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YURI BOREV

AESTHETICS

AESTHETICS: THE ONTOLOGY OF ART
The Branch of Knowledge that Deals with the Social Being of Culture

A WORK OF ART AS A FORM OF THE EXISTENCE OF ART

A Work of Art: Its Inner Structure

A work of art is a form of the existence of art, a system of artistic images which add up to a single whole. This is the sphere of the ontology of art.
As the most valuable product of the brain, the highest form of matter, a work of art is probably the most complex thing in the world. It is a miniature universe which reflects the material universe, a model of the personality and its environment, a reflection of life on earth, the life of the spirit, of the cosmos and of everyday life. A work of art equates the universe in complexity. As a model of the world, a model of man's inner life and of society, a work of art comprises moral, political, philosophical, religious and scientific ideas, notions and problems. This alone makes it more complex than any other cultural phenomenon. Besides, behind a written text, for instance, stand the life of the epoch which has produced it, the life of the recipient's epoch, the author's personality, that which he wished to convey and that which has actually been conveyed, and the meaning of passages which are not immediately clear. Another proof of the complexity of a work of art is its historical mobility, Mobility of reception, its dependence on the epoch, the audience, the personality of the recipient and his capacity for reception at every given time determined the ontology of the work of art, its social being and functioning. The receptional mobility of a work of art, its life in the receptional field and the fact that a work of art is not a means of communication but a way of communicating, the presence of feedback distinguish it from all other cultural phenomena. All this makes a work of art extremely difficult to analyse and understand, and that is the reason why the methodology of art criticism is so complicated.
Remaining itself, a work of art changes historically as it enters into a relationship with the new experience of life and art, and acquires new features in the process. Each generation sees it with "a fresh and contemporary eye".
The perception of a work of art is a dialogue of sorts between the author and the reader, the spectator or listener, who proceed from their individual mental attitudes. This accounts for the difference in the interpretation of the same work and demonstrates its historical mobility. Great works of art are our companions and contemporaries for all time to come.
But what are the ways of historical evolution of a work of art?
What is the force that motivates it? Is it the difference in individual perception? But in relation to a work of art this is an external factor and as such, it needs to lean on that inner quality of the work which gives it its historical mobility and capacity for evolution. Masterpieces develop alongside mankind. Their historical changeability is rooted in the inner controversy of art itself, in the tension of its overall structure. What is this controversy?
1. A work of art is at once material and spiritual. It is a material object which is able to reveal its spiritual and artistic qualities in culture and exert considerable social influence.
2. A work of art is subordinated to a moral principle, and at the same time it is an object of reason.
3. A work of art is both individual and social: it gives the artist a chance to express himself, deals with social problems, and reflects collective psychology and ideology.
4. A work of art blends ideas and plastic images which produce art. The concept of the world presented by it comprises an ideological and emotional system and a plastic picture of the world.
5. A work of art is a blend of the ideal and the real, its language belongs, on the one hand, to the imaginary world, and on the other, to material objects.
6. A work of art is an integrated system of images. The latter are a controversial unity of the rational and the emotional, the objective and the subjective, the conscious and the subconscious, the individual and the general.
A work of art is a unity of meaning and value. It reflects the world in all the complexity of the relationship between the world and the individual and the former's aesthetic wealth, i.e. the relation of the world to man seen from the point of view of its value for mankind. The controversial qualities which determine the nature of a work of art affect the methodology of its analysis. Thus, the unity of meaning and value requires a unity of interpretation and evaluation in the course of the study.
The artist's world outlook and life itself are indisputably the two factors which shape the concept of the world presented by works of art, and yet this concept is to a certain degree autonomous. This becomes apparent when the concept of the world which reflects the artist's mental attitudes goes beyond their boundaries and overcomes their limitations. The autonomy of a work of art with respect to life can be explained by the highly important role of the artist's creative imagination, and with respect to ideology, by the features of the artist's concept of life which have already been mentioned: the combination of a system of ideas (the ideological and emotional element) and a system of plastic representation of life (the concrete and sensuous element). The latter as it were creates artistic reality which is unplanned, accidental, spontaneous and independently active, i.e. at first sight has the features of reality itself, the status of a real fact of life. However, this is only an illusion. And yet reproduction of life gives the material certain power over the artist, and at times produces a supremacy of the objective over the subjective, i.e. a discrepancy between the artist's idea and the execution, purpose and result.
A philosophical idea enters a work of art as one of the elements determining the artist's concept of life but not equivalent to it. The same philosophical idea can be traced in different works of art, but the artist's concept of life is always unique and at the same time has more than one level, and can be conveyed both directly through ideas and through a life-like system of plastic images. A work of art is rooted in life interpreted in the light of culture as a whole: philosophy, politics, morals, and science. But art is not a repetition in a different form of the ideas of these branches of knowledge.
The structure of a work of art is able to include both these ideas and the aesthetic wealth of the world conveyed through imagery. The scope of a work of art is incomparably broader than that of any other phenomenon of culture. Politics concentrates on relations between classes, philosophy – on the relationship between thinking and being, morals – on relations between individuals and between the individual and society, while art embraces the whole system of relations between man and the world, the attitude of the individual towards himself, other people, society, mankind, nature, material and spiritual culture, and the Universe. These relations have more meaning and are more complex than any system of the most profound ideas. A true artist remains faithful to the truth. When a speculative scheme clashes with the complexity of man's relations with the world, the artist cannot depart from the true meaning of these relations and rejects the scheme. That is the essence of the victory of realism over the limitations of the artist's world outlook. Each art trend produces its own model of the world which is represented in a type of an art work. This model is matched by a certain hierarchy of levels which form the structure of this work, with each level expressing a type of the relationship between man and his different inner and outer environments.
Level one ("I" – "I") – the individual's autocommunication, his interaction with his own self, the realm of artistic analysis of the individual. This level shows that man is aware of himself as a personality and depicts the conflicts of the conscious with the subconscious. It reproduces the "dialectics of the soul", "the stream of consciousness" and embraces the philosophical and psychological problems tackled by the work of art.
Level two ("I" – "you") – the individual's communication with another individual, an analysis of personal relationships. This level deals with moral and ethical problems.
Level three ("I" – "we") – the individual's social relationships, an analysis of his social being and his interaction with the social environment, his nation, people, society and the state. This is the realm of social and political issues.
Level four ("I" – "everybody") – the individual's relationship with mankind and its history. This level deals with philosophical and historical problems.
Level five ("I" – "everything") – the individual's relationship with the natural environment. Embraces problems of natural philosophy and the philosophical aspects of ecology.
Level six ("I" – "the other everything"; "I" – "everything we have created") – the individual's relationship with material culture, the hand-made "second nature". Embraces the philosophical problems of urbanisation, as well as creative and aesthetic issues.
Level seven ("I" – "the third everything") – the relationship between the individual and culture. Embraces general cultural problems.
Level eight ("I" – "and all the rest") – man and the Universe. Embraces the philosophical-metaphysical problems of the meaning and purpose of life.
All types of human activity modelled by art and all types of relations between man and the world are treated by art in their aesthetic sense, in the light of their relationship with mankind. This is what accounts for the humanitarian character of art and reveals the essence of its aesthetic nature.
The artist's concept of the world is shaped by a great number of factors, including the dominant level, the absence of certain levels, the hierarchical sequence of the levels following the dominant one, the way each level is interpreted, the political, philosophical and moral ideas to be found in the artist's concept alongside the plastic model of the world.
The type of the artistic and conceptual structure of a work of art points to the trend it belongs to. The structure may vary in different works produced by the given trend but basically it remains the same.

The Topical and the Eternal in a Work of Art

A work of art has many layers, and one of them is its political existence, its participation in the ideological battles of the epoch (suffice it to recollect Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman or Turgenev's Fathers and Sons). It is this layer which determines the topicality of a work of art, its ability to meet the requirements of the day, and it decreases or disappeares altogether when the political situation is changed, so that very often the subsequent generations are hardly aware that it in fact deals with very real political issues. Terrorism, the topical layer of Dostoyevsky's novel The Devils, may at some future point become either up-to-date again or seem utterly insignificant. In a new historical situation, a work of art may be revived if new points of contact with life have been discovered in it. The topical in a work of art appeals to a given society, while the in-depth layer in it appeals to all mankind and gives a work of art its everlasting value, for taken as a whole it is not only a response to an acute contemporary problem but is meant to have a long or even eternal life.
The topical political layer is limited by the brevity of its appeal, but it is nevertheless an essential one, for the system of moral and political ideas advanced by the artist gives an insight into his social position. To a certain extent it shapes appreciation of all the other aspects and elements of a work of art, and may sometimes even affect the appraisal of its in-depth (aesthetic) layer. The Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev was very little valued by his contemporaries owing to the obscurity of his verse. In 1856, Nikolai Nekrasov referred to Tyutchev as a second-rate baroque poet. It was many years later that he emerged as a major figure in Russian literature, which can be explained by the fact that he placed very little importance on the topical and the social in art, i.e. those elements which have the most direct appeal for contemporary audiences. The purpose of the in-depth (aesthetic) layer is to retain its appeal for posterity. A work of art is a receptacle of both the present, of mankind's memories of its past and a prediction of the future. The artist appeals to his social environment, to his contemporaries, to those who are near and to those who are far away, to all humanity. He seeks to influence contemporary relations, oversteps the boundaries of his time, introduces his experience into the future and measures his time by the standards of intransient human values. The latter include both the eternal aesthetic criteria, i.e. good and evil, and the universal aesthetic values, i.e. the beautiful and the ugly. The importance of a work of art is subject to change due to the lack of stability of its functions. However, this mobility has nothing to do with relativity: a work of art is changeable, but it always remains itself and preserves its ideological and aesthetic character.
The principal function of Pushkin's novel in verse Eugene Onegin today is not the same as it used to be in the 19th century. The political ideas of the Decembrists have long ceased to be topical. But the political aspect of the work is still there even if it has a different impact on the readers. Another side of Eugene Onegin has come to the fore; it is now perceived as a panorama of Russian spiritual life in the early 19th century. The political theme of Decembrists has grown into a historical and cultural one. At the same time, this "shift" gives the readers of later periods an idea of the historical topicality of the novel and of the importance of the political ideas it treats for the epoch which produced them. This enhances the emotional impact of the novel by creating the figure of the poet who "dared to speak the truth before the tsars and did it with a smile", and although this truth no longer corresponds to the ideas of the modern reader, he cannot but admire the poet's courage and gallantry.
A work of art is a whole world which is both relatively independent and complete; it is the world of the spirit which is by no means inferior to the real one in complexity and scope.

Verity and Verisimilitude

Artistic verity and the ability to convey it with skill have been highly valued ever since the time of the first art critics.
The ancient Egyptian architect Mertissen who lived in the period of Mentuhotep III wrote on the tombstone which he provided for himself during his life time, "I was an artist skilled in my art, surpassing everyone in the knowledge I possessed.... I knew how to convey the movements of a human figure, the walk of a woman, the pose of a soldier brandishing his sword and of a soldier defeated... the expression of terror on the face of a man who has been caught sleeping, the position of the arm of a man who is throwing a javelin and the bent position of a running man. I could do inlaid work which fire did not burn or water wash away".
Artistic verity is a major rule of art. It is not equivalent to verisimilitude, for it is not mere lifelikeness. A legend is known about an artist who could paint flowers so well that his work deceived not only people but also the bees who landed on the canvas and tried to gather nectar. Well, if art deceives bees, that is not so bad; but it is much worse if people are taken in: such art is nothing but sham reality.
The most convincing arguments in favour of a distinction between verity and verisimilitude have been advanced in a dialogue written by Goethe.
"Spectator: Do you say that only an ignoramus can take a work of art for a work of nature?
"Defence: Of course. Think of the birds which gathered around the cherries painted by a great artist.
"Spectator: Does this not prove that they were brilliantly done?
"Defence: Not at all, it proves rather that the connoisseurs were veritable sparrows."
The defence proceeds to tell a story of a great naturalist who had a monkey. Once he found it in his library where it was trying to eat the bugs reproduced on illustrations.
"Defence: Would you mention those coloured pictures in the same breath with the works of a great master?
"Spectator: Hardly!
"Defence: And would you count the monkey as another ignoramus?
"Spectator: Yes, and a greedy one at that. But what a curious idea you've given me! Doesn't an ignorant spectator or reader demand verisimilitude from a work of art to be able to enjoy it in his own, often crude and vulgar way?
"Defence: I couldn't agree with you more".
From the position of verisimilitude, the ceiling in Vassily Surikov's painting Menshikov in Beryozov is impossibly low, but it is this detail that has made it possible for Surikov to convey the stilling atmosphere of exile and the hero's state of mind.
Verisimilitude is not the goal of art; as Hemingway wrote, art seeks to "make something really true and something truer than true". Truth in art is not tantamount to lifelikeness. Isaac Babel very justly said that a well-devised story does not need to bear a resemblance to life: life itself does its best to seem a well-devised story. Aristotle placed the poet above the historian, since the historian speaks only of that which actually happened, i.e. both the essential and the accidental, while the poet clears history of everything accidental. The events the historian describes are real. Art is not a copy of life but its most probable variant. Poetic narration contains facts processed by thought. This concept expounded by Aristotle has in its essentials found support in cybernetics. All of a sudden, the cognitive function of art has assumed a precise mathematical form. Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, wrote, "In fact it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives. Cliches, for example, are less illuminating than great poems."1
The probability of truth in art always contains an element of surprise. A work of art in which everything is predictable and known in advance is a cliche, a trite worn-out half-truth and not artistic verity.
A gripping plot is only a superficial manifestation of how important unexpected probability is for verity in art. In Pushkin's drama A Feast During the Plague two women are present at the feast; one is fragile and weak, while the other's manner of speaking seems to indicate that she has a man's heart in her chest. And yet at the sight of a horrible cart carrying corpses it is the second woman who faints. Cruelty is weaker than tenderness and fear lives in the soul tormented by passions – that was Pushkin's idea. The truth in art is paradoxical and unexpected, and for that reason loaded with information. It is always surprising. Art penetrates covers, reveals the hidden, and rejects the hackneyed – that is why it is full of brilliant absurdities, expected surprises, paradoxes and magic.

1 Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings. Cybernetics and Society, London, 1954, p. 21.

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