Nicholas G. Chernyshevsky: The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality

Written: 1853;
Source: Russian Philosophy Volume II: The Nihilists, The Populists, Critics of Religion and Culture, Quadrangle Books 1965;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss, February 2008.

The sea is beautiful; looking at it, we never think of being dissatisfied with it, aesthetically. But not everyone lives near the sea; many people never in their lives get a chance to see it. Yet they would very much like to see it, and consequently seascapes please and interest them. Of course, it would be much better to see the sea itself rather than pictures of it; but when a good thing is not available, a man is satisfied with an inferior one. When the genuine article is not present, a substitute will do. Even the people who can admire the real sea cannot always do so when they want to, and so they call up memories of it. But man’s imagination is weak; it needs support and prompting. So to revive their memories of the sea, to see it more vividly in their imagination, they look at seascapes. This is the sole aim and object of very many (the majority of) works of art: to give those people who have not been able to enjoy beauty in reality the opportunity to acquaint themselves with it at least to some degree; to serve as a reminder, to prompt and revive memories of beauty in reality in the minds of those people who are acquainted with it by experience and love to recall it...

Thus, the first purpose of art is to reproduce nature and life, and this applies to all works of art without exception. Their relation to the corresponding aspects and phenomena of reality is the same as the relation of an engraving to the picture from which it was copied, or the relation of a portrait to the person it represents. An engraving is made of a picture not because the latter is bad, but because it is good. Similarly, reality is reproduced in art not in order to eliminate flaws, not because reality as such is not sufficiently beautiful, but precisely because it is beautiful. Artistically an engraving is not superior to the picture from which it is copied, but much inferior to it; similarly, works of art never attain the beauty and grandeur of reality. But the picture is unique; it can be admired only by those who go to the picture gallery which it adorns. The engraving, however, is sold in hundreds of copies all over the world; everyone can admire it whenever he pleases without leaving his room, without getting up from his couch, without throwing off his dressing gown. Similarly, a beautiful object in reality is not always accessible to everyone; reproductions of it (feeble, crude, pale, it is true, but reproductions all the same) in works of art make it always accessible to everybody. A portrait is made of a person we love and cherish not in order to eliminate the flaws in his features – what do we care about these flaws? we do not notice them, or if we do we like them – but in order to give us the opportunity to admire that face even when it is not actually in front of us. Such also is the aim and object of works of art; they do not correct reality, do not embellish it, but reproduce it, serve as a substitute for it...

While not claiming in the least that these words express something entirely new in the history of aesthetic ideas, we think nonetheless that the pseudo-classical “imitation of nature” theory that prevailed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries demanded of art something different from the formal principle implied by the definition: “Art is the reproduction of reality.” In support of our statement that there is an essential difference between our view of art and that contained in the imitation of nature theory, we shall quote here a criticism of that theory taken from the best textbook on the now prevailing system of aesthetics. This criticism will, on the one hand, show the difference between the conceptions it refutes and our view, and, on the other, will reveal what is lacking in our initial definition of art as reproducing reality, and will thus enable us to proceed to a more exact development of concepts of art.

The definition of art as imitation of nature reveals only its formal object; according to this definition art should strive as far as possible to repeat what already exists in the external world. Such repetition must be regarded as superfluous, for nature and life already present us with what, according to this conception, art should present to us. What is more, the imitation of nature is a vain effort which falls far short of its object because in imitating nature, art, owing to its restricted means, gives us only deception instead of truth and only a lifeless mask instead of a really living being.[2]

Here we shall observe, first of all, that the words, “Art is the reproduction of reality,” as well as the sentence, “Art is the imitation of nature,” define only the formal principle of art; to define the content of art we must supplement the first conclusion we have drawn concerning its aim, and this we shall do subsequently. The other objection does not in the least apply to the view we have expounded; from the preceding exposition it is evident that the reproduction or “repetition” of the objects and phenomena of nature by art is by no means superfluous; on the contrary, it is necessary. Turning to the observation that repetition is a vain effort which falls far short of its object, it must be said that this argument is valid only when it is assumed that art wishes to compete with reality and not simply serve as a substitute for it. We, however, assert that art cannot stand comparison with living reality and completely lacks the vitality that reality possesses; we regard this as beyond doubt...

Let us see whether further objections to the imitation theory apply to our view:

Since it is impossible to achieve complete success in imitating nature, all that remains is to take smug pleasure in the relative success of this hocus-pocus; but the more the copy bears an external resemblance to the original, the colder this pleasure becomes, and it even grows into satiety or revulsion. There are portraits which, as the saying goes, are awfully like the originals. An excellent imitation of the song of the nightingale begins to bore and disgust us as soon as we learn that it is not a real nightingale singing, but some skillful imitator of the nightingale’s trilling; this is because we have a right to expect different music from a human being. Such tricks in the extremely skillful imitation of nature may be compared with the art of the conjurer who without a miss threw lentils through an aperture no bigger than a lentil, and whom Alexander the Great rewarded with a medimnos of lentils. [3]

These observations are perfectly just, but they apply to the useless and senseless copying of what does not deserve attention, or to the depiction of mere externals devoid of content. (How many vaunted works of art earn this biting, but deserved, ridicule!) Content worthy of the attention of a thinking person is alone able to shield art from the reproach that it is merely a pastime, which it all too often is. Artistic form does not save a work of art from contempt or from a pitying smile if, by the importance of its idea, the work cannot answer the question: Was it worth the trouble? A useless thing has no right to respect. “Man is an end in himself”; but the things man makes must have their end in the satisfaction of man’s needs and not in themselves. That is precisely why the more perfectly a useless imitation bears external resemblance to the original, the more disgust it arouses. “Why were so much time and labor wasted on it?” we ask ourselves when looking at it. “And what a pity that such lack of content can go hand in hand with such perfection of workmanship!” The boredom and disgust aroused by the conjurer who imitates the song of the nightingale are explained by the very remarks contained in the above criticism: a man who fails to understand that he ought to sing human songs and not make the trills that have meaning only in the song of the nightingale is deserving only of pity. ...


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