of the decadents than it had been to the temperament of the romanticists. It therefore proved still less durable. And there are no grounds for taking it seriously.

Let us return to modern art. When a man is disposed to regard his ego as the only reality, he, like Mrs. Hippius, “loves himself as God.” This is fully understandable and quite inevitable. And when a man “loves himself as God,” he will be concerned in his artistic productions solely with himself. The outer world will interest him only to the extent that it in one way or another affects this “sole reality,” this precious ego of his. In Scene I Act II of Sudermann’s most interesting play, Das Blumenboot, Baroness Erfflingen says to her daughter Thea: “People of our category exist in order to make the things of this world into a sort of merry panorama which passes before us – or, rather, which seems to pass before us. Because, actually, it is we that are moving. That’s certain. And what is more, we don’t need any ballast.” These words perfectly describe the life-aim of people of Baroness Erfflingen’s category; they could with complete conviction reiterate the words of Barrès: “The only reality is our ego.” But people who pursue this life aim must look upon art solely as a means of embellishing the panorama which “seems” to be passing before them. And here, too, they will try not to be burdened with any ballast. They will either completely scorn idea content in artistic works, or will subordinate it to the caprices and fickle demands of their extreme subjectiveness.

Let us turn to painting.

Complete indifference to the idea content of their works was already displayed by the impressionists. One of them very aptly expressed the conviction of them all when he said: “The chief dramatis persona in a picture is light.” But the sensation of light is only a sensation – that is, it is not yet emotion, and not yet thought. An artist who confines his attention to the realm of sensations is indifferent to emotion and thought. He may paint a good landscape. And the impressionists did, in fact, paint many excellent landscapes. But landscape is not the whole of painting. [72] Let us recall Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and ask, is light the chief dramatis persona in this famous fresco? We know that its subject is that highly dramatic moment in the relationship of Jesus to his disciples when he says: “One of you shall betray me.” Leonardo da Vinci’s task was to portray the state of mind of Jesus himself, who was deeply grieved by his dreadful discovery, and of his disciples, who could not believe there could be a traitor in their small company. If the artist had believed that the chief dramatis persona in a picture is light, he would not have thought of depicting this drama. And if he had painted the fresco nevertheless, its chief artistic interest would have been centred not on what was going on in the hearts of Jesus and his disciples, but on what was happening on the walls of the chamber in which they were assembled, on the table at which they were seated, and on their own skins – that is, on the various light effects. We should then have had not a terrific spiritual drama, but a series of excellently painted patches of light: one, say, on a wall of the chamber, another on the table-cloth, a third on Judas’ hooked nose, a fourth on Jesus’ cheek, and so on and so forth. But because of this the impression caused by the fresco would be infinitely weaker, and the specific importance of Leonardo da Vinci’s production would be infinitely less. Some French critics have compared impressionism with realism in literature. And there is some basis for the comparison. But if the impressionists were realists, it must be admitted that their realism was quite superficial, that it did not go deeper than the “husk of appearances.” And when this realism acquired a firm position in modern art – as it undoubtedly did – artists trained under its influence had only one of two alternatives: either to exercise their ingenuity over the “husk of appearances” and devise ever more astonishing and ever more artificial light effects; or to attempt to penetrate beneath the “husk of appearances,” having realised the mistake of the impressionists and grasped that the chief dramatis persona in a picture is not light, but man and his highly diversified emotional experiences. And we do indeed find both these trends in modern art. Concentration of interest on the “husk of appearances” accounts for those paradoxical canvases before which even the most indulgent critic shrugs his shoulders in perplexity and confesses that modern painting is passing through a “crisis of ugliness.” [73] Recognition, on the other hand, that it is impossible to stop at the “husk of appearances” impels artists to seek for idea content, that is, to worship what they had only recently burned. But to impart idea content to a production is not so easy as it may seem. Idea is not something that exists independently of the real world. A man’s stock of ideas is determined and enriched by his relations with that world. And he whose relations with that world are such that he considers his ego the “only reality,” inevitably becomes an out-and-out pauper in the matter of ideas. Not only is he bereft of ideas, but – and this is the chief point – he is not in a position to conceive any. And just as people, when they have no bread, eat dockweed, so when they have no clear ideas they content themselves with vague hints at ideas, with surrogates borrowed from mysticism, symbolism and the similar “isms” characteristic of the period of decadence. In brief, we find in painting a repetition of what we have seen in literature: realism decays because of its inherent vacuity and idealistic reaction triumphs.

Subjective idealism was always anchored in the idea that there is no reality save our ego. But it required the boundless individualism of the era of bourgeois decadence to make this idea not only an egotistical rule defining the relations between people each of whom “loves himself as God” – the bourgeoisie was never distinguished by excessive altruism – but also the theoretical foundation of a new aesthetics.

The reader has of course heard of the so-called cubists. And if he has had occasion to see some of their productions, I do not run much risk of being mistaken if I assume that he was not at all delighted with them. In me, at any rate, they do not evoke anything resembling aesthetic enjoyment. “Nonsense cubed!” are the words that suggest themselves at the sight of these ostensibly artistic exercises. But cubism, after all, has its cause. Calling it nonsense raised to the third degree is not explaining its origin. This, of course, is not the place to attempt such an explanation. But even here one may indicate the direction in which it is to be sought. Before me lies an interesting book: Du cubisme, by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. Both authors are painters, and both belong to the cubist school. Let us obey the rule audiatur et altera pars, [74] and let us hear what they have to say. How do they justify their bewildering creative methods?

“There is nothing real outside of us,” they say. – “...It does not occur to us to doubt the existence of the objects which act upon our senses: but reasonable certainty is possible only in respect to the images which they evoke in our mind.” [75]

From this the authors conclude that we do not know what forms objects have in themselves. And since these forms are unknown, they consider they are entitled to portray them at their own will and pleasure. They make the noteworthy reservation that they do not find it desirable to confine themselves, as the impressionists do, to the realm of sensation. “We seek the essential,” they assure us, “but we seek it in our personality not in an eternity laboriously fashioned by mathematicians and philosophers.” [76]

In these arguments, as the reader will see, we meet, first of all, the already well-known idea that our ego is the “only reality.” True, we meet it here in less rigid guise. Gleizes and Metzinger affirm that nothing is farther from their thought than to doubt the existence of external objects. But having granted the existence of the external world, our authors right there and then declare it to be unknowable. And this means that, for them too, there is nothing real except their ego.

If images of objects arise in us because the latter act upon our external senses, then it surely cannot be said that the outer world is unknowable: we obtain knowledge of it precisely because of this action. Gleizes and Metzinger are mistaken. Their argument about forms-in-themselves is also very lame. They cannot seriously be blamed for their mistakes: similar mistakes have been made by men infinitely more adept in philosophy than they. But one thing cannot be passed over, namely, that from the supposed unknowableness of the outer world, our authors infer that the essential must be sought in “our personality.” This inference may be understood in two ways: first, by “personality” may be meant the whole human race in general; secondly, it may mean each personality separately. In the first case, we arrive at the transcendental idealism of Kant; in the second, at the sophistical recognition that each separate person is the measure of all things. Our authors incline towards the sophistical interpretation of their inference.

And once its sophistical interpretation is accepted, [77] one may permit oneself anything one likes in painting and in everything else. If instead of the “Woman in Blue” (La femme en bleu – a painting exhibited by Fernand Léger at last autumn’s Salon), I depict several stereometric figures, who has the right to say I have painted a bad picture? Women are part of the outer world around me. The outer world is unknowable. To portray a woman, I have to appeal to my own “personality,” and my “personality” lends the woman the form of several haphazardly arranged cubes, or, rather, parallepipeds. These cubes cause a smile in everybody who visits the Salon. But that’s all right. The “crowd” laughs only because it does not understand the language of the artist. The artist must under no circumstances give way to the crowd. “Making no concessions, explaining nothing and telling nothing, the artist accumulates internal energy which illuminates everything around him.” [78] And until such energy is accumulated, there is nothing for it but to draw stereometric figures.

We thus get an amusing parody on Pushkin’s “To The Poet”:

Exacting artist, are you pleased with your creation?
You are? Then let the mob abuse your name
And on the altar spit where burns your flame.
And shake your tripod in its childlike animation.

The amusing thing about the parody is that in this case the “exacting artist” is content with the most obvious nonsense. Incidentally, the appearance of such parodies shows that the inherent dialectics of social life have now led the theory of art for art’s sake to the point of utter absurdity.

It is not good that man should be alone. The present “innovators” in art are not satisfied with what their predecessors created. There is nothing wrong in this. On the contrary, the urge for something new is very often a source of progress. But not everybody who searches for something new, really finds it. One must know how to look for it. He who is blind to the new teachings of social life, he to whom there is no reality save his own ego, will find in his search for something “new” nothing but a new absurdity. It is not good that man should be alone.

It appears, then, that in present-day social conditions the fruits of art for art’s sake are far from delectable. The extreme individualism of the era of bourgeois decay cuts off artists from all sources of true inspiration. It makes them completely blind to what is going on in social life, and condemns them to sterile preoccupation with personal emotional experiences that are entirely without significance and with the phantasies of a morbid imagination. The end product of their preoccupation is something that not only has no relation to beauty of any kind, but which moreover represents an obvious absurdity that can only be defended with the help of sophistical distortions of the idealist theory of knowledge.

Pushkin’s “cold and haughty people” listen to the singing poet with “empty minds.” [79] I have already said that, coming from Pushkin’s pen, this juxtaposition had historical meaning. In order to understand it, we must only bear in mind that the epithets “cold and haughty” were not applicable to the Russian peasant serf of the time. But they were fully applicable to the high society “rabble” whose obtuseness led to the ultimate doom of our great poet. The people who composed this “rabble” might without any exaggeration say of themselves what the rabble say in Pushkin’s poem:

We all are treacherous and vicious,
Ungrateful, shameless, meretricious,
Our bearts no feeling ever warms.
Slaves, slanderers and fools, black swarms
Of vices breed in each and all.

Pushkin saw that it would be ridiculous to give “bold” lessons to the heartless aristocratic crowd: they would not have understood them. He did right in proudly turning away from them. More, he did wrong – to the great misfortune of Russian literature – in not turning away from them resolutely enough. But nowadays in the more advanced capitalist countries the attitude which the poet – and artist generally – who is unable to throw off the old bourgeois Adam maintains toward the people is the very opposite of what we see in the case of Pushkin: now it is no longer the “people” – the real people, whose advanced section is becoming more and more conscious – that can be accused of obtuseness, but the artists who listen with “empty minds” to the noble calls emanating from the people. At best, the fault of these artists is that their clocks are some eighty years behind the time. Repudiating the finest aspirations of their era, they naively imagine themselves to be continuers of the struggle waged by the romanticists against philistinism. The West European aesthetes, and the Russian aesthetes who follow them, are very fond of dilating on the philistinism of the present-day proletarian movement.

This is comical. How baseless the charge of philistinism is which these gentlemen level at the emancipation movement of the working class, was shown long ago by Richard Wagner. In his well-founded opinion, the emancipation movement of the working class, when carefully considered (“genau betrachtet”), proves to be a movement not toward, but away from philistinism and toward a free life, toward an “artistic humanity” (“zum künstlerischen Menschentum”). It is a movement “for dignified enjoyment of life, the material means for which man will no longer have to procure at the expense of all his vital energies.” It is this necessity of expending all one’s vital energies to procure the means of subsistence that is nowadays the source of “philistine” sentiments. Constant concern for his means of subsistence “has made man weak, servile, stupid and mean, has turned him into a creature that is incapable either of love or hate, into a citizen who is prepared at any moment to sacrifice the last vestige of free will only that this concern might be eased.” The emancipation movement of the working class aims at doing away with this humiliating and corrupting concern. Wagner maintained that only when it is done away with, only when the proletariat’s urge for emancipation is realised, will the words of Jesus – take no thought for what ye shall eat, etc. – become true. [80] He would have been right in adding that only when this is realised will there be no serious grounds for juxtaposing aesthetics to morality, as the believers in art for art’s sake do – Flaubert, for example. [81] Flaubert held that “virtuous books are tedious and false” (“les livres vertueux sont ennuyeux et faux”). He was right – but only because the virtue of present-day society – bourgeois virtue – is tedious and false. Flaubert himself saw nothing tedious or false in antique “virtue.” Yet it only differed from bourgeois virtue in not being tainted with bourgeois individualism. Shirinsky-Shikhmatov, as Minister of Education to Nicholas I, considered that the duty of art was to “strengthen the faith, so important to social and private life, that evil deeds meet with fitting retribution already here on earth,” that is, in the society so zealously guarded by the Shirinsky-Shikhmatovs. That opinion, of course, was eminently false and tediously vulgar. Artists do right in turning away from such falsities and vulgarities. And when we read in Flaubert that in a certain sense “nothing is more poetic than vice,” [82] we understand that, in its real sense, this is a juxtaposition of vice to the vulgar, tedious and false virtue of the bourgeois moralists and the Shirinsky-Shikhmatovs. But when the social order which breeds this vulgar, tedious and false virtue is done away with, the moral compulsion to idealise vice will also disappear. Flaubert, I repeat, saw nothing vulgar, tedious or false in antique virtue, although, while respecting it, he could at the same time, owing to the very rudimentary character of his social and political concepts, admire such a monstrous negation of this virtue as the behaviour of Nero. In a socialist society the pursuit of art for art’s sake will be a sheer logical impossibility to the extent that there will no longer be that vulgarisation of social morals which is now an inevitable consequence of the determination of the ruling class to retain its privileges. Flaubert says: “L’art est la recherche de l’inutile” (“art is a search for the useless”). It is not difficult to detect in these words the basic idea of Pushkin’s The Rabble. But his insistence on this idea only signifies that the artist is revolting against the narrow utilitarianism of the given ruling class, or caste... With the disappearance of classes, this narrow utilitarianism, which is closely akin to egotism, will also disappear. Egotism has nothing in common with aesthetics: a judgement of taste always carries the presumption that the person who pronounces it is not actuated by considerations of personal advantage. But personal advantage is one thing, and social advantage another. The desire to be useful to society, which was the basis of antique virtue, is a fountain-head of self-sacrifice, and an act of self-sacrificing may easily be – and very often has been, as the history of art shows – an object of aesthetic portrayal. We have only to remember the songs of the primitive peoples or, not to go so far afield, the monument to Harmodius and Aristogeiton in Athens.

The ancient thinkers – Plato and Aristotle, for example – were fully aware how a man is degraded when all his vital energies are absorbed by concern for his material subsistence. The present-day ideologists of the bourgeoisie are also aware of it. They likewise consider it necessary to relieve people of the degrading burden of constant economic cares. But the people they have in mind are the members of the highest social class, which lives by exploiting labour. They see the solution of the problem where the ancient thinkers saw it, namely, in the enslavement of the producers by a fortunate chosen few who more or less approach the ideal of the “superman.” But if this solution was conservative even in the days of Plato and Aristotle, now it is arch-reactionary. And if the conservative Greek slaveowners of Aristotle’s time could hope to retain their predominant position by dint of their own “valour,” the present-day preachers of the enslavement of the masses are very sceptical of the valour of the bourgeois exploiters. That is why they are so given to dreaming of the appearance at the head of the state of a superhuman genius who will bolster up, by his iron will, the already tottering pillars of class rule. Decadents who are not devoid of political interests are often ardent admirers of Napoleon I.

If Renan called for a strong government capable of compelling the “good rustics” to work for him while he dedicated himself to mental reflection, the present-day aesthetes need a social system that would force the proletariat to work while they dedicate themselves to lofty pleasures – such as drawing and painting cubes and other stereometric figures. Being organically incapable of any serious work, they are sincerely outraged at the idea of a social system in which idlers will be entirely unknown.

If you live with the wolves, you must howl with the wolves. The modern bourgeois aesthetes profess to be warring against philistinism, but they themselves worship the golden calf no less than the common or garden philistine. “What they think is a movement in art,” Mauclair says, “is actually a movement in the picture mart, where there is also speculation in unlaunched geniuses.” [83] I would add, in passing, that this speculation in unlaunched geniuses is due, among other things, to the feverish hunt for something “new” to which the majority of the present-day artists are addicted. People always strive for something “new” when they are not satisfied with the old. But the question is, why are they not satisfied? Very many contemporary artists are not satisfied with the old for the sole reason that, so long as the general public cling to it, their own genius will remain “unlaunched.” They are driven to revolt against the old by a love not for some new idea, but for the “only reality,” their own dear ego. But such a love does not inspire an artist; it only disposes him to regard even the “idol of Belvedere” from the standpoint of self-advantage. “The money question is so strongly intertwined with the question of art,” Mauclair says, “that art criticism is squeezed in a vice. The best critics cannot say what they think, and the rest say only what they think is opportune, for, after all, they have to live by their writing. I do not say this is something to be indignant about, but it is well to realise the complexity of the problem.” [84]

Thus we find that art for art’s sake has turned into art for money’s sake. And the whole problem Mauclair is concerned with boils down to determining the reasons why this has happened. And it is not very difficult to determine them. “There was a time, as in the Middle Ages, when only the superfluous, the excess of production over consumption, was exchanged.

“There was again a time, when not only the superfluous, but all products, all industrial existence, had passed into commerce, when the whole of production depended on exchange...

“Finally, there came a time when everything that men had considered as inalienable became an object of exchange, of traffic and could be alienated. This is the time when the very things which till then had been communicated, but never exchanged; given, but never sold; acquired, but never bought – virtue, love, conviction, knowledge, conscience, etc. – when everything, in short, passed into commerce. It is the time of general corruption, of universal venality, or, to speak in terms of political economy, the time when everything, moral or physical, having become a marketable value, is brought to the market to be assessed at its truest value.” [85]

Is it surprising that at a time of universal venality, art also becomes venal?

Mauclair is reluctant to say whether this is something to be indignant about. Nor have I any desire to assess this phenomenon from the moral standpoint. I try, as the saying goes, not to weep or to laugh, but to understand. I do not say that modern artists “must” take inspiration from the emancipatory aspirations of the proletariat. No, if the apple-tree must bear apples, and the pear-tree must produce pears, artists who adhere to the standpoint of the bourgeoisie must revolt against the foresaid aspirations. In decadent times art “must” be decadent. This is inevitable. And there is no point in being “indignant” about it. But, as the Communist Manifesto rightly says, “in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the process of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.” [86]

Among the bourgeois ideologists who go over to the prolelariat, we find very few artists. The reason probably is that it is only people who think that can “raise themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole,” and modern artists, in contradiction to the great masters of the Renaissance, do extremely little thinking. [87] But however that may be, it can be said with certainty that every more or less gifted artist will increase his power substantially if he absorbs the great emancipatory ideas of our time. Only these ideas must become part of his flesh and blood, and he must express them precisely as an artist. [88] He must be able, moreover, to form a correct opinion of the artistic modernism of the present-day ideologists of the bourgeoisie. The ruling class has now reached a position where, for it, going forward means sinking downward. And this sad fate is shared by all its ideologists. The most advanced of them are precisely those who have sunk lower than all their predecessors.

When I expressed the views expounded here, Mr. Lunacharsky challenged me on several points, the chief of which I shall now examine.

First, he was surprised, he said, that I seemed to recognise the existence of an absolute criterion of beauty. There was no such criterion. Everything flowed and changed. Men’s notions of beauty also changed. There was no possibility, therefore, of proving that modern art really was passing through a crisis of ugliness.

To this I objected, and now object, that I do not think there is, or can be, an absolute criterion of beauty. [89] People’s notions of beauty do undoubtedly change in the course of the historical process. But while there is no absolute criterion of beauty, while all its criteria are relative, this does not mean that there is no objective possibility of judging whether a given artistic design has been well executed or not. Let us suppose that an artist wants to paint a “woman in blue.” If what he portrays in his picture really does resemble such a woman, we shall say that he has succeeded in painting a good picture. But if, instead of a woman wearing a blue dress, we see on his canvas several stereometric figures more or less thickly and more or less crudely tinted here and there with blue colour, we shall say that whatever he has painted, it certainly is not a good picture. The more the execution corresponds to the design, or – to use a more general expression – the more the form of an artistic production corresponds to its idea, the more successful it is. There you have an objective criterion. And precisely because there is such a criterion, we are entitled to say that the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, for example, are better than the drawings of some little Themistocles [90] who spoils good paper for his own distraction. When Leonardo da Vinci, say, drew an old man with a beard, the result really was an old man with a beard – so much so that at the sight of him we say: “Why, he’s alive!” But when Themistocles draws an old man, we would do well to write underneath: “This is an old man with a beard” – so that there might be no misunderstanding. In asserting that there can be no objective criterion of beauty, Mr. Lunacharsky committed the sin of which so many bourgeois ideologists, up to and including the cubists, are guilty: the sin of extreme subjectivism. How a man who calls himself a Marxist can be guilty of this sin, I simply cannot understand.

It must be added, however, that I here use the term “beautiful” in a very wide, if you like, in too wide a sense: drawing a bearded old man beautifully does not mean drawing a beautiful old man. The realm of art is much wider than the realm of the “beautiful.” But throughout its broad realm, the criterion I refer to – correspondence of form to idea – may be applied with equal convenience. Mr. Lunacharsky maintained (if I understood him correctly) that form may quite well correspond to a false idea. But I cannot agree. Remember de Curel’s play Le repas du lion. It is based, as we know, on the false idea that the employer stands in the same relation to his workers as the lion stands to the jackals who feed on the crumbs that fall from his royal table. The question is, could de Curel have faithfully expressed in his play this erroneous idea? No. The idea is erroneous because it is in contradiction to the real relation of the employer to his workers. To present it in an artistic production is to distort reality. And when an artistic production distorts reality it is unsuccessful as a work of art. That is why Le repas du lion is far below de Curel’s talent. The Gate of the Kingdom is far below Hamsun’s talent for the same reason.

Secondly, Mr. Lunacharsky accused me of excessive objectivism. He apparently agreed that an apple-tree must bear apples, and a pear-tree must produce pears. But he observed that among the artists who adhere to the bourgeois standpoint there are waverers, whom it is our duty to convince and not leave to the elemental action of bourgeois influences.

I must confess that to me this accusation is even more incomprehensible than the first. In my lecture, I said – and I should like to hope, proved – that modern art is decaying. [91] I stated that the reason for this phenomenon – to which nobody who sincerely loves art can remain indifferent – is that the majority of our present-day artists adhere to the bourgeois standpoint and are quite impervious to the great emancipatory ideas of our time. In what way can this statement influence the waverers? If it is convincing, it should induce the waverers to adopt the standpoint of the proletariat. And this is all that can be demanded of a lecture whose purpose was to examine the question of art, not to expound or defend the principles of socialism.

Last but not least, Mr. Lunacharsky, having maintained that it is impossible to prove that bourgeois art is decaying, considered that I would have done wiser to juxtapose to the bourgeois ideals a harmonious system – that was his expression, if I remember rightly – of opposite concepts. And he assured the audience that such a system would in time be elaborated. Now this objection completely passes my understanding. If this system is still to be elaborated, then, clearly, it has not yet been elaborated. And if it has not yet been elaborated, how could I have juxtaposed it to the bourgeois views? And what can this harmonious system of concepts possibly be? Modern scientific socialism is unquestionably a fully harmonious system. And it has the advantage that it already exists. But as I have already said, it would have been very strange if, having undertaken to deliver a lecture on the subject of Art and Social Life, I had begun to expound the doctrines of modern scientific socialism – the theory of surplus-value, for example. Everything is good at the proper time and in the proper place.

It is possible however that when Mr. Lunacharsky spoke of a harmonious system of concepts he was referring to the views on proletarian culture recently put forward in the press by his close colleague in thought, Mr. Bogdanov. If that is so, then his last objection amounted to this, that I yet greater praise would earn, if to Mr. Bogdanov I went to learn. [92] I thank him for the advice, but I don’t intend to take it. And if anyone should, from inexperience, think of interesting himself in Mr. Bogdanov’s pamphlet, Proletarian Culture, I would remind him that it was very effectively laughed to scorn in Sovremenny Mir [93] by another of Mr. Lunacharsky’s close colleagues in thought – Mr. Alexinsky.