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TITLE: Complicated questions: The search for beauty
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

Where are we to seek this beauty, this cornerstone of all art, this capricious image that is scattered everywhere? And, as with the other questions, if we were to ask how this puzzle was solved before our time, we would again see a chaotic jumble of contradictory definitions, the most vital of which would appear to be two equally widespread and inherently significant formulas. On the one hand we would find the long-cherished idea of seeking beauty only in nature, the sole embodiment of creativity, which one must know how to draw upon endlessly. This love for nature and life reached the point of a kind of pagan worship. Nature is the only possible harmony; it is the sole all-clarifying, all-embracing sower of artistic ideas. 'I demand from the artist', wrote Zola, 'not that he show me tender visions or terrible nightmares, but that he should give himself up body and soul, that he should seize nature and place it in front of us as he sees it. I do not accept anything that is not life, temperament, reality.' (1) And juxtaposed to this optimistic view, this belief in the beauty lying around us there is another view, a view that seeks beauty far from the nature that we can all see and all experience. In this view, beauty lies in a place that can be reached only by the refined instinct of the artist; it cannot coexist with us, because it is a mystery, because, were it to be embodied it would lose a part of its power, because the only misfortune, the only tragedy of many perfections consists solely in the fact that they exist in concrete form. Edgar Allan Poe wrote on the title page of one of his books: 'I dedicate this book to those who put their trust in dreams as the only reality.' (2) Baudelaire, for his part, gave this definition: 'the basis of poetry consists in man's striving for a higher beauty, and the manifestation of this principle consists in enthusiasm (completely independent of passion, that intoxication of the heart, and of truth, that fodder of reason). For all passion is natural, perhaps too natural for it not to introduce a wounding, discordant overtone into the domain of pure beauty, an overtone that is too familiar and raucous to avoid insulting the pure Desires, elegant Melancholies and noble Despairs that inhabit the wondrous dwelling place of poetry.' (3)

I find both of these entirely equivalent formulas equally attractive and equally alien. I find them attractive because, without even noticing their mutually constructive contradiction, I cannot help but see in both of them equally valid principles of beauty. I find them equally alien because neither of them comes close to dealing exhaustively with the full range of the question, and also (and mainly) because I believe that both of these principles serve only as means of the manifestation of beauty and not as its immutable primary source. We need only delve a little into the origin and the conclusions of these views in order to see how far we are from sharing them and how in many respects they are self-refuting. One must read Ruskin in order to understand just how wonderful it is to be intxicated by nature, and to rejoice at his child-like delight. 'The essence of art', he says, 'is simply love, a naïve and passionate admiration, satisfied by what the eye sees, and making no attempt to make things more profound or embellishing it.' 'Nature is the highest type and the eternal model. We must seek beauty in it alone, and not in a dream stocked by the imagination, nor in an ideal imposed by tradition.' (4) These definitions are lovely in their inner warmth and in the way they convey the simplicity and sincerity of Ruskin's love for nature. But one must examine what nature is in Ruskin's conception, for in this matter he diverges from all the Realists, who - like him - take nature as their starting point and who worship it. For them, nature is everything that we can see, everything surrounding us and comprising our life. Butchers' stalls with bloody meat, farmyards, ploughed fields, and lined faces - anything could be an object of beauty, everything is equally nature. Ruskin has a completely different understanding of nature, squeezing it into a remarkably narrow frame. He writes in irritation: 'The sophistry of this school [the Realists] must be unmasked. Leaning on the true principle that nature far transcends human imagination, they - by a strange confusion of words - reach the conclusion that everything produced by man, such as factories, pavements, locomotives - everything is called nature and is therefore worthy of our imagination.' And he goes on: 'beauty consists in true, untouched nature. And if it is difficult for us now to find such nature, we must nevertheless resort not to invention, but to past reality, to the memory of a happy age when man - strong, pure, trustworthy - passed among the wondrous views of nature which he had not yet managed either to destroy or to dishonour.'

What a sweet yet scarcely intelligible sentence! For Ruskin, the depiction of nature must strive to convey it literally, but what does such depiction consist in? It consists in being distanced from visible nature so as to achieve an ideal view of landscape and man that existed in the dim and distant past. People must be depicted as they once were; that is an idealization worthy of the most demanding idealist in search of models far from reality. Ruskin goes on to suggest a formula that, frankly, brings a smile to one's lips when he says that from the whole of visible nature we should take only the valleys that have been spared by civilization and the sea, which is beyond the reach of civilization. It seems to me that true Realists who depict Paris boulevards and horse-drawn trams act in a much more logical fashion. True, they are very one-sided, but on the other hand their belief is their strength. Zola puts it bluntly: 'I like neither Egyptians, nor Greeks, nor artist-ascetics (the Gothic) because I believe that art should only concern itself with life and distinctiveness. If a work of art does not consist of blood and nerves, if it does not comprise the full, piercing expression of the living creature, then I reject it, even if it is the Venus de Milo itself.' (5) To our ears nowadays this phrase sounds like a fist striking the keys of a grand piano, but on the other hand it is a bold absurdity that flows naturally from the whole system.

From the same pantheistic attitude to nature, Ruskin draws one logical but pernicious conclusion, and he must take the full blame for the fact that he made it possible for the artists who are his followers to make use of this conclusion.

Since nature is absolutely beautiful, since God is everywhere in nature, it follows that everywhere and in everything nature is equally valuable, and therefore that there is nothing in it that is either more or less significant than anything else; everything is equally divine. The artist must approach nature with a simple sincerity and accept it all as a whole, 'rejecting nothing, despising nothing, selecting nothing'. Ruskin considers that selection is impertinence and idealization is sacrilege: 'an unheard of, paradoxical pretension of a narrow mind that - being incapable of apprehending the beauty scattered throughout nature - undertakes to create beauty through its own vile imagination. There is no need for the imagination to create anything - its role is to penetrate to truth, to unify truth, to restore truth.'

The theory seems to me not only incomprehensible, but also harmful when preached to artists. The principal feature of talent and of the creative person is, I believe, the capacity to determine the essence of an object and to treat everything else as insignificant. Ruskin's theory might be explained in terms of the animosity that he must have felt towards the Classicist and Winckelmanian (6) ideas that were fashionable in his time and that required a work of art to emphasize only what was generic, important, and ideal in nature and in history. These peculiar theories that gave rise to innumerable portraits of beauties all of exactly the same type, bearing no resemblance to the originals who had sat for them, but expressing an 'ideal' type of beauty were deserving of protest. But how can one go from there to the position that for the artist everything in nature is equally important? We demand that art should pick out the characteristic, the specific, the individual, not of course from the point of view of positive, objective propositions and theories that are fixed in their 'absolute correctness', but from the point of view of the particular individuality of the creator. It is precisely this impact of ideas and phenomena on the artist's personality that comprises for us the interest of a work of art. What position does Ruskin's view reduce individuality to if not complete subjugation and the passive perception of all external impressions without distinction? I think that this high-flown theory is primarily applicable to the external side of works of art and not to their essence, because otherwise it would be completely impossible to link the writer's initial view of the idealization of modern nature with his demand for a more than realistic perception of it. Moreover he goes on to draw the following necessary conclusion: 'nature must be reproduced painstakingly. You are interested in the tiniest details of those that you love, the subtlest particularities of their features. Nature must be conveyed in the same way.

Through this formula Ruskin reduces the artist's technique to the craft of a conscientious retoucher. He seeks to evaluate the external aspect of works of art by the degree of assiduousness of the worker rather than by the quality of artistry of the creator. He reduces art to microscopic investigation and thereby completely destroys one of its principal delights - that of simplification, when the artist gives free rein to his creativity and, with the help of his artistic instinct and using an entirely Ruskinesque power of observation, picks out everything that is essential in an object and conveys it to us in simplified, childishly radiant language, with a couple of brushstrokes. All the joy of Rembrandt, Turner, Corot, Whistler, (7) and the contemporary French graphic artists lies in the fact that they emphasize some lines over others, that they both increase and decrease the intensity of light, making no effort whatsoever to conceal this, and by their aesthetic understanding of things they convey to us only what is characteristic, only what is significant.

On this subject I must say that the technique advocated by Ruskin is as incomprehensible to me as is the technique of the contemporary impressionists. I cannot bear the tortured manner of painting that reeks above all of hard work and accuracy any more than I can bear that wild daubing through which there shines a mere conjuring trick and carelessness. Of the merits of the former it is said that it can be examined through a magnifying glass, whereas advocates of the latter make a virtue of the magical transformation of blobs into objects once you are a certain distance from the canvas. Technique ought primarily to be unnoticed, as if it did not exist. One of the joys of a pianist is when no one notices the masterly way in which he overcomes technical difficulties. One of the aims of the artist should be the effacement of technique before the aesthetic significance of things.

To conclude my discussion of this point I wish to point out another extremely curious fact. The love for and extolling of nature by Ruskin, that major aesthete who sought to construct an entire philosophy and an entire social order on the principle of beauty, led him to conclusions identical to those of Chernyshevskii, who denied the independent significance of art and who always dreamt of reducing it to one of the levers of the social machine. The former's worship of nature and the latter's worship of reality led them both - strange as it might seem - to completely identical conclusions. Having said that the beautiful is life in all its manifestations, Chernyshevskii (8) - just like Ruskin - finds that the imagination can only combine impressions that have been received by man from nature. Moreover, in reaching this conclusion he gives a purely Ruskinesque definition: 'in nature there are many places, many spectacles that may only be admired and that may not be judged. Who, on seeing a decent forest, would ever have the idea that anything in this forest needed to be changed, to be added for fuller aesthetic enjoyment?

Both of these thinkers arrive from a feeling of love, one for nature and the other for life, at the question, 'which is greater, art or reality?', and once again there is a strange conjunction between them. Chernyshevskii says: 'everyone can sense that the beauty of real life is greater than the beauty of artefacts of the creative imagination... . The imagination can come up with nothing that is better than a real rose, and the implementation is always less than the imagined ideal.' Ruskin, for his part, exclaims: 'All healthy art is the expression of the pleasure gained from a real thing which is greater than art. You might think that a bird's nest painted by Hunt (9) is more beautiful than a real nest. It is true that for the one we would pay a great deal of money, whereas we would scarcely even glance at the other. But to us it would be preferable that all the paintings in the world should perish rather than that birds should cease to build nests.' Finally, one of these two says: 'In Petersburg there is not a single statue that, in terms of the beauty of the face, would not be vastly inferior to innumerable real people'. And the other echoes this, saying: 'No statue of a Greek goddess was ever half as beautiful as a well-bred young Englishwoman'. One could add many more to this list of similar comments.

Of course, this was a crossroads at which these two different people happened to meet. For one of them life had not yet reached its ideal manifestation, whereas for the other it had already lost its ideal form.

Ruskin hated nature that had been transformed by man, he completely rejected modern culture, and here he anticipated and coincided in many respects with Lev Tolstoi. (10) They both protested against the ugliness and abnormality of our society, though from completely different points of view. And the fact that Ruskin resembles both Chernyshevskii and Tolstoi, those two social reformers who wanted to foster in art a virtuous, utilitarian character, makes us strangely mistrustful of his free aesthetics and shows how, with his deification and idealization of nature, he was, in essence, close to the denial of art, and how he came close to extending his hand involuntarily to those who sought to destroy all independent art and all aesthetics.

It is now, I think, time to turn our attention to that train of thought that, in parallel with the theory of nature worship, has developed independently into a significant and united entity. It is time for us to shake off responsibility for the sins of others and to announce that we are no more with those who hate nature, life, and truth than with the slaves of those three concepts that we keep on hearing about over and over again.

The admirers of capricious and refined art appeared completely predictably. It was entirely logical that they should arise on the soil of a criterion that they could no longer bear, namely the beauty of the ancient world, when all judgements proceeded from the Iliad and from immutable Doric columns. Soon they collided with Realism, which arose almost simultaneously, and perhaps because of this contact they drew even closer together as a group and their opinions were expressed even more sharply. We encountered their flowering, their exaggerated importance, we lived through their fame almost at the same time as the highly significant drama of the grandeur and the dethroning of Zola played out in front of our eyes. How near we still are to that time when Baudelaire was still regarded as a categorical deity, when we ran along to look at Verlaine (11) in a dirty little bar on the banks of the Seine, when we expected something from extravagant journals such as La Plume or Mercure de France, (12) when we fled from old, unbearable Zola to Péladan, (13) swathed in his black cloak. I have no intention of denying the delights of this interesting and outstanding phenomenon, just as I cannot think of Ruskin and his nature without the deepest respect. I simply wish to say that I cannot give my soul to either of these varieties of a single, indivisible idea.

Life, nature, all these visible manifestations were left for the pleasure of the bourgeoisie and the slaves of routine, while those who hungered for artistic truth chased after new discoveries. Huysmans, one of the later followers of this doctrine, gave a very precise formulation of his attitude to nature: 'Nature has outlived its time, it has finally exhausted people's patience by the monotony of its landscapes and skies. In the contemplation of nature is to be found the flat, closed-up thought of the narrow specialist, the banality of the shopkeeper who has only one thing to sell. How monotonous is the shop of meadows and trees, how bourgeois is the office of mountains and seas! The moment has arrived when we must, as far as possible, replace nature with art.' (14)

The entire center of gravity shifted to feeling, or rather to sensibility, and the whole meaning of true art was to be found in the refinement of sensibility, in its limitless responsiveness which, if care were not taken, at times reached the point of perversion. Baudelaire, having reached an understanding of various emotional tricks, had already introduced many subtle flavours. Remember how interested he was in a range of smells, preferring incense, amber, musk and the pungent odour of exotic flowers to the simple smell of a rose or a violet. He said explicitly that his soul soars in aromas as the souls of other people soar to music. How he loved the odd elegance of toilets; how many times did he laud in magnificent verses the tender grace of cats, those animals that were fashionable in his circle and that could combine a lissom caress with something terrible and mysterious. In a word, even as early as then Baudelaire accepted any pleasure that intoxicated and transported one away from surrounding reality, by whatever means, whether though mystical ecstasy or simple narcotic stupefaction. And in general, let us recall the serious passion for drugs, the success so recently enjoyed by intoxicating substances, hashish and opium, of which it was said, 'if you taste of its fruit, you will become like the gods'.

In the case of people whose abilities have developed in such an exclusive and one-sided fashion, it is understandable that their entire aesthetic should have been formed in a special manner and should lead to very original conclusions. Théophile Gautier says that one of the characteristics of the poet should be a sense of the artificial, the mannered, of that which borders on the hallucinatory, 'which expresses the secret desires of unattainable innovation'. (15)

With these people, everything came down to a passionate flight into the au delà, to the solution of mysteries that could not be understood, and, of course, could not be explained by the crude beliefs of the Zola School. 'Imagination', says Baudelaire, 'is not fantasy; neither can it be called sensibility. Imagination is an almost divine ability that, outside of any philosophical methods, penetrates to the most intimate and secret relations of things, to correspondences and analogies.' (16)

All human activity connected with the world and with people was despised by the followers of this doctrine. They reacted negatively to wealth as such, but also regarded poverty with revulsion. Edgar Allan Poe said he would never place the hero of one of his poems in a poor environment, because poverty is banal and it contradicts the idea of beauty. In their rejection of reality they were bolder than Ruskin, and they declared that if one were to compare a modern, civilized man with a savage then the advantage would, of course, lie with the latter. The savage is, of necessity, encyclopedic, whereas civilized man is locked in the narrow confines of his specialism. Pre-cultural man is an honoured husband, a brave warrior, a poet in the melancholy hours when the setting sun inspires him to sing of the past and of his ancestors. He is a priest, a doctor, a sorcerer. Can we compare our lazy eyes and dulled hearing with their eye, piercing the gloom, and their ear that can hear the grass grow ? (17)

This is the way these dreamers developed, as narrow in their fear of nature as the Realists were in their love for it. They went as far as the extreme position of maintaining that mere contact between nature and art destroys the latter. 'Flee from the cold, icy touch of nature', they said, 'its very proximity leaves the mark of banality.' They said that 'intoxication is the only free state of the soul'. In women they loved only painted cheeks and lips, and they wrote of the decadence of the lie.

We are fortunate that we can now judge both of these groups and, from a position on a high hilltop, survey these fine but finite horizons. On one side we will see a strong phalanx of Realists carrying their canvases out to the sun, walking into the very belly of their Paris and finding beauty in the ugliness of life in the company of their great teacher Rembrandt. But here we must take note of their feebleness in blindly rejecting the great epochs that have risen above life, such as the asceticism of the Gothic, or the plasticity of Greece. We will see dear Zola reproaching tender, thoughtful Corot for his lifelessness and advising the brilliant genius to replace his wood nymphs with rosy-cheeked peasant girls.

Turning to the other side, we will see the pale faces of the tortured dreamers, beginning with the delightful Baudelaire and finishing with Parisian undertakers. To this art of the shadows I would say that its main and most fateful mistake was that once we have decided to depict a mirage, the maddest of fantasies, we must look on it as something real. We can express, embody our unearthly images only when we regard them as if they were an existing and concrete fact. Fantasy must be clothed in a body; only then will it be visible and comprehensible to others. If not, it will remain unexpressed, it will not flow into the great process of creativity. No one will dare insult the great mystery that lies hidden in the relationship between a creator and his dream, but he must lead us into his kingdom, show us clearly the real images that would remain hidden from us were it not for him. Surely we cannot think that Dante (18) was unaware of the unbounded world of the spirits, which he presented to us as pure reality that he believed in and that he made us believe in too, as though it were something visible and beyond doubt.

The person in our era who best understood this idea, in spite of everything, was Ruskin, who was on the way to a synthesis of the two warring principles. His main misfortune was that he was no longer able to deal objectively with nature, to survey it with a more dispassionate eye, to see that it is just one objective, and that the reason for the whole world of creativity, the only thing linking all artistic quarrels, is the king of everything, the only creative force: the human personality, the sole luminary lighting up all horizons and reconciling all the heated arguments of these divided fabricators of artistic religions.