G.A. Nedozchiwin 1972

What Is Aesthetics?

Source: Marxism & Art: Writings in Aesthetics and Criticism, David McKay Company, Inc. 1972;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for marxists.org, February 2008.

During the historical development of society, a variety of forms of social consciousness shaped themselves various spheres of man’s spiritual life and spiritual activity. Included among these, from the earliest stages of human history, are aesthetic feelings, experiences, and perceptions. A specific form of social consciousness developed, as a function of this, in which the aesthetic relations of man to reality established, shaped, and developed themselves. This form is art.

The aesthetic elements mentioned, however, are not only confined to art, although it is there that they find their fullest and most complete expression. Man has aesthetic relations also with reality, with nature and society. Aesthetic experiences appear not only in confrontation with works of art, but also in contacts with a very large class of objects, phenomena, and events of nature and of the social life. It is the task of aesthetics to investigate the regularity of these aesthetic relations between man the real world. The science of aesthetics must, moreover, investigate the relations which prevail in society between all of the appearances of aesthetic phenomena and such specific domains as that of art. Although art is apparently closely tied to other forms of social activity – to the process of material production, to politics, philosophy, science, ethics, etc. – and sometimes converges on them, it nonetheless retains its own specificity and principles.

All of this belongs to the sphere, or, as is said, the “object” of that special discipline named aesthetics.

Aesthetics is a scientific discipline which investigates the general principles of development of man’s aesthetic relations to reality, and especially of art as a specific form of social consciousness. In other words: aesthetics examines in general the aesthetic relations of man to reality and in particular their highest form, art.

To which kind of science does aesthetics belong, and what is the connection between it and others of the related and proximate sciences?

Although, as we shall see, aesthetic feelings and experiences often arise by way of quite various objects and of natural phenomena and are qualified by the natural properties of these objects and phenomena, one must not confuse aesthetics with the natural sciences. Aesthetic activity and aesthetic relations are peculiar to man. They emerged in the process of the historical development of society. Thus aesthetics is a social science. It belongs to that group of sciences which Friedrich Engels, in Anti-Dühring, describes as historical sciences and which are linked to each other insofar as they “investigate man’s living conditions, his social relations, the forms of law and the state, with their superstructure of philosophy, religion, art, etc. in their historical progression and in their present state.

And there surely is a link between aesthetics and the other social sciences, above all, philosophy. Aesthetics is a philosophical discipline. It arose as a science within the bounds of philosophy. There is also even a link between the history of aesthetics and the history of philosophy. Scientific aesthetics is tied to Marxist-Leninist philosophy; it rests on its principles and is guided by its methods, especially in two respects.

The first of these is in respect to epistemology: the basis of aesthetics is the theory of knowledge of dialectical materialism. Demonstrably, the principal question of philosophy is the question of the relation between thinking and what is. For the solution of the problem of the aesthetic relation to reality, Marxist aesthetics allows itself to be guided by the central philosophical principles of Marxism-Leninism concerning the primary character of existence and the secondary character of consciousness, and concerning the dialectical interaction between the objective reality and thought in its organic connection with Praxis. In other words: Marxist-Leninist aesthetics, which reveals the essence of aesthetic consciousness, presupposes the Leninist theory of antitheses.

The second respect is that the materialist conception of society and its history is the foundation of aesthetics. One cannot correctly solve the problems of the inception and development of aesthetic consciousness in general or of art in particular, or ascertain the underlying principles of the historical development of art without calling on the materialist theory of historical development, or historical materialism.

Put differently, this means that only as it exists in an organic relation with the Marxist-Leninist philosophy is the fruitful development of aesthetics possible.

On the other hand, one should not conceive aesthetics as a science which merely illustrates the guidelines set down by philosophy in general. Obviously the laws which in general direct social consciousness are active in full measure in the sphere of aesthetic consciousness. But aesthetic consciousness has its own distinctiveness, its own specific character; and it is precisely this that aesthetics must discover and investigate. The general laws operate on specific ones within that sphere. Accordingly it is false to reduce the interpretation of aesthetics to general philosophical guidelines or laws and to illustrate them only by examples from within the purview of aesthetics; in such a case the richness and the whole complexity of the materials to be analyzed – especially in art – must be lost.

Like every other science, aesthetics also has its history. The history of aesthetic doctrine and thought is also an organic part of the science of aesthetics. Only by studying the development of aesthetic ideas from their points of origin to our own time can one follow exactly the way in which, in the battle among various philosophical impulses and currents, the battle between materialism and idealism, scientific conceptions of the development of aesthetic ideas and intuitions arose, and how the historical groundwork for the development of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics was laid. Every aesthetic theory is to a certain degree a generalization both on the development of art and on the aesthetic activity of an historical epoch.

In every theory, the interests and needs of one or another class, its taste for art and its artistic conceptions, find expression.

The working class, as the most progressive class in modern society, and for the first time in history, created a proletarian culture in the battle against the bourgeoisie and against the culture of the exploiting class; the highest expression of this is Marxism-Leninism.

The artistic creativity of the working class and of the working masses found expression in the creations of writers, poets, and painters who emerged from the working people and from the ranks of the progressive creators of culture who placed themselves on the side of the working class and of the people.

The emergence of Marxism which is a scientific expression of the interests of the working class and a unified worldview unequivocally opposed to all reaction, to every defense of the bourgeois yoke, was a revolutionary turning point for the social sciences as a while and thus also for aesthetics. The dominance of idealist aesthetics came to and end. Now there opposes it an aesthetic which rests on the sturdy basis of the Marxist-Leninist worldview, and which gives expression to the interests, needs, and artistic taste of the working class and of the masses. For the first time, an aesthetics arose that was free of the limitations from which earlier theories – even the progressive ones – suffered.

Marxist-Leninist aesthetics is a new, higher step in the historical development of aesthetic thought. It arose and evolved by critical appropriation and creative reworking of everything accomplished by aesthetics before it; it is a scientific generalization based on the artistic development of mankind and the rich experiences found in the development of socialist art.

Marxist-Leninist aesthetics, which is a scientific expression of the interests, needs, and aesthetic ideals of the masses of people, makes for the development of socialist and all progressive art. It enriches our art, our theory and criticism of art, by progressive social and aesthetic ideas, and gives them perspectives for further progressive development.

Soviet aesthetics is a partisan science. It generalizes on the praxis of progressive artists and formulates the aspirations of the people with respect to artistic creation; it fights to interpose the politics of the Communist Party in the domain of art, against the reactionary bourgeois ideology, against Formalism and Naturalism and in behalf of a continued flowering of Socialist Realism. In this consists the foundation of the organic link between Marxist-Leninist aesthetics and politics.

This conception of the object and aims of the science of aesthetics stands in opposition to modern, reactionary bourgeois conceptions. Such proponents of modern neo-Thomist aesthetics as Jacques Maritain have, for example, reworked – or more correctly, belabored – the Aristotelian theory of the imitation of reality in art in the spirit of medieval scholasticism and with an obvious regard for perverted taste and for the anti-naturalistic efforts of decadent art. For them, the object of aesthetics is the human emotions which lead to a union with the Beyond. They proclaim the absolute freedom of artists from the objective laws of life; they cultivate arbitrariness, subjectivism and extreme formalism, and maintain that this freedom leads to the discovery of invisible spiritual rays of a spirit active but invisible in things.

The Catholic Existentialist Gabriel Marcel understands by aesthetics the attempt to penetrate, with the help of irrational methods, the “secret” of life. A love for art, so Marcel assures us, means that one appropriates it without thought.

For the Pragmatists (John Dewey and others), the task of aesthetics consists of the examination of principles in terms of which the Beautiful is constructed, from the standpoint of a certain “situation.” The consequence of such a conception of aesthetics is that the Beautiful loses its objective significance and that subjectivity in art is strengthened. The essence of idealist theories of this type consists of the effort to “dissolve” the objective world in human representations and to justify subjectivism and formalism.

What is the relation between aesthetics and the science of art? Aesthetics investigates the general principles of the aesthetic relations between man and reality and of the development of art; the question accordingly would more correctly read: What are the connections between aesthetics as a science and the various disciplines that are the “sciences” of art?

The science of art divides itself into individual scientific disciplines. The voluminous material accumulated by them demands more or less clear specialization on the part of their investigators. This specialization corresponds principally to the various genres of art (each of which possesses its own peculiarities) which warrant special investigation.

To it belong the theory of literature, the theory of drama, the theory of art in the narrower sense of the word (one frequently understands by this term the plastic arts, that is painting and sculpture, including architecture and any related art), the theory of the film, the theory of music, etc. Each of these sciences investigates the concrete history of its respective genre of art and at the same time examines the theoretical questions especially pertinent to it.

If art is the highest and specific form of the aesthetic activity of human society, still aesthetics cannot exist or develop fruitfully without falling back on the material gathered and investigated in the study of the development of art’s genres as well as of art history and of the artist’s practical activity.

Without this connection, aesthetics runs the danger of losing itself in abstract theses and logical constructions.

On the other hand, the historical investigation of art cannot proceed blindly. In his analysis of the concrete material, the investigator of art must rely on certain theoretical principles. In this way, a particular science of art does not only provide material for aesthetics, but itself receives from it the theoretical presuppositions required. In other words, without a theory of art (aesthetics), there is no history of art; without the history of art, there is no theory of art.

Aesthetics is not related only to the history of art. It is also related to the history of culture and history in general, to sciences which study the theoretical problems and the history of other forms of social consciousness – ethics and its history – and to the history of religion and atheism. A relation also exists between aesthetics and psychology, the latter of which studies the principles and forms of man’s psyche and its development. Within the context of pedagogy and pedagogical practice, questions of aesthetic education play a decisive role. Aesthetics stands both on concrete material and on the results yielded by other sciences. In turn it serves other sciences by way of the material provided in its questions and its conclusions as they are necessary or significant for the other sciences.

It is especially important to emphasize the connection between aesthetics and ethics. Among the conditions required for the comprehensive preparation for the transition to communism, the task of cultivating a fully developed human personality and developing a communist consciousness among the masses is a matter of extraordinary importance. Art is one of the most efficacious forms which can help to accomplish this task. With respect to the development and communist education of man, questions of aesthetics and ethics (moral theory) are especially closely intertwined. One must remember that aesthetics not only makes the praxis of communist education practicable, but is itself also a means of that education, since it formulates the aesthetic ideals of the people and helps the masses to understand the fundamental problems of art.