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TITLE: Complicated questions: Eternal conflict
AUTHOR: Sergei Diaghilev
THIS VERSION: Copyright © 2002 Robert Russell; all rights reserved. Redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the translator(s).

Introduction to the text

How laborious in our age is the task of sifting through all those aesthetic ideas that have come down to us, especially since our innate desire to analyse increases the complexity of the task. The first thing we encounter in the very roots of the century's aesthetic life are two views that have now grown tired as a result of the eternal conflict between them.

I do not want to deal with this old enmity, because it seems that the century-old war might at last be leading to the victory of one side and the surrender of the other. The war between the utilitarians and the adherents of art for art's sake - that old squabble - might long ago have died down, yet it is still smouldering today. Although the fundamental question of the relationship of ethics to aesthetics has always existed, narrowly utilitarian tendentiousness in art is a creation of people in the nineteenth century, and it is difficult to get rid of one's bad habits. This conflict, having appeared to die down in recent years, has flared up again in our day. The theory of art for art's sake never enjoyed a clear triumph in Russia, and just at the time when Zola was doing battle with Proudhon, (1) and Flaubert was leaving us his remarkable correspondence with Georges Sand, (2) here such fashionable figures as Chernyshevskii, Pisarev, and Dobroliubov reigned supreme. (3)

In 1866 Zola took offence at the raucous theory of Proudhon, that anti-aesthete, that purveyor of a narrowly socialist view of art and fabricator of a model state, who declared that art must facilitate the physical and moral improvement of the species and loudly declared: 'Our ideal is truth and rights. If you cannot create art from that, then step out of the way. We do not need you. If you serve those idlers who have been spoiled by luxury, then step out of the way. We do not need your art. If you need priests, aristocrats and kings, then step out of the way, right out of the way. We deplore you and your art.' (4) I love Zola's ironical response to Proudhon when he wrote: 'You are known as an implacable logician. I find that your logic was asleep on the day you made the irreparable error of accepting artists into your model state alongside your cobblers and lawyers. You do not like art, you do not like any form of individuality, you want to crush the individual personality so as to widen the path of humanity. If you are sincere in this, then kill the artists. Your world will be more peaceful. But for God's sake don't preach to them! And above all don't amuse yourself by trying to craft them out of different clay from the one that God used to create them, just so that you can have the pleasure of re-creating them as you want them to be!

It would be inappropriate now to mention those doctrines that allot to art the role of obedient schoolchildren held by reins to the anti-artistic theory of socialism, were it not for the fact that recently the issue of the subjugation of art to an external aim arose again (this time on the new ground of religious morality). This has led us to heed the words of Brunetière (5) and, in part, Ruskin (6) and finally to accept the challenge delivered to art by its ungrateful servant Lev Tolstoi, (7) who has rejected the art of every era and has reduced its very status to the level of one of the Christian virtues.

True, we cannot deny the fact that no work by our great writer has stimulated less interest than the theoretical exposition of his views on art. People somehow maintained an embarrassed silence about this work. But one cannot fail to take account of its publication, the more so since the only reason that a huge majority of our reviewers and critics take a negative view even of Tolstoi's theory is simply that they are still speaking with the words of Chernyshevskii. This pernicious figure has not yet been digested, and deep down our artistic judges still cherish the barbaric image of him touching art with his dirty fingers, intending to destroy or at least befoul it. 'Content worthy of the attention of a thinking person', he said, 'is the only thing that can save art from the reproach that it is an empty pastime, which it very often is. Artistic form will not save a work from scorn or a condescending smile if the significance of its ideas does not enable it to respond to the question 'was it really worth toiling to make trifles like this?' Is it not the case that very many people have already signed up to this vulgar formula, since the enslavement of the only free and independent thing is the main dream of such people, locked as they are in the petty concerns of the human anthill? They have the power of thought, they have words, but they are not satisfied with that. They need sounds, colours, rhythms, lines - in a word, they need all the higher things that man has so that they can exchange them for the school blackboards and dull mirrors of their grey little concerns. They demand that we turn symphonies into triumphant marches and folk songs, that we transform paintings into educational visual aids, that we make poems into prescriptions against all the filthy diseases of triumphant civilisation. As for prose writers, are their own lives not prose enough? Why go looking for it in art, the smile of God?

I am very sorry that I cannot here analyse two authoritative views that - for all their basic differences - coincide to some extent in their conclusions. I am speaking of Brunetière and Tolstoi. How strange is this juxtaposition of the classicist Brunetière, close in spirit to the age of ceremony of Louis XIV, and the Tolstoi that we know! But in their latest works they reach very similar conclusions about art. In characterising modern aesthetics, they both identify the search for pleasure as the major principle of the art of recent centuries, and therefore they reject the concept of beauty as a measure of the relative value of works of art. They both fulminate against the uncontrolled freedom of art and seek to check it, demanding from art religious and social service. Brunetière believes that the advocacy of art for art's sake is responsible for the 'elegant depravity' that is characteristic of the art of the late Renaissance, of the eighteenth century, and of our time. When it is devoted to itself, art lapses into the rejection of content and the celebration of form, and it fails to meet any more important or serious needs than it itself.

In my view, the demand that art should serve society on the basis of set directions is completely incomprehensible. I believe that the immorality of a work of art, which supposedly stems from lack of control, is principally dependent on the attitude of the person apprehending it. One can gain the most immoral impression from the edifying tale of Potiphar's wife, (8) and be filled with purely artistic ecstasy from Titian's Danaë (9) or the novels of Flaubert. (10) Of course, art created with the sole aim of immoral arousal is not art and will have no lasting place in history. I believe, however, that the Titians and the Fragonards (11) had no need to be concerned about the impression that their works would make centuries later on young schoolgirls or dashing soldiers. Who can deny the social significance of art, that old and indisputable truth? But the requirement that art be responsive to our affairs, our concerns, our emotions - this is a very dangerous thing and I cannot help recalling a note that I once read that reproached art for its lack of responsiveness to disasters facing the people, such as famine and cholera. Why not be logical and equally frank? The examples of real art in Tolstoi's article are not far from this point, and his description of Kramskoi's (12) artistry in his drawing of soldiers on the march, a wet-nurse, and a weeping mother presents me with an irresolvable puzzle. Indeed, in general, every sentence of the great thinker's whole long tirade about art seems to me to be a kind of strange misunderstanding, a kind of fateful play with words that have been laid bare and mixed up. You cannot talk to people about their art if you sweep away everything that comprises the very essence of their creativity. You cannot speak of the coarseness of the art of Greece and the Middle Ages and trample on Sophocles, Dante, Raphael and Shakespeare (13) and at the same time talk about what people mean by the three letters of the word 'art'. If you advocate some sort of exercise in virtue in place of art, then you must entirely remove this activity from the sphere of aesthetics and afford it the pleasure of flourishing in the sphere of moral and pedagogical finger-wagging, leaving in peace the world of art that is distinct and alien to it. If our art is reprimanded for trading in the delights which it delivers, then I find that infinitely preferable to being reprimanded for trading in its irreplaceable freedom. You too must chase the merchants from the temple, and until you do, the temple of art will not be a temple.

The great strength of art consists precisely in the fact that it is an aim in itself, it is useful only in itself, and - the main thing - it is free. Art cannot be without ideas, just as it cannot be without form or without colour, but none of these elements can or should be deliberately inserted into it without destroying the harmony of its parts. To seek in art an idea that has been forcibly attached is the same as saying that the Greeks found the ideal form of beauty, discovered the eternal laws of creativity, and all we can do is imitate them, i.e. pour our creativity into some strictly defined forms. And it turns out that the whole of Classical art of the beginning of the century is not fundamentally different from the tendentious Realism that took up arms against it. The one school kept on promoting the thing that was holy to them - form - and thereby they narrowed their path; the other coarsely demanded ideological content and thereby bound and enserfed the legitimate freedom of art.

Ideas are embedded at the very moment of conception of true art, and the strength of creativity lies in the fact that, in the form of human genius, it involuntarily conveys to us higher ideas that are accessible to it alone. The works of a great man, said Carlyle, 'whatsoever he with utmost conscious exertion and forethought shall accomplish, grow up withal unconsciously, from the unknown deeps in him.' (14) Of course, ideas must be engendered when someone looks at a work of art, but they must not be blasphemously forced on him by the artist. The artist must love only beauty and must converse only with her during the tender, mysterious manifestation of his divine nature.

(To be continued)

Sergei Diaghilev