Art and Social Life by G. V. Plekhanov 1912


[Footnotes are Plekhanov’s own, except additions by subsequent editor marked “Note by editor"]

1. The work here presented to the reader is a recast of a lecture which I delivered, in Russian, in Liège and Paris in November of this year (1912). It has therefore to some degree retained the form of an oral delivery. Towards the end of the second part I shall examine certain objections addressed to me publicly in Paris by Mr. Lunacharsky concerning the criterion of beauty. I replied to them verbally at the time, but I consider it useful to discuss them in the press.

2. The article Art and Social Life was originally published in parts in the journal Sovremennik, November and December 1912, and January 1913. It is included in Vol. XIV of Plekhanov’s Collected Works, published after his death. [Note by editor.]

3. Plekhanov’s assessment of Pisarev’s views on art is not quite correct. Pisarev was a strong opponent of the theory of art for art’s sake, and held that art should be deeply imbued with thought content and reflect the progressive ideas of its time. But he did not deny the aesthetic value of art and literature. [Note by editor.]

4. N. G. Chernyshevsky, Collected Works, 1906 ed., Vol. I, pp. 33-34.

5. This opinion was partly a reiteration and partly a further development of the views formulated by Belinsky towards the end of his life. In his article, “A View of Russian Literature of 1847,” Belinsky wrote: “The highest and most sacred interest of society is its own welfare, equally extended to each of its members. The road to this welfare is consciousness, and art can promote consciousness no less than science. Here science and art are equally indispensable, and neither science can replace art, nor art replace science.” But art can develop man’s knowledge only by “passing judgement on the phenomena of life.” Chernyshevsky’s dissertation is thus linked with Belinsky’s final view of Russian literature.

6. Nekrasov, The Poet and the Citizen. [Note by editor.]

7. Kramskoi’s letter to V. V. Stasov from Mentone, April 30, 1884, shows that he was strongly influenced by the views of Belinsky, Gogol, Fedotov, Ivanov, Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov, Perov (Ivan Nikolayevich Kramskoi, His Life, Correspondence and Critical Articles, St. Petersburg, 1888, p. 487). It should be observed, however, that the judgements on the phenomena of life to be met with in Kramskoi’s critical articles are far inferior in lucidity to those which we find, for example, in G. I. Uspensky, to say nothing of Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov.

8. This and the previous fragment are from Pushkin’s The Poet and the Crowd, originally published under the title The Rabble. [Note by editor.]

9. In the 1860s, Russian critics who held that art should be independent of social life, appealed to the authority of Pushkin against the revolutionary democrats. They falsely construed these poems and maintained that Pushkin was a believer in “pure art.” Similar views were held by the Russian decadents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [Note by editor.]

10. Reference is to the armed uprising of the troops of the St. Petersburg garrison led by revolutionary officers, members of the Russian nobility, on December 14, 1825 (hence their name – the Decembrists). The basic demands in the programmes of their secret societies were abolition of serfdom and limitation of the tsarist autocracy. The uprising was brutally suppressed; its leaders were executed and many of the participants exiled to Siberia. [Note by editor.]

11. Reference is to St. Petersburg and Moscow. [Note by editor.]

12. P. Y. Shchogolev, Pushkin, Essays, St. Petersburg, 1912, p. 357.

13. Ibid., p. 241.

14. From Pushkin’s To the Poet. [Note by editor.]

15. Preface to M-lle de Maupin.

16. A group of French poets (Théophile Gautier, Charles Leconte de Lisle, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and others), which took shape in the latter half of the 19th century. The name Parnassians was derived from Parnasse Contemporain, the title of collections of poems they published in 1866, 1871 and 1876, where they preached the cult of art for art’s sake. [Note by editor.]

17. The name applied in German student corps to first-year students; here the reference is to students in Heidelberg and Jena. [Note by editor.]

18. Histoire du romantisme, Paris, 1895, pp. 153-54.

19. Ibid., p. 154.

20. Les odes funambulesques, Paris, 1858, pp. 294-95.

21. Restoration in France – the period (1814-30) of Bourbon rule after the restoration of the dynasty in 1814. [Note by editor.]

22. Alfred de Musset describes this disharmony in the following words: “Dès lors se formèrent comme deux camps: d’une part les esprits exaltés, souffrants; toutes les âmes expansives, qui ont besoin de l’infini, plièrent la tête en pleurant, ils s’enveloppèrent de rêves maladifs, et l’on ne vit plus que de frêles roseaux sur un océan d’amertume. D’une autre part, les hommes de chair restèrent debout, inflexibles, au milieu des jouissances positives, et il ne leur prit d’autre souci que de compter l’argent qu’ils avaient. Ce ne fut qu’un sanglot et un éclat de rire, l’un venant de l’âme, l’autre du corps.” (“Two camps, as it were, formed: on one side, exalted and suffering minds, expansive souls who yearn for the infinite bowed their heads and wept, wrapped themselves in morbid dreams, and one saw nothing but frail reeds in an ocean of bitterness. On the other, men of the flesh remained erect, inflexible, giving themselves over to positive pleasures and knowing no care but the counting of their money. Nothing but sobs and bursts of laughter – the former coming from the soul, the latter from the body.”) La confession d’un enfant du siècle, p. 10.

23. Op. cit., p. 31.

24. Ibid., p. 32.

25. “For unknown friends.” – Ed.

26. Théodore de Banville says explicitly that the romanticists’ attacks on the “bourgeois” were not directed against the bourgeoisie as a social class (Les odes funambulesques, Paris, 1858, p.294). This conservative revolt of the romanticists against the “bourgeois,” but not against the foundations of the bourgeois system, has been understood by some of our present-day Russian... theoreticians (Mr. Ivanov-Razumnik, for instance) as a struggle against the bourgeois spirit, a struggle which was far superior in scope to the social and political struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. I leave it to the reader to judge the profundity of this conception. In reality, it points to the regrettable fact that people who undertake to expound the history of Russian social thought do not always go to the trouble of acquainting themselves preliminarily with the history of thought in Western Europe.

27. The attitude of mind of the German romanticists was marked by an equally hopeless disharmony with their social environment, as is excellently shown by Brandes in his Die romantische Schule in Deutschland, which is the second volume of his work, Die Hauptströmungen der Literatur des 19-ten Jahrhunderts.

28. Poèmes antiques, Paris, 1852, Preface, p. vii.

29. Ibid., p. ix.

30. Ibid., p. xi.

31. Slavophiles – a trend of social thought in Russia which arose in the forties and fifties of the 19th century. They advanced a “theory” that Russia should follow its own, distinctive path of development based on the communal system (which was supposedly peculiar to the Slav nations) and Orthodox Christianity. The Slavophiles believed that Russian historical development precluded any possibility of revolutionary upheavals, strongly disapproved of the revolutionary movement and thought that the tsarist autocracy should be preserved in Russia. [Note by editor.]

32. By the “work” of Peter Ostrovsky meant the reforms of Peter I, designed to Europeanise Russia and end her backwardness. [Note by editor.]

33. “It is not a play, it’s a lesson.” – Ed.

34. Moskovsky Telegraf (Moscow Telegraph) – a scientific and literary journal published by N. A. Polevoi from 1825 to 1834. It came out in favour of enlightenment and criticised the system of feudal serfdom in Russia. [Note by editor.]

35. Memoirs of Ksenofont Polevoi, Suvorin Publishing House, St. Petersburg, 1888, p. 445.

36. One must be content in sunshine and rain, in heat or cold: “Be of ruddy countenance; I detest lean and pallid men. He who does not laugh deserves to be impaled.” – Ed.

37. Form is beautiful, true, when there is thought beneath it! What is the use of a beautiful forehead, if there is no brain behind it? – Ed.

38. See A. Cassagne’s excellent book, La théorie de l’art pour l’art en France chez les derniers romantiques et les premiers réalistes, Paris, 1906, pp. 96-105.

39. Article 2 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted by the French Constituent Assembly at its sittings of August 20-26, 1789, reads: “Le but de toute association politique est la conservation des droits naturels et imprescriptibles de l’homme. Ces droits sont: la liberté, la propriété, la sûreté et la résistance a l’oppression.” (“The object of every civic association is the protection of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are: liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.”) The concern for property testifies to the bourgeois character of the revolution, while the recognition of the right to “resist oppression” indicates that the revolution had only just taken place but had not yet been completed, having met with strong resistance from the lay and clerical aristocracy. In June 1848 the French bourgeoisie no longer recognised the right of the citizen to resist oppression.

40. Belinsky expressed this opinion in his article “A View of Russian Literature in 1847.” [Note by editor.]

41. Its exclusiveness, which cannot be denied, only signified that in the 16th century the people who prized art were hopelessly out of harmony with their social environment. Then, too, this disharmony induced a gravitation towards pure art, that is, towards art for art’s sake. Previously, in the time of Giotto, say, there had been no such disharmony and no such gravitation.

42. It is noteworthy that Perugino himself was suspected by his contemporaries of being an atheist.

43. Mademoiselle de Maupin, Préface, p. 23.

44. Milo of Crotona – a famous Greek athlete (6th century B.C.). [Note by editor.]

45. Les Poètes, MDCCCLXXXIX, p. 260. – Ed.

46. Quoted by Cassagne in his La théorie de l’art pour l’art chez les derniers romantiques et les premiers réalistes, pp. 194-95.

47. “On peut, sans contradiction, aller successivement à son laboratoire et à son oratoire” (“one can, without contradiction, go successively to one’s laboratory and one’s chapel”), Grasset, professor of clinical

medicine at Montpellier, said ten years or so ago. This dictum is reiterated with delight by such theorists as Jules Soury, author of Bréviaire de l’histoire du matérialisme, a book written in the spirit of Lange’s well-known work on the same theme. See the article “Oratoire et laboratoire,” in Soury’s Campagnes nationalistes, Paris, 1902, pp. 233-66, 267. See also, in the same book, the article “Science et Religion,” the chief idea of which is expressed in the words of Du Bois-Reymond: ignoramus et ignorabimus (we do not know and never will know).

48. In saying this, Huysmans was hinting at the novel of the Belgian author Tabarant: Les virus d’amour.

49. See Jules Huret, Enquête sur l’évolution littéraire, conversation with Huysmans, pp. 176-77.

50. See the article “Dr. Stockmann’s Son” in my collection From Defence to Attack.

51. I am speaking of the time when Gautier had not yet worn out his celebrated red waistcoat. Later – at the time of the Paris Commune, for instance – he was already a conscious – and very bitter – enemy of the emancipatory aspirations of the working class. It should be observed, however, that Flaubert might likewise be called an ideological forerunner of Knut Hamsun, and even, perhaps, with greater right. In one of his notebooks we find the following significant lines: “Ce n’est pas contre Dieu que Prométhée aujourd’hui, devrait se révolter, mais contre le Peuple, dieu nouveau. Aux vieilles tyrannies sacerdotales, féodales et monarchiques on a succédé une autre, plus subtile, inextricable, impérieuse et qui, dans quelque temps, ne laissera pas un seul coin de la terre qui soit libre.” (“It is not against God that Prometheus would have to revolt today, but against the People, the new god. The old sacerdotal, feudal and monarchical tyrannies have been succeeded by another, more subtle, enigmatic and imperious, and one that soon will not leave a single free corner on the earth.”) See the chapter, “Les carnets de Gustave Flaubert” in Louis Bertrand’s Gustave Flaubert, Paris, 1912, p. 255.

This is just the sort of free-as-a-bird thinking that inspires Ivar Kareno. In a letter to George Sand dated September 8, 1871, Flaubert says: “Je crois que la foule, le troupeau sera toujours haïssable. Il n’y a d’important qu’un petit groupe d’esprits toujours les mêmes et qui se repassent le flambeau.” (“I believe that the crowd, the herd, will always be detestable. Nothing is important but a small group of always the same minds who pass on, the torch to one another.”) This letter also contains the lines I have already quoted to the effect that universal suffrage is a disgrace to the human mind, since because of it number dominates even over money!” (See Flaubert, Correspondance, quatrième série (1869-1880), huitième mille, Paris, 1910.) Ivar Kareno would probably recognise in these views his own free-as-a-bird thoughts. But these views were not yet reflected in Flaubert’s novels directly. The class struggle in modern society had to advance much further before the ideologists of the ruling class felt the need to give outright expression in literature to their hatred for the emancipatory ambitions of the “people.” But those who eventually conceived this need could no longer advocate the “absolute autonomy” of ideologies. On the contrary, they demanded that ideologies should consciously serve as intellectual weapons in the struggle against the proletariat. But of this later.

52. The feudal landlord in Saltykov-Shchedrin’s satirical tale, The Wild Landlord, who wanted “to solve” the peasant problem by murdering off the peasants. [Note by editor.]

53. See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works in three volumes, Vol. 1, Moscow, 1969, p. 112. [Note by editor.]

54. “For such is our good pleasure.” – Ed.

55. He says so himself. See La barricade, Paris, 1910, Preface, p. xix.

56. Vasily Shibanov – hero of an historical ballad of the same name by Count Alexei Tolstoy. [Note by editor.]

57.Vocal tool” instrumentum vocale, the name given to slaves in Ancient Rome. [Note by editor.]

58. La barricade, Preface, p. xxiv.

59. Sous l’oeil des barbares, 1901 ed., p. 18.

60. Collected Verse, Preface, p. ii.

61. Collected Verse, Preface, p. iii.

62. Babayev – a character in Sergeyev-Tsensky’s play of the same name. [Note by editor.]

63. According to Plekhanov’s opportunist conception, there were no objective conditions for a socialist revolution in Russia since she had embarked on the road of industrial development later than other countries and a conflict between the productive forces and capitalist production relations was not yet in sight. [Note by editor.]

64. We know, for instance, that the work of Helvetius, De l’homme, was published in The Hague, in 1772, by a Prince Golitsyn.

65. The infatuation of Russian aristocrats for the French Encyclopaedists had no practical consequences of any moment. It was however useful, in the sense that it did clear certain aristocratic minds of some aristocratic prejudices. On the other hand, the present infatuation of a section of our intelligentsia for the philosophical views and aesthetic tastes of the declining bourgeoisie is harmful, in the sense that it fills their “intellectual” minds with bourgeois prejudices, for the independent production of which our Russian soil has not yet been sufficiently prepared by the course of social development. These prejudices even invade the minds of many Russians who sympathise with the proletarian movement. The result is that they are filled with an astonishing mixture of socialism and that modernism which is bred by the decline of the bourgeoisie. This confusion is even the cause of no little practical harm.

66. Dmitri Mereschkowsky, Zinaida Hippius, Dmitri Philosophoff, Der Zar and die Revolution, Munich, K. Piper and Co., 1908, pp. 1-2.

67. Ibid., p. 5.

68. Ibid., p. 6.

69. In their German book, Merezhkovsky, Hippius and Filosofov do not at all repudiate the name “decadents” as applied to themselves. They only confine themselves to modestly informing Europe that the Russian decadents have “attained the highest peaks of world culture” (“haben die höchsten Gipfel der Weltkultur erreicht”). Op. cit., p. 151.

70. Her mystical anarchism will of course not frighten anyone. Anarchism, generally, is only an extreme deduction from the basic premises of bourgeois individualism. That is why we find so many bourgeois ideologists in the period of decadence who are sympathetic to anarchism. Maurice Barrès likewise sympathised with anarchism in that period of his development when he affirmed that there is no reality save our ego. Now, probably, he has no conscious sympathy for anarchism, for the ostensibly stormy outbursts of his particular brand of individualism ceased long ago. For him, the “authentic truths” which, he maintained, were “destroyed” have now been restored, the process of restoration being that Barrès has adopted the reactionary standpoint of the most vulgar nationalism. And this is not surprising: it is but a step from extreme bourgeois individualism to the most reactionary “truths.” This should be noted by Mrs. Hippius, as well as by Messrs. Merezhkovsky and Filosofov.

71. As an example of a thinker who restricts the rights of reason in the interest of religion, one might instance Kant: “Ich musste also das Wissen aufheben; um zum Glauben Platz zu bekommen.” (“I must, therefore, abolish knowledge, to make room for belief.”) Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Preface to the second edition, p. 26, Leipzig, Philipp Reclam, second and improved edition.

72. Many of the early impressionists were men of great talent. But it is noteworthy that among these very talented men there were no first-rate portrait painters. This is understandable, for in portrait painting light cannot be the chief dramatis persona. Furthermore, the landscapes of the distinguished impressionist masters are good for the very reason that they affectively convey the capricious and diversified effects of light; but there is very little “mood” in them. Feuerbach put it extremely well when he said: “Die Evangelien der Sinne im Zusammenhang lesen, heisst denken.” (“Reading the gospel of the senses coherently is thinking.”) Remembering that by “senses,” or sensibility, Feuerbach meant everything that relates to the realm of sensation, it may be said that the impressionists could not, and would not, read the “gospel of the senses.” This was the principal shortcoming of their school, and it very soon led to its degeneration. If the landscapes of the early and outstanding impressionist masters are good, very many of those of their very numerous followers resemble caricatures.

73. See Camille Mauclair’s “La crise de la laideur en peinture,” in his interesting collection of articles, Trois crises de l’art actuel, Paris, 1906.

74. Let the other side be heard. – Ed.

75. Du cubisme, p. 30.

76. Du cubisme, p. 31.

77. See the book in question, especially pp. 43-44.

78. Ibid., p. 42.

79. The words in quotation marks and the verses in the same paragraph are from Pushkin’s The Poet and the Crowd. [Note by editor.]

80. Die Kunst and die Revolution (R. Wagner, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. III, Leipzig, 1872, pp. 40-41.)

81. “Les carnets de Gustave Flaubert” (L. Bertrand, Gustave Flaubert, p. 260).

82. Ibid., p. 321.

83. Op. cit., pp. 314-20.

84. Op. cit., p. 321.

85. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, Moscow, 1962, pp. 31-32.

86. See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works in three volumes, Vol. 1, Moscow, 1969, p. 117. [Note by editor.]

87. Nous touchons ici au défaut de culture générale qui caractérise la plupart des artistes jeunes. Une fréquentation assidue vous démontrera vite qu’ils sont en général très ignorants... incapables ou indifférents devant les antagonismes d’idées et les situations dramatiques actuelles, ils oeuvrent péniblement a l’ecart de toute l’agitation intellectuelle et sociale, confinés dans les conflits de technique, absorbés par l’apparence matérielle de la peinture plus que par sa signification générale et son influence intellectuelle.” (“We refer here to the general lack of culture that characterises most young artists. Frequent contacts with them will soon show you that they are in general very ignorant... being incapable of understanding, or indifferent to, the conflicts of ideas and dramatic situations of the present day, they work drudgingly secluded from all intellectual and social movements, confining themselves to problems of technique and absorbed more with the material appearance of painting than with its general significance and intellectual influence.”) Holl, La jeune peinture contemporaine, pp. 14-15, Paris, 1912.

88. Here I have the satisfaction of citing Flaubert. He wrote to George Sand, “Je crois la forme et le fond... deux entités qui n’existent jamais l’une sans l’autre.” (“I believe form and substance to be two entities which never exist apart.”) Correspondance, quatrième serie, p. 225. He who considers it possible to sacrifice form “for idea” ceases to be an artist, if he ever was one.

89. “It is not the irresponsible whim of capricious taste that suggests the desire to find unique aesthetic values that are not subject to the vaniy of fashion or the imitation of the herd. The creative dream of a single incorruptible beauty, the living image that will save the world and enlighten and regenerate the erring and fallen, is nourished by the ineradicable urge of the human spirit to penetrate the fundamental mysteries of the Absolute.” (V. N. Speransky, The Social Role of Philosophy, Introduction, p. xi, Part I, Shipovnik Publishing House, St. Petersburg, 1913.) People who argue in this manner are compelled by logic to recognise an absolute criterion of beauty. But people who argue thus are pure-blooded idealists, and I, for my part, consider myself a no less pure-blooded materialist. Not only do I not recognise the existence of a “single incorruptible beauty”; I do not even know what the words “single incorruptible beauty” can possibly mean. More, I am certain that the idealists do not know either. All the talk about such beauty is “just words.”

90. Themistocles – a boy, son of the landowner Manilov in Gogol’s Dead Souls. [Note by editor.]

91. I am afraid that this too may give rise to misunderstanding. By the word “decay” I mean, comme de raison, a whole process, not an isolated phenomenon. This process has not yet ended, just as the social process of decay of the bourgeois order has not yet ended. It would therefore be strange to think that present-day bourgeois ideologists are definitely incapable of producing works of distinction. Such works, of course, are possible even now. But the chances of any such appearing have drastically diminished. Furthermore, even works of distinction now bear the impress of the era of decadence. Take, for example, the Russian trio mentioned above: if Mr. Filosofov is devoid of all talent in any field, Mrs. Hippius possesses a certain artistic talent and Mr. Merezhkovsky is even a very talented artist. But it is easy to see that his latest novel Alexander I, for example, is irretrievably vitiated by religious mania, which, in its turn, is characteristic of an era of decadence. In such eras even men of very great talent do not produce what they might have produced under more favourable social conditions. [

92. A play on lines from Krylov’s fable, The Ass and the Nightingale. After hearing the nightingale sing, the ass commended her, but thought she “yet greater praise would earn, if to the farmyard cock she went to learn.” [Note by editor.]

93. Sovremenny Mir (Contemporary World) – a monthly journal published in St. Petersburg from 1906 to 1918. [Note by editor.]