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Aesthetics: The Branch of Knowledge Dealing
with the Social Nature of Art


Art: a Model of Man's Activity and a Reflection of the World

Individual sciences and branches of spiritual and practical activity concern themselves with different sides of life and make it possible for the various aspects of the personality to take shape and realise themselves thus creating certain cultural values. Art is the field which concerns itself with the world in its entirety, it helps the personality to remain whole and culture and human experience to preserve continuity and stay free from fragmentation.
This universal historic purpose of art makes it polyfunctional, necessary and valuable for mankind throughout the whole course of its development despite the fact that in an advanced social system each function of art has a "duplicate": art is cognition, but that is also a function of science; art is education, but there is also pedagogics which deals with its problems; art is a language and a channel of information, but there exist natural languages and the modern mass media; art is activity, but the chief form of human activity transforming the world is labour. The "duplicates" are not substitutes for the many functions of art and, vice versa, art does not take the place of any single form of human activity, since it models it in its own way. The key to understanding the nature of art is in those of its functions which belong and are unique to it – its aesthetic and hedonistic functions.
Even in antiquity, man noticed that art "educates while entertaining". The aesthetic impact of art and the enjoyment man derives when creating or being on the receiving end of art, its educational, informative and cognitive functions, allow it to pass on experience, analyse the condition of the world and, to a certain extent, foretell the future. They also render art its power of suggestion. The set of these issues inevitably leads the researcher up to the question of human nature, which is what determines the qualities of art.
In the 19th century, Marx and Engels arrived at the interpretation of man from the standpoint of his active nature.
The doctrine of an active, creative individual was developed by A. Gramsci, the Italian aesthetician. He maintained that man is the process of his actions. This interpretation of the problem has formed the basis of a contemporary theory which states that the structure of the individual is determined by the principal elements of the structure of human activity.
The accepted scheme of human activity – labour, cognition, communication and assessment – implies the activity directed from this object towards the outside, and not the activity directed towards the inside, i.e. the self-creation of the personality. But the latter is made possible by the development of man's subjective powers outside, and is carried out through them only. On the other hand, only a personality with a high degree of self-awareness can work, assess, communicate and cognise. Personality is a sum total of social ties, while its social ties are that through which it expresses and realises itself.
Research into the problems of art should rest on the model of human activity which consists of two elements; each of these elements can be further subdivided.
1. The activity of the subject directed outwards: a) cognition; b) assessment; c) labour; d) communication.
2. The activity of the subject directed inwards a) self-cognition; b) self-assessment; c) self-creation; d) self-communication (autocommunication).
Autocommunication can be carried out in two ways; first, by silently debating a complicated problem with oneself and weighing the pros and cons, through an inner monologue which assumes the form of a dialogue, the best method of discovering the truth which is founded on the dialectically contradictory quality of phenomena; second, through the relationships between consciousness and the subconscious mind. The latter was discovered by realistic art which has mastered the method of psychological analysis (consider the work of Lev Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoyevsky) and was able to describe both the stream of consciousness in its relation to society and the subconscious processes in their connection with consciousness and in their manifestation through speech.
A link exists between the "extra" and the "intra" types of activity. Working, assessing, cognising, and communicating with others, man unfolds, enhances and develops his essential powers. On the other hand, each type of self-assessment, self-cognition, self-creation and autocommunication is a process which does not only shape and build the personality but also leads to man's getting actively involved in life.
Education of the personality is sometimes taken to mean that the individual becomes a passive object of external influences, while the barriers put up by the personality's inner sets are disregarded. It is of course possible to influence the sets, purposes and the very foundation of the personality but this can be done not by affecting man's inner structure but by cooperating with it. Education is always self-education, i.e. a process controlled and modified by the individual himself, by his mind and will-power. These truths should be borne in mind if one is to grasp the hedonistic and the aesthetic in art as its necessary essential functions. They cannot be understood without admitting that the personality is a value in its own right and that art affects not only the shaping and modelling of the subject's "outside" activities but also its efforts towards building its own personality.
When, due to certain conditions of its historical existence, art concentrates only on the individual value of an isolated personality while modelling it and influencing it, art for art's sake emerges, which grants that the personality is valuable in itself but neglects the significance of its being included in the system of social relations. It is equally unjustifiable to consider man solely from the angle of his social life and activity forgetting that each personality is unique and presents an independent value and its own needs. One should take into account not only man's social responsibility to history but also the responsibility of society as a whole and art as one of its institutions for the destiny and happiness of man. When the fact that the personality has an absolute value is forgotten, a belief emerges that no one is indispensable and that a person's social functions can be performed by someone else. But when both directions of human activity are taken into account ("outwards" and "inwards"), it becomes apparent that each person is indispensable since he is unique, and that the inner needs of man should be just as adequately provided for by society and art as his socially useful needs. Satisfaction of man's innermost needs multiplies his creative potential thus benefiting society as well.
Art reproduces life in its entirety to prolong and enhance the life experience of man as a unit of society. It is a model of man's vital activity built from images. "Duplicating" both types of human activity, it recreates the personality in its diversity and integrity. It affects the structure of man's consciousness and activity interacting with the experience he derives from life and art. Ideally, the model of life built by realistic art should be isomorphous and similar to life. But art does not amount to realism. A romantic or Classicist work does not aim to produce a good likeness of the world. Truth in art may assume different forms at different stages of history; art can be faithful to life in more ways than one. The degree and nature of verity in art are historically flexible and depend on changes in the types and forms of man's activity. "Showing life as it really is" is not a universal law of art but only one of the stages in the evolution of man's artistic consciousness, a historically conditioned regularity of realistic thinking. The general law of art is the correspondence of artistic consciousness to historically concrete forms of man's activity.

Art: the Condensed Expression of Social Practice, the Crystallised Experience of Communication

In his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx established a connection between thinking and social practice, a discovery which is acquiring new facets with the advance of science and society, especially in the light of recent research into the psychology and physiology of higher nervous activity which show that the structure of the psyche corresponds to the structure of human and animal activity. All changes in the human psyche are determined by the changes in man's activity.
The way of life of animals is adaptive, and their psyche corresponds to it; man acts in order to transform, and this has produced a psyche which is qualitatively new both structurally and functionally.
For a long time, man's psychic activity was regarded as a mirror reflection of the world, as producing models or photographs of life. The fact that human consciousness is active and able to transform was ignored.
Rut perception and cognition of the outside world rest on man's past experience. Our analysers operate in accordance with the principle of feedback: having evolved a synthetic image of an object in the brain, our psyche projects it back onto the object verifying the accuracy of the image and trying to single out those of its elements which are already part of its experience. This work goes on until an image is evolved which has the maximum degree of correspondence to the object. The mechanism of assessment also functions according to the principle of feedback. In other words, perception, sensation and especially formation of a notion and assessment are a highly complicated dynamic process.
The art of the past has also seen human psyche as a mirror reflecting the world. The characters created by Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens see an object or a person and express their views of them. Man was invariably equal to himself. But Lev Tolstoy already portrayed the personality in evolution, in movement. Man's inner world is a stream which is now shallow and now deep. When Prince Andrei is lying wounded after the battle of Austerlitz, his thoughts at first bounce back, as it were, from a cloud and a tree within his field of vision. He thinks about them as any other character before him would have done. But gradually his thoughts expand to embrace all his life experience. In other words, the author presents a picture of the motion of the human psyche, of the dialectics of man's soul.
19th-century realism has shown that man's consciousness is shaped in the process of his life in society and that his psyche embraces all his life experience. It also changes. Prince Andrei is not the same person in different parts of the novel. This is not just communication with the world but mutual enrichment. The hero affects the world and vice versa. The consciousness reflects and transforms the world, while the world shapes the consciousness.
Henri Pieron, the French psychologist, called a newborn baby "a candidate for the position of man" who attains the status of a full-fledged member of the human race only after a certain minimum of social and historical experience has become his. In this, he is assisted by mental activity.
Thinking pursues three ends: 1) to critically "sublate", condense and systematise socio-historical experience and express it in forms which can be "digested" by man; 2) to understand life in the light of this experience and on the basis of new requirements advanced by social practice; 3) to work out recommendations as to how life can be made better.
The world has many facets, and man's social needs are numerous; consequently, the forms of social consciousness are numerous too. Art has emerged to deal with a specific set of issues relating to social activity directed towards cognising and transforming the world. The key to the understanding of the uniqueness of the artist's mental attitudes and the nature of art can be found in the structure of social practice and the social and historical experience of mankind.
Man alone is able to perceive the world as something outside himself; therefore, man alone can become the subject of activity. But as a unit of a certain social structure, he is also its object. Combining the two roles, man takes part in changing social and natural phenomena and is himself changed in the process. He is a human being only to the extent to which he is a creator. Anyone – a scientist, a worker, an artist – who explores the world as a personality and shapes it according to the laws of beauty can be such a creator. Man has two systems of valuation: the first is based on objective factors (assessment of objects from the point of view of their significance for social production), and the second – on personal factors (the person's individual experience which unites the subjective and the historically determined).
Aesthetic valuation is personal in the sense that it reflects a stable and essential socio-historical relationship between the subject and the object. The universal and objective value of a beautiful thing is revealed through personal appreciation.
Art exerts an influence over the audience and is itself influenced by this audience. "Art – the recipient" is a system resting on the principle of feedback. The object of art makes the public able to understand and enjoy it, i.e. art creates not only the object for the subject but the subject for the object.
Art involves the audience into generating ideas and makes the reader, spectator or listener incorporate ideas in personal form produced by it. Hence the many variants of the artistic idea: it assumes a different form in each mind. In science, the only variable is the degree of appropriation of ideas, while in art, both the degree of appropriation and the content itself vary; the recipient projects the social and historical experience contained in a work of art onto his individual experience evolving a personal approach to life and to the problems under discussion.
Art reflects more than just the artist's personality. Describing something which is essential, stable and important for a great number of people, the artist presents it in a personal manner, i.e. shows the world through himself. Thus he makes the public appropriate as its own his experience enhanced by his knowledge of the people and life.
An actor, for instance, can reproduce life only through his body, voice and intonation; he appropriates the experience of thousands of people and transmits it through the character he portrays. But even playing a part he represents collective experience in the light of his own personality. To convey the experience that is not his own in a personal form, the artist must "digest" this experience, live, as it were, a thousand lives incorporating them into his world. It would be incorrect to assume that in art, thinking is invariably concrete, while in theory – invariably abstract. Scientific thought is concrete but universal, it is an abstraction which embraces the truth, and the latter is always concrete. Theoretical definitions form a network which our consciousness uses to grasp the concrete quality of a phenomenon. The image in art is not only concrete but contains, in a sublated form, the results of thinking.
The artist thinks in images, for there is no other way to be both general, concrete and personal.
The most sublime, social emotions are a form of expressing, fixing and assessing the historical and social experience of relations, and that can best be done through the image. Human psyche assesses the meaning by forming notions, opinions and conclusions (the realm of science); and personal appeal through emotions. A distinction should be drawn between the emotions which emerge in everyday life and those caused by art; the latter are a product of generalisation and assimilation of the experience or relations (the realm of art).
Emotions which arise in the course of daily life reflect a mixture of biological and social experience; emotions aroused by art have a social character. The biological in them may be present, but only as the background or an element. In the emergence of the former, a prominent part is played by the accidental and momentary; the latter are prompted by the socio-historical, i.e. that which is essential, stable and important for a great number of people. The emotions we experience in daily life can be negative and positive. In art, even tragedy is a source of positive emotions; they are socially valuable, and experiencing them gives man aesthetic delight.
"Daily" emotions can exist in isolation as momentary sensations; emotions aroused by art exist only in an artistic system. To those who have no knowledge of this system, art will say nothing, for emotions appear as a result of crystallising certain experience of relations. A consciousness is always an image of life, a condensed expression of experience. The most primitive image of experience is sensation, next comes perception, and lastly, the formation of notions. The latter is a step from perception to evolving a concept.
They generalise large segments of social practice, reproduce impressions of former experience and process its results. A notion embraces both the significance and the meaning of a phenomenon. Artistic mentality also operates with concepts, directly or indirectly. The conceptual content of a work of art is structurally complex. To make artistic notions accessible to the audience, they have to be made objective, and the image is that element of art which serves this purpose.

Art as a Form of Social Consciousness

For a long time, aestheticians looked for laws governing art outside society. Reflexions critiques sur la poesie et la peinture (1719) by Jean Baptiste Dubos explained the evolution of art by atmospheric fluctuations. Fifty years later, Johann Herder brought the solution of the problem somewhat nearer: he maintained that art changes under the influence of climatic factors and depends also on the national character. Hegel considered art a result of the world's global evolution. He explained the movement of art through its various stages (symbolic, classic and romantic) by the stadial evolution of the Absolute Idea. In the second half of the 19th century, Hippolyte Taine, the French theorist, offered another explanation: art is affected by a combination of the frame of mind and the morals of society; the "prevailing mood" produces certain "spiritual temperature" which affects the development of art, same as physical temperature affects the development of the fauna and flora. Guyau, a French philosopher, believed that art is a function of the social organism.
The classics of Russian aesthetics emphasised the link between art and the conditions of life and connected the merit, significance and content of a work of art with the life of the people (Belinsky).
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels believed that out of the sum of social factors which determine the evolution of the forms of social consciousness, the leading one is the mode of production. Three elements interact in the process of cognition: the object (that which is cognised); the subject and his activity (who cognises and what for); the forms (how, in what form the object is cognised). The world and man's inner life and needs are so rich and diversified that they could not but produce a great number of forms of social consciousness. Philosophy, art, morals, religion, political and legal ideology-these are the forms assumed by the more or less adequate cognition and reflection of the world.
All forms of social consciousness have a number of common characteristics.
First, man's intellectual and cultural life takes place in concrete historical circumstances. Social being is the material foundation of all forms of social consciousness, which are dependent on the economic system, i.e. the basis.
Second, all forms of social consciousness are relatively independent. This in shown by the fact that the level of development of art does not always correspond to the level of economic development. At the time of Shakespeare, England was far from flourishing economically; in 19th-century Russia, art was thriving despite the country's economic backwardness. The relative independence of social consciousness can be accounted for by the direct influence of social struggles on the cultural life of a given society, mutual interaction of the forms of social consciousness, the role of cultural heritage, traditions, technical skills and devices (in art), and the available material accumulated by philosophy and science. Third, all forms of social consciousness do not only reflect life but also exert an influence over it.
Finally, in all of them, the process of cognition passes from contemplation to thinking and to action.
Apart from the features they have in common, each form of social consciousness also has its own field of investigation and concentrates on individual sides and relationships of life. Besides, each has its own functions, object, method, content and laws of internal development, and uses its own forms (scientific laws, philosophic categories, moral norms, artistic images).
Art as a specific form of social consciousness is rooted in the world of nature and social relations which form the background of man's daily life. This dependence is the most striking in primitive art created by the peoples standing at a low level of social development. The Australians' hunting dance imitated the movements of kangaroos and emus; the dance of the inhabitants of Kamchatka – those of a bear, and the war dance of New Caledonians reproduced battle scenes and was accompanied by the following dialogue:
"Shall we assault our enemies?
"Are they strong?
"Are they brave?
"Shall we kill them?
"Shall we eat them?
The art of hunting peoples, such as bushmen or Australians, was dominated by images from the animal world and had no floral motives: these peoples had no agriculture, and the world of plants remained outside the scope of their experience.
In more advanced civilisations, there is a connection between art and the level of social development, the degree of man's familiarity with nature, his ability to put it to use, and the character of production. However, this dependence is not immediate. It is made indirect by the nature of social struggles; besides, art is also influenced by philosophy, morals, politics, religion and other forms of social consciousness, as well as the previously established tradition.

Personality, Class, Nation, Mankind and the Universe in Art

Originally, human society was classless. In a class society, the ideology, psychology, world outlook and mental attitudes reflected by the artist in his work can always be attributed to a definite class or social group.
It is not the artist's social status (his birth, background, contacts and convictions) but the substance of his work which gives an indication of the class he represents. The class character of art is most strikingly manifested during the periods when social contradictions grow particularly acute. The fact that all cultural values are class-oriented in antagonistic societies leads to the emergence within each national culture of two cultures: the democratic progressive one on the one hand, and the reactionary anti-democratic one on the other. But the artist's consciousness, although conditioned by the class he represents and his nationality, still reflects that which is important to mankind as a whole, and this allows the great works of art to overcome the restrictions imposed by history and class affinity and retain their value indefinitely finding their way into the consciousness of the people living in much later epochs and having entirely different social ideas.
John Donne, the 17th-century English poet, wrote, "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." Ernest Hemingway of course used these words as the epigraph to his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. In a laconic form, they establish a link between personality and mankind, between the individual and the universal. Hemingway treats the death of each anti-fascist as a loss sustained by mankind as a whole, be it a Spaniard, an American or a Russian.
Personality – class – nation – mankind are those concrete historical notions and social sources whose interaction determines the structure of the mentality of the artist, who thinks in images.
A poet devoted to his people still does not remain within the restrictions imposed by his nationality but looks for ways to reach every nation.
The dialectics of the individual, the particular and the universal are part of the very foundation of artistic creativity. Beauty is an essential feature of a work of art. Guided by its laws in his exploration of the world and everything in it, the artist always assesses it from the point of view of its significance to mankind. The principle of universal value is at the very roots of art, which is essentially humanitarian and internationalist.
But the international is not the only cornerstone of art: there are also the national and the class approaches, which in fact determine the very understanding of what is universally valuable. The more original the artist's national approach, the greater the amount of the precious unique information and experience of relations contained in his work. At the same time, its universal appeal is the greater the more closely the general human and the international are interwoven with the class and the national. That is a major condition of attaining great heights in art and making a work of art a world classic.
An exact definition of the national as an aesthetic category was provided by Nikolai Gogol: "A truly national approach does not amount to a description of a sarafan but implies conveying the spririt of the people. The poet remains loyal to it even if he describes a totally strange world but sees it through the eyes of his nation, the eyes of all people, when he feels and speaks in such a way that it seems to his fellow-countrymen that they feel and speak themselves."
The problem of national cultures has recently grown particularly acute. Exact and up-to-date definitions which draw the line between patriotism and nationalism and reveal the truly national in a given culture can be found in the works of Academician Likhachev: "True patriotism means sharing the nation's cultural riches and learning from other nations. Nationalism erects a wall separating its culture from the rest, and thus impoverishes and even destroys it. A culture must be open... Patriotism is the noblest of feelings. It is in fact more than a feeling, it is a major aspect of the individual and social culture of the spirit when man and the whole people rise over themselves to pursue suprapersonal goals. Nationalism is the foulest of evils humanity suffers from. As any other evil, it hides and exists in the dark, and only pretends to be bred by love for one's country. In actual fact it is bred by malice and hatred for other peoples and that part of its own people which does not share the nationalistic views. Nationalism breeds uncertainty and weakness and is itself bred by them."
Relations between nations in the field of culture, the interaction of national arts, and cultural communication between different peoples are based on mutual respect and interest. "Hatred for other nations (chauvinism) sooner or later comes to embrace part of one's own nation-at least that part which rejects nationalism. If a person is motivated by the willingness to appreciate strange cultures, this will inevitably lead him to a clear realisation of the value of his own culture. Therefore in its most sublime and conscious manifestations a nationality is friendly, and actively so, towards the other nationalities. Nationalism is an evidence of weakness, not strength, it is usually "contracted" by the weaker peoples which seek to preserve themselves with the help of nationalistic feelings and ideology. But a great nation, a nation which has an advanced culture and rich traditions must be kind, especially if the destiny of a national monority is linked to it. A great nation must help the small one to preserve itself, its language and its culture" (Dmitry Likhachev).
The national features of art become revealed through the uniqueness of the artist's mentality. This is the key to understanding the originality of art. Different national structures of figurative thinking have different algorithms of the flow of emotions, colours and shades.
Let us consider Martiros Saryan's painting Armenia. It is flooded with the bright sun of the south. The sky is almost white-hot, it is reflected on the snow-covered mountain peaks and forms a pattern of light and shadow on the ground repeating the outlines of the trees. The people's bright garments match the luxuriant nature, their colours echo the colours of the mountains, fields and orchards The people and nature are one, the influence is mutual: the people humanise nature, while it leaves a stamp of festivity and rather severe sublimity on them. Only an artist whose life has passed in the hot sun of the south beside the burning-hot mountains could see the world like this. The sun is almost at its zenith, and the shadows are barely visible at people's feet. The joyous festival of Armenia, the heyday, the zenith of the life of the ancient and young nation bursts forward from the canvas, which is permeated with the national spirit.
The national experience of life and art is as unique as it is reproduceable. It is reproduceable since all the people live and create in accordance with universal social laws. It is unique since these laws find individual, specific expression in the history of every nation. The dialectics of the national and the international, the personal, the class-conditioned and the universal is conveyed by the art of each country.
What is then the universal in art? It has two aspects: the international (that which corresponds to the interests of all contemporary peoples) and the universally human (that which relates to man as a race).
The artist himself, whose personality leaves a stamp on his work, is both a product of his time and nationality and at the same time is a member of the human race, which allows everyone to view him as a brother in the family of men.
The sources of the universally human and international in art are as follows: 1) aesthetic assessment and assimilation of the material provided by life in conformity with the laws of beauty require that all phenomena be approached from the point of view of their universal significance; 2) a great work of art always seeks to find a solution to global problems; 3) the artist is a member of the human race.

The National Character of Art

The national character of art is an aesthetic category which is concerned with the relationship of the artist's creative work and his people. This issue has a number of aspects whose examination allows us to explain the essence of this category as the substantial basis of the nature of art itself.
1) The people as an object of art. Viewed from this angle, the national character of art was sometimes interpreted too primitively and even incorrectly: it was reduced to the character and life of the "common" people.
Truly national character does not at all mean that the heroes are shepherds, peasants, or bearded Russian merchants; it means that the artist has chosen a crucial point in the history of the people and concentrated on major aspects of their life. The artist must create a character who represents a great national idea. Looking at Brueghel's Peasants Dancing, one can say that the subject itself shows the national features of this painting. But the subject cannot serve as the principal criterion of the national spirit.
2) To reflect the interests of the people this is an essential condition which every work of art has to live up to if it claims to have a national character. The artist may choose to depict something far removed from the life of his people, but if he sees it through their eyes, if his interpretation of the things of life is determined by and promotes their needs, his work will have a national character. In other words, the interests of the people is what should determine the position of the artist in life and art, and form the foundation of his aesthetic ideals. The national character also presupposes a specifically national way of dealing with the theme.
3) The people are not only an object but also a subject of art. Many artists have stressed participation of the people in the very process of creation of a work of art. Vladimir Mayakovsky said that the people create the language, and the poet is only their apprentice; Mikhail Glinka insisted that music is also created by the people, and the composer only arranges it. Enlighteners, including Giovanni Vico, Johann Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt, were among the first to develop this category emphasising the connection between professional art and the mentality of the people, folklore. The people build a store of images which the artist uses to form his own system.
4) The people are the creator, carrier and keeper of the language and culture, and language and culture are a condition of the existence of art and of its ability to produce social results. The nation works out and preserves in its memory all social and conventional prerequisites of art, thanks to which the accepted system of images and expressive means acquires meaning and becomes clear both to contemporaries and the posterity. Democracy is impossible without the participation of the people in the cultural life of society. Jean Jacques Rousseau said, "Any language not understood by a popular gathering is a language of slaves."
5) Another feature of the national character of art is the fact that the people are its addressee and consumer (recipient). Potential popularity is an essential quality of art which is attained not by simplifying it but by bringing it into accord with the mentality of the people. At the same time, the artist should not follow his audience but be ahead of it raising its understanding of art to a new level and shaping the aesthetic taste of the public.
The idea of the national character of art opposes its hierarchical exclusiveness. It implies accessibility and popularity of art. However, in the history of culture, the people were often deprived of a chance to get access to its highest achievements.
The national character of art is a historically concrete category, its content is historically determined.
The national character of art has found and continues to find its most direct and complete expression in primitive society when art was at the mythological stage, and later in folklore: it describes the people from the point of view of the people, and is created by the people for the people.
The emergence of the individual artist and professional art has complicated and sometimes even distorted the national character of art. This is proved by the split of art into art for the elite and art for the masses. The former grows increasingly formalistic and intricate, while the latter in fact becomes pseudo-popular and is reduced to cheap imitation. Both these trends are opposed by art which has a truly national character.