Andre Malraux 1935

The Work of Art:
Speech to the International Association of Writers for the Defense of Culture

Written: 1935;
Source: Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary, Alfred A. Knoff Inc. 1973;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss, February 2008.

This Congress of ours has been held under the worst possible conditions. Through the cooperation of a few, and with almost no money. Just have a look at the press clippings on the bulletin-board at the door. From an occasional outburst of wrath, but above all, from the impressive silence, we are henceforth aware that this Congress exists. Yet, if it held no more than the possibility of giving as large an audience as possible to books which in their own countries are no longer able to find one, if it did no more than cement our union with a host of exiled comrades – a sense of solidarity which will be found expressed in its resolutions – this gathering would not be in vain.

But it has another meaning than that. You read yesterday the speeches of the French Fascists. It is for each of us, then, as man and man, to take his place at the post of combat. But let us not, through an absurd preoccupation with the military aspect of things, underestimate that power of thought, which today makes it possible for our Balkan comrades, banned at home, to return home whether in French or in English, for the simple reason that this Congress has taken it upon itself to have their works translated. It is in the nature of Fascism to be a nation; it is ours to be a world.

Much has been said here concerning the defense of culture; but it may be that the best thing about the Congress is the comprehension borne in upon us that the question is not to be put that way. Let me explain.

When an artist of the Middle Ages carved a crucifix, when an Egyptian sculptor hewed out a funeral-mask, they were creating what we would term fetishes or holy images; they did not think of their carvings as art objects; they would not have been able to conceive of such a thing. A crucifix stood for the Christ, a funeral-mask for the dead; and the idea of their being some day brought together in the same museum, in order that we might study their lines and masses, would have struck their makers as nothing more or less than a profanation. In a locked case in the museum of Cairo, there are a number of statuettes. They are the earliest representations of man. Up to that time, there had been but the concept, a good deal easier to grasp, of the spiritual double, who abandoned man in sleep, before leaving him for good in the sleep of death. As I went through the museum, I caught sight of a visitor who was taking the measurements of these carvings; and 1 could not but think of how dumbfounded the one who made them would have been, had he been able to foresee that his work would end up as an artistic problem – such the outcome of that moment, some three thousand years before Christ, and somewhere in the neighborhood of the Nile, when a nameless carver of images first took it upon himself to depict the human soul.

Every work of art is created to satisfy a need, a need that is passionate enough to give it birth. Then the need withdraws from the art-work as blood from a body, and the mysterious process of transfiguration sets in. The art-work, thereupon, enters the realm of shades; and it is only our own need, our own passion which can summon it forth again. Until such a time, it is like a great, sightless statue, before which there passes a long drawn out procession of the blind. And the impulsion which shall bring one of the blind to the statue shall be sufficient to open both their eyes at once.

We have but to go back a hundred years in order to find utterly ignored any number of works which today are among the most indispensable that we possess. Two hundred years, and we shall find the radiant, withered smile of Gothic become synonymous with the grin. A work of art is an object; but it is, in addition, an encounter with time; and I am aware, needless to say, that we have made the discovery of history. Works born of love may find their way to the store-loft or to the museum, which is scarcely a happier fate. Any work is dead, the moment love has ebbed.

Nevertheless, there is a meaning to all this. Art, thought, poems, all the old dreams of mankind – if we have need of them in order to go on living, they have need of us that they may live again. Need of our passion, our longings – need of our will. They are not mere sticks of furniture, standing about for an inventory after the owner’s death; rather, they are like those shades in the infernos of old, eagerly awaiting the approach of the living. Whether or not we mean to do so, we create them in creating ourselves. His very impulse to create leads Ronsard to resurrect Greece; Racine, Rome; Hugo, Rabelais; Corot, Vermeer. There is not a single great individual creation which is not enmeshed in the centuries, which does not trail after it the slumbering grandeurs of the past. Our inheritance is not handed down; it is one to be achieved.

Writers of the West, we are engaged in a bitter struggle with that which is our own. Comrades of the Soviets, you did well to hold your Moscow Congress beneath the portraits of the great of old; but what we expect of that civilization of yours, which has safeguarded those masterpieces, through blood and famine and typhus, is something more than a mere show of reverence; we expect you once again to wrest from them a fresh and significant aspect.

Down underneath our common volition, a thousand differences are at play. But that volition is; and when we shall be no longer anything more than historical phases of our time, when all those differences shall have disappeared in the fraternal embrace of death, we would still that the spirit which, in spite of all our weaknesses and all our bickerings, has brought us together here should be the thing which in the end will work a new metamorphosis on time’s wrinkled visage.

For every work of art becomes a symbol and a sign, but not always of the same thing. A work of art implies the possibility of a reincarnation. And the world of history can only lose its meaning in the contemporary will of man. It is for each of us, in his own field and through his own efforts, and for the sake of all those who are engaged in a quest of themselves, to recreate the phantom heritage which lies about us, to open the eyes of all the sightless statues, to turn hopes into will and revolts into revolutions, and to shape thereby, out of the age-old sorrows of man, a new and glowing consciousness of humankind.