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The Science of Artistic Thinking


Science, Art and the Fact

All aspects and manifestations of art, including its method, have a character all their own. The artist's approach to life and to facts differs from that on the scientist. For the latter, a deviation from facts is tantamount to falsification, while the former is free to depart from them.
When a historian insists that .the execution of the streltsy, Peter the Great's rebellious soldiers, took place in Red Square, he is distorting the truth, since the events happened mostly on the Black Swamp. But the Russian painter Surikov, who was perfectly familiar with the details of that episode of the country's history, did just that in his The Morning of the Streltsy Execution. Why? He depicted a crucial moment: in the life of Russian society when two powerful forces have clashed: Peter the Great, the builder of a strong state, and streltsy, peasants by birth, on whose bones this state was being built. Surikov intentionally ignored the part played by the boyars, Russian hereditary aristocracy, who deceived the soldiers using them to further their own selfish ends, and showed a clash directly between the tsar and the people. The canvas shows an intricate interlacing of human destinies, a battle of characters who are poles apart socially. Progress is not absolute. The centralisation and unification of Russia is presented as both a step forward and a source of misery for the people. The painting portrays the whole gamut of emotions and creates a gallery of portraits: soldiers, a strelets in a clean white shirt who is being taken to the gallows and is crushed by fear, and crying peasant women. But the protagonists who draw the spectator's attention are the tsar and the wrathful and still rebellious strelets with a burning candle in his hand. Their eyes have met. Behind Peter, a champion of the centralised state, rises the Kremlin, which embodies the idea of autocracy and unified Russia, while behind the strelets and the rest of the people, a live fairy-tale soars up – St. Basil's Cathedral, which conveys much the same idea but in a popular folklore form. Having chosen Red Square as the setting, Surikov was able to create an extremely convincing picture of the clash between the idea of the strong state and popular reaction to it during Peter the Great's reign. Preferring the heart of Moscow to the Black Swamp as the scene of action, he has deviated from historical facts but not from the truth; moreover, that deviation helped him to reveal the very essence of the events.
Art approaches facts from a different position than science, and that is one of the features of the method of art which distinguishes it from the method of science.

The Method of Art: Its Nature

The method of art is one of the more recent aesthetic categories. It was introduced by Soviet art criticism in the late 1920s-early 1930s, when a number of theorists suggested that the method of philosophy be directly applied to art. But that would have amounted to simplification and disregard of the nature of art. In the course of the debate, a new term was evolved: the method of art, which has not been used by any of the aestheticians of the past. But the existence of the phenomenon itself is beyond a doubt: aesthetics has long been studying it under other names.
Aristotle wrote about three types of mimesis in art: imitation of life as it really is, of life as it is perceived and discussed by the multitude, and of life as it should be. This is nothing but a reference to different methods of creative work, although the term itself is not yet present. In the philosophical treatise Discours de la methode (1637) Descartes expounded the principles of rationalism, including the necessity to work out a rigid system of knowledge and of canons and rules regulating all cognition. These principles formed the basis of the method of classicism.
Emile Zola developed the experimental method in art. When Belinsky wrote about "the natural school", or Chernyshevsky about the "critical trend" in Russian literature, they could mean nothing other than method.
What is then its nature? Critics are still debating this question. Some define method as a body of artistic devices, others – as the principles of aesthetic relation of art to life, yet others – as a system of the more general ideological principles. Let us consider each definition. Method can be hardly reduced to a set of devices, since the same devices may serve very different methods. Let us take comedy. Self- and mutual exposure of comic characters, contrasts, puns and witticisms are an assortment used both by classicism and critical realism. True, each genre has its own set of devices. But this does not mean that the method of Shakespeare's comedies differs from that of his tragedies and sonnets. The same means may be employed to attain very different ideological and aesthetic goals when they are subordinated to different artistic methods.
Neither is it correct to identify method with the aesthetic relationship between art and life: the latter may be different within the boundaries of the same method. Some of the theorists of roma>ticism and romantic writers themselves considered art a reflection of the artist's personality; others saw it as an outlet for romantic irony (the sceptical and negative approach towards contemporary life); still others regarded it as an idealised representation of the past, a prediction of the future, or a picture of that which is desirable. And they all worked within the same artistic method – romanticism.
Alternatively, the principles of aesthetic relation to life advanced by adherents of different methods may sometimes coincide. Tieck and Novalis, the German romantic writers, advocated a substitution of real life by the poet's fantasy and recognised only that art which could see "behind the borders of the visible world". These ideas were shared by the sentimentalists. Nikolai Karamzin, an 18th-century representative of this trend in Russia, believed that poetry should concern itself with the refined and avoid down-to-earth subjects.
To support his ideas, he quoted Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote, "That alone is beautiful which does not exist in life. So what? If like a light shadow beauty eternally escapes us, let us grasp it in our imagination, let us pursue it into the world of sweet dreams, let us deceive ourselves and those who are worthy of being deceived." And yet romanticism and sentimentalism are different methods of art, which is proved by the fact that for the former, the leading aesthetic category was the sublime, and for the latter, the touching.
It would be an oversimplification to reduce the essence of method to the artist's general ideological position, his world outlook. Such an approach to art will prevent appreciation of the work of Balzac, Dostoyevsky or Picasso. The great variety of artistic methods cannot be squeezed into the boundaries set by opposing political views (reactionary or progressive) or a simplified historical approach to art (realism or anti-realism). In the study of method, it is essential to proceed from its own aesthetic character. The relationship between world outlook and method is a complex one. It would seem that the central issue here is whether in his work the artist is motivated by his world outlook or goes against it. However, if the question is stated in this way, the accent is shifted to the relationship between two ideal phenomena: world outlook and method, while the problem which should be examined is that of the relationship between method and life.
When analysing the nature of method in art, one should take into consideration the dialectics of the objective and the subjective in the process of its emergence.
Method in art is a historically determined type of figurative thinking which is shaped mainly by three factors: the aesthetic wealth of life, the artist's world outlook conditioned by the time he lives in and his social status, and the material accumulated by philosophy and art during the previous epochs.
The object of art is not reflected in creative work as if the latter were a mirror. Therefore in the long run method is the analogue of the content of art, i.e. the analogue of the object "sifted" through the artist's world outlook and creatively interpreted.
When reflected by art, the aesthetic wealth of life becomes its object. Its essential aspects are summed up and assume stable forms in figurative thinking, i.e. the method is evolved not by building artificial constructions but in the course of the creative process itself. Summarising the major aspects of art, aesthetics singles out its method presenting it as a scientific formula, and states the objective requirements the artist must meet.
The object and content of art and its method are historically flexible. A new method emerges each time the aesthetic content of life undergoes a transformation caused by social change, when a reappraisal of values takes place.
But how can the parallel existence of different methods be accounted for? A case in point is our century in which romanticism coexists with modernism and critical and socialist realisms. This situation can be explained by the fact that social practice is divided into separate layers and compartments and that different artists have different world outlooks. Artistic method emerges when the object of art is treated actively. Ideology is the bridge between the object and the method of art, between life and the artist's mentality. In other words, method repeats those features of the object of art which are discernible through the artist's world outlook and which have been included into the content of art as its essential elements. This is what produces several artistic methods within the same period.
The determinant of method is life. Mythology as a type of artistic mentality would not have suited the art of the epoch of gunpowder and the printing press. Classicism would be powerless to understand the 20th century with its wars, revolutions, nuclear physics, cybernetics, and space exploration, and unprecedentedly acute social tension. Each epoch makes its own requirements on the method of art.

Realism and Modernism:
The Clash of Artistic Mentality in the 20th Century

In the 20th century, a complex and controversial trend emerged in ideology and art which has provided food for endless discussions; its name is modernism. It is frequently treated in an oversimplified manner as merely a fashionable trend in Western culture as if Russia did not have its own modernist art which was not just an emulation of Western examples but a product of internal social and cultural situation. Another school of thought points out, and with good reason, that there is a link between modernism in art and the processes which are under way in modern society and culture, and it maintains that the thing to do is find a political equivalent of this fact of art, as if modernism is not complex and controversial enough to include a great variety of social and political trends, from anti- to pro-fascist, from Christian or catholic to atheist, from abstractly humane to openly reactionary. Sometimes the matter is reduced to outlining the range of art trends embraced by modernism. But it includes too dissimilar phenomena, such as cubism, surrealism, and pop art, for this to be of any help.
Modernism has more than once produced major works of art which have undermined its basic principles from the inside. Besides, ma'hy important 20th-century artists have arrived at realism via modernism, including Bertolt Brecht, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon and Vladimir Mayakovsky. All this makes it impossible to indulge in barren rejection waving away modernism as mere nonsense.
As a rule, the method of art and the trend it is linked to seek to substantiate and justify themselves theoretically. Not so modernism, which has displayed surprising theoretical light-heartedness and carelessness. Each of the schools it embraces began by publicly declaring its principles, but hardly any has made an attempt to give an overall definition of modernism and bring together the different trends within it. Pop art, for instance, is not even aware of its aesthetic kinship with surrealism – a fact which is typical of modernism.
A rare attempt of modernism to analyse and define itself is the article by the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin "On Literature, Revolution and Entropy" written in 1923. In it, he said, "Science and art likewise consist in projecting the world onto certain coordinates. The difference of form is merely the difference of coordinates. All realistic forms are projection onto the stationary, flat coordinates of the Euclidean world. There is no such coordinates or such a stationary and restricted world in nature, it is a convention, an abstraction, an unreality. Therefore realism, be it 'socialist' or 'bourgeois', is unreal; projection onto speeding, curved surfaces, which is done both by new mathematics and new art, is invariably nearer to life. Realism – not primitive realism, not realia but realiora, is a shift, a distortion, a curve, the absence of objectivity. The lens of a camera is what is objective. The new form is not clear to everybody and difficult for many. The familiar and the common is of course simpler, nicer and cosier. Euclides's world is very simple, while Einstein's is very complex – and yet there is no way back to Euclides."
The author stresses the untraditional character of modernism and its opposition to realism. Indeed, modernism has torn apart the historical continuity of world culture. Another feature of modernism is its superficial dependence on modern science, an often mechanical neo-positivist transplantation of the type of mentality characteristic of mathematics or physics into art.
Modernism emerged in the late 19th century as a reaction to the failure of man to settle social conflicts and problems and realize the ideals advanced by art. The modernist type of consciousness has been produced by acute social contradictions.
Modernism is an attempt to escape from the awareness that art is impotent. Unable to influence human soul in its entirety, modernists try to at least touch it, even if they wound it with fragments of shattered art. Modernism has split the traditional artistic image choosing to regard its individual elements as absolute. For naturalism, this is the objective content of the image; for the "stream of consciousness" literature and cinema – its psychological significance; for expressionism – the emotional load it carries; for abstractionism – its colour and outline. Modernism has enhanced each of these elements isolated as a result of the split of the traditional image. Modernist art perceives real social forces as something uncontrollable and beyond the grasp of human mind. Unable to understand the genuine sources of social processes, it has evolved the image of infernal, malicious will which blindly manipulates man.
Twentieth-century realistic art, based on integral and diversified thinking, has assimilated the achievements of historically different types of artistic consciousness, including all that is valuable in modernism, and particularly in its technique. Thus it has enhanced its intellectual content and acquired psychological insight, expressiveness and novelty of form.
The dominant feature of modernism is fragmentation, it is split and disrupted thinking aiming at absolute objectivity (naturalism) or absolute subjectivity (surrealism, abstract art, etc.) Romanticism is a harmonious world outlook whose features are the emphasis on the aesthetic ideal and subjectivism seen in the light of this ideal. Realism is also a well-rounded world outlook, but its goal is to understand life and its major social processes as they are; realism interprets life from the angle of the humanitarian aesthetic ideals.
It is inadmissible to infinitely extend the boundaries of realism counting, for instance, Kafka as a realist on the strength of the fact that he wrote about the alienation and everyone's personal responsibility for it. The problem of alienation – one of the most acute ones in the 20th century, was indeed treated in Kafka's work. But realism as a method implies not only that which has been depicted by the artist but also his approach to the material, his concept of life. Besides the subject, two other major components of art are the way the subject is dealt with and poetics. In the case of Kafka, the last two elements are not realistic. His work is permeated with the feeling of global and boundless hostility of the world towards the personality, his poetics brings together the logical and the illogical, the real and the unreal; his consciousness has a dreamlike quality: fantastical metamorphoses are intertwined with ordinary happenings, and the author considers this perfectly natural. True, Kafka's dreams at times border on reality, but that is not a sign of realism but a universal quality of human mentality. Kafka's work can be ranked as expressionistic.
Such authors as William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and Bertolt Brecht have extended the established boundaries of realism. Each major work must necessarily contribute to it. For this reason, it is all the more important to work out a theoretical definition which would embrace the aesthetic deversity of realism and at the same time keep it within certain boundaries. Not everyone who is not a solipsist, who admits that the world contains more than just his ego, can claim to be an adherent of realism. Extending the boundaries of this method, it is all too easy to narrow down the boundaries of art.
There is no need to "elevate" Pablo Picasso to the rank of a realist in order to recognise his genius. The same refers to the Russian symbolist Mikhail Vrubel, or Lord Byron, who was a romantic poet. In matters of art, no table of ranks exists. Jean Jacques Rousseau or Pierre Corneille do not lose in importance due to the first being a sentimentalist, and the second, a classicist.
As a rule, a sentimentalist or classicist image is the embodiment of just one aesthetic quality: Karamzin's Liza is touching; Moliere's Tartufe is comically hypocritical. A realistic image has many facets, and is much richer aesthetically. Portraying Grigory Melekhov, the principal character of the novel And Quiet Flows the Don, Mikhail Sholokhov has shown his frantic search for his way in life, his more elevated moments, the beauty of his love for Aksinya, his base activities (participation in the gang), and finally, the tragic collapse of a personality which has failed to find bearings in a complicated historical situation. Grigory is predominantly a tragic figure.
Karl Marx wrote, "One and the same object is refracted differently as seen by different persons and its different aspects converted into as many different spiritual characters..."1
At any given moment, man is both free and dependent on the circumstances. The latter shape human personality, but the personality also exerts an influence on the circumstances, and realistic art has grasped and reproduced these dialectics. An artist who works within realism may at times depart from a straightforward account in order to convey the complex and controversial nature of life. "I have my own view of reality (in art)," – wrote Dostoyevsky, – "that which the majority calls almost fantastical and exceptional, for me at times amounts to the very essence of existence. In my opinion, ordinariness of things and a trite view of them are not yet realism, they are probably even its opposite".
A major achievement of realism was the discovery of the people as a social force, which has considerably expanded the realm of social life embraced by art. Realism reflects life through aesthetically loaded and well-rounded images. Twentieth-century art has enhanced the role of the intellectual, philosophical element in it. Realism has developed an important quality – the psychological approach, which has given it an insight into the utmost depths of human soul and made apparent the relative independence of the individual's inner life. This discovery has contributed to the knowledge of man, made it possible to understand the dialectics of his soul, and to grasp and convey through art the evolution of human consciousness in the process of its complicated and at times indirect interaction with life.
Realistic art has worked out a succinct technique allowing it to portray life in the infinite diversity of its manifestations.
Twentieth-century realism is trying to foresee the trends of the development of man and mankind. Critical realism has become the basis for socialist realism. The notion itself emerged in the course of discussions and theoretical research which went on in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s-early 1930s. Among the names suggested were "proletarian realism" (Fyodor Gladkov, Yuri Libedinsky), "tendentious realism" (Vladimir Mayakovsky), "monumental realism" (Alexei Tolstoy), "realism filled with socialist content" (Vladimir Stavsky), "revolutionary and socialist realism" (Ivan Kulik) and, finally, "socialist realism" (the Literaturnaya Gazeta – Literary Newspaper – editorial, May 29, 1932).
Socialist realism has enriched art with awareness of the historic meaning of events which does not amount to merely a historically accurate depiction of life. Thus, Sergei Eisenstein's film The Battleship "Potyomkin" has a more optimistic end than the event itself did. In real life, the insurgent sailors were suppressed, while the film's finale shows the battleship going unharmed through the squadron sent to crush the rebellion. But one may say that Eisenstein decided on such ending with historical perspective in his mind's eye: the very fact of an uprising in the navy meant a step towards victory. Another example. Bertolt Brecht has set many of his plays with no reference to a definite place or time. He himself stated that the events of Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan could have taken place wherever there is exploitation of man by man. Brecht frequently refused to be historically explicit. And yet his work is realistic, and his unerring judgement of the condition of modern world makes it historically accurate. What matters is that the artist's way of thinking marks him as a representative of a definite historic period no matter whether he writes fairy tales, romantic novels or science fiction.
Socialist realism frequently has a romantic element, a dream which goes ahead of the natural flow of events but is tied up with life and facilitates its understanding. Romance is an imaginative form of historic prevision, a sign that the artist possesses a sense of change and has grasped the trend of social development. Thanks to its romantic quality, the artist's mentality brings together "the three realities", as Maxim Gorky put it: the past, the present and the future.
The method of socialist realism is a mode of historically aware imaginative thinking which corresponds to the aesthetic wealth of the present and the experience of life of Soviet society, and which has assimilated the traditions of the classical art of the past. A feature of socialist realism is the optimistic artistic concept of the progress of life and the heroic concept of personality. The characters it has created are active participants in life with no tolerance of evil. Even in the works where a hero of this type is not portrayed, his presence and his point of view always make themselves felt. The reader perceives him either as the implied positive hero, as in Alexander Tvardovsky's poem Horizon Beyond Horizon, or as the aesthetic ideal which opposed the base features of the negative character, as in Maxim Gorky's The Life of Klim Samgin. An important quality of the method of socialist realism is its approach to the people not only as the object but also as the subject and creator of history and the master of its destiny. Art should not show a person outside the activity he is engaged in, but neither should it turn into a supplement to technology. Art is concerned with human beings, its object is to trace every manifestation of human spirit, man's every link with life.
The play Lyubov Yarovaya by Konstantin Trenyov, The Man With a Gun by Nikolai Pogodin, or the film Chapayev show that man is tied both to his environment and to his people. In the crucial periods of the country's history, the role of the people as the decisive historical force becomes apparent. It is these stormy epochs which usually provide material for socialist realism. Suffice it to recollect And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov, The Mounted Army by Isaac Babel, or the painting February 27, 1917 by Boris Kustodiev.
Artists of the past have often longed for a friendly audience. At present, the people have turned from a distant addressee who may get access to a canvas or a poem several centuries later into a contemporary who lives in the same town and the same street. This cannot but affect the artist's approach to life, changing the very social and artistic basis of his consciousness.

1 Karl Marx, "Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction", in: Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1, Progress Publishrs, Moscow, 1975, p. 113.