G. V. Plekhanov: Art and social life

The relation of art to social life is a question that has always figured largely in all literatures that have reached a definite stage of development. Most often, the question has been answered in one of two directly opposite senses.

Some say: man is not made for the sabbath, but the sabbath for man; society is not made for the artist, but the artist for society. The function of art is to assist the development of man’s consciousness, to improve the social system.

Others emphatically reject this view. In their opinion, art is an aim in itself; to, convert it into a means of achieving any extraneous aim, even the most noble, is to lower the dignity of a work of art.

The first of these two views was vividly reflected in our progressive literature of the sixties. To say nothing of Pisarev, whose extreme one-sidedness almost turned it into a caricature, [3] one might mention Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov as the most thorough-going advocates of this view in the critical literature of the time. Chernyshevsky wrote in one of his earliest critical articles:

“The idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ is as strange in our times as ‘wealth for wealth’s sake’, ‘science for science’s sake’, and so forth. All human activities must serve mankind if they are not to remain useless and idle occupations. Wealth exists in order that man may benefit by it; science exists in order to be man’s guide; art, too, must serve some useful purpose and not fruitless pleasure.” In Chernyshevsky’s opinion, the value of the arts, and especially of “the most serious of them,” poetry, is determined by the sum of knowledge they disseminate in society. He says: “Art, or it would be better to say poetry (only poetry, for the other arts do very little in this respect), spreads among the mass of the reading public an enormous amount of knowledge and, what is still more important, familiarises them with the concepts worked out by science – such is poetry’s great purpose in life.” [4] The same idea is expressed in his celebrated dissertation, The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality. According to its 17th thesis, art not only reproduces life but explains it: its productions very often “have the purpose of pronouncing judgement on the phenomena of life.”

In the opinion of Chernyshevsky and his disciple, Dobrolyubov, the function of art was, indeed, to reproduce life and to pass judgement on its phenomena. [5] And this was not only the opinion of literary critics and theoreticians of art. It was not fortuitous that Nekrasov called his muse the muse of “vengeance and grief.” In one of his poems the Citizen says to the Poet:

Thou poet by the heavens blessed,
Their chosen herald! It is wrong
That the deprived and dispossessed
Are deaf to your inspired song.

Believe, men have not fallen wholly,
God lives yet in the heart of each
And still, though painfully and slowly,
The voice of faith their souls may reach.

Be thou a citizen, serve art.
And for thy fellow-beings live,
To them, to them thy loving heart
And all thy inspiration give. [6]

In these words the Citizen Nekrasov sets forth his own understanding of the function of art. It was in exactly the same way that the function of art was understood at that time by the most outstanding representatives of the plastic arts – painting, for example. Perov and Kramskoi, like Nekrasov, strove to be “citizens” in serving art; their works, like his, passed “judgements on the phenomena of life.” [7]

The opposite view of the function of creative art had a powerful defender in Pushkin, the Pushkin of the time of Nicholas I. Everybody, of course, is familiar with such of his poems as The Rabble and To the Poet. The people plead with the poet to compose songs that would improve social morals, but meet with a contemptuous, one might say rude, rebuff:

Begone, ye pharisees! What cares
The peaceful poet for your fate?
Go, boldly steep yourselves in sin:
With you the lyre will bear no weight.

Upon your deeds I turn my back.
The whip, the dungeon and the rack
Till now you suffered as the price
For your stupidity and vice
And, servile madmen, ever shall!

Pushkin set forth his view of the mission of the poet in the much-quoted words:

No, not for worldly agitation,
Nor worldly greed, nor worldly strife,
But for sweet song, for inspiration,
For prayer the poet comes to life. [8]

Here the so-called theory of art for art’s sake is formulated in the most striking manner. It was not without reason that Pushkin was cited so readily and so often by the opponents of the literary movement of the sixties [9].

Which of these two directly opposite views of the function of art is to be considered correct?

In undertaking to answer this question, it must first be observed that it is badly formulated. Like all questions of a similar nature, it cannot be approached from the standpoint of “duty.” If the artists of a given country at one period shun “worldly agitation and strife,” and, at another, long for strife and the agitation that necessarily goes with it, this is not because somebody prescribes for them different “duties” at different periods, but because in certain social conditions they are dominated by one attitude of mind, and by another attitude of mind in other social conditions. Hence, if we are to approach the subject correctly, we must look at it not from the standpoint of what ought to be, but of what actually is and has been. We shall therefore formulate the question as follows:

What are the most important social conditions in which artists and people keenly interested in art conceive and become possessed by the belief in art for art’s sake?

As we approach the answer to this question, it will not be difficult to answer another, one closely connected with it and no less interesting, namely:

What are the most important social conditions in which artists and people keenly interested in art conceive and become possessed by the so-called utilitarian view of art, that is, the tendency to attach to artistic productions the significance of “judgements on the phenomena of life"? ...


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