Marxism and Modern Art: An approach to social realism by F. D. Klingender 1943

Realism: Chernyshevski

The quality which is most striking in The Palace of Art is its ambiguity. On the one hand the poet is tempted and passionately desires to escape into the ‘God-like isolation’ of pure art, [16] on the other hand he realizes that isolation will lead him to despair and death. Tennyson became the Laureate of the Victorians because, on the surface at least, he spurned the blandishments of art for art’s sake and accepted the ‘mission’ of teaching and consoling his fellow men. Yet precisely in so far as he did accept this mission he all but destroyed his poetic inspiration. It is not difficult to explain this seeming paradox; for if one examines Tennyson’s work one soon discovers that the ‘others’ with whom he returned to his Palace were neither the people at large, nor the ‘few elect’, but the Victorian middle class.

It was not, therefore, to the conflicts and the squalor of the real world that Tennyson returned, but to the sham idealism with which the Victorian squire and business man sought to conceal the contradictions of that world. While rejecting the escape into pure art in the name of morals, he made his art the handmaid of an even baser form of escape, the escape of insincerity. But there was also another side in Tennyson’s work. The haunting fear, the doubt that all was not as it appeared to be, the agony and the despair, which the Victorians tried to conceal under a mask of complacent decorum, break out with unsurpassed intensity in many of his poems. And it was here, where he ceased to be pontifical and gave free vent to his emotions, that Tennyson became the true mirror of an important aspect of his age.

Compared with the degradation of art, when it served as the mouthpiece of Victorian cant, the doctrine of art for art’s sake was a great step forward. It freed the artist from complete subservience to a false morality and enabled him to preserve something, at least, of his integrity. Moreover, in its early stages art for art’s sake was not incompatible with a critical attitude to contemporary society. But from about 1870 onwards, as the pressure increased, this critical attitude was more and more replaced by assumed indifference, the artist retreated into ever remoter realms of ‘purely’ aesthetic experience, and the further he retreated, the more rapidly did the sweets he coveted turn to ashes in his mouth.

‘What matters in art is the contemplation of form’ and ‘in proportion as art gets purer, the number of people to whom it appeals gets less’, say the formalists. Their conception of good art and of its relation to life is thus on their own admission incompatible with the present need of reuniting art and the people. Nor can we derive much help from the conception of art which the Victorians admired in Tennyson: It is the artist’s mission to console his fellow men, ‘even as the calm, gentle, self-reliant physician inspires the fevered sufferer’ by ‘throwing a divine grace over the happier emotions’; he should ‘transport them from the cankering cares of daily life, the perplexities and confusion of their philosophies, the weariness of their haunting thoughts, to some entirely new field of existence, to some place of rest, some “clear walled city by the sea” where they can draw a serene air undimmed by the clouds and smoke which infest their ordinary existence.’ [17] We may agree with the formalists that the artist who makes his work an opium for the people is a traitor to his calling. But it is easy to exaggerate the difference between these two conceptions of art. They differ in degree, but not in kind. Both imply an ideal realm of ‘beauty’ or ‘pure form’ which is superior to the ordinary life of men. Both agree that the real world in its rich and concrete actuality has no aesthetic significance.

There have always been artists who have taken the opposite view of art and of its relation to reality. In our own tradition this was true of Shelley and Constable, no less than of Fielding and Hogarth. But whereas the Victorians tolerated a realistic attitude to Nature and society only if it was overlayed with sentimentality, as in Dickens or in the later work of George Cruikshank, the tradition of uncompromising realism continued to advance in nineteenth-century France and Russia. The aesthetic assumptions of realism were first systematically defined by N. G. Chernyshevski, a contemporary of Balzac and Daumier, Gogol, Aksakov and Shchedrin, whose thesis Life and Aesthetics was published in 1853.

Chernyshevski’s thesis is an attack on the aesthetic theory of philosophical idealism, especially its classical culmination in the work of Hegel and his follower F. T. Vischer. In the view of these philosophers what appears beautiful to man is that which he accepts as the complete realisation of a given idea. But an idea can never be fully realised in a particular thing and therefore art, which aims at ideal perfection, always contains an element of myth or illusion. This mythical element is progressively destroyed by the advance of science which, consequently, results in a decline of art. Stripped of its illusions, the ideal beauty depicted by art loses its power to console men for the imperfections of reality.

Against this theory Chernyshevski advances the claim: ‘Reality is greater than dreams and essential significance more important than fantastic pretensions.’ Hence he seeks beauty not in any ideal sphere remote from reality and opposed to it, but in the essence of reality itself.

‘The most universal of all things cherished by men and the one cherished more than anything else in the world is life itself; most of all the life men would like to live but also every other kind of life, for it is in any case better to live than not to live and all live things by their very nature are afraid of death, of extinction – and they all love life.

‘It would seem that the definitions “Beauty is life,” “Beautiful are all things in which we see life as, according to our conceptions, it should be,” “Beautiful is an object which expresses life or reminds us of it” give a satisfactory explanation of all the ways in which the feeling of beauty is roused in us.’ [18]

Life, reality in general, is more rich and varied, fuller and more significant than any figment of the imagination. It follows that art, too, far from being superior to reality, can only be a pale reflection of it:

‘All that finds expression in science and art can be found in life in a more perfect and complete form, with all those vital details in which the true meaning of the matter usually lies and which are often not understood and even more often disregarded by science and art.

‘In real life all happenings are true and correct, there are no oversights, none of that one-sided narrowness of vision which attaches to all human works. Life as a teacher, as a channel of knowledge, is more full and accurate, even more artistic than all the works of all the scientists and poets. But life does not trouble to explain its phenomena to us nor to draw conclusions as men do in the works of science and art. True, such conclusions and ideas are much less complete and universal than life. But had they not been drawn for us by men of genius, our own conclusions would be even more narrow and inadequate.

‘Science and art (poetry) are textbooks for those who are beginning to study life. Their purpose is to prepare us for the reading of the original sources and later to provide an occasional reference. Science does not claim to be anything else, nor do the poets in their cursory remarks about the essence of their work. Only the aesthetes still assert that art is superior to life and to reality.’

Chernyshevski sums up by stating that it is the essential function of art ‘to reproduce everything that interests man in life’. But in reproducing life, the artist also, consciously or unconsciously, expresses his opinion of it, and it is by virtue of this that ‘art becomes a moral activity of man.’

Chernyshevski’s conception of the moral function of art has nothing in common with that of Tennyson:

‘The attitude of some people to the phenomena of life consists almost entirely in a preference for certain aspects of reality and avoidance of others. The minds of such people are not very active and if a person of this type happens to be a poet or an artist, his work will have no significance beyond reproducing the particular aspects of life which he prefers. But when a person endowed with artistic gifts is intellectually stimulated by problems arising out of the observation of life, his work will consciously or unconsciously embody a tendency to pronounce some vital judgment on the phenomena which occupy his mind (and that of his contemporaries, for a thinking man hardly concerns himself with trifling matters of no interest to anyone but himself). In his pictures or novels, poems or plays such a man will bring up or solve some problem with which life faces thinking men and women. Such works will be, as it were, composed on themes set by life.’

Thus, according to Chernyshevski, the significance of a work of art is proportional to the comprehensiveness and truthfulness with which it faces and attempts to solve the problems set by life.

Chernyshevski anticipated Fry in pointing out that beauty in nature is entirely distinct from the aesthetic element in art. Although, in his view, beauty is that which evokes life and although art reproduces what interests man in life, it by no means follows that art reproduces only what is beautiful in nature. ‘To paint a face beautifully’ is quite distinct from ‘painting a beautiful face’. ‘Everything that interests man in life’ includes the ugly, as well as the beautiful, the forces that frustrate and crush life, as well as those that support it, death as well as life. Chernyshevski’s conception of ‘life’ as the content of art is thus dynamic, dialectical, it is the struggle of life, life as it is in reality and not in blissful dreams.

The statement ‘this is beautifully painted’ means that the artist has succeeded in expressing what he intended to convey. In other words, it refers to the form and not to the content of the artist’s work. Chernyshevski admits that beauty in this sense of perfection of form, or in the language of classical philosophy, of the ‘unity of idea and image’, is an essential element of art. But he immediately points out:

‘Perfection of form (unity of idea and form) is not a characteristic of art in the aesthetic sense of the term “fine art” only. Beauty as the unity of idea and image, or as the perfect realization of an idea, is the aim of art in the widest possible sense of the term, the aim of all skill; it is, in fact, the aim of all practical activities of man.’

It is scarcely necessary to point out that this profound idea is utterly incompatible with the formalism of Roger Fry. For Fry seeks the aesthetic element precisely in the contemplation of form apart from its purpose and divorced from the content which it forms. Chernyshevski’s conception, on the other hand, anticipates the theories of William Morris and of all modern exponents of ‘functional’ design.

But it is when he defines the specific manner in which art reproduces reality that Chernyshevski differs most radically from the assumptions on which Fry’s analysis, in common with all other idealist systems of aesthetics, are based. Unlike mathematics which interprets reality by reducing its multiplicity to abstract laws, art reproduces reality by means of images. ‘The beautiful’, says Chernyshevski, ‘is an individual, live object and not an abstract thought’. In this respect the images created by art resemble beautiful objects in nature. They, too, can obtain general significance only through a profound reflection of the particular. This principle applies in one way or another to all forms of art, [19] but it may be illustrated most simply by means of a topical example. Suppose that a painter, sculptor, writer or film director sets out to create a striking and significant image of, say, the soldier of the 8th Army. He might attempt to compose an ideal figure embodying courage, toughness, a weather-beaten appearance, all those general qualities, in short, which the experience of desert warfare has imprinted on each member of that veteran force. But, as Chernyshevski points out, ‘alcohol is not wine’. The image that would result from such an attempt to distil only what is general from a multitude of living individuals, would be of the type which is only too familiar from hundreds of war memorials up and down the country. It would be false and unconvincing precisely because of its character as a lifeless abstraction. A genuine front-line newsreel sequence far surpasses even the best war film in dramatic power and intensity. Hence it would seem that to obtain an inspiring and significant image the artist should endeavour to create an authentic, documentary image of the living reality before him. To achieve this he should study the actual soldiers of the 8th Army at their daily work; he should observe just how the various qualities which have made that Army what it is are reflected in the behaviour and bearing of particular individuals, how they modify and are in turn modified by the idiosyncrasies of those individuals; and the more faithfully he succeeds in recreating particular, living characters with all their idiosyncrasies – say the London busman who is now driving a tank or the Australian gunner – the more real and therefore also the more typical and universally significant his image will be felt to be.

The assumption which is inherent in all idealist theories of aesthetics, including formalism, that the general is necessarily more fundamental and significant than the particular is thus a fallacy. Far from being more significant, the general can only be a pale reflection of the particular, an insubstantial shadow of its rich and vital individuality. What is more fundamental and hence more significant, Chernyshevski asks, Koramasin’s History of Russia or the Children’s History of Russia which a writer named Tappen abstracted from that work? Translating this example into more familiar terms we may ask: which are more significant, aesthetically and from every other point of view, Shakespeare’s plays or Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare?

But to deny that the general is more significant than the particular does not imply the reverse proposition that the particular as such is what matters in art. The statement that it is the function of art to reproduce everything that interests man in life implies that the particular image created must be ‘of interest to man generally and not merely to the artist’. It is therefore necessary to amplify the previous definition of the function of form in art – the complete expression of the artist’s aim – by stating: to paint, model, write, compose, act, film, etc., beautifully means so to express the particular that it attains general significance. Art is thus a striking and at the same time a peculiarly revealing illustration of the key conception of dialectics, the unity of opposites. For in art the particular becomes the general, the general reveals itself in the particular, and it is the unity of the particular and the general, expressed in the unity of content and form, which makes art an inexhaustible source of significant experience.